If one were to take a survey of the many people involved in yoga today about what brought them into yoga, we would find a huge variety of reasons running the gamut from inner awareness to physical and emotional health and well being. Many arguments ensue over what’s right in terms of why we should practice yoga and what yoga is. Understanding that most arguments and disharmony in the yoga community are fundamentally missing the point of yoga, one might be inclined to say that yoga is both an inner and outer practice. Western contemporary yoga, not surprisingly, has made it mostly an outer practice, dismissing or even flat out ignoring some of the real inner transformation that yoga has the potential to impart upon a practitioner. Before we get into looking a practice that encompasses both inner and outer self, it’s important to understand what we believe to be inner and outer self, what yoga defines as inner and outer practice, and if those two ideas are compatible.
Generally speaking, most people involved in any sort of modern “spiritual discipline” have particular ideas about inner self, outer self, and how their chosen spiritual practice addresses the development of those two levels of existence. This is true of modern yoga, modern forms of secular Buddhism (mindfulness), and most other “spiritual but not religious” practices that have their origins in traditional non-secular cultures, like India, China and the Middle East.
When I first began practicing yoga almost 15 years ago what comprised my ideas of outer and inner self were strongly influenced by my modern American upbringing. Things that were external to, yet nonetheless a part of me, included my family, ethnicity, appearance, tax bracket, and education, just to name a few. What was inner to myself, I considered to be thoughts and feelings. Most contemporary practitioners hold this same assumption, and while it isn’t wholly incorrect, it is incomplete and slightly inaccurate in light of Yogic literature.
The hole in our understanding, thankfully, can be somewhat filled by the text itself. Patanjali divides up the eight limbs of yoga between two chapters— sadhana pada, the book on practice, and vibhuti pada, the book on attainments. The first five limbs, which include the ever popular asana and its sometimes forgotten about bedfellow pranayama along with yama, niyama, and pratyhara are referred to as the outer limbs of Patanjali’s eight tiers. The three inner limbs, referred to collectively as samyama, are waylaid until the third chapter and move us beyond a state of active doing. Not much can be said by me regarding the inner limbs of yoga aside from what they are not, which ironically includes thoughts and feelings— the very two things most of us consider to be hallmarks of inner experience and available to our awareness. Disciplines involving the mind and the feelings are considered, along with the body, still a part of the outer limbs of yoga— specifically referred to as kriya yoga.
Kriya yogas are ritual practices dedicated to cleanliness and purification. The root of the word kriya, kr-, is the same for the word karma, meaning, “to create.” A kriya is a practice, and karma is a creation. By inference we can say that a kriya is intended to cleanse our karma— what we create for ourselves and for others during our incarnation. The first verse of sadhana pada identifies a tripartite practice that addresses the sacred triad: The body, the mind and the feelings. Kriya yoga involves physical austerities that address the discipline of the body (tapah), psychological practices to purify the mind, (the recitation of om, or mantra and japa), and the awareness and cultivation of real feelings through devotion to a higher entity (Isvara pranidhana, devotion to God).
As such, we must bring into question how we approach the outer limbs of yoga. Clearly, some integration between the mind, body and feelings or emotions is necessary before approaching samyama. How do we practice asana and pranayama? And how do we understand pratyhara, the withdrawal of the senses? Is it to make us “better, stronger, and more capable” individuals? Better, stronger and more capable than whom? And to what end? Or are these practices meant to serve a higher level of consciousness— one that moves us beyond the fixation on the small self.
Admittedly, even after over a decade of practice it is difficult, if not nearly impossible, for me to understand just exactly who I AM inwardly and authentically. It’s ridiculously hard to conceive of anything besides my own shallow self interests during practice. Asana is often reduced down to what I am capable of, or my enlightenment and my awareness. In fact, these ideas are so entrenched that I can just barely begin to see beyond them. Despite these limitations, our experiences do elucidate what kinds of practices pull us away from a real inner experience of Self. For instance, my experience has shown me that when my outer practice of asana and some light pranayama is divorced from a discipline that includes my higher mind and feelings, my awareness becomes extremely limited in scope. This has resulted in physical injury, emotional imbalance and, worst case scenario, dominance of the ego.
Asana provides us with a period of time each day in which to notice our body, mind, and feelings and how they interact with one another. How can we practice in a way that engenders equanimity? It’s clear that a real yoga practice requires a balancing of the body, mind and feelings before one can be ready to explore the depths of the authentic Self. Therefore we must look at and examine how to approach a physical practice, such as asana, in such a way that it is not divorced from or dominates over the other aspects of our being. When feelings and thoughts arise during an asana practice, how are they dealt with? Are they repressed and stifled, superfluously expressed, or simply observed with compassionate disinterest? We must also ask if we are capable of objective observation of our own imbalances and shortcomings.
Please join me at 5 PM this coming Sunday at Purple Yoga for our monthly satsang. This month we will be exploring asana, pranayama, and pratyahara, which complete the second book of the Yoga Sutra, sadhana pada. All are encouraged to bring their questions and experiences in an effort to explore how these three highly physical limbs build a bridge toward that which is beyond— taking us to realm beyond the physical.
Attendance is by donation.