Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Ashtanga Yoga Darshana - Sutra Class 1


There was no transcription of the first sutra class. What follows covers the subject discussed:

“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.” - Jois & Anderson, Yoga International, Jan/Feb 1994

Pattabhi Jois was influenced by two philosophical/spiritual traditions: the tradition of yoga and the tradition of Advaita Vedanta. Two paths: one that starts from the dualistic experience of being in the body (yoga), the other, a non-dualistic (advaita) contemplation of divinity and the oneness of creation. The path of yoga starts in the dualistic realm of relativity of the physical and culminates in the non-dual experience of the essential Self, which is the purview of Advaita Vedanta. Hence they are not separate but conjoin at a certain point where yoga becomes an internal experience. The most important teacher in the lineage of Advaita Vedanta is Sri Shankaracharya. Shankaracharya, in addition to being an important saint in the advaita lineage was also a strong advocate of yoga. The main inspiration for advaita philosophy is the Upanishads.


We can see from the many interpretations that have been made of the sutras over the years, that the essential meaning and intention of Patanjali has many different nuances and no one can say with authority which is correct. In fact it is the nature of such spiritual texts that they should convey something essential to each individual based on his/her individual samskaras. Since Guruji’s perspective was that of Shankaracharya’s Advaita Vedanta, it would seem to make most sense to take this point of view while interpreting the sutras in accordance with Guruji’s philosophy.


Ashtanga Yoga, according to Pattabhi Jois, is Patanjali Yoga as described in the Yoga Sutra.

What is yoga?

Yoga is the complete control of the mind involving the restraint of all fluctuations or modifications. When the mind is controlled we experience the Self (our true identity) in its completeness.

Ordinarily this true identity is drowned under the deluge of impressions, which continuously flood through the mind. No longer being aware of the true Self, we misguidedly become identified with the content of the mind.
YS I 2-4

But what is the Self?

The Self sees everything but is not seen by anything. It gives light to the intellect and ego but is not enlightened by them. It pervades the universe and by its light all this insentient universe is illumined, but the universe does not pervade it even to the slightest extent. 

That inner Self, as the primeval spirit, eternal, ever effulgent, full of infinite bliss, single, indivisible, whole and living, shines in everyone as the witnessing awareness. 

That Self in its splendor, shining in the cavity of the heart as the subtle, pervasive yet un-manifest ether, illumines this universe like the sun. It is aware of the modifications of the mind and ego, of the actions of the body, sense organs and life-breath. It takes their form as fire does that of a heated ball of iron; yet it undergoes no change in doing so. 

This Self is neither born nor dies, it neither grows nor decays, nor does it suffer any change. When a pot is broken the space inside it is not, and similarly, when the body dies, the Self in it remains eternal. 

It is pure knowledge. It illumines Being and non-being alike and is without attributes. It is the witness of the intellect in the waking, dream, and deep sleep states.

 - Sri Shankaracharya -Vivekachudamani

But what is our actual experience of ourselves? Do we experience ourselves as “effulgent” or “full of bliss” do we experience ourselves as eternal beings? No. Although we chase after pleasures and experience enjoyment, we also experience darkness and depression, anxiety, stress and we anticipate and fear death. We experience ourselves as limited by our biology or genetics, our education, familial and social conditioning, our work, children, spouses and so on.

We have become sick mentally and physically due to the pressures and conveniences of modern life. We have lost our connection with nature, we no longer know how to feed ourselves or even how to give birth, these most fundamental of human actions. We identify with our careers, political persuasion, sexual orientations and other socially constructed ideas and no longer know who we are and as a result experience confusion, doubt and uncertainty.

The Self sees everything but is not seen by anything. It gives light to the intellect and ego but is not enlightened by them. It pervades the universe and by its light all this insentient universe is illumined, but the universe does not pervade it even to the slightest extent. 

The Self is the source of all. In the yoga sutra, Patanjali uses the expression “seer” – the one who sees or witnesses. The witness is not changed by seeing. The witness observes the modifications of the mind, which are external to it but it is not affected by its observation.

We now understand through quantum science that the physical world is one continuum – atoms are not discrete entities but bond and exchange particles with other atoms, so our physical bodies have no discrete boundary. Our bodies are in a continuous process of transformation, we are exchanging fluids and gasses with the environment and the cells of our body are constantly being replaced. The body is in a continuous state of flux and is intimately integrated into its environment.

Beneath any structure there must be a blueprint, something that brings it into configuration, an essence that gives form to substance. While it can be said that the physical universe is truly one discrete (continuous or contiguous) entity, yoga suggests that underlying all phenomena is a similarly uniformly spread principle, which could be called spirit. Just as we can say all matter distributed through the universe is a structured on the same essential building blocks, so we can suggest that underlying all phenomena is an energy and logic which is essentially the same. The essence of the Self is not different from the essence that sustains the universe, just as the substance of the physical body is not different from the substance of the universe it finds itself in.

