Chapter One: “Awakening To Prana” by Chip Hartranft
Today I'm posting some observations on the first four sections of the opening chapter of Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind. I do hope that those of you also reading along share any thoughts you may have in response to Chip's writing or my post...
Chip begins his essay noting the common assumption that Yoga is primarily concerned with the body and meditation with the mind. This is, of course, because in the public’s mind (and here I include many practitioners as well!) Yoga has been reduced to the physical practices of asana and perhaps pranayama.
All forms of contemporary Yoga practice that emphasize the postural practices are forms of hatha-yoga, a form of yoga that only goes back about 1,000 years or so. This includes the most popular forms such as Anusara, Iyangar, Power Vinyasa, Ashtanga-Vinyasa etc. They are ALL hatha-yoga, despite the fact that nowadays the term seems to have been relegated to any form or approach to asana practice that is not Trade-marked!
Chip distinguishes hatha-yoga from raja-yoga, the meditative path of yoga practice emphasizing mental unification leading to wisdom and liberation as espoused by Patanjali in The Yoga-Sutra. Of course, the term raja-yoga predates Patanjali, and is one of the major approaches to yoga detailed in The Bhagavad-Gita from at least 700 years previous to Patanjali.
Chip points out that the “ineffable” sense of contentment and clarity we experience in physical practice may awaken in us the possibility of something far greater and deeper, which may lead us to explore the deeper traditions of meditation. Many teachers and proponents of contemporary yoga indeed say that it doesn’t matter if people come to practice to develop a tight ass or six-pack abs; that from doing the physical practice, they are drawn to the deeper practices.
While I too do not care what initially motivates someone to take up the practice of hatha-yoga-asana, I do not think there is anything inherent in the physical practice that will de facto lead to deeper exploration. I have found this so for many people, but equally not so for many others! I think it’s a combination of karma if you will, and the subtle guidance of a teacher that may lead a student to investigate the deeper teachings.
The Tree Of Yoga
It’s telling how deeply entrenched the notion of Yoga and meditation being different is that even Chip begins this section by distinguishing “the traditions of Yoga and meditation!” This even after he has made the point that meditation as in raja-yoga predates the physical yoga tradition of hatha!
The rest of this section offers a clear, concise history of the Yoga Tradition as it arose from within the counter-cultural shramana movement. While it is common to find those who seek to find the roots of Yoga in the Vedas and the practice of the Brahmanical priests, and while I do think a thin thread may be found there, I think it over-stretches it to actually seek Yoga’s roots there.
The shramanas internalized the external fire sacrifice of the Brahman priests, and rejected much of the cultural system, including the caste system: highly regarded shramana teachers came from the warrior, merchant and servant castes as well as from among the more radical brahmans. It’s also important to remember that the Buddha was a participant in this shramana movement, and that Buddhism can be seen as the most ‘successful’ (in terms of numbers, longevity and influence) of these shramana groups.
An important point in this section is Chip’s assertion that the Yoga-Sutra is best seen as a kind of road map for praxis, oriented to epistemology rather than some metaphysical postulation of an ontology. I think this is true, and yet we mustn’t forget or ignore that in time a school of philosophy did indeed form around these teachings that did in fact have a big influence on the trajectory of the Yoga tradition after Patanjali.
Chip ends this section by pointing out the deep Buddhist influence on the Yoga-Sutra, evidenced by both parallel and common teachings (such as the Four Brahma-Viharas and the Five Powers, among other teachings) as well as in it’s criticism of certain other Buddhist teachings such as what it took as the idealism of the Yogacara school.
The Meditative Yoga of the Yoga-Sutra
Chip takes the opening sutras (Y.S. II; 2 – 4) as evidencing the commonality between Patanjali’s and the Buddha’s Yoga teaching. The experience of stilling the movement and activity of the mind reveals a “timeless, subjectless, unconditioned awareness” that knows nature in all its varying manifestations. He asserts that though the mind imagines and expresses this awareness as having both a divine, universal aspect (Ishvara) and an individual one (Purusha) knowing is actually not an entity or point of view, lying beyond the mind and it’s spatial and temporal fixations.
Chip says that this has “riled” those scholars and religionists who attempt to equate Purusha with atman – “soul,” “Self,” “Witness,” “Seer” etc. common to other systems as well as those who insist on seeing Ishvara as the divine cause of the universe. A clear reading of the text, without presumptions shows us that Ishvara is merely an ideal Purusha who has never made the “mistake” of mis-identifying itself with Nature (Prakriti and the limited mind). This “knowing” is immanent in the cosmos, empty of all personal, material, of devotional association. This knowing is said to be “seen directly” (vidya) as opposed to imagined in the mind upon awakening.
I think Chip makes a coherent argument for this understanding. I can also imagine the Buddha saying to Patanjali, "If it lacks the personal, why call it a person!?" That is to say, by using the masculine noun purusha, it would be hard to imagine the notion that it is an entity not arising in those who came after! Chips description of his understanding of purusha does indeed sound similar to the Buddha's description of nirvana. However, the Buddha refused to take that extra step that Patanjali took, and which leads many to think of purusha as Self, Soul etc.
He succinctly summarizes his view here by emphasizing that what is key for a suffering being to realize is that this witnessing that knows IS NOT one’s perceptions, sensations, or thoughts. Every aspect of the experienced universe of phenomena issues from the contingent body-mind, and is in constant flux and are not inherently ‘self’.’ When the ‘pure’ awareness of Purusha mistakes itself for the shifting contents of bodymind, we are not seeing clearly things as they really are (avidya). Consciousness unfolds, projected before awareness. The situation is similar to someone watching a movie in a theater. Imagine if s/he were to forget they are in the theater watching the movie, but instead have gotten so identified with the protagonist in the film that they feel terror when s/he is being stalked, they crouch in their seats to hide from their stalker, and finally feel relief as the stalker walks off in the other direction. They have ridden the ups and downs, feeling fear and relief when in fact they have always been safe, and free, sitting in the theater watching the projected images.
How To Do, How To Be
In this section, Chip explores the methodology used to ‘deconstruct’ the illusion that there is a self navigating through a seamless life and reality in order to see directly the separate, sequential “frames” of the movie called “chitta” in the Yoga-Sutra, but referred to as dhammas in the Abhidhamma teachings of Buddhism.
The twin ‘poles’ of yogic will and practice, begins with abhyasa, the continuous, applied effort to keep the mind focused. This continuous practice of staying with, and coming back to the point of focus each and every time the mind wanders is the ‘heart’ of meditative practice. Over time, the yogi comes face to face with conditioned habits of thought and reactivity (samskara / vasana). As concentration develops, the yogi cultivates samadhi.
The other aspect of meditative practice is the cultivation of a non-reactive mental stance to the flow of experience. This “non-reactivity” is vairagya and is the enactment of the deep trust needed to stay with whatever experience, however enticing or anxiety-provoking, without any reactive grasping or aversion. This is one reason the Buddha referred to the practice as 'going against the stream,' as it requires the yogi to literally go against the stream of biological, cultural, and social conditioning! Over time, a deep equanimity is developed.
Looking forward to 'hearing' from you,
Practice in Four Steps:
1. Bring your attention to the natural flow of the breath.
2. Notice when the mind is distracted from the breath.
3. Bring your attention back to the flow of the breath.
4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 several billion times.