Thursday, September 9, 2010

Book Club: "Awakening To Prana" by Chip Hartranft

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,
in metta,
frank jude

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.


  1. love those 4 steps! after hearing that at the Spirit Rock training, I still use it, Frank...and when people hear it, they laugh and take the pressure off themselves to get it (meditation) "right."

    thank you!

  2. Thanks Linda...

    Yeah, I feel there's no real dharma transmission going until I get that first laugh, and then one can feel the energy shift. We're getting real. We're getting intimate. We're enlightening up!

    One of the greatest causes of duhkha among practitioners is the idea that there's a 'getting it right,' and that everyone else is doing it right but me!

    I use that four-step process also to point out that it's not the content and activity of the mind but our relationship to the content and activity of the mind that is transformed through practice. OR as Sw. Satchidanada said: "You can't stop the waves but you can learn to surf!"

    much love
    frank jude

  3. I so agree with you on the "enlightening up" part and laughter. We laugh a lot in my classes and I tell them that laughter is the best pranayama so let it roar! I teach at a domestic violence shelter and that is especially helpful!

    "One of the greatest causes of duhkha among practitioners is the idea that there's a 'getting it right,' and that everyone else is doing it right but me!"

    I have a personal experience to relate to that...this year I taught a retreat in Tanzania, so a totally different yoga community that what I am used to. Lots of asana, very little meditation among the group. The first night I talked about mindfulness meditation. One woman told me how hard it was for her to meditate, she felt she was "not getting it right" because her mind was always all over the place and she "tried so hard" to still it, and then she would beat herself up about it. All I said was, "stop trying. all that tension in trying is creating your suffering" and it was like a lightbulb went off over her head. I mean, the look on her face changed completely, there was a softening, and it was like all the tension left her body with that. she came up to me after class and was a bit overwhelmed. she said that my (seemingly) simple words were like a dam break to her and she finally got it. I said, "see? that's insight!", but I said always remember that it's simple, but not easy, just keep at it but softly.

    isn't yoga teaching the best job in the world? :)

  4. Linda,
    Great story I have the pleasure and privilege to see enacted out often!

    This ain't no job! I feel like I retired years ago when I left the restaurant biz and became a full-time yoga teacher! :-)

    Really, I have a difficult time every time I have to fill out anything that asks "Work" questions!

    And I love it this way!

  5. I really enjoyed reading Chips chapter though I found it quite dense and had to re-read certain paragraphs several times. This is not a judgment of the writing, more an expression of my experience in reading it.

    I found particularly helpful the section ' The Intention to Awaken'. In contemplating this I recognise that there is a deep urge within me, or even thirst for awakening, I live it. To take this a step further and consciously invoke a quality of intentionality within myself before sitting or practising asana could be an interesting exploration. I have found in my work as a Mindfulness teacher that having a strong sense of intention when engaging with people has taken the process to a deeper level, it's almost as if, with intentionality, one is 'tapping' a particular stream within all the possible experiences available at a particular time.

    I also found 'yoniso manasikara'-"keeping attention right where things are born' profoundly inspiring. I can see that this is already at work in my life, that my capacity for mindfulness has strengthened. There is a greater capacity for seeing things as they are and also the ability to make choices about what will be born. I guess the ongoing process is one of refining, refining, refining, developing greater awareness of the subtlety of this ‘being born’.

    I loved the idea of the Yoga Sutra or Buddha’s teachings being a roadmap, that really works for me as a metaphor, navigational tools.

    In terms of teaching Yoga. I teach what I call Mindful Yoga, it is, I now understand a form of Raja Yoga integrated with asana. I began practising Yoga and meditation at around the same time. For me it was meditation which created a profound shift in my life and this that I have devoted study and time too. My Yoga practise is an extension of this, integrating interests in Feldenkrias (Awareness Through Movement) and the work of Charlotte Selver ‘Sensory Awareness’. I teach Yoga as an awareness practise here in London and I love it. I have dedicated students that love what they experience within the classes and I am so inspired by them. At the same time I find it challenging to teach in this way and fill classes. At times I am really fine with this and at other times I find it disheartening and quite lonely in the face of packed aerobic yoga classes. It takes courage to teach in this way, to be weaving ‘wake up’ into ones teaching but as you said so beautifully Frank in your book Mindfulness Yoga, vocation is ‘giving voice’, and this teaching is a vocation for me, it’s in my bones, I don’t want to speak it differently.

