We are all aware about Yogacharya T.Krishnamacharya being a pioneer in using yoga (specifically asana and pranayama) for therapy and well-being. But little did we know that he was a great scholar of our sacred knowledge and traditions. One of his long-standing students Raghu Ananthanarayanan has put together an interesting note about how can one use yoga as a tool for deeper fulfillment and meaning in life? He has used the device of an innocent conversation between a young, curious child, Chiku who is Gayatri Iyer, and an elderly teacher Rita, just like the dialogues that used to take place between student and teachers at ashrams. In my discussions with Raghu who is Rita in the writings, I learnt how symbols and rituals of our Hindu culture have been misinterpreted for long and once you know the real meaning, you can only marvel at the profundity of the entire meaning and how it is part of the larger divine order.
Chiku: Today, I want to ask you some questions about everyday life and yoga.
Rita: I am waiting.
Chiku: Is yoga something relevant for everyday living?
Rita: Let me share with you what my teacher Krishnamacharya said about this: “A yogi uses his samyamamm to get past sorrow; action in the present is the seed for the future, the key question a yogi must ask constantly is “how am I using my mind and body?””
Chiku: So, I can observe anything I do and call it yoga?
Rita: samyamamm is a central concept to yoga sutra. While the sutra talks about the powers which one can achieve through samyamamm it also gives a lot of emphasis to the concept, how can it be applied in our lives etc. samyamamm is the process of pulling out of all distractions and directing your mind in an enquiry. It comprises of the choice one makes to observe an aspect of one’s world or oneself with great attentiveness. The quality of the enquiry is very important because it has to evoke you in a certain way, and you cannot force yourself to do it because you will be distracted and pulled away if you force yourself. Interest and passion are much more powerful forces that enable attentiveness.
Chiku: But how do I know which is the area I must focus?
Rita: Start with observing what areas are you naturally drawn into? This will help you pull away from distractions, quieten your mind and apply yourself to the chosen enquiry. This first step of samayamam is called dhAraNA. This is the only step that I consciously do or act upon. If I continue to stay with the enquiry, then it becomes deeper and subtle. This is called dhyAna, the second step.
If I continue to stay with this step, all my sense of ‘self’ or ‘I’ drops away and my mind is completely engaged with the object. The object fills my mind and that state is called samadhi. This is the third step and all the three steps make up samyamamm.
Chiku: Is that what yoga all about?
Rita: The yoga sadhana is primarily meant to help your body become capable, mind sharper and apply yourself to the process of samayama.
Chiku: What else does the yoga sutra tell about the mind?
Rita: A very important practical application of samyama is directing it to the process of listening. There are 3 components to it-:
- The words used and the way the sound impacts me
- What does the word mean to me?
- My ability to look at the object( dispassionately and engage with it)
As I observe and start to see these three steps clearly, my listening becomes subtle and deep. My mind grasps reality “as is” without distortion.
Chiku: Yes, most of the times I am never exclusively paying attention to the other person when he or she is talking.
Rita: Yes, so the sutra suggests that you pay attention to the person and the verbal and non-verbal communication will tell you a lot about the person’s state of mind. The same word used in multiple tones can give different meanings.
This is specifically useful in dialogues and debates, when you may think that people are agreeing to each other but there are subtle differential nuances with the same words being used. Thus, the agreements can cause more problems than cordiality. This is the first simple practical application that Patanjali talks about.
Chiku: How is this concept related to vAirAgyam?
Rita: vAirAgyam is the starting point, i.e. the ability to pull away from distractions. If my mind is in ksipta,what we refer to as monkey mind or mudha which is a heavy, thick or dull mind then there is no chance of directing it towards any object. pratyahArA is a similar practice where I pull my energy back from the distracting things outside and direct it towards the enquiry. So, a normal mind is that which is not distracted nor is too sharp?
Chiku: Why not sharp?
Rita: A mind that is not disciplined and not used to careful rational enquiry is dull and superficial. It cannot cleave past the appearances and get to the subtler essence. That is why the yoga sutra tell us to prepare our mind and body through AsanA-prANAyAmA to remove the body toxins and quieten the mind. I must create an intent or a space to direct my mind towards so that I use its full potential.
Hope this is practical enough?
Chiku: Yes, I never knew listening involves so many steps! I remember you said that even on skype when someone is talking, you can get a sense of the person’s state of mind, is it true?
Rita: Yes, that is correct. One needs to just pay attention the person’s tone of voice to understand.
Chiku: What did Krishnamacharya say about this?
Rita: He said samyamamm can be used to get past sorrow; it is also important to focus fully on action in the present since that is the seed for future.
There is another sutra that talks about doing samyamamm on your samskArA i.e. your habitual patterns. The idea is to observe yourself and the patterns of one’s psyche carefully. As you observe you will notice that the actions now are an unfolding of old seeds that are alive in me. samskArA are patterns created by the past experiences, hurts etc., which one keeps repeating. Unfortunately, I cannot go back and change my responses. But there is also something alive in me in terms of my feeling-thought-action patterns today which is causing a reaction to the external world.
The only thing possible is to do samyamamm on these patterns today. Observation of these patterns makes my mind more subtle and aware. Then perhaps I can get to the root of these samskArA. The process of paying attention is very subtle yet powerful, this called dhyAnAgni.
Chiku: So, dhAraNA, dhyAna and samAdhi are the parts of samyamam?
