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The experience of Stillness

Each thought uses energy. It is said that 70 percent of the thoughts that we have during the day are about things that we cannot control or change. It is also said that these thoughts are not only futile, but also negative which directly affects our vitality and vibration. What would it be like to free up this 70 percent of space in our brains? 

It is not by thinking about thinking that we can create space. Thinking about reducing the thoughts is adding another thought. When the mind pays attention to something other than its own works of imagination, something happens. What happens when you see a charismatic deer in the woods with a barrel chest standing tall with its antlers? What happens when you stand in front of the orange sun? What happens when you hear a solo flute being played somewhere far away? The kala chakra, the wheel of time, comes to a still. 

Where there is attention, there is love. This experience is not an emotion. There is a state of “non-me-ness”. To come to this state, there can be no effort from the mind. If there is, it gets caught in its own wheel. The wheel then keeps turning. This is why yoga is not an expression of emotion. It is the purging of emotions. The mind is made to let go of its own creations. We cannot see the earth rotating, being on the earth. We need to fly to outer space. Similarly we cannot see the rotations of the mind, the vrttis, being caught up in the movement of the mind. We need to fly into “inner space”. This is not an escape as many people think it to be. The reason they think it to be an escape is because they are still thinking about it. If they experience it, they won’t have a thought about it. One then tastes what it means to be light, free and alive.

When the mind has come to this state of stillness, it realises that it is still, and begins to make effort to keep the quietness. Stillness cannot be held by the mind. It has to become aware, again and again of its futile efforts to hold stillness. Then it makes no effort, when it has understood.

In asanas, the mind’s attention falls into embodiment. Then the mind is yoked to the body. This yoking happens with the help of breath. The actions become the mind’s anchor. The body demands the mind’s attention like a child demands its parent.

A human being goes through suffering because she is not able to see beyond herself. When the kala chakra, the flow of time, comes to a still for the first time, and the mind realises the beauty of silence, the ultimate of human suffering begins. The search to unite with the infinite. The search to come back to Ananda (joy, bliss) that we already knew as a child, but had forgotten. Yet if this beauty does not come about, the mind consumes itself and the vitality of the body and all of life’s energies go to waste. If this stillness does not come about, life becomes dry and painful. This stillness is the source of life.

Abhyasa and Vairagya

Freedom without discipline is no freedom at all because the mind pulls us in a thousand directions. Without an anchor, the mind wanders. A human being has an average of 6000 thoughts a day, most of which are the same as the day before. To be disciplined means to be a disciple. Which means keeping the mind free from its own inherent ability to remain in ignorance and to be free from its ability to suffer. This means to live in observation, sensitivity and quietness. This makes us open to learning. Not learning this or that, but learning about the self and all its myriad forms.

Like so many things in this world, discipline is highly misunderstood. Discipline is not mindless repetition. Repetition means habit, and discipline is not the cultivation of a habit. At the moment when the inner eye (or what we usually call awareness) is awake, habit is not present, at least at that very moment of awareness and attention. Where there is awareness, there is no place for habit. And if there is awareness, even if the mind is wandering, there is no attachment to this inner impulsive movement. That is, the movement creates no cyclic ripples in the surface of the consciousness, and so, the contents of the “lake” can still be seen. In the asanas, there are actions to be attended to. Actions involve drawing of the senses, to use them for inner work. And with each action is a sensation, which leads to perception. All this can be expressed in words, but real understanding comes only through practice, and no amount of verbal logical discussion can really bring about this inner experience. And what is more important is that, it is not that once such an experience has been had, the journey ends. To the contrary, the inner sensations and perceptions keep expanding the understanding of consciousness, only leading towards “no end”. Just as the outer space keeps on expanding, inner space too is limitless and goes on giving. Action is linked to respiration and sensation to circulation of blood and oxygen. When respiration and circulation function harmoniously, the inner eye then begins to perceive. We exhale and act with a surrender, then the experience follows. We don’t know what that experience is going to be, but it is always new, always fresh and vibrant. There is an experience of lightness and compactness at the same time. The mind does not wander at all. This non-wandering stable mind, Patanjali calls Samadhi.

