I walked along a pond today. It’s December and the air has been brittle; recent snows articulate every bony slash of tree, every cornhusk. It isn’t snowing today. Today the air is still. The pond has only recently frozen over and as I passed the whole thing resounded with a crack and a resonant rumble. The ground vibrated. My skin shivered to gooseflesh. I grew up with lakes; I know the sound ice makes as it grows and contracts. But it’s such a deep, thundering noise – felt in the chest -every time startles like the first. It’s a sound you’re inside of, and this surprises you. The foggy, cracked surface of the lake suddenly seemed to me very personal, very intimate in its changing; the rumbling from below reminded me of the churnings of the body.
I surprise myself, finding the human form written out in nature like that. I see us reflected everywhere.
I’ve been thinking of the threefold approach to practice/life that’s known as kriya yoga: specifically self-reflection or svadhyaya.
It’s a beautiful word, svadhyaya. The root of the word is a verb meaning ‘to move’, adhyaya is a verbal derivative specifically meaning ‘to move toward’. Sva is a reflexive pronoun. It means “self” or “one’s own self”. Literally and etymologically, svadhyaya means “to move toward one’s self”, “to return to oneself”, “to come back (by some means) to who we are”.
Yet the word has to do with action, not passivity. It suggests seeing something other than the self, in which the self is reflected. Like a mirror. Like, I suppose, winter. Or, like how we can see in our actions and lifestyle a reflection of who our intrinsic ‘self’ is. Tired, indulgent, vain. Fearful, stubborn, passionate.
Yoga is that.
How very accurate that is: there is no greater expression, no better means to honest self-appraisal, than my actions and reflections in the world around me.
I see myself in my family: whom I don’t greet with immediate love and joy but indifference, we hardly bother to say hello to one another as we wake in the morning. In the dirty pair of jeans I’ve been meaning to replace but haven’t, thinking they’re good enough ‘for now’. I see myself in the food I’ve put in the refridgerator, the dish I left in the sink. Also, in the crayola-ed paper of stars and hearts and toddler squiggles that pinches my heart every time I see it. This is my life. This is me.
I may have all sorts of ideas about who I am and what I’m worth and what I intend to do, what my intentions are. But it isn’t my ideas of self that reflect me. We’re not known for what we think, but what we do.
The Biggest Lie is the Ego.
The root of the word “religion”, too, is turning back to or returning. “Returning to the origin”, or “source”. As I have a deeply religious nature, frustrated by the religions out there, I root around in the words and build my own connections. Here is another: the latin ‘religion’ and the sanskrit ‘svadhyaya’, both meaning mirrors or reflections of the self.
The SELF GIVEN BACK
The self yoga has reflected to me is a surprise, too, a cracked mirror at best. A whole, smashed into jagged pieces.
Smashed because it has lost all sense of balance and, oftentimes, of belonging. My culture has such a focus on the self, on the rights of the individual, and the crowning glory of the human mind, that it has crippled itself. It has forgotten that the ego is not ‘the self’, but only a part.
I’ve wondered recently if monotheism, with it’s emphasis on a personal god and salvation, hasn’t contributed to our loneliness and existential idiocy. Even “humanism”, in its attempt to be a religion or an ethical system without the need of a god, isolates individuals and ‘selves’ into free agents.
The popularity of yoga and ‘holistic’ medicines, even the western interest in Buddhism, all things Zen, and the confusing subcontinent of India hint to me that our jagged, crippled selves are looking for a return to wholeness.
An absolutely irony in that it’s the asanas or physical practice of yoga that has shown me how unbalanced I am; that we understand ‘yoga’ to be some kind of excercise or physical form of meditation and rush at that because we are body obsessed.
I am learning that the physical expressions of yoga – and the human being – are only a piece of a larger, multidimsional self.
Learning that yoga was born in philosophy, spiritual wandering, and meditation. Lotus was the first yoga pose. It was articulated, or integrated into “yoga”, because it allowed practioners a way to sit with proper alignment, in full readiness to think. Lotus was only useful because it facilitated meditation.
Pieces of Self,
Pieces of Yoga
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras describe yoga as an Eight Limbed Path. The physical poses or asana are only one of these limbs.