  6. Thank you Rosie, for both your comment and for your intention and teaching! As you note, it may indeed be going against the stream to teach in this integrated way, but as books like mine and Michael's (as well as others) evidence, you are not alone!

    Your a bit ahead of me on this Chapter, so I won't make any comments here as such, but I would like to raise one question: What -- if any -- do you see as the distinction between 'intention' and 'motivation?'

    And finally, London, England or Ontario?

    frank jude

  7. "At times I am really fine with this and at other times I find it disheartening and quite lonely in the face of packed aerobic yoga classes. It takes courage to teach in this way, to be weaving ‘wake up’ into ones teaching but as you said so beautifully Frank in your book Mindfulness Yoga, vocation is ‘giving voice’, and this teaching is a vocation for me, it’s in my bones, I don’t want to speak it differently."

    You are preaching to the choir (at least to me.)

    I also feel very disheartened at times, and sometimes think I should just quit teaching in this age of "slim sexy yoga", "hot yoga", "yoga sculpt", etc etc etc.

  8. Oh, but Linda....

    I vividly remember at the end of the Spirit Rock training, one woman, weeping, sharing how when she had asked her teacher what is the connection between Buddhism and Yoga was told, bluntly: "There is none." And how now she felt her practice validated by the training. Sitting on the dais, I looked out at that amazing group and told her, that now there were 90 other teachers who would give a radically different answer to that question.

    I can tell you are a dedicated and wonderful teacher. In this age of "slim sexy yoga," just as at the time of the Buddha, there are those with little dust in their eyes. Knowing that is enough for me. This vocation is worthwhile, regardless of the numbers (here's where the Gita's Karma-Yoga teachings and the Fourth Brahma-Vihara provide me with the inspiration to keep on going no matter the size of the group).

    Thanks for keeping on going.....
    with palms together at the heart _/\_

  9. thanks, Frank....

    yes, I remember that too, and I felt the same way. The MYMT was the first training that spoke to my entirety. and I understand what you mean about keeping going despite the size of the group. I heard Seanne Corn say once that she would rather teach to the 2 who get than the 10 who don't. Never forgot that.


  10. Thank you for your response Linda. I know I among like minds here.

    I'm loving contemplating this book and sharing with this book club sangha. Yet I am also, I guess, in a way that is compatible with the teachings, interested in exploring the road as well as the map. My post arose out of wanting to share my experience of being out in the field where Buddhism/Yoga, Raja/Hatha yoga meet.

    ‘What’s the distinction between intention and motivation,if any?’

    Thank you for that question Frank I have been contemplating it for the last couple of days. I don’ t have any answers though I do have some thoughts…..

    Using my last post as a context for this I am thinking about what my intention is in teaching Yoga - to share the benefits of my practise with others, to continue to deepen in my own practice, and to earn a living doing what I love wholeheartedly. I would also call these aspirations. When I reflect on my feelings of being disheartened I recognise that there may be underlying motives - the desire to be successful i.e. for people to recognise and value what I am doing, the desire to create a sustainable income - and that these motives contribute to the emotional response of being disheartened.

    Went to a day of meditation with Stephen Batchelor today. He talked about Sati - remembering, he spoke of Sati in the way that I’m used to, that it is about returning attention to the present but he also developed this, asking what is it that we are remembering? He then went on to speak of values, that in this remembering we are also orienting ourselves towards the present whilst embodying/remembering particular values. This led me to reflect upon intentionality again. In daily life when my mind is getting caught in proliferation and I notice this I bring my attention back to whatever it is that I am engaged in, embedded within this is a values based orientation towards acceptance, non-judgment and trust. My intention is to relate to my life in this way, my motive is the desire for well-being and the diminishment of suffering.

