Saturday, September 11, 2010

Book Club: "Awakening To Prana" by Chip Hartranft (Continued)

In today’s post, I’d like to take up where I left off in the previous post in discussion of Chip Hartranft’s contribution to Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind. In section five Chip introduces Yoga’s Eightfold Path, Ashtanga.

He begins by saying that despite differences of philosophical description and emphasis, the yoga paths of Patanjali and the Buddha are “virtually indistinguishable.” In fact, I have heard some scholars say that Patanjali offers a form of “samkhya-vipassana,” and while I think this is actually quite accurate, there are other scholars, such as the esteemed Georg Feurstein, who though giving Chip’s translation and commentary on The Yoga-Sutra a very strong positive review, also asserted that Chip goes too far in drawing the parallels. Here, Chip even implies that Patanjali was inspired by the Buddha “to adopt the well-known structure of the Buddha’s eightfold path.” I think there is no argument that one eightfold path influences the other; however, there is some evidence that may lead one to assert that the ‘real’ yoga originally taught by Patanjali is the kriya-yoga he describes and that the yoga he is most known for, ashtanga, or the eight-limbs model, is actually a later editorial insertion!

An interesting observation, in any case, is that in the Buddha’s eightfold path, the first two limbs are related to wisdom, the middle three to ethics and the last three to meditation, which in Patanjali’s eightfold schema, the path begins with the first two limbs of ethics, then goes into progressively deeper interiorization of consciousness. Here again, many (Buddhists) have asserted that all the following limbs are devoted to meditation, and that Patanjali’s path lacks the wisdom component. I disagree with that assessment, but it does seems that wisdom for Patanjali must come from the deepest levels of concentration/absorbtion (samadhi) while that is not seen as necessarily so for the Buddhist tradition. One last remark about the two paths here that I’d like to make is that when the Buddha’s Eightfold Path is presented as the Three Trainings, then the first limbs are ethics, the middle three are related to meditation and the final two are related to wisdom. This ordering seems more in line with Patanjali’s ashtanga-yoga.

In the next two sections, Chip briefly notes the yamas, as “disciplines” that address the yogis relationship to the world and the niyamas as “disciplines” relating more to the yogi’s internal personal sphere. While this is something often stated, and makes for a handy, efficient summarization, the situation can easily lead to overstatement. For instance, the first yama, non-harm (or as Chip has it, non-violence) does indeed relate to how a yogi should act in the world with the intention of causing no (or as little as possible) harm to others. But many teachers have also pointed out the importance of non-harming oneself through one’s thoughts and actions.

In his section on asana, Chip makes the important point that if we take Patanjali’s instruction here to heart, then rather than being merely a progressive ‘step-ladder’ the eight limbs are holistic and even holographic in that any one limb carried to its deepest depths can – in Chip’s words, “mature to the point of transformation.” In fact, after years of practice, several years ago I began teaching a retreat/workshop entitled Body of Peace that is based simply on the three aphorisms related to asana (as well as a single paragraph from Dogen’s Genjo-Koan.) Another point Chip emphasizes is though one can indeed seek to create stability and ease in hatha-yoga-asana practice, it cannot be denied that the most subtle levels of relaxation Patanjali is speaking about cannot arise outside of more stable postures such as sitting – and, as the Buddha might add, lying down.

I totally agree with Chip’s take that the pranayama of Patanjali is not to be confused with the more active pranayama of hatha-yoga, but instead relates to the subtle changes that naturally arise when one “yokes” one’s attention to the breath and the energy currents riding the breath. I am sure many of you who practice meditation have found times when the breath has grown very slow, with long gaps between the breath, and perhaps even periods of time where the breath seems to have stopped completely, effortlessly. 

Extending into pratyahara, Chip describes this as attention becoming so unifed that the power of externals to distract is “neutralized.” What I find interesting about pratyahara is that while many speak of this as akin to a tortoise withdrawing it’s limbs, and to a complete blocking out of any awareness of “externals,” I find the Zen teaching on keeping the sense doors open, so that awareness of externals remains, but, without distraction a kind of more subtle and deeper practice of pratyahara. In fact, the kind of samadhi where all awareness of externals is absent is often derided in the Zen tradition.

