Read an Excerpt
From Chapter 1: Vidyā
Yoga begins in the present moment, and the present moment begins in silence. From that silence, words are born. In the Yoga-Sutra attributed to Patañjali (third century b.c.e.), considered to be one of the core texts of yoga psychology, we begin with a simple sentence: “Atha yoganusāsanam.” This is translated as “in the present moment is the teaching of yoga.”
The Yoga-Sutra is not a speculative text on philosophy or metaphysics, nor does it offer us a theology of creation or a final comment on what’s in store for us after death. Creation and death coexist in sequence with the arising and passing away of each moment. Every inhalation is a birth and the end of every exhalation is a small death. In each consecutive moment, over and over again, the universe arises and passes away on the thread of a breath cycle.
The first word in the Yoga-Sutra—atha—literally means “now,” “what is here in this moment.” Yoga begins in the present moment. Yoga is the present moment. We could more concisely translate this opening line as: “Yoga begins now.” The teachings of yoga orient us toward this very moment, rendering the future invisible and the past no longer in reach. Many scholars and practitioners translate yoga as a manifestation of the verb yuj—“to unite”—which turns yoga into something one does, a form of willful activity. In thinking that yoga is the act of uniting one thing with another (breath with movement, body with mind, self with other), we confuse yoga with the doing of yoga. When we use the term in this way (as in “I’m going to practice yoga”), we confuse the techniques or the technology of practice with the experience of yoga. In every unfolding moment, in any meeting with any person, even in meeting ourselves, everything is complete. This completeness doesn’t mean that everything is put together in some master plan. It means that everything is interdependent and that yoga is not something we seek outside of ourselves or a willful attempt at union, but the recognition, in the present moment, of the unification of life. The inherent interconnectedness of existence reveals what in philosophical terms we call “nondualism”—the collapse of separation between subject and object. When we experience relaxed openness and attentive awareness, the world reveals its inherent completeness. When we move through the world, “concealed and wrapped in thought,” there is no direct contact with reality, and we know not “who or what” we are. Yoga begins with the gesture of a gentle bow in service of the present moment.
Yoga is a way of being and a mode of existing. Existence is a play of interconnectedness, and the more we clarify our perception and ways of organizing our experiences, the more openness and compassion we bring to the profound and sometimes confusing undertaking of being in the world. The authentic practice of yoga is an unremitting attention to present experience, whether in mind, body, or heart, with a baby on the hip, making breakfast, or balancing the breath in a headstand.
According to yoga philosophy and psychology, the only place to begin an investigation of yoga—or of anything for that matter—is the present moment, because this is all that is actually occurring. The future has not yet arisen and the past is passed; the only thing there is to investigate and the only way to begin paying attention is within this very experience as it unfolds right now, right here. That is why an investigation into the nature of reality and the true nature of the mind begins in this life, this body, and this moment; it can’t begin with an investigation of anything other than the here and now of our moment-to-moment, verifiable experience. The mind, with all its fantastic, distracted, and creative potential, is so used to weaving conceptions and preferences all over the present moment that we are often relating not to what is actually occurring in life but reacting to life with our likes and dislikes. That is why psychological inquiry in the service of awakening begins with what is happening in the here and now—a form of present-centered attention with acceptance.
The mind has a hard time watching anything for very long, especially its own workings. The mind has a hard time being present as the breath moves in the body or as sensations arise and fall away in different yoga poses, and as a result, we are not often here most of the time. This is true not just in relationship with our own bodies and emotions but interpersonally as well. Other people interrupt our ideas about the way things are supposed to be. This interruption is precisely what yoga is all about: becoming flexible enough to have our preconceptions and our elaborative tendencies interrupted. We usually discover a lot more in the silent space between thoughts than through all the interpretations, ideas, and views our minds generate. Moments of psychological stillness remind us that there are ways of knowing other than intellectual or habitual. Yoga practice, both on and off the mat, opens up the heart by revealing our patterns of grasping and inflexibility. This practice leaves no stone unturned. Through a disciplined and appropriately designed yoga practice, we not only see clearly our conditioned ways of living, but we learn how to let go of those patterns so that our questions radically outnumber our answers. When we are open, and our habitual psychological and physical ways of being are suspended, we arrive in the present moments of life free to respond with an open and creative heart.
Yoga is an investigation into who we are and what we are. We are not just investigating our everyday neuroses (though that is sometimes part of the path), nor are we philosophically investigating metaphysics (again, only a minor mode of inquiry)—we are looking into the nature of existence by starting with mind, breath, and body. This requires the ability to be patient and of accepting of what is occurring in our mind-body so we can see something clearly enough to study it. But how do we study our own mind? How do we investigate our own body? How can an eye see itself or the tip of a fingernail touch itself or the ear hear itself? Our perception is always hiding a shadow. We can never, it seems, see something in its entirety, there is always a blind spot in our perceptual field.
