This article is based on talks given at retreats and workshops during 2005. It is representative of my current thinking
around yoga as spiritual practice (sadhana) and is meant primarily to stimulate and inspire the practice and enquiry along the journey and path of yoga. Though these talks were of the nature of opening the discussion and enquiry upon the subject of yoga as a spiritual practice, at times I was keen to define my terms quite carefully, especially on the subject of the spiritual life itself. Life is short, and although it can be sweet, vagueness and ambiguity of what one is talking about on this particular issue is surely little more than a waste of this precious opportunity of human existence.
Whilst at Dhanakosa, in Scotland, earlier this year I came across a teaching from the great yogi/magician Padmasambhava, the Guru Rinpoche or Precious Guru as the Tibetans like to refer to him. He is said to have been responsible for establishing the Dharma (Buddhism) in Tibet in the 8th century, no small feat. In his Life and Liberation, in Canto 93, he addresses a final teaching to “the Revealers of Treasures” and it shook me, as teachings sometimes do, I shall return to what he said later.
I think that we are all treasure seekers in search of treasures, elixirs, happiness, health and well-being. Where can we find that treasure? Where can we look? Where can we seek?
Where I am at now?
Well, I am just trying to get on with my life, as we all are! Inevitably the question arises, what are you up to? Temperamentally, I seem to be prone to this kind of thinking or perhaps enquiry, what are we all about?
As a teenager, I was much preoccupied with questions about how we (me and everybody else) should best live? An ethical line of questioning, if you like. I grew up in a time when Thermo Nuclear Destruction was in vogue and we had Two Tribes Going to War, with Ronny R and some Russian fellow I don’t recollect the name of right now. I remember sitting in my mates basement flat almost waiting for the bombs to drop. Current too, were questions around environmental abuse which are now so in vogue with rising CO2 levels and melting Polar Caps.
Teenage angst, perhaps? Well, it did cause me to consider existential questions and how we should live individually and collectively. I see myself as an existentialist in that I am curious about what it is to be, to exist, to live.
For whatever reasons, I found myself drawn to the eastern mystical traditions and by my late teens, at High School, I was beginning to explore Yoga and Meditation. Seeing my father doing yoga and his love of knowledge and books was inspiration and it was from “Teach Yourself Yoga”, by James Hewitt, that a more serious study of yoga began. Just like astronauts venture into space, I saw myself as a psychonaut, beginning the journey to explore the mind and psyche.
Like Krsna’s flute calling his love from the woods, I am called to my practice. Since my youth I find myself drawn again and again to yoga and since then many years have passed. I sought and found Ordination into a living spiritual tradition, in the Buddhist Order, established by Urgyen Sangharakshita. I am pursuing an ongoing enquiry in to the Oriental and Occidental Wisdom Traditions, primarily through yoga and meditation.
So what is it the draws me to yoga and to meditation?
1. it feels good, basically, a regular asana (body-work) and meditation practice leave me feeling happier, more grounded or rooted in my being and in more creative heart/mind states.
2. I enjoy teaching and sharing what I know and do.
3. yoga teaching is now my work (livelihood), it’s where I get my cash, a mixed blessing, but one does need the stuff.
4. yoga is a means for expressing myself, its an avenue for my creative energies .
5. my exploration of the Wisdom Traditions has helped satisfy the urge to know and understand to a certain extent
My personal practice does vary from day to day, month to month, and year to year. Various threads pull me this way and that. Sometimes I do no asana practice for weeks, sometimes 8 hours a day, especially in retreat conditions. I have studied in several styles of yoga, from the flamboyant and fast Ashtanga Vinyasa rhythm to the stillness and simplicity of “Pure Awareness” sitting meditation practice. I have read and studied widely and include in my enquiry all that the East and West have to offer, by way of literature, music, art and culture. My search is by no means exhaustive or comprehensive or complete in any way. In recent months, I have been enjoying exploring the practice of Thai massage (Northern style), which is very different in its one-to-one nature to teaching yoga classes.
I see yoga as part of a wider, broader exploration of the mind/body process of what it is to be. Yoga, I feel, can make for a richer, more meaningful life and can help to answer questions concerning what it is to live and live more harmoniously with others.
Finally, I would like to tell you of about a helpful reflection I came across reading Pema Chodron, in her book “Start where you are”. She is a disciple of the quixotic, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, she writes:-
“In one of the first teachings I ever heard, the teacher said, “I don’t know why you come here, but I want to tell you right now that the basis of this whole teaching is that you’re never going to get everything together””
What is yoga?
