The Roots of Yoga
Article by Lynn Fraser, originally printed in the Yoga Center of Calgary newsletter.
The Sufi master Gurdjieff said “you can find money in the street, but can you live on it?” Mystical states have been experienced throughout the general population, however, these are haphazard, usually occurring only once in a person’s lifetime. Eastern sages, such as Patanjali, have codified this experience and the steps leading up to it more clearly and systematically than has been done in the West. Yoga outlines a perennial philosophy shared by peoples of all nations that is as applicable to us as we move into Y2K as it was five thousand years ago in rural India.
In India, the entire life of a yogi’s family is conducive to spiritual growth. After early training at home, many children go to ashrams to live and study during their formative years. They undergo a period of intense learning and brahmacharya (training the senses) from puberty through their mid twenties. During this time, they practice under the guidance of a spiritual teacher and are able to concentrate their efforts on purifying themselves and learning yoga philosophy. Some students have been asked by their teachers to come to the west.
We have welcomed them, working with yoga philosophy and making it our own. The up side of filtering this ancient science through western teachers is that it allows these unfamiliar concepts to become easier for us to understand. We can work closer to our comfort zone when we have a common cultural understanding with the teacher. The down side is that many people pick and choose a little of this and a little of that from the spiritual buffet of techniques and knowledge. It is fascinating to dig deeper and learn about these ideas from their source.
Yoga is a science that has been passed on orally for at least 5,000 years in India. The basic concepts were written down over the past few centuries in scriptures that are considered to be holy because the truths they hold were revealed to sages in deep meditation. The scriptures that form the base of yoga science include the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas, Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. In this series of articles, I will explore a few of the key concepts brought to us through these scriptures. My understanding of yoga philosophy comes from ongoing study within the Himalayan tradition of Shri Swami Rama. There are many other authentic traditions and teachers who also offer their wisdom and many resources in books and tapes as well as in the oral tradition.
The Isha Upanishad is the first of what are considered the ten major Upanishads. The answer to all the important questions of life are found here and elaborated on in other texts.
“Enjoy pleasures while giving up all attachment to them and bravely face every situation in life, whether pleasant or unpleasant, in the spirit of detachment… This is made possible by selflessness and the feeling of oneness with all.” Shri Swami Rama, Book of Wisdom (Isha Upanishad).
We have all heard the terms karma and reincarnation. Some of us have heard about samskaras and vasanas. Vairagya (non-attachment or dispassion) and abhyasa (sustained effort or practice) are also two key concepts, like the two wings of a bird. The roots of the word vairagya are vi (without) and raga (color).
Any action we perform leaves an imprint on the mind. These imprints are called samskaras and they color or stain the mind. When a samskara colors the mind, it becomes a vasana. Habits are formed in this way. By repeating an action or thought over and over, we wear a groove in the mind which predisposes us to follow the same path again. These attachments or samskaras are what create our karma and cause us to be born again and again. We are reincarnated until we accomplish what we were born to do.
True vairagya or non-attachment means being master of the senses. We should be neither lost in worldly pleasure seeking nor run away from the troubles of the world. Non-attachment and non-involvement are not the same thing. We can be fully engaged with people and the world while being non-attached. We learn vairagya by performing our duties wisely and doing them gladly for others without desire for personal reward.
If the hand refuses to carry food to our mouth, the mouth grudges to chew and swallow and the stomach refuses to digest the food to nourish the body, we would die. Like all parts of the body are meant to work together, the purpose of life is to work to your best capacity for the good of all.
We are limited by our attachments – to objects certainly and often even more strongly to our ideas, opinions, and other people.
A recurring memory of my childhood is my mother saying “Who ever told you life would be fair?” I was obviously attached to the idea that life should be fair. As a meditator, I’m developing my capacity to observe my mind. I’ve noticed that along with a desire to work for a just world, I also have lots of shoulds that aren’t so healthy. Attachment to our opinions causes a lot of misery for us. Through cultivating awareness, they are starting to loosen their hold on me.