Chip concludes his overview of Patanjali’s ashtanga-yoga by simply stating that the final three limbs form a continuum where all “names, concepts, psychosomatic structures, and volitions come to subside, after which only a phenomenon’s bare arising and passing away remain.” Hence, from one-pointedness (dharana) to one-flow-ness (dhyana) to total absorption (samadhi).

The birds have vanished into the sky,
And now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and me,
Until only the mountain remains.

--- Li Po


  1. This is only the second piece of "Chip" that I've read before and although I find this selection to be far less dense than his version of the Yoga Sutras, I'm prefacing my comments by reflecting on the importance of writing something which reflects your audience. I can't possible imagine that the majority of people reading a book edited by Stone are staunch academics - my gut instinct is that most people are curious lay people and want to gain a deeper understanding of their practice and how it intersects with yoga or buddhism.

    All of this aside, there were pieces and moments of this chapter that did resonate with me. The explanation of the Yamas and Niyamas in terms of the positive outcomes of adopting the practice was appreciated.

    But the big question that I think I have (as someone who admittedly does have mild academic / research experience) is this: where the heck does Chip get his information from? Kind of boring question, I know, but when there is debate between what Chip writes about, what Georg has written about, maybe even what you (Frank) were taught - why is nobody explaining their sources? I feel like if this small piece of detail were included, it would make what he was writing about seem far less like absolute truth.

    Totally just my opinion, but I feel like Chip writes from the place of devoted academic, while not explaining the background of his details makes me feel like this whole "smarter than thou" thing is just a sham.

  2. Welcome Celeste!

    Whew! Thanks for your comment; one that includes a question most likely too often overlooked! I cannot speak for Chip (or Georg) or anyone else for that matter, but I can respond for myself, although as you'll note in the notes for Chip's essay, he is writing from his own translation of the text. I've read over a dozen translations, (including Georg's which is among the more 'literal' according to the Sanskrit) and I must say that his translation seems quite spot on. His interpretation is where there is scholarly debate.

    One thing that is different in both Yoga and Buddhist studies over the last 25 years or so is that many (if not most) of the scholars/academics are also practitioners. This was not always the case. SO, there's a distinct difference in both translations and commentaries between the older academics and the more modern ones because of this.

    In the Moksha training, I explained that for me, the importance of inter-textual analysis (along with cross-textual analysis) is very important. For instance, one minor example of how I come to my own perspective relates to the dates of Patanjali. For years I was taught (usually by Indian yogis) that Patanjali dated to the third or second century BCE. However, the use of certain terms traceable to Mahayana Buddhism (including a critique Patanjali mades of the Yogacara School of Buddhism to me is evidence enough that the dates must be after the rise of the Mahayana!

    From my conversations with Chip, I know that he reads an amazing amount of texts and does much inter and cross-textual analysis. I also know that he speaks from his experience as a practitioner.

    As will become evident as we move through Michael's book, Chip and Michael seem to my mind more in agreement than I with them, though we do agree upon much. As you can see from Michael's Introduction, he downplays the philosophical aspect of the Yoga-Sutra and at times seems to even deny Patanjali should be seen as a philosopher offering a philosophy, but rather only as someone offering a road-map.

    Here, I agree with Georg that the Yoga-Sutra is both! The very format of the Sutra, with its precise definitions of terms is very much a technical, philosophical methodology. And it is the philosophy that leads to the differences between the Yoga of Patanjai and the Yoga of the Buddha.

    Even though I am an 'inter-faith minister,' I have always been less interested in white-washing the differences between traditions, and more excited by studying the differences so that our own 'blind spots' can be exposed.

    I know this response is at best tangential to your comment and question, but I trust that this aspect of the conversation will continue.


  3. Hi Celeste

    I too found this chapter a bit dense and did wonder if the rest of the book was going to be the same... I read it as a layperson however I appreciated the chapter, it asked me for more effort than I'm used to in my reading. I was prepared to do this as I've made a commitment to myself to be involved in this blog and contemplation of this book. It also feeds a current interest that I have in looking at the 'primary' texts of Buddhism/Yoga (if there is such a thing)

    I also feel that it was a great starting point for the book, after all everything we understand about Buddhism/Yoga has arisen from textual study and practice. This chapter lays the foundations if you like and encourages readers of the book to be interested in and aware of the roots of Buddhism/Yoga. I agree that in this kind of writing referencing is important both for crediting sources as well as offering possible further avenues of exploration for the reader.

