Oh those vrrtis

Anyone familiar with the third section of the Yoga Sutras – vibhuti pada? If so, a conversation would be most helpful, as this leaves my little brain spinning, imagining all of the vibhutis (the powers) possible as one proceeds towards the ultimate freedom (kaivalya).

My thoughts.

As consciousness gets evermore clarified (from its potential form [dharma] to refinement of states [laksana] and conditions [avastha]) and is integrated (samyama) – AMAZING gifts happen. Here’s a sampling of what’s possible:

  • Knowledge of past, present and future Knowledge of languages of all beings, including animals
  • Knowledge of previous births
  • Ability to understand the minds of others
  • Ability to become invisible
  • Ability to make sound, smell, taste, form and touch disappear
  • Knowledge of the time and place of one’s own death.
  • Ability to be as strong and graceful as an elephant
  • Knowledge of concealed things
  • Knowledge of this solar system and others, the positions of the stars
  • Knowledge of the course of destiny…

There are about 20 more – it’s hard to keep up.

Blows your mind, doesn’t it?

But here’s the thing – with ALL of these gifts, comes the necessity of detachment, renunciation, (vairagyad).

Even these powers are citta vrittis– disturbances of consciousness – that must become irrelevant (you guessed it) – through practice and detachment.

I.12 abhyasa vairagyabhyam tan-nirodhah. Practice and detachment are the means to still the movements of consciousness.

From the first time you step on your yoga mat, and that very first pose you try, you get to experience all of the vrrtis you’ve been carrying around all these years – all the worries, the confidence, the rage, the joy – and then practice to make NOTHING of it.

On the mat.

Practice an asana you know really well. Observe the thoughts in your mind as you come into the asana, be in the asana, come out of the asana, and reflect on the asana.

Practice an asana you struggle with. Observe the thoughts in your mind as you come into the asana, be in the asana, come out of the asana, and reflect on the asana.

It’s ALL citta vrittis – mind stuff, to be dispelled with dispassion and non-identification.

Off the mat.

Cook up a great meal. Observe the thoughts in your mind as you think about what to prepare, then prepare, eat, finish, clean up and reflect.

Cook up a disastrous meal. Observe the thoughts in your mind as you think about what to prepare, then prepare, eat, finish, clean up and reflect.

It’s all mind stuff. It’s all just stuff. It’s all part of the human experience.

Cook a great meal. Cook a dud.
Hit a homerun. Strike out.
Piss off a loved one. Then give them a hug.

See you on the mat.

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.”

Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi

Sutra translations from Iyengar, BKS (1993). Light on the Yoga Sutras, London: Harper Collins

The Inner Laboratory

I.20 sraddha virya smrti samadhiprajña purvakah itaresam

“Practice must be pursued with trust, confidence, vigour, keen memory and power of absorption to break this spiritual complacency.”

The word sraddha is often translated into the word “faith” – a faith that comes from direct experience.

The scientist comes to the lab to perform an experiment, setting up the controlled conditions under which the observation is made of an event plus an intervention to exert a particular change. The scientist may be skeptical about the intervention, but has faith in the method such that if a change is revealed, there is certainty that the result was produced through the effort.

Yoga is your inner laboratory, a place where you can put your faith in the practice to the test. Yoga does not require you believe in anything, rather that you deliberately create the conditions, make an effort (tapas) and observe what happens. Faith (sraddha) emerges as a result of repeated experiments. BKS describes Patanjali’s use of the word sraddha as an encouragement to intensify one’s practice to reach the highest goal.

Sutra and translation excerpted From: B. K. S. Iyengar. “Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/light-on-the-yoga-sutras-of-patanjali/id538108384

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world.
Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”
― Rumi

See you on the mat.

Yoga On and Off the Mat

What is a mystical experience?

Lawrence Kushner described a mystical experience as having 4 attributes:

  • It is transient
  • You are passive to the experience
  • The experience is noetic, cognizable
  • It is ineffable, you can’t put it into words

Is it an esoteric event, conveyed only by a holy or spiritual being, or experienced in some altered state? Or…

There are many reports of mystical experiences from extraordinary encounters with spiritual teachers, or while in altered states, or in NDE’s (near death experiences).

Consider that access to the mystical can be encountered at any moment. It’s a matter of receptivity and attention.

