The Yogasutras, Performing Arts, and Health

Yogasutras, Performing Arts, and Health

The Yogasutras of Patanjali is the foundational text on theory and practice of Yoga. It contains 196 aphorisms divided in four sections, viz., Samadhipada, Sadhanapada, Vibhutipada, and Kaivalyapada. The Yogasutras can be understood in three parts comparable to the three stages of cure as elaborated in Ayurveda.

1. Shamana= deal with symptoms (for wound, for fever) is at sthula level; recognize that you are in dukkha;

2. Shodhana= deal with the cause or seeds, because without treating the cause, complete eradication of illness is not possible; do dharana on the root causes;

3. Arogya= being healthy; burn the seed through dhyana and viveka, so that they are empty of all prana and cannot disturb the flow of chitta vritti;

Health in Indic thought is not just the absence of disease, nor just a healthy body; but also a healthy mind capable of ekagrata. This mind is capable of entering states of samadhi and of seeing what really is, i.e., viveka khyati. In the Yoga Sutra, we have practices from first two chapters that are bahiranga i.e., practices for one’s sthula sharira.

The Yogasutras also advice practices that impact the psyche called antaranga. They are found scattered in all the four chapters. These sutras deal with the sense of self and the location of the karmashaya and vasanas. By completely blocking of the distorting power of the vasanas, one becomes capable of samadhi. The Yogasutras suggest the more inward practices of samyama and nirbija samadhi that go beyond what can be grasped by the chitta.

The bahiranga sadhana, especially asanas and pranayama are popular and have been the subject of many an experimentation. The areas of nirbija samadhi is attractive and becomes the subject of a lot of discourses. The middle step is not well understood and therefore, much less practiced. This is the psychological space where all ill-health starts and where the process of cleansing has to begin.

  • The key sutras

Two sutras that primarily capture the essence of the antaranga sadhana are sutras II.10 and II.11:

  1. ते प्रतिप्रसवहेयाः सूक्ष्माः ॥२. १०॥

Te prati-prasava-heyah sukshmah.

(te= avidyadi kleshah; pratiprasavam = layam; getting reabsorbed at the sukshma level so that re-emergence is stopped; heyam= hatum yogyam- that which deserves to be avoided/ prevented; sukshma= beyond the grasp of indriya and chitta.)

So, the aphorism means, ‘the vrittis resulting from avidya should be ended when they are in the subtle form’.

  1. ध्यानहेयास्तद्‍वृत्तयः ॥२.११॥


(dhyana: meditation, a state where the chitta is dominated by satva and without the influence of tamas and rajas; heyah: that which deserves to be given up/ avoided; tad: these latter (designates the five causes of suffering); vrittayah: fluctuations of the mind, the activities of the mind.)

So, the aphorism means, ‘through the practice of dhyana the very seeds of the vrittis resulting from avidya are made impotent’.

In the womb of avidya, kleshas (the actions that cause suffering) are present as seeds. They are continuously reinforced and they keep manifesting again and again. This process can be stopped only in the subtle state. Dhyana or meditation is the process through which the unfolding and reinforcement of the seed can be stopped.

The vasana or karmashaya is a receptacle or a seed that has the whole tree waiting to grow. It has prana waiting to express through the seed. Under the right conditions, the vasana will express; till then it will stay dormant. As long as rajas and tamas reside in the chitta, and it has not become shuddha satvam, all movement of chitta will energise the vasana, get disturbed, and act through samskara (conditioning/ habit). This process reinforces the vasana before the movement of the mind subsides and another action begins.

If I experience the manifestation of the vasana in udara (fully grown) state, then I can only carry out yathamana-samjna-vairagyam (an act of will through which I only control the negative compulsions and action). In the seed (bijam) state the practice is known as vashikara-samjna-vairagyam (ripening and falling away).

Another explanation is that in the udara stage, avidya is very large and I am fully in the state where raga, dvesha, etc. are operating. Through the process of tapas I reduce the power of these. So they sometimes burst forth, sometimes they don’t which is the vicchinna stage and then comes a stage when they show up but in a weak manner called tanu.

