Researching Yoga, Part the Third

Part the First Part the Second

Again, the piece I keep referencing and am getting most of my information from is this one.

I left off with Pratyahara, the fifth limb. The sixth is Dharana, "immovable concentration of the mind," concentrating and cultivating inner perceptual awareness. To learn to focus your mind fully on just one thing at a time, in order to stop the mind from wandering. This works for me. I'm not sure I have the same purpose for it, which Doran explains by quoting, "B.K.S. Iyengar states that the objective is to achieve the mental state where the mind, intellect, and ego are "all restrained and all these faculties are offered to the Lord for His use and in His service. Here there is no feeling of 'I' and 'mine'."" I'm not at all sure that this is required to offer the self in service to the Divine, but certainly I consider complete focus to be a useful skill, and can strive to cultivate it.

Dhyana is the seventh limb, which is devotion and meditation on the divine. Doran says, "It is perfect contemplation. It involves concentration upon a point of focus with the intention of knowing the truth about it." And also, "During dhyana, the consciousness is further unified by combining clear insights into distinctions between objects and between the subtle layers of perception." Certainly meditation on the divine, on my specific gods and sometimes on other gods I work with, is a part of my practice. I don't have perfect concentration, of course, but if I achieve it, certainly I will use it in my contemplation of the gods, and will hopefully find insight and truth.

The eighth and final limb is Samadhi, which is union with the divine. Doran tells us, "In the state of samadhi the body and senses are at rest, as if asleep, yet the faculty of mind and reason are alert, as if awake; one goes beyond consciousness. During samadhi, we realize what it is to be an identity without differences, and how a liberated soul can enjoy pure awareness of this pure identity. The conscious mind drops back into that unconscious oblivion from which it first emerged."

Hm. Union with the divine, particularly with my individual gods, is certainly something I seek, but my concept of gods is very different, and so my understanding of what it means to achieve union with them is, necessarily, also different. I fit most hard polytheists' definition of polytheist -- I understand the gods as distinct and unique individuals with their own existences and awarenesses -- but also count myself a pantheist. The Universe itself is divine, and all the gods, like all the other things that exist, are a part of that. In the beginning, there was Chaos, and out of Chaos arose Uranos and Gaia, the Heavens and the Earth, Space and Matter. Chaos, Space and Matter are all deities here. The physical entity that is the universe is divine in nature.

But I'm not seeking union with the universe. I'm part of it, and I know it, and that's good enough for me. Instead, I seek ecstatic union with my gods, with Dionysos and Hekate. To be possessed by them, inspired by them, literally moved by them. It's a different sort of union from that proposed by the yogis, and indeed is a different type of union with each of them. Nor is it some final goal, but something I can occasionally achieve fleeting moments of, through the rituals of the maenad or of witchcraft's evocation. They have their own necessary preparations, and reaching them for the first time took me years of work and study, but those paths did not match up with those described by the eight limbs of yoga, although in many ways they parallel one another.

In conclusion, Doran says, "These eight steps of yoga indicate a logical pathway that leads to the attainment of physical, ethical, emotional, and psycho-spiritual health. Yoga does not seek to change the individual; rather, it allows the natural state of total health and integration in each of us to become a reality." And once again, here is something foreign to me. You see, I don't find "health," as a concept, to be particularly useful. What is health, exactly? Simply the absence of disease and physical pain? Then can those who have chronic illnesses, pain, or certain disabilities never be healthy? An idea I see again and again in writings about yoga is that yoga can "heal" whatever's wrong with you. But as I mentioned last time, I have at least one problem that cannot be healed, namely bipolar disorder. Pretty sure my anxiety and attention deficit disorders are not going to go away either, although all three of these can certainly be improved by a number of practices. But they're part of the structure of my brain. They are "disabilities" and "illnesses" in that they damage my ability to live my life the way I want to, hinder me in daily tasks, but they aren't an infection or a wound, they're just how my brain works. My knees, like those of everyone else in my family for at least three generations, are terrible, and have been since my teens. Yoga can strengthen the muscles around them, so that they support me better, and lengthen tendons with stretching, but it can't replace the degenerating cartilage. The grinding every time I flex them is not going to go away, even if some of the pain does. So can I never be healthy? Does yoga not work for me? If none of those things heal, have I been doing yoga wrong, that it doesn't heal everything that's wrong with me? Or, instead, is the concept of health itself at fault? My body is as it is. Many things about it can be changed, but many others can't. Yoga can help me bring the various parts of myself into balance, but that is never going to make some of my problems go away. Should I reject it for that, reject the entire idea of yoga as a lie? Or should I instead simply throw out the notion of "health," and focus instead on that of balance, and accept what my body can and can't do, including the ways in which it can and cannot change.

That last, obviously, is my choice. But it does mean that there's a lot I have to take with a grain of salt, or reinterpret, or throw out entirely as useless to me.

There's a local yoga teacher who teaches Yoga Empowered, yoga designed for those with chronic illnesses. I've been listening to her podcast for some useful ideas and breathing techniques. (I did try her yoga in bed routine, but it had the classic problem of skinny teachers and fat students: my thighs and belly are in the way of some of those poses, and I have no idea how to modify them. No more attempting to do yoga demonstrated by thin people.) One of the things she talks about is honoring your body and its limitations. I'm not sure about the use of "honor" here, but otherwise the idea is an excellent one. When you have a disability or a chronic illness, accepting your limitations can be essential to finding ways to work around them. It doesn't mean saying, "I can never get a college degree" (as I thought I couldn't for years), it meant finding ways to accommodate my limitations so that I could get a degree. And to find those accommodations, I first had to understand and accept what my limits actually were, like sitting through four-hour lectures, which is nearly impossible for me. I had to get an accommodation through the disabilities office to not have to sit through every class, as long as I could do the work and take the tests. (There's a whole thing I could put in here about the popular idea of people with disabilities not accepting their limitations and so overcoming them, and how damaging that really is, but it's off-topic for this post. Maybe sometime.) Simply insisting that I ought to be able to get through those classes without accommodation was causing me to fail classes. Accepting the limitation and looking around to see how not to let it stop me is what got me through.

I've now gotten through a very simply version of the eight limbs of yoga. I'm still working on reading the Yoga Sutra, but since I got it off Project Gutenberg, the translation and commentary are about a century old and by a white guy, and I'm finding it heavy going, especially since it's hard to tell how much is Johnston's opinion and how much of it actually comes from Patanjali. At a commenter's suggestion (thanks, Jane), I looked at the local library's ebooks on yoga (I very rarely check out physical books, being terrible at getting them back on time). I checked out The Science of Breath by "Yogi Ramacharaka," which turns out to be a pseudonym for William Walker Atkinson, dead white Orientalist dude who not only took at least two Indian pen names, but apparently completely made up the Indian people he claimed to have studied with. I didn't look him up until after I'd check it out. The text so far is pretty dreadful -- I might put up a few excerpts at some point, just to demonstrate -- bad enough that I'm not sure I can stand it long enough to even try to find useful breathing techniques, much less any kind of accurate representation of the theory behind them, which was what I'd hoped to get. Like why, when doing alternate-nostril breathing, you're supposed to use the thumb and ring finger specifically.

And just as I was finishing this entry up, one of my holds came through at the library. A newer translation of the Yoga Sutra, this one by Barbara Stoler Miller. Still a white person, but a more recent translation, by a scholar of Sanskrit literature, rather than a guy who served in the British Raj. I have hopes.