    Both intention and motivation give birth to behaviours, intentionality seems to be about an overarching orientation whilst motivation seems to be related to drives, needs….. Can you help me out with this :o)

    Am going to read your latest post……and I’m in London, England

  11. Rosie,

    Thank you for your wonderful thought-provoking response!

    This contemplation of intention and motivation can be deep and transformative to how we approach practice, indeed! As you point out, we can have what seem to be 'good intentions,' (for example, sitting everyday, or practicing asana everyday) but if we have 'hidden' and unarticulated motivations, these motivations can cause suffering!

    This is why, I think, the Buddha places "Right Intention" (also translated as 'right thinking') AFTER "Right Understanding" (or "Right View"). The road to hell, after all, is often paved with 'good intentions.' As Thich Nhat Hanh often emphasizes, we need to understand the situation first!

    I also appreciate Stephen Batchelor's take on "remembering." Perhaps this is why so many Buddhist traditions emphasize the daily practice of "Taking Refuge." It's not something we do just once, but 'remember' everyday (every moment?). It's akin to how I think of my marriage vows. Everyday I feel they are renewed; it's like I marry my wife new everyday! This understanding keeps the vows fresh, alive and intimate.


  12. That was beautiful what you said about your marriage and a really helpful analogy to practice. I am in a long term relationship both with my partner and with my practise. Each requires renewed commitment, moment to moment, nurturing, cultivation, receptivity, a willingness to see clearly, patience, humility and on......

    Thank you for the great book recommendation 'Being Bodies' I've got it, reading and feeling the first chapter.

  13. Chip's perspective or views on what i have read before open up a new way of thinking for me, i could read this chapter a hundred times and have a million light bulbs go off every moment and then in the next instant think "Huh?" I am thankful to be reading this book at a time when I have recently resumed daily asana practice at a school which has a fair amount of meditation, pranayama and asana. I feel lucky to have found a school which values all three aspects of this Hatha yoga practice. It has deepened my at home meditation/off the mat practice
    also. It is interesting to practice at a school which has a particular style and slight twists in interpretations and Sanskrit that I have not heard before. This in addition to the book have really gotten my wheels turning. I appreciate Chip's honesty..the not knowingness of when yoga really began gave me a never began it was always there and it always beginning anew. This "impossibility to distinguish between mind and matter" and "every bit of of conscious experience, including sensations, emotions and ideas...issues from contingent mind-body phenomenon that are in constant flux and are not self in and of themselves" this really hit home and made me think of how many times we claim these emotions as our own, these mental formations they so often become our own as we own them and become them. And in yoga there's so often this sense of propriety that you write about Frank and even as I am writing this i think it really does come down to the "Roots, Trunks and Branches" You know Frank I feel very lucky to have found a teacher in you who "lead me to investigate the deeper teachings"

    Frank i really am touched by your interpretation of this part of the chapter, i do have to revisit it every few days and each time find new meanings.

    thank you to Rosie and Linda for your thoughts too.

  14. The section "How to Do, How to Be" was a perfect description of my first experience with daily sitting meditation over the last several months. First I experienced the conditioned habits of self-evaluation and criticism, but still "believed" in them ("I am thinking too much", "I am doing it wrong", "I am a bad meditator"). Then I saw through them as constructed habits, not "reality". When they finally diminished and disappeared, what a sense of a relief! All I have to do it sit here and keep coming back to the breath? Whew.

  15. Sara and Matt,

    Thanks for your comments!

    Sara, I have to keep re-reading Yoga/Dharma texts because as my own understanding changes, I find that in fact, I am NOT reading the same texts again! As I've changed, the texts become new! SO, definitely re-read and re-read. It's always new!

    Matt, you describe what is perhaps the first real 'letting go' of a maturing meditation practice. And one that serves as a kind of model for all future 'letting go.'
    Thank you!

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