    Great that new voices are emerging in the book club!

  4. I was intrigued by the pranayama section as it is the current focus of my sitting meditation practice. In meditation I am experiencing difficulty around breathing, as it feels like I am "doing" the breathing, and when I try to relax, I stop breathing or my breathing is choppy and I start to panic. As Chip describes, "the relaxation of effort [...] leads to the discovery of increasingly subtle degrees of contraction, which then can be released as well." It feels like there is "a lot going on" in the region of my midsection, part of which is a holding/contraction that I can't seem to release, accompanied by periodic sensations (of Qi?). I have a theory that this contraction is responsible for the sensation of "doing" the breathing. And in a wider sense, this perception of a self/doer is a feedback loop of causes/conditions resulting in tension in the body. Perhaps the panic I experience in attempting to "let go" of the breath is the self fighting for survival? Or is it the fear underlying what the tension response is attempting to control? Same things? Hope this makes sense.

  5. Hi Matt

    With reference to your post on awareness of breathing there arose within me some memories of my own experience of this. Once I was lying in the corpse position, this was very early on in my practise and I mention this because I think the innocence that I bought to the practise was a factor in my experiencing 'being breathed'. I had a sense of my body lying breathing and that I was just observing the whole experience. I became a witness to my experience.

    After this experience I found myself 'trying' to repeat it but every time my breath became subtle, almost to the point of not being there, I would grasp at it.

    Now I sit with the intention to listen, with my body, and to receive arising experience. Pema Chodrun speaks of ones meditation being similar to that of tuning a stringed instrument and that one does not want to be too relaxed neither too taut. I found this helpful instruction for letting go of the 'trying' and to allow things to just be the way they are. If the breath is 'choppy' as best I can to receive this, knowing that I can always bring my attention to the physical contact of my body with the ground should this feel at all overwhelming.

    Again after a long retreat I was sitting in meditation and I got a sense of my skeletal frame sitting and this awareness of 'being breathed' arose within me. This was a profound turning point in my life, the recognition that 'I' do not breathe, that I am being breathed, the breath is coming and going involuntarily. I can neither make it happen or stop it from happening. This was a reality check for me, to know that I am not in control, that life is happening through me. Very humbling! I recognised in a profound way that I am in service to this life. I feel very grateful.

  6. Matt, as Rosalie's experience makes clear, you can't force this, primarily because it's not 'you' that is 'doing' in the first place. This situation reminds me of Trungpa Rinpoche describing the egocentric grasping for 'enlightenment' as being similar to thinking one can attend one's own funeral!

    "Letting Go" as a strategy is STILL a grasping.

    However, your insight into the tension increasing the sense of self is an important signpost. Not for nothing does Georg Feurstein refer to the "self contraction."

    Again, thank you for your practice!

  7. Hey Frank

    I love that Rinpoche 'attending your own funeral' :o)

    Have read some of the posts on the Gatha's and feel a stirring of motivation or is it intention :0)

    By the way I'm Rosie and Rosalie. I'm trying to work out why I'm posting under two ID's.

    Warm wishes


  8. Rosalie, thanks for sharing your experience, I found it very helpful, especially the grounding image of the skeletal frame. It seems hard for me to remember that there is nothing to do, no right way, just listen to what is!

    Frank Jude, thanks also, our recent sangha discussions have really helped my understanding. Although I am finding it very humbling that every time I think I understand, I eventually find I am still repeating the same grasping habits in a new situation, but not noticing because I decided I understood. Doh!

  9. Rosie and Rosalie, you are only two? That sounds great! There's usually a nightclub of identities floating around in my consciousness! :-)

    Matt, I'm tempted to say that when you run out of new situations, you'll finally actually 'get it!' but that would be cruel! (AND I hope you can get that I'm just having a bit of fun here.... Must be punch drunk with the baby here....). Hope to see you at Cinema Nirvana later tonight....