We perceive our experience—and the entire universe—by labeling “things” that seem to be “out there” and “solid.” And what becomes solid “out there” allows “me” to feel solid as well. I have a body in space and time. When I feel my body internally, I feel the breath, muscles, and bones, even the fascia. But I can’t locate my body exactly. When I say “bone,” there is not only a feeling but an image as well. The image comes from a skeleton I once saw in a lab. Then I feel the breath but can’t tell exactly where it begins or ends, or where it starts at the nostrils, or its precise place of exit. When I eat a carrot, I cannot tell, once chewed, where the carrot ends and where “I” begin.
The body, on further subjective meditation, is not a static thing; it’s primarily a concept layered over other concepts with some changing sensations, feelings, perceptions, and breath mixed up among them. I can feel a form that I’d call “body,” but I can’t say where it is or what it is. I don’t know for certain where it begins or ends, especially with my eyes closed. The body is not an actual thing that one can study—the body and the one who studies it are one. The observer and the body cannot be separated. Whether we examine the inner world of mind and body or the outer world of “things,” we cannot find in our perception any “thing” that actually exists. If I say, “Show me your ego,” could you do that? Where is your ego? You know you have an ego, but how do you know this? Mostly we know through inference—I can tell when I am self-centered—but that is a few steps back from direct experience. I cannot find the mechanism called “ego,” nor can I remove it. The ground is groundless. How do we determine what we are and what we are not? If we are to map a perimeter of our existence, where do we draw the line between where we end and where what is external to us begins? The fact is that the common distinctions we make between things is the very mechanism that creates “things” in the first place. Duality, the creating of a self “in here” that perceives an object “out there,” always creates separateness and alienation. Dualism is self-constructed; it’s not built into reality as it presents itself. This takes us straight to the heart of yoga practice: yoga is the inherent union and interconnectedness of all existence before we split things up into subject, object, or any method of categorization.
If dualistic perception is so deeply embedded in our psychological makeup, where does one begin? For the yoga practitioner, one begins right here in this moment. Whether through the practices of prāṇāyāma, mantra, āsana, or ethics, the systems of yoga arise out of and point to the same thing: the present moment. Even in the visualization of a breathing pattern or a meditation on sound, one dissolves the outer environment into the object of concentration. Then the object of concentration collapses into an experience of being completely centered and still. This stillness is a point of nothingness, yet is also everything. It is being with nobody there. It is being so fully present in an action (or nonaction) that you don’t need to create a self. When we live authentically, we are not simultaneously creating a sense of “I, me, or mine”; we are simply being our selfless self.
In yoga posture practice we dissolve the technique of moving the body into pure feeling and then dissolve the mind into that deep experience of feeling. Then, that is all that is there. In chanting, as another example, we dissolve seed syllables into pure sound, and then sound into quiet, and then quiet into stillness, and then stillness becomes nothing other than a contented mind that is open and receptive, sharp and still. When the mind returns to this natural state, anything can arise in mind, body, and heart, and there is no pushing or pulling, just arising and dissolving, one form becoming, in turn, another. Again, in these various techniques, the essence of the practice is what the technique is pointing toward rather than the technique itself. But since the mind has a hard time becoming centered enough to relax into a state of stillness, we need technique to help us along. The point of practice is not the goal but the way that the different stages of the path propel is into a more open and sincere way of being. This sincerity of being (karuṇā) is the ongoing result of a healthy yoga practice. If our practice is creating flexibility of the body without a corresponding flexibility of the heart, we need to redress the way we conceive of and engage in practice.
This book is about how to cultivate a yoga practice, what constitutes a yoga practice, how to recognize and work with the different stages on the path, and how to keep the tradition of yoga a living tradition through committed practice and critical engagement. On a heart level, this book is about the cultivation of patience, honesty, nonviolence, wisdom, and the ability to meet life as it occurs from moment to moment without habitual forms of clinging. Whether you are just beginning your practice or you have studied deeply in a particular system, you should be able to find here some suggestions and encouragement for deepening your practice.
There are two themes in this book: (1) The essence of yoga teaches us that all forms of clinging create suffering. Nothing can be owned as “I, me, and mine.” And (2) a disciplined and appropriate practice leaves no stone unturned. A broad understanding of yoga theory integrated with specific practices takes the formal techniques of yoga to deeper levels but also brings yoga off the mat, out of the meditation hall and into the tangled world of our interpersonal relationships, our habitual psychological holding patterns, and the complexity of ethical action. This book moves back and forth between these two themes—practice and letting go—by weaving together theory and responsive action.