I want to look at yoga from seven different perspectives:-
1. yoga as the ocean
2. the many paths of yoga
3. yoga as union or integration
4. yoga as a non-aligned spiritual discipline
5. yoga as body-work
6. yoga as a way of exploring psycho-physical experience, the yogi as psychonaut
7. the ethics of yoga
1. Yoga could be compared with the ocean, vast, broad and deep, unfathomable in places. It could be compared to a river flowing into the sea. Sometimes fast flowing and chaotic like a mountain stream, sometimes like a great river, wide and deep, slowly meandering its way into the sea. Recollect how it feels when you stand facing the sea on the seashore, the surf rolling over the rocks and sand before you. For me, the encounter with the yoga tradition has had that quality.
2. “The arguments of the mages are many”, writes Ursula le Guin, in her Earthsea Quartet. Indeed, the paths of yoga are many, like a river, many rivulets flowing together into one great flood, diverse and wondrous as the oceans and seas of the world-ocean. The Bhagavad Gita talks of four yogas; Raja, the royal way of meditation, Bhakti yoga, the way of devotion, Karma yoga, the way of selfless work and Jnana yoga, the way of knowledge, the way of the intellect.
We have too, Mantra yoga. Mantra is that which protects the mind. Mantra yoga utilizes chanted sacred syllables as a doorway to a deeper Reality. Kriya Yoga of Patanjali, is a three fold way of discipline (tapas), study (svadhaya) and devotion to the Lord (ishvara-pranidhana). Perhaps we could read devotion to Lord as devotion to the Infinite within to be less theistic in interpretation, or even, devotion to that which is “Beyond”, to be somewhat vague, or simply devotion to “what is”, to be more “Zen”.
Hatha yoga is the term generally applied to the well known physical practice of asana or postures. Hatha yoga is the way of energy or the way of force. Ha, ´sun´ and tha, ´moon´ have associations with the bi-polar psychic energies that flow through the body. The practice of Hatha yoga is the harmonizing, stabilizing, strengthening and refining of these energies. This process of yoga is akin to the transmutative process of the alchemists, transforming base metals into gold. A useful image for the spiritual life, transforming our raw base energies into radiant Awakened qualities of the Buddha.
3. Translated from its Sanskrit origins, the word, yoga comes from the root, yuj, to bind. Yoga can then be union, or binding, or coming together, to yoke, to bind. I like integration or gathering together. There is the sense of the yogic path being that of one of gathering apparently disparate energies or impulses or parts of our being together into one. Drawing together body, heart and mind, and perhaps the possibility of glimpsing the totality of the whole of our being, its heights and depths, as well as its breadth. Not only being able to perceive and feel ourselves as whole, but also see others and ourselves as a part of a great matrix of being and of time.
4. I see the yoga tradition as a non-aligned spiritual discipline. By yoga, I mean the sum total of the psycho-physical practices and technologies used by men and women to explore a deeper Reality through out the history of humanity. By non-aligned, I mean a tradition that no one ´religion´, institutionalized and well established or not, can claim as their own. A fundamental impulse of man is the search for happiness and wholeness and no one single path can claim sovereignty of that desire or quest. This suggests that a plurality of views, approaches and paths comprises the yogic path.
Looking at Patanjali Yoga Sutras, considered a core yoga text, for example, requires interpretation of an otherwise terse and sometimes obtuse text. That the text requires interpretation means that a number of interpretations are possible and depending on your view or perspective this will affect how you read Patanjali. A theist and dualist will see the text differently for a non-theist and non-dualist.
5. Yoga is most widely known in the Occident and now in a revival in India, as a system of body-work, posture and energy work and the breathing techniques of pranayama. As a system of body-work, it is highly evolved and complex. There are many approaches to yoga body-work, each emphasizing different aspects and qualities in their yoga. Some are fast and furious, some soft and yielding, some employ visualization of energy lines (nadis) and vortexes (chakras), some emphasize the breathing techniques of pranayama.
For me, yoga posture practice is becoming about developing a healthful and nourishing relationship with the body. Yoga can be nourishing, relaxing, re-vitalizing, strengthening and healing. It can give tremendous even ecstatic pleasure in the body/mind, especially in its form as meditative practices. Yoga can be an effective means for releasing tension from the body, opening restriction and healing and dealing with pain and injuries.
6. Yoga is a way of exploring the psycho-physical experience, i.e. a way of exploring what it is to be to exist. The journey of the existentialist psychonaut. The Buddha, in the Anguttara Nikaya, is said to have said, “within this fathom long body, with its perception and intellect, there is the cosmos (origination, cessation and path to cessation)”. Yoga gives us practical tools for experiencing and exploring what it is to be an embodied being. Through yoga asana we can explore the body’s range of movement and explore our physical boundaries and limitations. In meditation we can explore our heart/mind in its heights and depths.
