Letter on yoga

Dear Woman of the Woods,

I’ve been wondering about what I could say about yoga to someone who tells me they know nothing about yoga.

Yoga is commonly translated as ‘union;’ the yoking of two things. The yoga sutra says that yoga is the cessation of modifications of the mind. The Tantraloka says that, “that which manifests itself in two forms is ignorance.” Ignorance is defined not as the absence of knowledge, but “knowledge which is not manifested fully in knowable principles. “

In plain language, yoga is the absence of thought. When the mind rests in oneness there is nowhere else for it to go. There is no this-or-that because the truth is that this-is-that. Of course it’s not so easy to stop thinking. Thinking is something most westerners take for granted: Descartes’ famous philosophy of, “I think, therefore, I am” highlights the importance of thinking in the western world. If Descrates is to be believed, we will cease to exist if we stop thinking. But who will cease to exist? If the body is still here and still alive and fully functional but there is no thought, who then is this body? And to whom does this thoughtless body belong?

Union and oneness are the goals of yoga but of course the beginning of yoga is duality: there is you and me, this and that, peace and agitation, god and humanity. All of these things must be brought together not just in an intellectual manner, but in our hearts; in an internalized way so that it is understood beyond thought. But of course the big question is: How do we do that?

Many would say we need to come to understand god better. Others would say that god is within so we need to understand ourselves better. Yet others would say it’s the world around us we need to understand since all is a manifestation of god. All are correct in their own way. Duality implies relationships and it’s these relationships we must understand. By understanding how everything relates with everything else we can begin to see the indivisibility of everything.

This is also the point at which Tantrics begin to talk about desire. Only those things that we desire will we do the work to attain. A person must cultivate a strong desire for union or at least the side effects of union (such as peace).

Speaking as the supreme God head, Krishna, in the Bhagavad Gita says that four kinds of people desire oneness: 1. Those in distress, 2. Those who seek power, 3. Those who seek knowledge, and 4. The wise.

I came to yoga out of distress as I think many westerns do. It was distress of chronic dissatisfaction. The kind of suffering that creeps into our days thru petty fears and thinking that separates things rather than bringing them together. Mine was the distress of living rather than being alive. I am fortunate in that I have always had a desire for knowledge as well. In my younger days I had no prejudices against any kind of knowledge; now, I seek only that knowledge which illuminates.

I suppose the important question concerning the aspiration of a yoga student is: What do you want? How strong is your desire for what you want?

People come to yoga for many reasons. Health and fitness is a prime motivator for many westerners. The suffering that led me to yoga was also related chronic back pain and sciatica. But as we all know, there kinds of pains are never so bad until they begin to interfere with the things we want in life. Because of my back pain I was unable to sit to read or write or even to meditate. Some yogis have even told me that the only purpose behind the physical practice of yoga is to get into (or stay in) shape so that you can sit in meditation for long periods. This is perhaps a good yogic standard for fitness, but the postures can be much more than mere exercise.

One of the main points of yoga concerns breath and breath awareness. Breath is the main source of Prana (or chi, or energy, or whatever you want to call it). But you don’t have to be a yogi to recognize breath as a source of life, but any yoga practice will encourage breath awareness.

For a new student of yoga it can be a struggle to just sit for five minutes and maintain awareness of their breathing. The sitting is hard on their knees, hips, ankles and backs and the mind will wander so much that before five minutes is over they might find that their body has begun to wander as well. It takes incredible concentration to focus on something as mundane as breathing. But hopefully you will soon begin to become aware of your breathing. Are your breaths short and shallow or long and deep? Is your abdomen relaxed when you inhale to allow greater movement of your diaphragm, or is it tense allowing only your chest to expand during inhalation?

In many ways, the postures allow us to explore our breath as well as our bodies. Self-awareness and breath-awareness go hand in hand. The greater our awareness, the greater our understanding, the greater our understanding, the greater our knowledge, this knowledge will lead to peace.

I remember when I was studying Kung Fu years ago and the master telling me that the first series of movements they taught us were the most advanced even though they felt more like going thru a dance than doing Kung Fu. If you begin now, he told me, perhaps when you become a black belt you will have some understanding of the depth of these movements. Breathing awareness is the same, begin now and perhaps after years of learning different techniques and postures, you will come to understand the true essence of your breath.

This is my cursory understanding of the basics of yoga. Nothing that comes from India is clear-cut. The head wobble (half way between a yes and a no) that they are famous for is a good illustration of this. Everything is like this and like that; absolutely contradictory but perfectly acceptable.

Please share your comments and questions.

Blessings from Shiva city.

Om Namah Shivaya

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