Dharana on the sensations that arise as the klesha starts sprouting, and eventually making this attentive observation an intense dhyana burns the potency of the vasana. All raga and dvesha for external objects ends, and pranaa flows without causing any disturbance. The antaraya that cause disease and depression are dissolved.

Some of the important ideas mentioned in the elaboration above, and are key to interpreting these sutras are as follows-

1. Sharira is the kshetra where these processes are taking place. The prasava bhumi for kleshas or its birth-place, is vikalpa and viparyaya going against jnana. Therefore the symptoms that arise as a consequence of the action of a psyche that has klishta vrtti show up in the mind and body simultaneously.

2. There are four stages of manifestation of vasana: prasupta, tanu, vicchinna, and udara.

a. Prasupta= asleep, dormant, or being in a very subtle stage, in laya with prakriti, but still the vasana will manifest/ surface when a suitable situation arises.

b. Tanu= small, when one follows yoga one can touch and experience the klesha at this level, so one can make this the object of dharana.

c. Vicchinna= they come and go like waves move with the wind, as life is lived in an undisciplined way. Vicchinna means intermittent as well as varying in intensity. The klesha comes and goes with the situation. It is also occasionally interrupted, for example, when anger is present, desire is not apparent. But these are seeds that have grown; as opposed to seeds yet to sprout. Desire at that moment is weakened not uprooted; when raga is vicchinna in one object it will be prasupta and tanu in another object, the other vasanas are waiting to manifest.

d. Udara is a state that can be experienced by the senses (indriya gocharam). If they are not recognized and managed through asana and pranayama at this stage they will lead to physical disease and/or psychological disorder.

3. Forcefully stopping the prana once triggered- or separating oneself, causes insecurity and disease. Vicchinna udara is not the appropriate state for any transformation.

4. The ending of abhinivesha is the basis for yama becoming spontaneous. Therefore, it is the stage at which vashikara-samjna-vairagya living becomes a process of flow and joy. There is no disease or mental weakness. Dhyana is a process of seeing the whole psyche in action, from its most subtle to its gross manifestation.

5. Most of the times you don’t even realize that you have the problem unless your sattva guna is dominant and the other two, rajas and tamas are quiet. When one is under sattva dominance, one can be more reflective since it is a state of prakasha or state of lightness. When this happens the energizers of the klesha are dormant, and the distortion is in its sukshma state, which is the right time to end it. That's why the practice of tapas- clearing rajas and tamas from the chitta.

6. At first through tapas and yama/ niyama the strength of the klesha are reduced, the next step is focusing our attention inward to let the disturbance come to the tanu state (just sprouting); The desha for dharana are the sensations/ breath and thought patterns that get generated; then practice dhyanam or focus on this.

7. Dhyana is the process through which the movement, unfolding and flow that is based on klesha vritti (disturbance) can be stopped. Dhyana= making the mind as sensitive as the eyeball so that the arising of klesha/ sprouting of vasana can be sensed immediately. Depending on the intensity of the gaze, the vasana becomes weakened or get burnt. As dharana gets intensified into dhyana, the seeds can be burnt. Through viveka the seeds can be burnt, the prasankhyanagni (the intensity of insight) burns the seeds.

8. At this stage of the cleansing of the psyche, even the object with the power to evoke raga and dvesha are unable to evoke any reaction. They don't feed avidya, or support the klesha. This is dagdha-bija, burnt seed state, which will not germinate or grow, even with water or compost manure.

9. Mula-avidya closes the light of viveka when a problem or challenge comes up; when one does dharana on the sensations at tanu stage and it moves to dhyana one can feel the pressure at the mula.

  • The pragmatics of the practice

When one comprehends these ideas one can start designing practices that move from shamana through shodhana to arogya. One of the most important ideas to keep in mind is that cure in Yoga happens when the person experiences greater and greater swatantrata. Therefore, no external prescriptions will take the person beyond shamana.

We can, therefore, rely on various external practices only to a certain point when the symptomatic treatment will be effective. Then the internal iccha or will has to take over and that is when dharana becomes possible. Till then the person is dependent on external help and uses external frames and ideas to understand the self. Self-knowledge is then an explanation, based on books, or a narrative one builds of oneself through external frames of reference. This creates dependencies. In the terminology of epistemology, it is agama or anumana at best, not pratyaksha. The Yogic approach encourages a direct perception of self.

