Tag Archives: the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Book Review: I Am That, by Nisargadatta Maharaj

I just finished all 531 pages of I Am That by Nisargadatta Maharaj, translated by Maurice Frydman. I started reading it in late May and just finished now in mid-September. Why did it take me so long? It certainly wasn’t that he used complicated words. Any high school student could understand it if they have the patience to decipher some the Sanskrit terminology that can be found in the book’s appendix. It certainly wasn’t long drawn out chapters. The book contains 101 chapters which are two to four pages long. It took me so long because the concepts in the book, when thought about and considered, are among the deepest one may experience.

The book is in the the typical question and answer format one reads in most of the non-dualist genre. Nisargadatta Maharaj gave satsang, or spiritual teachings, based out his Bombay (Mumbai) apartment until his death in 1981. He wasn’t a typical yoga practitioner. He made a living making and selling cigarettes on the street and chain smoked them as he gave his teachings. He liked to argue with his disciples, and would kick them out if he felt they have overstayed their welcome after receiving the essence of his teachings. He only spoke in Marathi, and would employ translators for Westerners.

In all of his eccentricities, his teachings get to the heart of the matter: we are not what we take ourselves to be, we are the very universe itself. He foremost rejects that he is his body which is repeated ad nauseum in this text. He rejects that he is his mind, which he says belongs to the body. “As long as one is burdened with a personality, one is exposed to its idiosyncrasies and habits.” He says he is that which does not change: the purusha. Purusha can be translated as “soul” but Maharaj gives it a much more nuanced and textured meaning throughout his book.

His basic teaching is summed up in this dialogue:

Maharaj: How can an unsteady mind make itself steady? Of course it cannot. It is the nature of the mind to roam about. All you can do is to shift the focus of consciousness beyond the mind.

Questioner: How is it done?

Maharaj: Refuse all thoughts except one: the thought ‘I am’. The mind will rebel in the beginning, but with patience and perseverance it will yield and keep quiet. Once you are quiet, things will begin to happen spontaneously and quite naturally without any interference on your part. (page 17)

This may sound a lot like the teachings of Ramana Maharshi. Maharaj’s teachings are very similar with the exception that Maharaj was not silent the way Ramana Maharshi was (Maharshi said very few words to his devotees). But by using his preferred format of argument, the teachings of Nisargadatta yield more concrete “instructions” that are well suited for the Western mind.

I would recommend this book after one is familiarized with Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra-s, as many of the concepts draw from that classic text. In fact if you struggle with the Sutra-s in terms of how prakriti and purusha interplay, I Am That offers elegant explanations and possible solutions. To read this book properly, I wouldn’t advise taking on more than a chapter a day (3-4 pages), and really think about the words. You won’t be the same after reading it.

Linked below is a pdf of the book, and also a video which can be viewed as a primer to the teachings.

http://advaita.com.br/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/1-I-Am-That-Nisargadatta-Maharaj-Resumo.pdf

 

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The spiritual import of Pranayama

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By the time you have gotten to the point of practicing Pranayama regularly, you take your practice seriously. Pranayama is the end of the line of the physical practice. Like approaching the end of the high dive board, this is where the practitioner takes the “plunge” from the known physical practice, to unknown internal practice. In short, Pranayama is the most spiritual physical practice one can do.

Sutra 1.34 says: pracchardana-vidhāraṇābhyām vā prāṇasya, or the exhale and retention (rechaka and bahya kumbhaka) are a means to cease citta vritti (mind chatter). As you may remember from Sutra I.2 stopping the mind chatter the main aim of Yoga practice. B.K.S. Iyengar in Light on Pranayama (1999 ed.) takes this Sutra’s concept a step further:

Exhalation is the process by which the energy of the body gradually unites with that of the mind, merges into to soul of the sadhaka and dissolves into cosmic energy. It is the path of return from the peripheries of the body towards the source of consciousness know as the path of renunciation (nivritti marga). (Page 100)  and Bahya Kumbhaka (retention on the exhale) is the state in which the yogi surrenders his very self, in the form of his breath, to the Lord and merges with the Universal Breath. It is the noblest form of surrender, as the yogi’s identity is totally merged with the Lord. (Page 106).

Here, Iyengar may be referring to the “fourth” type of pranayama found in Sutra II.51. This “fourth” type of pranayama “surpasses the limits of the internal and external.” Then uncovers the thin veil between ignorance and illumination. Then the practitioner is qualified for Dharana (paraphrasing Sutras II.52-53).

