There has been a break in my writing on Ashtanga Yoga. My body went awol, and I had to go with the ride…. chills and fevers, chills and fevers… each time I fell asleep my temperature would rise and I’d wake feeling nauseous and headachey and throw off the bed clothes and immediately chills would start crawling over my skin, but the relief from nausea as the temperature fell made the shivering worth it. Days of this exhausted me, so more days required to recover from all that time in bed! I’m still sporting a lip of cold sores and hacking attacks that just about take my head off.
But this sickness episode has little to do with the subject at hand, other than to serve as a platform for me to point out one of the requirements for practicing Ashtanga yoga, and that is, a strong, physically healthy body.
Why should a supposedly spiritual process require a strong healthy body? Surely the process of yoga as a spiritual practice transcends the physical? Is that not its point?
Finding the Authority of Real Knowledge
It is true the aim of yoga is to transcend the physical body and mind, to understand oneself as an eternal spiritual being, and what that really means, and to live in that reality. However, the different yoga paths take differing approaches to how to achieve this. One can think of there being a continuum running from those who will only believe, or accept as true, something they have seen, measured, and calculated themselves, and at the opposite end, those who are willing to accept knowledge from an authoritative source. These two extremes are known as the ascending method (attempting to climb the mountain of knowledge oneself) and the descending method (accepting knowledge as it is passed down).
In the practical world we all tend to fall somewhere in the middle, more towards one end or the other of that line, but not fixed at either absolute point. It is a very rare person, even the most sceptical, who has rejected being taught how to read, by those who already know how, having learned themselves from their teachers, and instead insisted on working out the alphabet with no outside assistance. In the practical world it is possible to work some things out oneself, even if it may be slower and more difficult. One can watch the growing habits of a particular crop, and work out when best to sow and harvest. It would be faster to take that knowledge from other more experienced farmers, but it is possible to learn it independently.
However, when we are interested in information about the transcendental realm, and related subject matters, trying to work things out without outside help is not actually possible. The senses are limited in the information they can collect, even with the help of add-ons such as telescopes, microscopes, radars etc. And when it comes to non-material entities, the senses cannot observe them at all, although it is possible to observe the effect of the atma, the living being, when it is present in matter. In that situation the body appears alive, it grows, reproduces, reacts to stimuli, contradicts the 2nd law of thermodynamics by becoming more ordered and complex, and so on. And when the atma, you, the self, leaves the body, those things no longer go on. But we do not actually see the atma with the physical eye. Nor is it possible, using the material senses, to perceive the transcendental world, the actual natural environment of the atma, which is outside the material realm altogether.
Thus, the only way to come to an understanding of the atma and the transcendental realm is to receive knowledge from those who have it. An analogy is that the mother can tell the child who their father is. She knows (generally speaking!). The child cannot work it out himself. Of course, these days there is genetic testing, so no analogy is perfect.
From another angle, it is very difficult to meet and develop a relationship with the President of the United States all by yourself. Generally speaking you can’t just go up and say Hi. Things go more smoothly if someone who already knows him introduces you.
Where Does Ashtanga Yoga Stand?
Ashtanga yoga, and all mystic yoga paths, are to a large degree method of ascending knowledge. Such yogis are like the person who want to fight their way past the bodyguards to buddy up with the President, without an introduction. They do accept a certain amount of information from yoga texts and previous teachers, but they are very focused on their own practice and abilities in order to reach the final goal. They intend to conquer the mountain by their own strength of will and determination, by their ability to control the mind and materially conditioned desires and by their technical and physical prowess. And this requires a strong and healthy body.
One of the reasons asana is part of the processes of Ashtanga is because this practice can help in development and maintenance of a strong and healthy body that can sit for hours in seated meditation, that can tolerate the austerities of the Ashtanga lifestyle without unduly disturbing the mind of the practitioner, and that can withstand the rigors of the practices required to engage in the more esoteric practice of raising the life air through the chakras, usually either to the heart, or between the eyebrows, at which point the intention is undisturbed meditation.
In addition, the lifestyle required to develop the necessary depth of meditation is one of great austerity. The Ashtanga yogi must withdraw their attention from the world of the senses, a practice called pratyahara. It is not possible to simultaneously live in connection with others, be they family or friends, or to be involved in working to make a living, let alone engaging in any type of distraction or “fun”. It is a lifestyle of living without the standard comforts of home and family. Such a yogi would traditionally withdraw totally from society, living in the forest, or in a cave, surviving on a bare minimum of food as it becomes available. Not an easy thing for someone with a weak or sickly body.
Luckily there are methods of self-realisation that do not require this degree of hardship and physical and mental effort, or most of us would have no hope! The mystic yoga processes were designed for a much less hectic time, and for a calmer, less distracted population of people. Let it be said with no embarrassment; I would not make an Ashtanga yogi. Yet I have a solid hope of becoming a successful yogi in this very life. That is due to my taking to a process where my efforts, (and some are required!) are aimed at putting myself into a situation and state in which I can receive the desired results. Rather than climbing the mountain, I hold onto the rope the helicopter pilot has let down for me. In this day and age that rope is woven from the double strand of heard and repeated sound vibrations, a process known as mantra meditation.
I hope you will travel further with me in this exploration of Ashtanga Yoga as I continue this series.