Why do we get angry when life doesn’t arrange itself to suit us? Many times it’s something small. People honk their horns when someone slows them up for a moment in traffic and take out their frustrations about a long line up on sales staff in stores. We may feel inadequate if our ‘things’ are not as nice as those we think we should have or that others have. We get caught in a cycle of comparing and working for rewards and can feel trapped.
We carry that same attitude into more serious matters. I worked for several years with people living with AIDS. One thing that I realized is that most of us in the west have an expectation that we will live a healthy happy life until we’re about 80. When that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen, we feel cheated. This anger robs us of time and energy we could use to heal, to enjoy the people in our lives and to pursue a spiritual practice.
Food, body image and eating are powerful issues in our consumer driven society today. At the same time we absorb the idea that any other than thin is ugly, out of control, and shameful, we are bombarded with images of food and encouraged to indulge ourselves. Food is one of the five major pillars of spiritual practice that yogis work with in daily life and can be an area for experiments in awareness and gradually building our will. By loosening our attachments to certain foods and eating patterns, we can develop confidence and practice in working with ourselves without judging.
Yoga philosophy says the solution has to do with giving up our attachments but this doesn’t mean we draw back and renounce the world. Yoga is skill in action. Self awareness and observation helps us to determine the right course.
The whole of the Bhagavad Gita has been referred to as a commentary on the first two verses in the Isha Upanishad. Surrendering the fruits of our actions is also non-attachment or vairagya. Putting this into practice in our lives is called karma yoga.
When we worry about outcomes, we don’t see the goal,
we see only the obstacles before us.
Gandhi’s life is a beautiful example of a master of karma yoga in action. Before Gandhi, most people could not act against the political bondage of India because they thought the situation was impossible. Before they even took the first step, they were caught in results and too discouraged to continue.
Gandhi urged us to never accept a wrong situation, not only for your sake but also for the exploiter as well. In his commentary on the Gita, Eknath Easwaran notes that he used to see how young British men coming to India would begin as fair minded and wanting to do their best for the benefit of the people. After a time, they would lose their fairness and come to believe they were superior. This is a deterioration of character that no exploiter can escape. The great art of non-violent resistance is when you love and respect someone and will not allow him to exploit you because it is just as bad for him as for you.
Most of us have experienced the frustration of an ongoing argument with someone (often a family member). What can we do when someone we love has a radically different opinion on a serious issue like racism? We know that arguing isn’t changing their mind and in fact is just creating more resistance yet we know they are wrong. Racism, sexism and other forms of exploitation are not to be ignored in the name of non-attachment. It takes a lot of awareness to not get caught up in the argument at the same time as to not ignore the problem plus to be able to see clearly what to do.
The path of yoga is referred to as the razor’s edge. It requires a healthy sense of discrimination.
Yoga is not passive. It’s not about sitting in your room meditating while the child next door cries of hunger. It is actively engaging ourselves in life. The wonder of yoga is how we can work with these timeless principles and free ourselves of the habits and patterns that make us miserable. Our lives with all their problems and conflicts provide fertile ground for this work.
Refining ourselves is a gradual process. A key attachment to give up is that of judging and condemning ourselves and others. Our minds can be compared to a house that we’ve been decorating with our thoughts all these years. We resist going inside because we don’t like the muck we’ve put there. If we want serenity, we need to own our minds because we can only change if we are truthful with ourselves. The key is that we can only accept the truth if we stop condemning ourselves.
The Upanishads and other yoga scriptures offer a complete philosophy along with clear systematic practices to help us realize our goal in life. With abhyasa (sustained effort or practice) combined with vairagya and by working very lovingly with ourselves, we can gradually purify ourselves of negative patterns and conditioning and realize the beauty inside us all.
Contact: Lynn Fraser [email protected]