A return

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Well, it’s been a while hasn’t it? Since I last posted here I’ve got married, moved house, had a baby and not done a whole lot of yoga (had really bad hip pain for the whole pregnancy). So now my Little Man is 3 months old, I’m looking to resume my yoga practice. Time is a bit pushed, as he loves to nap in the sling rather than the cot.

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois recommended resuming ashtanga practice not before three months post-partum. I started with David Swenson’s 30min short form today. It felt good to be back on the mat, but a little frustrating at how far back I’ve slipped. I guess this is part of the practice – accepting where we are currently, and taking it slow and steady. Not my fortes, so it’ll be interesting to see how this sits.

Now all I need to do is find my copy of the yoga sutras and we’ll be back. ..

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1.16

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The ultimate renunciation is when one transcends the qualities of nature and perceives the soul.

Indifference to the subtlest elements, constituent principles, or qualities themselves, achieved through a knowledge of the nature of pure consciousness, is called supreme non-attachment

That highest non-interest occurs when there is
freedom from desire for the features of material nature and thorough awareness of the spiritual person

This sutra is saying that the ultimate detachment comes from indifference to the gunas, or qualities of nature. There are three gunassattvas (creation), rajas (preservation), and  tamas (destruction)I take this to mean that once we are aware of the constant flux of life and nature, and learn to be indifferent towards it, then we achieve detachment and can see things as they really are.

However, this sutra does not give any guidance on how to obtain this detachment, it does not give us any practical help yet on how to do this. Surely the answer is through meditation though?

The creation, preservation and destruction elements are quite powerful, and all-encompassing. This sutra is guiding us to be indifferent to new life, and also to death. This is certainly not easy. If I have a baby, how can I possibly be indifferent towards it? Or if a relative or friend dies? Perhaps using the word ‘indifference’ implies not caring, but I don’t think that this is the case. If I have a good meditation session, I am pleased about that, but as Suzuki said we should retain a ‘nothing special’ attitude – it’s ok to be pleased about it, but don’t expect to be pleased every time, or sit on the cushion in order to be pleased. This is harder to apply when we come to our relationships with other people. Suppose I have a new baby, I feel love towards it, which is a form of attachment. The indifference does not mean not caring for that baby or feeling nothing towards it, but rather not expecting to gain pleasure from the relationship, and not having that pleasure as the goal of spending time with the child.

I must admit, I do struggle with this yogic / Zen concept of indifference. Patanjali does not explicitly state here in this sutra that the gunas refer to our relationships with others, but it seems to me that they must apply to all aspects of life. We must remain indifferent to the impermanence of life in order to see things as they really are. Impermanence is a huge concept in Buddhism, and we must recognise it to avoid the suffering it causes in us. This impermanence applies to human life in the aging process, the cycle of birth and death, and in any experience of loss.

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1.15

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Renunciation is the practice of detachment from desires

Being detached from one’s desires is seen as a sort of freedom, rather than some sort of hardship. Iyengar says that the only way to achieve this is through willpower.

The goal is indifference, and i suppose that means also indifference to the practice itself. This reminds me of Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind stating that meditation practice should be “nothing special”. It is easy to practice when it goes well, when we achieve that asana or our mind is still during meditation. But it is easy to get discouraged when we are stiff or our mind is noisy. Being indifferent doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy things. It’s Ok to enjoy the practice, notice that enjoyment, but do not expect it every time, or make that enjoyment the goal of practice. Similarly, it’s Ok to enjoy spending time with your children, but the enjoyment should not be the goal of that interaction, nor should we expect it every time. I find this quite a liberating concept.

The sutra does not explore from what things we should detach ourselves. I suspect it is detachment from everything that we should aspire to, even the practice itself. This is not easy, but perhaps the first step is to notice when we feel attachment to something. Try this in the course of your day – next time you want a chocolate or your child to be better behaved or to have a ‘good’ meditation session (whatever that is) just step back and think “attachment is here”. Surely the first step to detachment is awareness of attachment.