In short, these Sutras are telling us that Pranayama is a destroyer of Karma which is a fundamental “goal” of the serious yoga practitioner. And like Pranayama cannot be commenced until Asana is mastered, the Sutras are suggesting that one must be proficient in Pranayama before intensive concentration (Dharana) can be undertaken.

I am very far from this level of progression in my personal practice. But the reason I am posting this is that it seems most Yoga we see and read about are just addressing Asana for Asana’s sake. In other words, “30 days to master scorpion pose” which we see ubiquitously on the Yoga news feeds of Facebook and WordPress. Perhaps this post will show that there is a progression along the eight limbs, and that each rung, like a peak of a mountain, must be ascended with much preparation and awareness. That in itself is an extremely spiritual undertaking.

Asanas are 1% of Yoga: Patanjali

Patanjali

I write a great deal about Asana in my blog. One could argue that my blog is only about Asana and that I have not even come close to touching the other limbs. That would be a valid argument. I have been fortunate enough lately to devote much time to reading and studying the Patanjali Yoga Sutra-s. After hearing an interview with scholar Edwin Bryant, the idea has crystalized that has been inside of for much time: since Asanas are so powerful and profoundly life changing by themselves, the entire practice of Yoga is light years more powerful and transformative.

There are only three Yoga Sutra-s that address Asana: sthira sukham asanam (the seat/pose steadies and brings about comfort for the aspirant’s consciousness), prayatna-śaithilya-ananta-samāpatti-bhyām (mastery in the Asana is accomplished when the aspirant has a state of effortless effort in the body and in the consciousness), and tato dvaṅdva-an-abhighātaḥ (from then on the aspirant is not vexed by the dualities that exist between the pure consciousness and the perceived world.)

As Bryant points out, reference to Asana only encompasses 12 words in a 1200 word text, or 1 percent. But rather dismissing Asana as unimportant because of its brief “cameo” in the Sutra-s, reflect on how powerful Asana has been in your life. For many of my readers, Asana is only what they have practiced. That is not a bad thing, as Asana as Bryant describes is “plugged in” to a larger system of total transformation.

Now imagine how powerful it would be to practice daily and uninterruptedly a concept like telling the truth, or keeping yourself clean, or not being greedy. Just practicing those concepts for one day would be life changing to many. Then one only begins to gather how difficult and how deep the whole of the Yoga Sutra-s are in what they are trying to impart to the reader.

By all means don’t give up your Asana practice! B.K.S. Iyengar taught that all limbs can be practiced in Asana and has proved it in how he changed the world’s view of Yoga.

Gandhi liberated India with concepts in the Yoga Sutra-s like Satya (truth) and Ahimsa (non-violence) and inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. to duplicate these principles to create civil rights in the US. Similarly, the Patanjali Yoga Sutra-s teach how to emancipate ourselves not only from sorrows, but from all the Karmic and Samskaric imprints we have inherited.

 

 

 

 

Forward bends calm the mind

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“Yoga ceases the fluctuations of the consciousness,” says the the second sutra in the first chapter from Patanjali. That could  not have been a more appropriate sutra for this week. It was officially the first “work week” of the year and already there are many crises on my caseload. There are also worldwide crises with the Paris bombings. The world needs yoga more now than ever before. How can we have a peaceful world if we are not peaceful within ourselves?

I was fortunate enough to take a lunch hour to devote to forward bends (paschima pratana sthiti). For many years, I was taught that forward bends have a “calming effect” on the nervous system. I was so stiff at the time that I thought the teacher was nuts. “How can my screaming hamstrings have any calming effect?!” I would say to myself.

Seasons change for one’s practice, and the more one practices, the faster that season changes. I can now say my forward bends bring me a substantial calmness internally. Even with my tight hips and groins, poses like Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana are coming better. My mentoring teachers and peers have been working on this pose and using me as a demo student. I’ve notice it is making a difference in loosening my hips and groins.

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And there is nothing like a passive forward bend like hanging from the horse in an inverted Dandasana to elongate the spine and loosen tight shoulders.

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So much in the Yoga world now is about profit, jumping around to loud music, and wearing the latest fashion. Let this be a reminder that Yoga is not about any of that. It is about stopping your mind chatter so you can see yourself more clearly. Then you can be the change the world needs right now.

Have a great weekend!