The mystical experience on the mat: receptivity and attention

  1. Receptivity: Guruji once said “Nothing can be forced. We must absorb everything without the conditioned mind.” What happens if you come to your mat with a fresh uncluttered mind? In Zen Buddhism this is described as “beginner’s mind”, that is, having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level. I’ve heard Senior teacher Lois Steinberg encourage students to “wash your brain” before beginning a pose, to remove the preconceived notions of what you can and cannot do. So, receptivity is the frame of mind of being open to all possibilities.
  2. Attention: Guruji remarked: “We often fool ourselves that we are concentrating because we fix our attention on wavering objects.” One of the hallmarks of Iyengar yoga is paying close attention to anatomical details and alignment in a precise way. But if we limit our attention to the mechanical details (the citta of the pose), what do we miss? In asana practice we are learning how to pay attention. Psychologists describe this as metacognition – that is, becoming aware of and understanding the experience of paying attention. So, in asana we begin the practice by focusing our attention: from big toe to inner ankle to inner thigh, etc. With practice, these multiple points become one pointed… and then “no pointed”. This is described in III.4, where
  • Patañjali shows dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (absorption) as three threads woven into a single, integrated, unfolding strand. Then he introduces three transformations of consciousness related directly to them, and successively ascending to the highest level, at which consciousness reflects the light of the soul. These transformations are nirodha pariñama, samadhi pariñama and ekagrata pariñama. (Excerpt From: B. K. S. Iyengar. “Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.”)

Nirodha is the quieting of mind chatter, samadhi is absorption (the unification of consciousness into absorption) and ekagrata is the movement from one-pointed to no-pointed attention. Through the regular practice of asana the practitioner can journey inward to the core and back and access the mystical.

The mystical experience off the mat: receptivity and attention

Take the most ordinary experience of your day: walking the dog, doing the dishes, preparing a meal. Pause for a moment; take a slightly deeper breath and exhale. Widen your eyes slightly and relax the muscles of your mouth and jaw. Then gaze at one thing (anything) like this is your first encounter. Attend to each detail of that thing, one piece at a time, then slowly shift your focus to the whole, like adjusting a lens from micro to macro. Pause. Breathe.

Let me know what happens.

“Yoga does not just change the way we see things,
it transforms the person who sees.”
BKS Iyengar

Yoga On and Off the Mat | February 2019

How does one become “present”?

BKS Iyengar once said that the study of asana is not about mastering a pose, rather using the pose to understand and transform yourself. What makes this possible is the ability to become present to what is happening on your little piece of plastic — at home or in class.

The practice of Iyengar yoga asana and pranayama requires a “presence” such that when you are in a class you can see the teacher’s actions and hear their words and your body and brain responds, often with a simultaneity across students that creates a shared experience of working separately and together – all in the present moment.

What happens when the mind wanders?

You latch onto:

  • your knee injury from when you fell off your bicycle;
  • the possibilities of shopping after class – Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods?
  • Complete confusion because your brain is still processing instruction #3 when the teacher is at #7 or is it 8?
  • what the teacher demonstrates, and inwardly sigh: “that pose is NOT for me”.

How does the mind work?

It helps to understand how the mind works. According to yoga philosophy, there are three aspects:

  1. Manas (perceiving mind) – records and processes the impressions from the senses and sorts out the pleasurable from the painful. Manas is clever and can manage the checkbook but can also obscure the what is factual by exaggeration and avoidance. 
  2. Ahamkara (the sense of I-ness) forms and maintains identity from physical attributes, social and career pursuits, hobbies, favorite colors and animals. These are all the “bits” that make you “you”. 
  3. Buddhi (intelligence) provides the capacity for discernment of the present moment, and opens the door to volition (tapas), so that one is free to choose to be present and act authentically.

What can you practice?

When on the mat, observe what aspect you are absorbing your practice through: 

  1. Are you going through the motions, doing the “movements”, thinking about when you’ll be done? Are you cleverly working just enough, so the teacher doesn’t harass you? This is practicing from manas
  2. Are you berating yourself about your progress? Do you receive the teacher’s instructions with over-confidence? Do you feel disappointed with the teacher does not acknowledge your efforts? This is practicing with ahamkara
  3. Are you listening through all your senses, so that with each action you can move deeper into the pose, be present to each experience, discerning what needs effort and what needs restraint? This is buddhi

Even in the simplest of asanas, you can play with what if feels to practice through each of these aspects. 

When off the mat, observe what aspect you are using to experience your world. Ask yourself:

  • Am I going through the motions? Am I trying to be clever? Evasive? Am I living for the moment, willing to pick up the pieces sometime in the future?
  • Am I dwelling in self-pity? Resting on the laurels of my past successes? Creating a persona for each venue I engage? Wondering who am I supposed to be today?
  • Am I willing to transcend my habits, to let go of what is familiar? Can I discern what is so – the truth of the moment – act in alignment with what is discerned, and move into a state of being? 

“Yoga does not just change the way we see things,
it transforms the person who sees.”

BKS Iyengar