Rita: Correct, but you can only consciously do dhAraNA and nothing else. When you sit quietly and direct your attention to an object of enquiry you get absorbed in it because it is very meaningful to you. This is true dhAraNA because it is a powerful process it draws you into the enquiry. The forceful concentration is not true dhAraNA. It needs to be effortless but powerful. The sense of self is lost in this process.
Chiku: Is this kshanika samAdhi?
Rita: kshanika samAdhi is many times accidental like when you are walking in the garden and suddenly notice a flower or bird. Your mind is attracted to that object for a short period of time. This is like a flash insight or something. The process must be sustained over a period to be called samyama.
Rita: Just as a mindless way of being leaves a mark in one’s mind and shaping it, dhAraNA also creates a pattern, except that it creates a pattern that allows you to bring in a lot of energy and attentiveness into whatever you want to enquire into. A cricketer is doing the same when he/she is watching the ball closely and drops all the distraction.
Chiku: So, is concentration on an object like the way a hunter does is an example of samyamam?
Rita: Yes, when a hunter is out to get his/her prey then he ought to know every movement, action, habit of the prey before he can kill it. In the same way, I need to know my context, the ground on which I am standing and looking at the world, taking care to be self-aware at the same time if I have to act from my deepest potential.
Chiku: Long back you gave the example of a cat watching the mouse hole waiting for the mouse.
Rita: Yes, it was a Sufi example of what is dhAraNA? Remember that the cat does not tense his/her body but very patiently watches the hole like in sthiram sukham AsanAm . If I hold the attention tensely then I cannot sustain the attentiveness for a long period of time. The nimbleness and agility are what marks great sportsmen, archers and artists because they are fully attentive to the moment and sustaining this attentiveness over long periods of time. In tennis for example, if I carefully notice the opponent’s body movement, I can anticipate his/her move and then be ready to face the ball. I can’t be concentrating on the ball only; I must be attentive to the whole process.
Chiku: Long time ago, I was listening to an interview of Andre Agassi and he was asked a question that how does he manage to return the serves of his opponent so easily? His answer was that the opponent had a pattern of serve which he observed and then each time the body moved in that way he anticipated the ball.
Rita: This is samyamamm in his chosen field.
Chiku: But quietening the mind in today’s hyper distractive world is so tough!
Rita: Each one has their own ways, like I do AsanA, prANAyAmA to help prepare my body and mind, scientists have a deep love for music to help them calm and concentrate. The yoga sutra has suggestions like observing the movement of stars, observing the body etc.
Chiku: But when I am paying attention, I still can hear sounds on the outside etc. Then am I still practicing dhAraNA?
Rita: The power of the external objects to pull you away has been cut once you practice AsanA, prANAyAmA and pratyahArA. Now if you are creating an art piece, you may still hear a bird chirp, but the chirp may help you concentrate deeper into your artwork rather than distract. All the steps converge to help you concentrate on your enquiry. That is why yoga in the true sense is an excellent preparation for children to help them understand deeper what they love and how do they sustain it.
Chiku: So even a posture for doing art is an AsanA?
Rita: Yes, it is. Every action you perform has a bodily correlation to it like the sthapati will tell you that the posture of utkatAsanA is the best for sculpting because you derive a lot of energy from the muladhara. If you do not understand the body aspect the action may fail.
Chiku: Are there any cautions that the sutra throws up?
Rita: Yes, it says that as you go deeper into the process of samyamamm you will get significant accomplishments which it calls siddhi. siddhi can become so attractive that it becomes the source of distraction. One can see so many sportsmen who accomplish extraordinary feats and then fall hard. The person gets caught in success and then runs after it only to fall later.
Chiku: So, focusing on the return or fruit is not part of samyamamm?
Rita: It can be a starting point for you to start the process of enquiry. The yoga sutra third chapter clearly says that what you see as a fruit is a spin off to the process and it is not very important. Remaining detached from it is very important else the desire for the fruit will become a big distraction.
Chiku: But many times, I feel so tired when I am trying to follow a question and it leads no headway.
Rita: This is exactly the point, if you get into the enquiry saying ‘this is what I must achieve’ then your mind is split between what you ought to be doing and the other part is comparing and checking if you got it or not. This is not the mind that can get into dhAraNA.
Chiku: Then why does one start an enquiry? Isn’t it to end duhkha?
Rita: Yes, the desire for a positive fruit or an ending of pain is often a starting point but holding an intent and a direction for your enquiry is not the same as craving for the result, the fruit. Just like a seed, which needs water, sunlight and good soil to grow, I can plant the seed and then enable it to grow. Then it will grow by itself. Initially the seed is in a dark place under the soil. If I really love the plant, I will only observe the growth rather than dig up the soil to check the roots. If I want to look at my samskArA then I cannot start with the goal to ‘change myself’ but compassionately ask who I am? then one can start paying attention to what is coming up. The process has its own power and nature of unfolding.
Chiku: can I start this process at the body level rather than jump to the subtle aspects of the mind?
Rita: The yoga sutra says that one can pay attention to the body using the breath and posture, such that it will reveal the deeper aspects. This what we call moving from the gross to the subtle. You can apply it in any aspect of your life like playing sports and cooking or to scientific enquiry.
Chiku: The mind is so capable?
Rita: Yes, it is, but to unleash its power one must eat right, exercise properly and so on for the body and mind to be alert, to sustain the enquiry. The yoga sutra is talking about the mind, the application of the attentive mind as well the relationship with body, food and breath. It is not seen as a mere compartment like typical scientific categorization of body and mind as separate. Yoga is very capable of helping us drop the samskArA that do not allow the mind to act from its highest capability.