In the yoga sutras Patanjali uses the word Abhyasa defining it as the effort made to bring steadiness in the consciousness. The effort towards inner stability is the first step. 

तत्र स्थितौ यत्नोऽभ्यासः ॥१३॥

tatra sthithau yatnaḥ abhyāsaḥ ||1.13||

Practice is the effort to stabilise the mind.

Sages and seers have often used the metaphor of a lake. When there are no ripples on the surface of the lake, the lake reflects both its contents and its surroundings. In fact when the yogini or yogi has reached the state of Nishpatti Avastha (which means to say a person who is in a highly aware state, with an unbroken stillness) even though they are in that quietness they are able to think without creating ripples on the water “like a goose gliding above the water without touching the surface, hence creating no ripples”. The goose here represents thought and water the consciousness.

Maharishi Patanjali, after the word Abhyasa uses the word vairagya. Vairagya is having an unattached attitude to what has been already experienced. So abhyasa means to live in the experiencing, and vairagya means to let go of what has been experienced, so that the mind is always open to the new and not stuck in the past.  To understand Patanjali, we can also use the words of Sri Krishna from the Bhagavad Gita. He says that the intention behind our actions is much more important than the result of the action itself. Why do we do what we do? Then he guides us by saying, “act without fear and selfish desire”. But then he goes on to say, “You have the right to act, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your actions. Let go of the expectations. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your acts, nor be attached to inaction.”  

9.30 api chet su-duracharo bhajate mam ananya-bhak

sadhur eva sa mantavyah samyag vyavasito hi sah

2.47 Karmani eva adhikaras te ma phaleshu kadachana

ma karma phala hetur bhur ma te sango’stva akarmani

If we can first take a good look at our true motivations, we may begin the process of transformation and maybe, move towards freedom, which we don’t know the meaning of. But to look at ourselves, we need inner eyes. Eyes that don’t cheat us. Eyes that are not clouded by fear and desire. As long as our eyes are blinded by the six enemies of the mind, kama (lust or objectification of men and women), krodha (rage), lobha (greed), mada (arrogance), moha (delusion), and matsarya (jealousy), we have not even begun to move in the direction of true freedom. We are the slaves of these natural tendencies in the surface level of human consciousness. All of these six inherent qualities of the human mind stem from Fear and Desire. They keep the mind in bondage to the material existence, hence not allowing the action to come from the core of one’s existence. Do we really know our motivations?

Attention and Awareness

The act of attention involves bringing together the energetic resources of the mind all to a single point (ekagrata) so that there is attention towards one particular thing. There is no doubt that such an anchoring of the mind in one place, brings clarity of perception and clairvoyance. Patanjali calls this Dharana. However, when there is cognizance of the “whole” and not just one part, we call it awareness. Patanjali calls this Dhyana. 

Dhyana is the unbroken flow of cognition leading to Samadhi, the awareness of the whole. Sages have used the metaphor of pouring oil from one container to the other as opposed to pouring water. The word cognition means the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses. In everyday external life, the senses are used for bhoga, consumption of experiences. In dhyana, the senses are used for Apavarga, that is for in-tuition, education and self-knowledge freedom. The choice always exists as to how and why we use the senses.

Attention and awareness are very difficult to bring into simultaneous action. That is to say, when there is attention, we lose the awareness of the whole or of the larger picture, and vice versa. If one is asked to keep the attention on the shoulder blades for example, the mind loses awareness of the rest of the body. And when there is awareness and widening of the inner vision, the attention is lost at the shoulder blades. Similarly when we are aware of the unity of life in this universe, we tend to forget our responsibilities in this world. When we are trying to fulfil our worldly responsibilities we tend to forget the unity of life. Attention is the vertical movement of the inner intelligence, whereas awareness is the horizontal movement of the inner intelligence. Attention is personal transformation, whereas awareness is social transformation through relationships. When these two movements get synergised and synthesised, there is total action, bringing the experience and feeling of samadhi. Patanjali calls this synthesis as Samyama.

