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