According to yoga there are effectively three aspects to the mind. The lower mind, manas, which is connected to the sense organs and the organs of action, the higher mind or buddhi, the faculty of knowing, remembering and decision making, and the sense of self or ego.

The lower mind, manas, is mechanical in nature. It processes and categorizes impressions received through the senses. Each impression made on the mind leaves a trace, known as samskara. As the impression fades and a new one arises, the samskara sinks into the unconscious retaining whatever emotional “charge” was experienced with the thought or impression. When a similar thought or impression arises again, the samskara is re-awakened to be re-experienced and perhaps increased in potency before it re-submerges into the unconscious again. This is a continuous process – one of recycling the samskaras. As the mind is stimulated by the arising of samskaras into awareness it also acts out its desires according to five organs of action: The organs of speech, grasping (with hands), locomotion (with legs), digestion/excretion and sex.

The more unrestrained, unhealthy or undeveloped the lower mind, the more strongly is the sense of ego or self associated with it and consequently the more ignorance and suffering will be experienced. But the mind can be trained. It may be trained to a certain extent through good parenting and education, but to transcend its compulsive nature a higher training is required, a training such as yoga.

Vital energy (prana) is distributed throughout the body via a fine network of channels (nadis). When the lower mind is undeveloped these nadis are polluted with waste due to bad diet and habits. As a result vitality cannot move unhindered through the body or into the mind, the result is pain, dullness and ignorance.

That inner Self, as the primeval spirit, eternal, ever effulgent, full of infinite bliss, single, indivisible, whole and living, shines in everyone as the witnessing awareness. 

If the ego can be employed to train the mind, to transform the mind from being a tyrant which does exactly as it pleases to become a co-operative and faithful servant, then perhaps, through controlling the mind, the Self will be experienced as the essential core of our being.

That Self in its splendor, shining in the cavity of the heart as the subtle, pervasive yet un-manifest ether, illumines this universe like the sun. 

It is aware of the modifications of the mind and ego, of the actions of the body, sense organs and life-breath. It takes their form as fire does that of a heated ball of iron; yet it undergoes no change in doing so. 


The Self is not different in nature from that which sustains and structures the universe, and as such is the energetic underpinning of all material and subtle functions of the human being including the mind.

The Self witnesses the processes of the ego, mind, body and sense organs and through its essential underpinning of all human processes enters into them but does not undergo any change as a result.

This Self is neither born nor dies, it neither grows nor decays, nor does it suffer any change. When a pot is broken the space inside it is not, and similarly, when the body dies, the Self in it remains eternal. 

It is pure knowledge. It illumines Being and non-being alike and is without attributes. It is the witness of the intellect in the waking, dream, and deep sleep states.

According to yoga, something can only be said to be real if it is unchanging. It something changes then you can only describe something that is in process not a discrete entity. The body and mind go through continuous change and as such cannot be considered to be real.

The analogy of the pot is often used. The body, made as it is out of the substance of this universe, returns to it as it decomposes in death and re-merges with the environment. The body is likened to a clay pot. Clay is taken by the potter and made into a pot. The air or space that surrounds the pot is not different from the air that is inside the pot. When the pot is broken (the body dies) nothing happens to the air inside pot, only an apparent boundary, which is now dissolved, separated them. In a similar way, the rishis explain that when the body dies there is no reason to assume the spirit will die also.

Even though we do not feel aware, the Self is always aware. It witnesses everything, even when the mind is totally suppressed by dullness and inertia as in sleep.

Our experience is composed of the qualities of sentience, mutability and inertia - these three are found in the manifested world and are embodied in our sense organs - they serve the purpose of both gaining knowledge of the world and liberation from it. - YS II 22

The mind has three states (gunas), which interact with each other:
1. Prakasha – literally, “radiance” – implying a pure state, also known as sattva.
2. Kriya – activity, also known as rajas
3. Stithi – steadiness, inertia, dullness also known as tamas.

Most of the time we are dominated by the latter two qualities. In deep sleep for instance, tamas is totally dominant, as we start to dream, rajas comes into play, when we awake and get out of bed to start the day, rajas tries to dominate the predominantly tamasic quality of the body. The rajas quality increases with the rising of the sun and then starts to diminish after mid-day. Many factors play into the influence of the gunas, including the food we eat, our work, leisure and exercise habits. Through yoga our attempt is to cultivate the sattva guna to the greatest extent.

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