December 1, 2013

Researching Yoga, Part the Second

I left off with the Eight Limbs of Yoga after the second, Niyama.

The third Limb is Asana, the poses that most of us think of as being Yoga. This, of course, is what I'm mostly interested in.

Doran, who I referenced in my previous entry, says, "The challenge of poses offers the practitioner the opportunity to explore and control all aspects of their emotions, concentration, intent, faith, and unity between the physical and the ethereal body. Indeed, using asanas to challenge and open the physical body acts as a binding agent to bring one in harmony with all the unseen elements of their being, the forces that shape our lives through our responses to the physical world. Asana then becomes a way of exploring our mental attitudes and strengthening our will as we learn to release and move into the state of grace that comes from creating balance between our material world and spiritual experience." Very well, then, I will need to understand the poses in that light. They are not solely physical, but are a physical way of creating a discipline that encompasses all of the pieces that make up me: mind, body, emotions, will, and spirit. This really ought to have been obvious, and yet it was something I was missing about the asana on a very basic level. I'm sure I must have heard it before, but if it was couched in the New-Agey-White-Lighty sort of language I so often hear from USians talking about yoga, I would simply have ignored it. Regardless, as you can see from my first mention of studying yoga, I really was thinking of it as a purely physical discipline. I am learning better.

The fourth limb is Pranayama, or breath control. I've done some breath work in the past, for various purposes and with varying effects, and have generally found it to be a pretty good practice for me, if not one I've managed to keep up. Conceptually and theologically, breath is incredibly important to me. In both Latin and Greek, the word for spirit is also a word for breath. I consider breath to define human life, that the soul truly becomes a part of the body with the first breath, and that the bond breaks with the last breath. Thus, the idea that the control and discipline of breath is also a discipline of spirit and a way of attuning the spirit better with mind, body, heart and will, is a very natural one for me. This is the limb I'm currently attempting to make a part of my daily practice, with mixed success. It feels very good to do, but I'm having trouble doing it every day. Also, my chronic sinusisit that leaves my nose slighty yucky more or less constantly makes the alternate-nostril breathing technique a bit tricky.

Pratyahara, the fifth limb, means control of the senses, or more literally "to withdraw oneself from that which nourishes the senses." According to Doran:

It can then be seen as the practice of non-attachment to sensorial distractions as we constantly return to the path of self realization and achievement of internal peace. It means our senses stop living off the things that stimulate; the senses no longer depend on these stimulants and are not fed by them any more.
       In pratyahara we sever this link between mind and senses, and the senses withdraw. When the senses are no longer tied to external sources, the result is restraint or pratyahara. Now that the vital forces are flowing back to the Source within, one can concentrate without being distracted by externals or the temptation to cognize externals.
On the face of it, this sounds undesirable to me. While yoga teaches that, "The yogi does not look heaven-ward to find God for he know that He is within" (Holistic Online, BKS Iyengar), I believe that the Divine also exists all around us, in the world as it is. The nymphs, the satyrs, the spirits, and the gods themselves walk the world with us. We may not always be able to see their forms, but with attention, we can see their traces in the world, the footprints they leave, and sense their presence around us.

But then Doran says, "Pratyahara occurs almost automatically when we meditate because we are so absorbed in the object of meditation. Precisely because the mind is so focused, the senses follow it; it is not happening the other way around." And that, I have no problem with. That is certainly one of the points of meditation. He also says, "No longer functioning in their usual manner, the senses become extraordinarily sharp." This, too, works for me, since it will enable me to better see the work of the gods in the world. What I do not want is this: "Under normal circumstances the senses become our masters rather than being our servants. The senses entice us to develop cravings for all sorts of things. In pratyahara the opposite occurs: when we have to eat we eat, but not because we have a craving for food." Cravings are good, although we need not always give in to them. Submerging ourselves in our senses is part of ecstatic practice, and ecstasy is one of the primary ways that I commune with my gods.

And this is pure crap:

Much of our emotional imbalance are our own creation. A person who is influenced by outside events and sensations can never achieve the inner peace and tranquility. This is because he or she will waste much mental and physical energy in trying to suppress unwanted sensations and to heighten other sensations. This will eventually result in a physical or mental imbalance, and will, in most instances, result in illness.

No. Our emotions are a part of us, a part of our bodies. I feel particularly strongly about this because I have bipolar disorder, which is entirely organic. No amount of yoga will heal that. It is a part of me, a part of my body, and my body is not a thing separate from me or a thing to overcome. It's me, in very essential ways. In Hellenic philosophy, the spirit can be separated from the body, as happens when we die, but without a body or some physical substance, the personality, the self, in gone. A shade can regain some of its personality by partaking of blood, which is of the body, or by being given an immortal body by the gods, as it done for those who reside after death on the Isle of Heroes, or by Dionysos to the Orphic initiates. When the spirit is ready to reincarnate, it drinks of Lethe, and the old personality is washed away, as it is not a part of the spirit, but only an echo, and a new personality comes with the new body the soul is reborn into.

In order to be most ourselves, we must balance all of ourselves, which yoga can in fact help us to do, but one part of us is our emotions, and disconnecting ourselves from them for more than short periods leaves us unbalanced as well. So this limb is of limited use to me, and will require some reinterpretation in light of my own theology and theory of spirit.

I'm going to cut this off here, and conclude with the final three limbs in another post.