Yoga and Perception: The Shifting Sands of Self

Where we let go of what we are, we become what we might be. ~ Lao Tzu

For the past several satsangs and blog posts I’ve attempted to relate yoga and the yoga sutras to daily life – our trials, tribulations, and, on occasion, relationships – however, as we progress through the contemplative discipline of yoga, we see that yoga aims to take us beyond the day to day toward something higher. It was never meant to be used as an antidote to the stressors of daily life, though that may be a byproduct of the practice.  Much of what we study - ahimsa, satya, brahmacharya - manages our daily affairs and attachments, so that the real essence of who we are can emerge.

Those of us who diligently practice yoga and engage in some form of tapasya, or austerity, whether in the form of physical asana, renunciations of food, sex, or emotional patterns, are slowly chipping away at our ego-based personalities to understand who we are underneath our constructed identities. We find that there are many layers of the ego-self that must be seen before we can open ourselves to the totality of who we really are. This process is terrifying, especially for the everyday run of the mill kind of person. We like our personalities. We like telling people about our latest gadgets, work, families, marriages, and divorces. It reaffirms who we are and reminds us that we’re alive.

Ritual bathing at the Ganga River

The great mystics—Jesus, Rumi, The Buddha, and beyond—have all travelled the path that many of us loathe to travel, because nothing is more frightening than letting go of the stories that define our existence. As a result, several iterations of spiritual teachings have sprouted up as what we understand to be “religion,” complete with deities, rituals, and relics, all of which act as something we can supplicate our small selves to (hence the symbolic importance of ritual sacrifice). And while such beliefs and practices aren’t always effective in bringing people toward pure consciousness, they do offer people relief from their existential anxieties and provide sets of ethical codes that sometimes helps us live peaceably.

[If you are thinking about current religious warfare, like I think you might be, keep in mind it isn’t the ethical teachings of religions that have caused centuries of bloodshed. It’s the insatiable desire for power and dominance. Totally different.]

I frequently read about and study different religions out of general interest, but also to see how the ethics and beliefs of various religious traditions intersect and where they deviate in order to come to a more holistic understanding of how the world works and what our role is in that world. The postmodern West, including Europe, and now a good portion of Asia, has become more and more secular, or as some of my fundamentalist Christian friends might say, “godless.” But, I completely agree with His Holiness The Dalai Lama in the understanding that secularism plays an important role in making sure that government and religious institutions don’t play footsies underneath the dinner table (my words, not his), and in seeing that dogma and prejudice stays out of our schools, jobs, and organizations.

[The First Amendment of The Constitution of the United States states that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”]

Yet as secularism has taken over Western politics and education, what we see is an overwhelming tendency for people, namely us, to throw the proverbial Christ child out with the holy water. What that means is that the whole of spiritual tradition is looked at with suspicion by most postmodern people. Growing up in a blue state, most of my friends cringed when they found out someone they dated went to church weekly, automatically assuming that their new prospect participated in glossolalia (speaking in tongues) and rolled around on the floor every Saturday.

[The term “holy rollers” is a term for the Seventh Day Adventists, a denomination of Protestant Christianity where devotees worship every Saturday and grovel on the floor to show obeisance to the Lord.]

People seem to gloss over some of the very valid tenets of faith – like Jesus’ advice against unwarranted judgments against others, “may he who hath not sinned cast the first stone.” Or the Buddha’s teachings on non-violence, “You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.”

You might be asking, What does this have to do with yoga? It has everything to do with yoga since the secular West has appropriated the spiritual practice, and, in doing so, fudged some of its finer points. If we were to define Western paradigmatic thinking in slogans and statements from the distant past to the present day, what would we learn?

Kim Kardashian, W Magazine © Barbara Kruger

“I think therefore I am” -Rene Descartes (the father of Western Cartesian based dualism)

“The end defines the means.” – Prince Machiavelli

“Just do it” –Nike slogan (“Do” what? Do anything? Should we think first, or just do?)

“It’s all about me.” –a la Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian

All of these contemporary buzz terms feed into our feelings of self-importance and the dominance of the ego—which is what yoga aims to undercut. If look to the media, we might believe that we ourselves are as good as it gets. There is nothing higher, greater, or purer than what we are. This is the climate in which Western yoga is evolving (or devolving).  We exchange our corporate personalities for shiny new yoga personalities. We often quote the words of the mystics, but fail to experience the truth of their meaning. We wear the clothes and eat the right food, but forget to nurture the soul within. I’ve found that a real yoga practice is a little like eating lima beans and Brussels sprouts, we don’t enjoy it always (though I personally love Brussels sprouts), but it really is good for us. Western yoga, though not entirely negative, is a little more akin to diet soda— with all of the flavor, but none of the calories (substance).

Can we imagine that there is a state of being that exists in complete objectivity? A state of being that is not pulled one way or another by our personal preferences and likes and dislikes? People today are terrified by the words God, spiritual, and religion. My guess is that’s because entertaining the idea of a higher power means that we’re not it. It means that we must truly learn to let go of the control we think we have in good faith of something that cannot be seen with our regular consciousness.

Join me this Sunday for our monthly satsang at Purple Yoga at 5:30 PM. We will complete the first book of the sutras, samadhi pada, with a discussion on the cultivation of objective perception. Donations are gratefully accepted.


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  1. Yoga Sadhana – A Balancing Act Between Action, Observation and Surrender | Laura Dunn Yoga - August 31, 2012

    [...] are larger principles and values overshadowed by our own strongly held beliefs and attachments? Last month,we stated that yoga’s primary purpose goes beyond our mundane everyday issues. Rather, yoga, as it [...]

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