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1.14

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Long, uninterrupted, alert practice is the firm foundation for restraining the fluctuations

Iyengar states that it is important to remain humble on this journey, not to have too much ego when things are going well.

As a busy working mother, I often struggle to have any sort of uninterrupted practice; sometimes life just gets in the way. I suppose the thing to do is not to beat ourselves up when we stray from the path, but to dust ourselves off and practice whenever we can. There was a recent news report which said that the average adult in the UK watches 4hrs of TV every single day. Imagine if they all cut that down by even half and devoted it to more spiritual pursuits…

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1.12

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1.12 Practice and detachment are the means to still the movements of consciousness [Iyengar]

These thought patterns are mastered through practice and non-attachment

This sutra is a key one, as it outlines the two things upon which the whole of yogic practice rests: practice and detachment. The thought patterns referred to are from 1.6:

  • correct knowledge / perception
  • incorrect knowledge / perception
  • imagination / fantasy / daydreams
  • sleep
  • memories

So these five fluctuations in our minds can be stilled or quietened through practice and detachment. Iyengar describes these two aspects as being polarised – practice is the positive aspect (what you do), detachment is the negative (what you don’t do), together forming a perfect balance. If we still the mind, we can see and understand things as they really are. As we will go on to see, the yamas are the detachments (e.g. from stealing, from lying, from violence), and the niyamas are the practices (e.g. contentment, cleanliness, self study), along with asana, pranayama and meditation.

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1.11

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Memory is the unmodified recollection of words and experiences [Iyengar]

Recollection or memory is mental modification caused by the inner reproducing of a previous impression of an object, but without adding any other characteristics from other sources.

Memory is the retained impression of experienced objects.

When I first read this, I thought I’m not sure I agree that memory is “unmodified”, after all aren’t all of our thoughts modified by our past experience, our upbringing, our world view? Aren’t all of our memories similarly filtered through our previous experiences? I’m not sure I believe that there is such a thing as a ‘pure’ memory for something like seeing a dog in the street, one which has not been affected by our past experiences with dogs; I’m not sure we have the capacity to remember without our unconscious mind making associations and connections, that we may not even be aware of.

It is interesting here that BKS Iyengar uses the word “unmodified” and the second interpretation uses “mental modification…without adding any other characteristics from other sources”.  I think that memory can only be modifed by our unconscious mind and previous experiences, whether we mean to add those or not, that’s just the way the human mind works and processes our experiences. If I was once bitten by a dog as a small child, and I now see a dog in the street, my mind might create the dog I now have before me as a scary entity, something to be feared. But if you see the same dog without having had the negative prior experience, you might just think ‘what a cute dog over there’.

I suppose our memory for facts and knowledge could be said to be ‘pure’ memory, in the sense that I can remember that the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066. There are no additions here, my unconscious mind has not added anything from my previous experience, I have simply remembered a  true fact. Perhaps it is this type of memory which Patanjali is referring to here.This type of memory (E.g. for facts) is not so disturbing to our consciousness, when compared with the other memories which produce unconscious associations from our past experience. These ‘memories’ can often be fantasy, in the sense that we have mentally reconstructed the memory. Using the dog example, my mind has recreated the image of the dog using my past negative experience, so that when I think back to seeing a dog in the street in the future, I may remember it inducing fear. This is one of the fluctuations in consciousness that Patanjali talked about in 1.6, and something we need to be aware of.

Modern psychoanalysis (and other psychotherapeutic models) aim to do just that, to make us more aware of the associations our mind produces, so that we may see the present as it really is. And there is something quite Zen about that. Therapy is not the only way to achieve this, but sometimes there are so many layers of previous experience in our unconscious mind, we may not be able to chip through them. Meditation and psychotherapy can work hand in hand to help with this awareness.