7. Yoga is rooted in an ethical perspective. An important consideration here is that “mind precedes all” or that we become, what we are, or said another way, we become what we intend. By ethical, I mean actions of body, speech and mind based upon volition or intention or desire. These actions will of course lead to consequences. Volition and intention can be conscious or unconscious, which puts us in a somewhat tricky position at times, especially when we are not clear about what we are doing or about our motives. This consideration underpins the Buddha’s teaching, as well as the yoga of Patanjali. It is important because the journey to more creative states of being can only begin when, firstly, we see our present limited state of being and then secondly wish to do something about it. How we then set about or intend to do something about it will affect how we act.
This process is made simple when we consider the Buddha’s teaching that reactive, unskillful modes of mind, based in greed, hatred and delusion keep us trapped and confined and lead to unhappiness and that the more creative, skillful modes of love, generosity and awareness or wisdom lead to more happiness, freedom and Liberation. All we need do, in any given situation, is ask ourselves, to what extent are these states present or absent and then proceed or not on the basis of that knowledge. It is not so much an intellectual question as a question addressed to the heart or soul or even our bodies. Usually we know!
The Patanjali Yoga Sutra lays an ethical foundation in its eight fold path (Ashtanga) through the practice or lenses of yama (attitude) and niyama (orientation). The first step, in the path laid out in that text, is the practice or attitude of ahimsa, translated as non-harm or love or perhaps more pragmatically as sensitivity. The next step is satya or honesty. Through lenses sensitivity and honesty we can begin to become actually aware what is happening, now, and from moment to moment as our experience unfolds. The Buddha-Dharma sets out the five precepts as an ethical foundation, ahimsa being the first.
Practically speaking, this ethical enquiry takes place continuously from moment to moment, on and off our mat or cushion, we can begin to see the world through our yogic lenses!
That’s a long first ´a´, short ´a’s thereafter. The word sadhana has its roots in sadh, which means accomplishing or performing. It is associated with the root, sidh, the siddhas, being the yogi/magicians of yore. The siddhis, magical or psychic accomplishments or spiritual attainments, Awakening (Bodhi) itself, being considered the greatest of all siddhis. We have the infamous eighty four siddhas of the Tantric period from 500-1000 CE in Indian folk myth. They were a motley crew of spiritual practitioners bent on or abiding in Liberation, standing on and above and beyond, within and without the various spiritual traditions of their time. From wandering beggars, who lived on fish entrails to prostitutes to kings, they exemplified yoga as a non-aligned spiritual discipline.
The word sadhaka is also related. Sadhaka is the adept or magician, spiritual aspirant, worshipper or devotee. It is a skilful or efficient person. Also, sadhaka is said to be the fire that burns in the heart and directs the faculty of volition.
Sadhana is generally understood to be the practice or vehicle that the aspiring adept takes on to accomplish their goal. Sadhana is said to be that which leads straight to a goal, guiding well, furthering, effective, efficient or productive. Sadhanas are given to the disciple by the guru or teacher to allow them to realise the gurus knowledge and wisdom, or vision.
So what do we mean by spiritual practice, and this is where a Buddhist critique finds its way in! I think that a spiritual practice has to address two fundamental questions or issues. Firstly, how do we make sense of, or relate to pain or suffering and secondly our spirituality needs to be a means by which we can fully express ourselves as human beings, to fully express our humanity.
Why do I say this? Well, I feel that the bottom line here is the issue of relating to and dealing with the uncomfortable, the painful, the not wanted, the experience or sensation that we do not like, the undesired situation or scenario, the person or place that one does not wish to be associated or connected with, being separated from that which we wish for, the frustrated dreams, the worry and the strife, the anxiety of being and ultimately the question of death. How we deal with all that is fundamental to finding any kind of peace, contentment, happiness or fulfillment, and if your spirituality does not address these issues then your spirituality does not amount to very much at all.
If we cannot find a way of creatively dealing with pain or suffering then we are effectively trapped or limited by our own mind and will never know freedom or the possibility of greater well being and happiness. Pleasurable experience or getting what we want is less of a problem, as we can simply enjoy and relax when life goes our way. Of course there is the danger of then expecting life to always go our way, but sooner or later, we will see that this is far from the case. Day to day life is a great teacher in this respect.
Secondly, our spirituality has to allow us to creatively embody ourselves. Like a flowering lotus which has its roots in the mud and earth, we are capable of growing and opening through and above the water, to the sky, to bathe in the bright, warm light of the sun. Our spirituality has to allow us to express and discover ourselves in this way, otherwise our spirituality is going to simply imprison us further in the vagaries of own conditioned mind.
If we can bring awareness, sensitivity, honesty and love to our lives and to our suffering and to our death(s) then I am confident that our yoga will serve us well and help us to live a richer and more vibrant life, both in ourselves, alone and in our relations with others.
I would like to end with the quote from Padmasmabhava, as written in the Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava, Canto 93. His final departing advice.
Advice and Admonition to the Revealers of Treasures
“Let these three expressions:
I do not have,
I do not understand,
I do not know
Be repeated over and over again.
This is the heart of my advice.”