Yama and Niyama and the Ten Commandments

10 commandments

When I was getting my masters in psychology years ago, I wrote a great deal of my papers about yoga. I took a class called “Spiritual Dimensions of Counseling” and remember writing a paper comparing and contrasting the Yama and Niyama to the Ten Commandments of Judeo Christianity. I can remember the power of seeing the two side by side and seeing how both are more alike than different. So you can see for yourself:

yoga sutras

Yama (Restraints)

  • Ahimsa (non-harming)
  • Satya (truthfulness)
  • Asteya (non-stealing)
  • Brahmacharya (chastity)
  • Aparigraha (non-greediness)

Niyama (Observances)

  • Saucha (Cleanliness)
  • Santosha (Contentment)
  • Tapas (Intensive spiritual effort)
  • Svadhyaya (Study of the self and scriptures)
  • Ishvara Pranidhana (Complete surrender to God)

The Ten Commandments

  1. You shall have no other gods before Me.
  2. You shall not make idols.
  3. You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.
  4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
  5. Honor your father and your mother.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  10. You shall not covet.

As you can see, there are striking similarities particularly in basic ethical conduct of not stealing and not harming. It is also an interesting choice of wording of “You shall have no other gods before Me” opposed to “Complete surrender to God.” I am not here to make any assumptions or commentary aside from just presenting the two side by side.

On a historical note, Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras in 400 CE, but used what had been practiced for centuries and simply condensed and refined it. Yama and Niyama are in the second book of the Yoga Sutras. The Ten Commandments were written around 1500 BCE which makes them older than the yoga sutras. The Bhagavad Gita, which had many concepts that were adapted to the yoga sutras was written at the same time as the Ten Commandments around 1500 BCE. Again, this is not a contest of which is older. Without judgement or preconceived notions, it is just interesting to see the timeline of these two very similar psycho/spiritual/ethical codes.

 

Lost in translation: the Eastern ego versus the Western ego

ego

When we use the word “ego” in the West, we automatically think of the quality of a boorish person who muscles his/her way around without much regard to others. We also attribute the ego as having a size like “he has a HUGE ego.” Some even value this quality in people and want to have a large and “healthy” ego. This is only one definition of the word.

While studying the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, it becomes evident that the ancient writer’s definition of the ego is very different than the one we use in the West. To clear up the definitions of this word, I will give both the definitions used in psychology and in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

Sigmund Freud, who is the father of psychoanalysis, used the term das ich which is translated to “ego” to describe the mind’s attempt to balance the superego and the id.

According to Freud, the “superego” is our moral blueprint that says “thou shall and thou shan’t.” When you say to yourself, “I would like that diamond, but it would be illegal to steal it,” that is an example of your superego guiding your behavior.

The “id” is the impulse that wants you to have the diamond no matter what the consequences. From this definition, it would be incorrect to label the obnoxious person as having a big ego, but rather an “unchecked id.”

The “ego” is the mind’s ability to meet the demands of the id, while adhering to the superego’s integrity. A healthy egoic resolution to the diamond scenario would be to purchase it on a payment plan, or justify not buying it because it is outside one’s budget.

freud ego

Patanjali’s definition of “ego” is very different than that of Freud. In Sanskrit, ego is translated from the word ahamkara which roughly translates to “the I maker.” This “ego” definition refers to one’s sense of self. For example “I am Hispanic, I am male, I have a Ph.D in Astrophysics.” It is how we identify ourselves to make sense to others. It is part of the three aspects of the citta (mind-stuffs) which are manas (mind) and buddhi (intelligence) in addition to ahamkara.

The wrinkle in the plot is that this ahamkara or “I maker” confuses us into strongly identifying ourselves into something we are not. It is listed as a vrtti in Pantajali’s text which means it is something that modifies our mind into thinking it is something that is not part of our true essence. Our “ego” in the Eastern terminology likes to attach itself to things. We want to have good fame and good fortune and have people recognize us for those things. A good way to see your ahamkara is to feel slighted at something and then see what it is that makes you feel so important. “You can’t do that to me, I am the president of the PTA!”

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Who we identify with

Through the correct practice of yoga, we learn to psychologically shave off those parts of us that our “I maker” attaches to until we are shaved down to nothing. It is a sobering thought to be nothing, but according to Patanjali, it is the point where true liberation begins. That is why yoga is an extremely non-Western practice. Most everything about the West in modern times is about ego attainment and attachment. Just watch 10 minutes of commercial television to see this clearly.

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Who we really are

This is just one word of many that does not translate well into English from Sanskrit. The other aspect of Sanskrit is the language’s vibrational qualities that do not have any translation, but add to the “feel” of the language on a superficial level, and add greater effects for the seasoned practitioner on deeper levels.