"Arjuna, he who looks on all as one, on the analogy of his own self, and looks upon the joy and sorrow of all equally- such a Yogi is deemed to be the highest of all."~ Bhagavadgita Ch.6V.31
We were invited by a thin fit looking orange robed Yogi to stand in his cave which he had been inhabiting for some time practicing in solitary in the traditional way. One of the employees from the school translated for us as the yogi explained how he acquired the cave after it's previous occupant retreated into the Himalayas to go still deeper into the practice.
It was pitch black except for a small pit of embers near the far wall. With the little LED light attached to my bag I could take in the small space. Almost nothing inside. Just a little alter carved into the rock upon which rested a couple small statues of Hindu deities, mala beads and what looked like offerings of dried flowers and food. Who could say how many yogis before him had sat humbly in that silent space meditating upon the nature of the self and reality at large. I was humbled to consider the lengths to which some in this vast tradition of yoga have gone for the sake of discovering through direct self experimentation what the human mind is capable of.
For weeks now I had been learning about the astonishing level of discipline the early yogis employed to gain insights into the nature of consciousness. Eating a sparse and modest diet of vegetables, lentils, beans and rice to make the body healthy and the mind steady. Cultivating an attitude of equanimity towards all things. Renouncing possessions, comforts and attachments. Meticulously cutting away from their lives all things that could distract from their ultimate goal of glimpsing ultimate reality, Brahman. I had also been hearing a lot of extraordinary claims about the special powers wielded by sages ancient and modern. This made me really uncomfortable. I felt torn by the desire to swallow whole the notion that a practice, on the level described in the ancient texts, could indeed yield extraordinary results like levitation and the ability to recall past lives. However, my inner skeptic demanded that I question these things.
The fourth and final chapter of The Yoga Sutras talks extensively about the Siddhis or supernormal perceptual states. These Siddhis arise as side effects of disciplined practice and appear to give the accomplished yogi extraordinary psychic abilities. I couldn't read any of it without categorizing it as a kind of dramatic embellishment upon concepts that I assumed must have been quite ordinary. I was not following Roshan's advice to neither accept nor reject but merely contemplate all that I received.
Flipping through my notebook today I found some gems of insight from my wise teacher Krishna. "Success in yoga is not related to specific clothes, reading authentic books or talking about yoga; only through practice can it be realized." A serious practitioner will commit himself whole heatedly to the practice without any expectation of result. Eventually the practice will pervade every aspect of waking life for the aspirant. Only then will the deepest benefits be realized. Krishna's second remark that I found while flipping through my notes made me smile. He made a very contentious statement one day while lecturing. He proposed that, in his opinion, one who is not practicing all aspects of yoga the yamas, niyamas, krias, mudras, bhandas, pranayama, dhyana, asana etcetera; categorically can not be called a Yoga Teacher. In a room full of western yoga teachers this statement unleashed a pretty immediate defensive reaction. The rationale behind Krishnas argument became apparent to me over time as we studied the ancient texts on yoga. The Bhagavadgita, Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Gherand Samita all speak about yoga as a discipline of direct experience. Moksha or liberation comes to the aspirant through practice alone.
In another lecture a while later Krishna again brought up this idea of direct experience being king both for understanding and teaching yoga. He described The Yoga Sutras as "metaphysical speculations on the super sensual or transcendental." The Sutras are not for intellectual debate, he exclaimed powerfully, they are to be experienced." Then I finally decided to do what Roshan had been advocating all along. "Neither accept nor reject anything that you hear; contemplate." I have been revisiting chapter 4 of The Yoga Sutras since the completion of my course and it often reminds me of my Psychology and Philosophy studies in University. It reads like a how to manual for someone seeking to willfully alter his or her perception of reality. Who is to say that once someone possesses that level of self control they can not wield greater influence over their reality?
It's helpful to remember that the early yogis did not have modern scientific equipment to probe the physical stuff of the universe with. The had only their own intellects the tools of observation, inference and reason. What a tenacious bunch they must have been. After all how does a mind hope to use only itself to dissect the inner workings of itself? They were driven by the need to try to understand and so they learned to sharpen that one instrument, their minds, with every means at their disposal. How incredible! How inspiring! How revolutionary!
Because yoga has always been intended to be a discipline yielding insights through direct experience there can be no authority higher than the practitioner herself. I admire the teachers who have dedicated themselves wholeheartedly but they are just guides. The really good ones will often dismiss the adulations of their students understanding the work is done by the student. In essence the practitioner is her own teacher as well as a student. Actually it might make more sense to call a yoga practitioner an experimenter in perception.
It's not easy to maintain a home practice. I go through waves of enthusiasm when new and exciting discoveries are made punctuated by periods of lethargy when results are just a lot more of the same. But I always return to the practice. Not just for my health, happiness or connection to a community but compelled by the mystery of it all. I keep finding that the rabbit hole goes ever deeper and I must see where it leads.
Christine Davidson is a Ski Instructor, Yoga Teacher and Peak Performance Coach on a mission to make humans awesome!