Sutra reference

देशबन्धश्चित्तस्य धारणा॥१॥

deśa-bandhaścittasya-dhārana 3.1 

The anchoring of the mind in one place is dharana. 3.1 

* * *

तत्र प्रत्ययैकतानता ध्यानम्॥२॥

tatra-pratyayaikatānata-dhyānam 3.2

Dhyana is the unbroken flow of cognition from the mind. 3.2

* * *

तदेवार्थमात्रनिर्भासं स्वरूपशून्यमिव समाधिः॥३॥

Tadeva-arthamātra-nirbhāsam-svarūpa-shūnyamiva-samādhiḥ 3.3

Samadhi is when that dhyana shines forth as the mind loses its grip on its own projected images and only the object being observed remains. 3.3

* * *

त्रयमेकत्र संयमः॥४॥

trayamekatra-saṃyamaḥ 3.4

The synthesis of these three is Samyama. 3.4

* * *

प्रकाशक्रियास्थितिशीलं भूतेन्द्रियात्मकं भोगापवर्गार्थं दृश्यम् ॥१८॥

prakāśa-kriyā-sthiti-śīlaṃ bhūta-indriya-ātmakaṃ bhoga-apavarga-arthaṃ dṛśyam 2.18

The knowable or the seen consists of the 5 elements (prithvi, apa, tejo, vayu, akasha) and the 5 senses (rupa, rasa, sabda, gandha, sparsha) and is of the nature of light (sattva), activity (rajas) and inertia (tamas). Its purpose is to give sensual-experience and liberation. 2.18

Basic anatomical words used in class (part 1)

Guruji B.K.S. Iyengar was creative when it came to using the anatomical words. Yet his creativity was only to bring more precision in his teaching. He would take one single part of the foot, and then break it into several little parts, and ask the students to spread their awareness in those areas. Head of the heel, neck of the heel, body of the heel, foot of the heel, outer heel, inner heel and the back of the heel. There have been moments when he has called the heel “the moon”. We can however begin with these basic anatomical parts which if one familiarises oneself with, one finds it easier to follow the instructions.

We have dealt in this part with 10 parts in the anterior body and 7 parts in the posterior body.

Anterior body: clavicles, top chest, armpit chest, sternum, front ribs, floating ribs, hip, groin, pubis, inner groin…

Posterior body: trapezius, shoulder blades, back ribs, spine, sacrum, tail-bone, sitting bones…

Sequence for the health of the respiratory system

We are proposing here a sequence that is directed towards maintaining a healthy respiratory system, which in turn provides a healthy circulatory, nervous, digestive, lymphatic and immune systems. However, it is very important to understand that it is not the sequence per say that brings health. It depends really on one’s regularity and depth in practice. It takes several years to understand and realise the meaning of health and then experience it. So when a sequence is suggested please know that it all depends on how each posture is done, with what understanding, how many years of practice you have, your level of practice, and what is your state of mind and nervous system. Health requires a total shift in perception and way of living, and is not acquired with money or at a pharmacy. 

This may also be practiced when the respiratory system is compromised due, for example, to the Covid-19 virus. If the symptoms are severe, practitioners should only practice poses 1 to 6. 

Inversions are essential to us practitioners. “They promote circulation and benefit all the body’s systems, especially the lymphatic system.” says Senior Iyengar Yoga teacher Dr. Lois Steinberg. “In general, the lymphatic system rids the body of toxins and waste, and it transports infection-attacking white blood cells to where they are needed. When the system is compromised, it can result in glandular swelling, inflammation in the arms and legs, recurring infections, and an otherwise weakened immune system. Inversions reduce inflammation and help to keep the system moving. The organs of the lymphatic system are the thymus, spleen, and lymph nodes. The thymus is a primary lymphoid organ and is in the upper front part of the chest directly behind the sternum and between the lungs. T cells mature in the thymus and these are critical to fight foreign invaders. The spleen sits to the left of the upper abdomen. It recycles old red blood cells and stores platelets and white blood cells. The white blood cells defend and protect the body against infectious disease. The lymph nodes are found throughout the body and are important for the proper functioning of the immune system. They are particularly concentrated in the neck, arm pits, the upper thighs and groin, the abdomen, and between the lungs. In advanced cases, Covid-19 settles in the upper and then the lower respiratory system and mucus builds up in the lungs. If you are experiencing a cough and mucus buildup, pranayama is contraindicated. It should be avoided until the mucus dries up and you have recovered.”