- Yamas, Ethical Restraint (there are 5 yamas)
- Niyamas, Observances (5 of these as well. Together form the ethical system of yoga)
- Asana, the physical postures
- Pranayama, extension of the life force energy (breath)
- Dharana, concentration
- Dhyana, meditation
- Samadhi, enlightenment
Out of Lotus pose came others. Originally they were all seated meditation postures. Slowly the postures advanced; many of the poses we practice today are relatively modern, probably becoming part of the repetoire of poses as recently as the early 1900’s.
Interesting, too, that yogis were expected to have mastered the first two limbs of yoga – the yamas and niyamas – before even beginning a practice of the physical postures. We westerners have come into it backwards. But maybe there are doors are everywhere.
Svadhyayat Ista Devata Sampra Yogah
(Return to Oneself, dis-cover the Divine)
The Vedic texts state that we are multidimensional beings. No questions, no doubts, no lapsing queries about what happens to our souls when we die. Since we are multidemensional beings, the practices are also multidimensional.
Fear no quantum leap, dear agnostics: multidimensional does not imply that we exist as souls in another dimension, or that there are gods poking in and out of ours, or that there are inexplicable cosmic unities with things happening at different times and different places all at once. It does not suggest these things nor are these things ever asked: this ‘spiritual path’ is a means of recognizng and ultimately eliminating the root causes of suffering, the largest of which is a fundamental misapprehension in our perceptions of self.
- The physical body
- The Vital/Energy body
- The Intellectual Mind
- The Personality
- The Heart
Years ago I worked as a counselor. We talked, there was ‘therapy’. But I remember the most powerful things I shared as being somehow different, and inquisitive. “What gives you joy, what is holding your life together at this point?” were questions of heart; specific questions about diet, whether she was sleeping or not, if taking walks or getting to the gym might not help were really about her energy body; questions about whether she wants to advance in her career or go back to school, what are you learning or thinking, where do you push yourself, relate to the intellectual mind.
When I myself have gone through crisis, I usually need to begin at the beginning. That is, I usually stop sleeping or sleep too much, I eat garbage if anything, I isolate myself from the people who most care. My self-esteem slips.
I’ve learned that the way out often has nothing to do with the ‘stressor’ or ‘problem’ or ‘talk therapy’ at all, I need to start with the ground. I push myself to excercise, feed myself fruit and carbs, flush myself clean with water. I make myself reach out to others or work toward a personal, if completely useless, goal. I pamper my heart, my self, my body.
What if I lived in that balance all the time, instead of reverting to it in moments pain or ultimate need?
Becoming whole in a broken world
We say “stressed out”, “overwhelmed”, “burnt out” not as descriptors of insanity but as everyday standards. How many of us are top-heavy, very good at one part of our lives but never looking into other sides? We have intensely intellectual people, or people driven to work; people who don’t know what excercise or healthy diet is; whole communities that haven’t ever been asked to express their minds or personalities.
It is not true that yoga poses are 5000 years old or that India is flushed with the principals and traditions of yoga – how could we say such a thing when so many East Indians face violence and extremes of poverty unimaginable to us.
But it is true that the teachings, the Vedas, have been revered and passed down across generations, across time. I dreamt once that I placed my hand on top of the prehistoric handprint painted in the caves as Lascaux. The experience struck me as somehow holy. Similar feelings have come to me listening to Lakota drums in a sweat lodge, or in the beauty of a liturgy. It is an experience of connection with the timeless, with something larger than myself.
I would not say, necessarily, that it’s a moment of knowing the answers. I don’t have answers nor do I trust people who say they do.
But it is a moment of experiencing truth. The Eight Limbs of yoga are a path, a lifestyle, a means of participating in something larger than the self. It isn’t a cumulative knowing; one doesn’t graduate from one yama to the next. It is, rather, like a path worn clear by ancestors, a path that must be walked. It is an experience that is gone through, over time, across the stages of one’s life.
In that way, yoga is us. Yoga is our life. It’s a reflection of ourselves that carries winter, India, time, and the divine. It is an intensely spiritual journey, and leaves the asanas and the partial self far behind. Like dust blown into the air over a desert.