Part 1: Introduction to Ashtanga Yoga
Today I’m fighting the mid-winter lethargy that often overcomes me. Now that I am semi-retired I am not forced to get up, get dressed and leave the house, and I have therefore become more susceptible to the voice in my head… “Just a little longer in this nice warm bed. Just 20 mins more of effortlessness, lying dormant under the covers. Just catch up after that late night. Just… Just… Just…” And at times in my cycle of hyperactivity and lethargy (diagnose me from afar if you wish!), that little bit longer, that 20 minutes, that just catch up, can expand to fill much of the day.
However I have an assignment that excites me, and so although my meditation time ended up in the temporary oblivion of extra sleep, I’m here at my computer, looking out over a rainy green backyard, lined on one side with the prison yard of my neighbours, corrugated iron rooves nearly to the sky and new corrugated fences designed to shut out the mess of my wilderness. They needed to sell to fund their mother’s move into a home and went for the apparent safety of turf and nothing else. I prefer my wilderness, and I miss the rainforest that once extended my green horizon, but that is life in the material world, constant, unchanging change.
So, on to my assignment, self-imposed, but designed to fulfil requests for more blogs: I shall attempt to elucidate Ashtanga Yoga, taking one aspect in each blog, beginning here with an exploration of the mind: the mind which captures me and cajoles me back to bed, the mind which harasses me morning ‘til night and then fills even the sleep it tells me will be so restful with anxieties and fears, or gives me glimpses of desires fulfilled, but gone or regretted at awakening, this mind that is not me.
It seems almost another being, with a “mind” of its own. It seems to have a will to ensnare me, and make me disciple, servant, helpless slave, seeing my own degradation but unable to resist, or resisting, yet falling again and again into its plans. Indeed in the yoga tradition great writers have personified the mind, praying to it to embark on a path of auspiciousness, or, from the opposite side, speaking of beating it with a shoe to keep it under control.
Yet we also understand, from this same yogic tradition, that the mind is inanimate, not a conscious living being. It is a material energy, one of the non-living energies described in the Bhagavad-Gita.
“Earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intelligence and false ego–all together these eight comprise My separated material energies. Besides this inferior nature, O mighty-armed Arjuna, there is a superior energy of Mine, which are all living entities who are struggling with material nature.”
The mind, this monkey mind, the capricious ever changing, whimsical, dictatorial, cajoling, never sleeping, full of suggestions for liberation or enjoyment, full of plans to redesign a better world, a better universe for you to be the centre of, this whirlwind of images and impressions, hopes and despairs, memories and dreams, this sometimes howling abyss of bitterness, this monkey mind, this mind, despite appearances, is dead and dull, an empty energy, inanimate. You wear it like a virtual reality machine.
Indeed the comparison to virtual reality is very apt. You view the world through the mind. And that view is not necessarily entirely accurate. You don’t directly perceive the world, you see your mind. Let’s explore this further.
Your senses, your eyes, your ears, tongue, nose and skin, these five senses are joined to the mind through the neural pathways and the brain. Take the eyes alone: you do not see with the eye. This little ball of jelly has a lens on the front which focuses the light coming in onto the back of the eyeball, where the retina acts as the photographic plate, and converts the light to electrical impulses which travel up the optic nerve to the brain, to the occipital lobe in the brain.
Although I’ve given a simplified version of things, this is where vision ends, in the reductionist western view of things… According to this explanation the picture of the external world is now seen in the brain. And yet this is not a full explanation. Nobody really thinks there is some mini image of the scene actually in the brain tissue, such that someone could look in from outside and see what you are seeing, science fiction aside. But still YOU can see those images, accurate or not as the case may be.
The yogic explanation for this goes two steps past the brain. Just as the lens is the pathway to the retina, and the retina is the path to the optic nerve, itself the pathway to the visual processing centre in the brain, the brain too is another pathway, where the sense impressions are collected and organised, before being projected into the mind. In this sense the brain is rather like the projector in an old time movie theatre, and the actual theatre screen on which the image is viewed is the mind. And then finally, you, the movie goer, watch the movie playing out on the screen of the mind.
