Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Patanjali Yoga in Light of the Teachings of Sri K Pattabhi Jois

A few weeks ago I was contacted by someone wanting to invite me to a "Yoga Rave" - a  party like none other in the world; a new concept in fun where the mind and body respond to a uniquely crafted sequence of high-energy music, movement, yoga & meditation. I responded by saying, a yoga rave is a contradiction in terms. "I can guarantee that the party will be 100% yoga compliant: it is substance free, it will end earlier than a typical party and all the proceeds will go to a non profit." Came the response.  My reply was obviously completely lost on the poor fellow which is probably not surprising considering the general lack of understanding of the meaning, purpose and practice of yoga in modern times.

Despite the fact that we now have many yogic texts available in translation, this has further compounded rather than reduced the problem. Translations and interpretations conflict with each other, causing a general muddle in people's minds. Today we have Yoga Sutra interpretations from buddhist, christian, atheistic, dualistic, non dualistic etc - so many different perspectives (mostly by non yoga-practicing academics). This has caused a great deal of confusion, especially as these underlying perspectives are often not stated and the translators have little or no practical experience with yoga.
In the mass of available information, original and true teachings are hard to discern, even when they are so plain to sight. For instance, it is universally accepted that paschimottanasana means extreme "west" stretch - an asana which stretches the muscles of the entire back of the body. But we read in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika that Pascimottanasana "makes the breath flow in the shushumna". The shushumna is in the west side of the body - this is the meaning of paschimottanasana - it moves the prana to the west side, not it stretches the west side. This is one example of how the essential teachings of yoga have been lost in this age of materialism and superficiality.

"It is very important to understand yoga philosophy: without philosophy, practice is not good, and yoga practice is the starting place for yoga philosophy. Mixing both is actually the best."

Guruji's perspective was that of Advaita Vedanta and his family Guru Sri Shankaracharya, therefore if we wish to understand what Pattabhi Jois' vision was, how he saw yoga in the context of the process of Self Realization, some understanding of Shankaracharya's thought is essential. These teachings are surprisingly accessible and fresh, perhaps because he attained realization at such a young age. His writings are poetic and his vision has the clarity to give us understanding both of the purpose and the culmination of yoga practice (Self Realization).

According to Guruji, Advaita Vedanta constitues the internal limbs of yoga. The external limbs - yama, niyama, asana, pranayama and pratyahara are mastered through effort - the internal limbs - dharana, dhyana and samadhi unfold effortlessly when the external are mastered.

The essence of Advaita, as Ramana Maharshi so eloquently puts it in his introduction to Sri Shankaracharya's Drg Drishya Viveka:

"Since Brahman is the sole reality, according to advaita, how is it that Brahman is not apparent to us, whereas prapancha (world, i.e. non-Brahman) is so vivid? Thus questions the advanced sadhaka.

In one's own Self, which is not other than Brahman, there is a mysterious power known as avidya (delusion) which is beginingless and not separate from the Self. Its characteristics are (first) veiling (tamas), and (second) the presentation of diversity (rajas). Just as the pictures in the cinema, though not visible either in sunlight or in darkness, become visible in a spot of light in the midst of darkness, so in the darkness of ignorance there appears the reflected light of the Self, illusory and scattered taking the form of thought. This is the primal thought known as the ego, jiva or krta (doer), having the mind as the medium of its perceptions.

The mind has a store of latent tendencies (samskaras) which it projects as the object of a shadow-show in the waking and dream states. This show, however, is mistaken for real by the jiva. The veiling aspect of the mind first hides the real nature of the Self and then presents the objective world to view. Just as the waters of the ocean do not seem different from the waves, so also for the duration of objective phenomena, the Self, though itself the sole being, is made to appear not different from them.


Turn away from the delusion caused by the latent tendencies and false notions of interior and exterior. By such constant practice of sahaja samadhi, the veiling power vanishes and the non-dual Self is left over to shine forth as Brahman itself. This is the whole secret of the advaita doctrine as taught by the master to the advanced sadhaka."

Although Patanjali Yoga (and by its inclusion Ashtanga Yoga) is regarded as one of six classical systems of hindu thought, viewpoints abound as to the correct interpretation and expression of its philosophy and practice. Context is all important for understanding. Without an understanding of the the way yogis view the constitution of the human being, an understanding of the purpose and correct practice of yoga will not be possible.

If we try to apply yoga (asana practice) mechanically, we receive many negative results, including injury, sickness, mental disturbance etc. Yoga is not a band aid you can put on a festering wound. Yoga heals from within, but in order for it to do its magic, we have to put the mind in the right starting place and point it in the right direction.

If we accept Shankaracharya's viewpoint as the basis for understanding the Yoga Sutra philosophy, then drashtuh, purusa, ishvara are all names for one and the same brahman - the universal intelligence principle which underpins this entire visible and invisible universe. The body-mind-sense-ego complex out of which we normally function is known as the Jiva - living in delusion about its true nature. These material and subtle forms manifesting as the world or ego are nothing but the ripples emanating from brahman's expansive nature, clothed in subtly deluding guise by the veil of maya/prakriti/kundalini which separates our experience of this manifest existence of Name and Form from the undifferentiated oneness of the true Self.

I feel Shankaracharya's view is the missing link in understanding the fullness of Pattabhi Jois' teaching. The idea of the Ashtanga Yoga Darshana is that it represents Guruji's unique perspective and a fusion of two classical darshanas. In fact Guruji was also of the view that Samkhya and Yoga are one Darshana - as Krisna says in the Gita: "The ignorant make a distinction between Samkhya and Yoga, the wise know them as one and the same."