Most of my daylight hours, the weekend before Easter, were spent kneeling on two yoga blocks in front of a Zoom meeting discussing yoga philosophy – the third weekend of a yoga teacher training course that began before the coronavirus stopped just about everything. The morning class had started when I sent through a request to enter the meeting. I’d failed to do the class reading and was eating muesli as I scrambled to pull myself together before switching on the camera of my computer.
The yoga philosophy teacher, who I hadn’t met before, was explaining to our group of 24 students that the ideas which inform the practice of yoga are not philosophical in the Western sense. In yoga, she said, there is no mind-body split. All yogic knowledge is embodied knowledge. Because it’s experiential, it can’t be known abstractly. It can’t be held on to, only glimpsed. The aim of yoga, the smiling face on the screen was saying, is to smooth out our energy levels and so to manage the mind. My ears perked up. Manage my mind, I thought, how I’d like to be able to do that. But, the curly headed woman on the screen then said, as if she could hear me thinking, yoga practice isn’t aimed at managing the mind.
According to yogic thought, the teacher said, each of us is a spirit that, once born, comes into the material dimension. During childhood, our unlimited spirit becomes trapped by material conditioning (the food we eat, our parent’s values, our school friends). No matter how well-intended our parents, we become covered by an obscuring layer of dust that the practice of yoga seeks to lift. Through regular yoga practice, we free ourselves from ‘maya’, from illusions of the ego that form our greatest bondage. The transformation that occurs, via deep yoga practice, helps to realign us with our true nature. In this way, we recondition ourselves. And this in turn frees us to ask the most important question: What do I want to achieve in this lifetime?
Hmm, I thought, sipping green tea as I watched the teacher’s face on the computer screen. Half of my group, whose faces appeared like postage stamps along the top of the screen, nodded and gave a thumbs up.
Next, the teacher moved on to explain Raja yoga, the intellectual branch of Hatha yoga. In this practice, she said, there are no poses, just sitting, chanting and the reciting of sanskrit verses. I wriggled on my blocks, recalling the hour I’d spent chanting in the opening ceremony of our training, during which one foot had gone to sleep so badly that it was a struggle to get up to light a candle on the flowery altar. On returning to my seat in the circle, I’d looked across in wonder at the other cross-legged students who, eyes closed, seemed in a trance as they chanted a four-lined sanskrit verse 108 times. The sound of the mantra had not – as the philosophy teacher was explaining on Zoom – manifest its meaning in me during chanting. Perhaps I was too defended, I thought to myself, as I tried to get comfortable on my blocks.
The teacher moved on to the subject of memory. Your memory, she said, isn’t to be trusted. While every experience that we have becomes embedded in memory, these impressions – these samskaras – form a covering like dirt over us. Yoga, she said, aims to clean away this dirt and so to still the mind. There is no other aim in yoga. There is no religion, no dogma, no bible, no ethics, no single god. Instead, in the Indian yogi tradition, there are multiple texts and countless teachers. And all of them are valid.
Centuries ago, the teacher told us, Patanjhali wrote down what he called ‘complete instructions’ for yoga practice, from cleansing practices (like the nasal neti pot) to detailed instructions for the asanas, or postures. But however demanding crow pose may be for you, the teacher said, it’s significantly easier to get into a yoga posture, than it is to change the workings of your mind. The aim of yoga, the smiling face on the screen said, is not to tighten pelvic floor muscles, but to clear away mental clutter to allow prolonged periods of meditation.
Oh great, I thought. That means that for the 20 years I’ve been doing yoga, I’ve been doing it for the wrong reasons. I’ve doing yoga to stretch my body, not to prepare myself for meditation. I’ve being doing yoga to ease my anxiety about life, not to achieve a higher state of consciousness.
The teacher continued. Clearly there was still a lot of material to get through. I wriggled on my block and tipped the last drops of tea from the pot into my mug. The aim of yoga, the teacher said, is to block the mind, by consciously stopping those mental activities that are identified with the external world (reactive thoughts, complaints, rumination, excitement). The aim of yoga practice is to create a state of mind that doesn’t fluctuate, that doesn’t go up and down, that is at peace with itself. Yes, I thought to myself, catching myself nodding on the screen, that sounds nice.
So, the teacher said, this week your homework will be to observe the workings of your mind. Even one minute of total awareness, she said, will be an achievement. Fifteen minutes, for a beginner, would be amazing. During these periods of awareness, I want you to step back from your assumptions, even to catch yourself before they happen. I want you to avoid the head trips that we all make, the inner chit-chat, the making mountains out of molehills, and our reflex criticism of others. I want you to stop all the unreality that washes through our heads on an hourly basis. Lastly, the teacher said brightly, I want you to journal about this experience in long-hand, take a photo of your page and email it through to me.
If you can achieve this, the teacher said, if you can sit back and observe the workings of your mind, you’ll be in a position to do every other thing that a yoga training demands of you. Quite apart from smoothing your relationship to every person you know.
Is this clear? asked the yoga teacher. Are there any questions?