And as befits a movie theatre analogy, or a virtual reality analogy, that image you view is not as firmly based in reality as you might like to think. The accuracy of the picture you see depends on the state of every link in the pathway, the eye, the optic nerve, the brain and also the mind itself. Some people are blind because the optic nerve is destroyed. And many people over 40 have clouded vision because the lens is dimmed by cataracts. And as some of us know by experience, someone who is having a psychotic episode, or someone hallucinating under the effect of LSD or other psycho active drugs, will “see” things that are not present in the physical world outside.
And none of us, no matter how good our visual pathway, can use it to see totally accurately ever. Here is one example of many: We have a blind spot in our retina, rather like the blind spot in a car mirror, and it can’t be cured by fish eye mirrors. The retinal nerve sits in the middle of the retina. The place where the nerve is has no photoreceptors to receive and react to the light coming in, so that information is not passed up the retinal nerve to the brain. Go here to test this for yourself. Yet you are not aware of a blind spot because your brain fills in the gaps left in your vision, like a graphics program used to fix an old photograph that has patches missing, by adding in the most likely colours and patterns based on the surroundings. The picture you perceive in your mind has no holes. This is virtual reality in action.
You are not seeing the world, not directly anyway, you are seeing a picture in your mind, a picture which is mediated through the senses and the brain.
So the yogic understanding is that the mind has actual concrete existence. It is not a figment of the imagination… which would be funny if it were, because the imagination is part of the mind! The very possibility of the mind being a figment of itself substantiates its existence, in a trippy sort of way.
And although the mind exists, it is not alive, rather it is a complex tool. And most importantly, it is not you. You, the aware entity, perceive the sense impressions that are played out on the mind, as well as memories of past sense impressions that have been recorded in the mind, just as a person in the cinema theatre watches the movie on the screen.
The mind is not you, it is a virtual reality headset through which you see an image of the world, and replay what you have seen in the past, however accurate or inaccurate that perception might have been.
And here is another analogy from the world of IT: the mind is like a computer program. The computer, and the computer program, are both inanimate, despite the sometimes animated appearance of the images and behaviours on the computer screen, despite the fact that the program may have been written in such a way as to provide interactive features, and despite the fact that someone may even be fooled into thinking they are relating with another person through the screen, as in a “Turing test.”
The mind is inanimate energy, but it appears alive because it is programmed more subtly than the most elegant and extensive suite of apps around. It beats Mac hands down. Linux is licked, along with the sum total of every single program in that large family of open source freeware.
And what does this have to do with Ashtanga Yoga?
Ashtanga Yoga, as with all yoga paths, is to do with mind control—not controlling others’ minds—controlling my own mind, undistracted by the weather, outside; or inside—the weather of the mind. When the mind is subdued the attention can be focussed, and when the attention is focussed unwaveringly on the transcendental, in meditative trance, such peace and fulfilment is found that the external world seems a shallow puddle of muddy water compared to the experience of such a successful yogi.
However, and understatedly, this is no easy thing. If you have ever studied, or tried to meditate, you will know a little of what I’m talking about. But the great yogis go well beyond the efforts of even a PhD student, and they go beyond the meditative skills of those who, like me, may spend an hour or two at a time doing our best to focus our minds, and manage to succeed for seconds or minutes at a time. Indeed, at the risk of offending my readers, the practice of Ashtanga Yoga is practically beyond the capabilities of most people alive today.
So why am I discussing it? For a number of reasons:
If you are interested in the path of yoga (and I take it you are if you have read this far), then there is much to be gained from a greater understanding of the process. In addition, on a practical level there are tools that are useful in developing a balanced meditative program more suited for today’s world. But more importantly, if one understands the purpose of Ashtanga Yoga, and the difficulties that path encompasses, one can save a lot of time. There are different processes or paths of yoga and not all of them are suited to today’s world. And there is a shortcut.
So I hope you will read on in the following days or weeks, and consider whether what I am saying here makes sense, and is helpful for you.
For more resources on Yoga wisdom, please visit: https://sif.yoga