I left off my last blog noting that I had barely touched on the essence of Ashtanga Yoga. I had noted that it is not a brand of dynamic asana practice and that it is a form of the path of yoga known as Mystic Yoga, a type of Mysticism, but I hadn’t defined Mysticism.
Language is an imprecise tool. Words can mean different things to different people, and over time the way a word is used can change.
Ashtanga Yoga: Defining the term ‘mysticism’
To say something is a mystery doesn’t indicate if it is solvable. However, if we say we are mystified, we are stuck, completely confused and bewildered. We find it impossible to understand or explain something, whether that be the plot of a mystery novel, or what happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste, the reason your wife is not talking to you. To mystify someone is to confuse them, not to enlighten them.
And yet the root words of this family, with children such as mystery, mystify, mystical, mysticism etc. often dealt with profound enlightenment, a truth ultimately understandable by direct perception, and with the method of developing that direct perception.
The Greek word mystes means one who has been initiated into sacred rites, activities ideally undertaken in order to develop a spiritual understanding. This is one of the granddaddies of this family of words, and the irony is many of its offspring can be used to mean almost diametrically opposed things:
Hence to some people mysticism is negative and obscuring: a “vague speculation: a belief without sound basis” (from Merriman Webster, meaning 3a), a “vague or ill-defined religious or spiritual belief” (Oxford Dictionaries online) and for something to be mystical would mean it is “enigmatic, obscure” (from Online Etymology Dictionary).
On the other hand, other definitions give mysticism a positive meaning, a type of enlightenment, such as “the experience of mystical union or direct communion with ultimate reality” (Merriman Webster dictionary online definition 1). In this definition mysticism is not merely a belief, it is a real and tangible direct experience.
Another definition along these lines, from the estimable Oxford, is the idea that “union with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender.” The example is given: “St Theresa’s writings were part of the tradition of Christian mysticism.”
Here is another view of the dichotomies existing in the same family of words, this time from good old (or young, depending on your perspective) Wikipedia: “The root Greek can mean conceal, versus initiate, induct, or, conversely, introduce, or make someone aware of something:”Mysticism” is derived from the Greek μυω[muo] meaning “I conceal”, and its derivative μυστικός, mystikos, meaning ‘an initiate’. The verb μυώ has received a quite different meaning in the Greek language, where it is still in use. The primary meanings it has are “induct” and “initiate”. Secondary meanings include “introduce”, “make someone aware of something”, “train”, “familiarize”, “and give first experience of something.” [End of quote.]
Introduction to Ashtanga Yoga
Ashtanga yoga is one of the paths of Mystic Yoga. This does not mean it is a mystery, although some find it so. It means such paths of Yoga are processes which, if followed to the end, lead one to a profound internal personal experience of union with the Supreme, a “mystical” experience, as per the more positive definitions above.
However the Ashtanga Yogi, at least the immature Ashtanga Yogi, aims for success based on personal endeavour and hard work, rather than searching for a fruit being passed down via revelation from an authoritative source.
As such the Mystical paths rely on the development of control over the body and the mind, via physical and mental techniques, leading to the ability to enter into a deep meditative state where direct experience of a type of union with the Supreme may be achieved. This requires the yogi to separate from every day society, shun association with others, and minimise the needs of the body to a point inconceivable to most people today. We are talking austerities at the level of 20 years living in a cave, barely seeing another person, eating just enough to keep the body alive, and forsaking bodily comfort. But even that is not enough to make a yogi.
Back in 1986 Christopher Knight forsook all human contact. For 27 years he hid in the Maine woods, which means 6 months a year in snow, often in way sub zero temperatures… in a tent. In all that time his only communication was one word spoken, a “Hi” to a solitary hiker who chanced to cross his path. But his life was not one of yogic practices and inward development. He does describe that when death was near, in the freezing winters, running out of food, he would meditate to stay sane. He also said that at times he felt he lost his identity, having no audience to perform to, that he didn’t even have a name. This has some similarities to the experience of the yogi, who realises that neither their external form, their external role in society, nor the name attached to this form, none of these things form their actual identity.
But Mr. Knight was not in the woods to meditate or be a yogi, he just wanted to be alone, reading, eating junk food, playing video games, listening to music (favourite band: Lynard Skynard) and TV shows on the radio, and maintaining his camp, and every few days, in the 6 months absence of snow, breaking into another empty house to steal supplies.
The community was bemused. Nearly everyone had been a victim of his visits, some as many as 50 times over the years. And yet it took 27 years, military grade detection equipment and the obsession of a local game warden to eventually catch him in the act, returning him to human society, at first in prison, and then back with his family.
Christopher Knight’s time alone, and his inadvertent practice of austerities echo some of the practices of a mystic yogi, but there is more required. Hold off on buying that tent! And as I go through this series of blogs I will discuss more specifics of both the techniques and the types of union with the Supreme that may be achieved.