Long day, up at 5 a.m. in my Eastern time zone, where it’s now the middle of the night. It’s only 1:30 a.m. here in California, where I just landed — a state that hasn’t been home for a decade and a half, yet still feels very much like home. Being a bit turned around on the whole space and time front seems like a fairly apt time to talk about how I started the week — with two evenings spent in workshops with Indian scholars Dr. M.A. Jayashree and M.A. Narasimhan, hosted by Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor. The sessions, as promised, went a little like this: “Monday, we will have an introduction to Indian philosophy and some chanting of the Samadhi Pada. Tuesday, we will focus on the eight (ashtau) limbs (anga) that asht-anga yoga comprises.”
Looking back, though, I can’t really separate day 1 from day 2, and one of my favorite quotes from the evenings was when Jayashree explained that Patanjali goes on like loops. Some people say “sutra” (singular) rather than “sutrani” (plural) to describe the yoga sutras, because every sutra is linked with the other (just as each of the four chapters of the books, or padas, of the Yoga Sutras are linked with the other):
It is a single string that gives a single meaning.
At minimum, we were told, “to understand one sutra, you need the previous, and the next.”
Jayashree, whose bright smile reminded me of my mom’s joy and radiance when she sings classical Thai songs, later illustrated the idea by the idea by sticking out her arm. “Can I call my hands as ‘Jayashree’? Can I call my eyes as ‘Jayashree’?”
‘Ashtanga is yoga’
When I was in Maui this spring for my honeymoon, I had the good fortune to meet the gorgeous and ginormous Banyan Tree (pictured above) that graciously unfolds in the town of Lahaina. One tree, many trees — it’s hard to tell, because you can’t quite discern where one ends and one begins. It reminded me of M.C. Escher drawings.
At some point, Narasimhan started discussing viveka and at some point, he said: “In the Indian system of thought, there is no black and white. No right or wrong. Shades of gray.” (This, in turn, reminded me of what I’ve been learning about Ayurveda, and the idea that there is no “good” or “bad” herb or mineral, for instance. Just the appropriate one for the appropriate condition.)
Here are some impressions, some moments:
- One way to view yoga’s purpose? To create optimistic, happy and connected people who can in turn help make society happier and more connected.
- It’s not accurate to view India as having many Gods. “There is only one primordial force,” Narasimham said. “We always follow the primordial force.” What, then, of all the images of deities — such as the unmistakable Ganesha, with his elephant head? Think of them as creative forces. “Creatives forces are represented as a god — small ‘g’ god.”
- Ganesha is the remover of internal obstacles. A human being has a spinal column and two hemispheres, and from the back, the human body can appear like an elephant’s head.
- Bramacharya is “controlled sex” rather than celibacy. So, even if you are married, you only have sex under certain circumstances, not just whenever and wherever; and that schedule is given in the scriptures.
- The nervous system is the bridge between the physical and the mind.
- Kriya yoga as physical, mental, emotional –> tapasya, svadyaya, isvara pranidhana –> action, knowledge, devotion/love –> karma yoga, jnana yoga, bhakti yoga.
- The electrical attraction between a cloth and dust creates a dirty cloth. You remove dirt by using a cleaning agent such as soap. Tapasya acts as a cleaning agent to help separate us from guilt, much the same way other cleaning agents work to break attraction. The eight limbs of yoga cleanses us physically, mentally and emotionally.
- Processes abound, but effort does not necessarily need to accompany those processes. Asana –> pranayama –> pratyahara. Dharana –> dhyana –> samadhi. You cannot put forth effort to express samadhi, which is the opposite of what happens in the external world, where typically, the more effort you put forth, the more you are rewarded.
I could share more impressions and more moments, or I could let you hear a little from the brother-and-sister team yourself. In the first video, they offer an unforgettable analogy of samadhi to none other than a cup of coffee — while name-checking Starbucks to boot. In the second question, they discuss subjects and objects. I think the springboard for the third question (questions and answers sort of overlapped, as you might imagine happens in this kind of discussion) was about Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras, who was described as essentially a psychologist, with his work being more relevant today than ever before.
What is samadhi?
The second yoga sutra discusses “citta vrtti,” which you describe as loops. How can the first few sutras help us as human beings understand consciousness and our relationships with objects, and how can the sutras help us change our relationships with loop patterns?
What changes with yoga?
I am such a devotee of the ashtanga vinyasa yoga practice because I love its design. It’s beyond brilliant. And every time I learn more about the aphorisms that collectively make up Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, my respect grows. For me, listening to Jayashree and Narasimhan discuss the sutras — and chanting in Sanskrit along with them — helped illuminate the intricate yet I suppose ultimately simple architecture of the sutras. The images I’ve been feeling in the days since have been Escher-esque bridges, ropes and branches that loop, pathways that only appear linear, trap doors that actually liberate, and beginnings and ends that connect and recoil. It doesn’t matter where in this spiritual design you start. Walk along whichever foot path intrigues you most to discover a universal journey through your individual experience.
- Jayashree’s recordings
- Insideowl: Back to Anantha
- Insideowl: Embodied Knowledge
- Jayashree giving a rare interview in Integral Yoga Magazine
(Photo credit: The famous Banyan Tree in Lahaina, Maui, via echobase_2000’s Flick Creative Commons license)
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