The symptomatic treatment space has parallels with modern western approaches, and we see teachers who draw benefit from the experimentation that is going on in this area. However, even here, the Ayurvedic approach comes from a very similar world-view as Yoga and it would be wise for the teacher to take the help of Ayurvedic ideas.

To illustrate, eating appropriately is the first practice of tapas. This enables one to tend the vaishvanara agni and burn the rajas and tamas that are causing imbalance in the body.  We use ideas like brahmana kriya and langhana kriya in the asana and pranayama practice as well. Asana balances rajas and pranayama balances tamas.

  • Antaranga sadhana and the Performing Arts

Becoming aware of the subtle movements of the vasana requires a sensitivity of the body- emotion dynamics. The performing arts are designed to enable one to become sensitive to these dynamics. I have therefore innovated on the use of drawing, dance, and theatre to enable a person to awaken their emotional being and practice dharana on one’s emotional patterns and sensations that arise when these patterns are awakened. This has been a very powerful area of ‘Inner Work’.

The basic offering I have designed for this work is called the Mahabharata Immersion. Since the emotional patterns determine how we think, make choices, and act, this exploration enables people to not only discover inner patterns, it also to experiment with new forms.

The classical situations from our itihasa and purana are taken as symbolic representations of one’s psyche. Let’s take ‘prahlada-charitra’ to illustrate the idea. Shorn of the very elaborate decorative aharya, it is a classic story of the ‘primal struggle’. The father figure who has demonstrated competence and achieved something in life, and is eager to pass it on to his son as a gift. The mother figure, who has nurtured the child and is protective of the child on the one hand, and in love with her man on the other hand.  The child figure wishing to grow up autonomously and discover its truth and caught in the parenting drama.

Deep insights bubble up when participants of such an immersive programme are asked to play out this primal drama, draw their evocations, and share them. The linkage between life events, personal trauma, and the subsequent way one has formulated ‘the idea of the self’ and ‘the idea of the world’ become clear. Emotional patterns i.e., feelings that have been blocked or suppressed, or those that are held in tentativeness, and also those that are deployed with ease tend to become clear. Very often the participants get reawakened to stories, songs, and poetry that have been dear to them but have been buried under the weight of socialization and conditioning.

The participants can then use the awakening of the sensitivity to the sensations back into their practice of asana and pranayama. This results in a freeing of physical patterns. What we refer to as the body armour gets loosened up as it were. A positive cycle starts. The body is now more aware of emotions and triggers that were once repressed and suppressed. This sensitivity makes it easier to have a choice over one's actions; and the reinforcement of conditioning gets lessened. One can get into dharana easily, and the dissolution of the vasana begins.

  • Applied Yogic Psychology

I believe that the Indic systems of thought did not separate and divide life spaces into compartments. For example, art is an everyday experience when one visits temples, the stories represented through beautiful sculptures on walls of the temple are retold by one’s elders, and these are often celebrated through song and dance.

These stories are multi-layered. To take a simple example, Krishna is the child who like any other child loves butter and is full of mischief. But his divinity is revealed in the songs that speak of how his mother Yashoda sees the whole universe reflected in his wide-open mouth.

At one level this is a fun story, but it has so many layers of inner meaning. God resides in everyone if we have the eyes to see; all of prakrti is manifest in all of creation; one can go on. However, to a child, these meanings are not immediately revealed. The child is evoked to love the child Krishna and be intrigued by the story.

To a deeply philosophical mind, Krishna is the colour of the depth of the dark sky on a new moon night, the deep indigo of vast, limitlessness that is Brahman, and Krishna is the epitome of Yoga. In the shaiva tradition, dialogues between Shiva and Shakti are filled with yogic teaching. Shiva becomes the adiyogi. The puranas are filled with these allegorical stories that are just exciting narrations at one level but can also be sublime teaching.

Between these two extremes of understanding, are the many stories, songs, dance and discussion about prakriti and purusha, and ishvara as they manifest in our psyche, and how their presence gets covered up. The covering up leads to dukkha (sorrow), dourmanasya (depression), and angamejayatva (physical disease).  These stories are reflective of psychological struggles and transformation. It is by rediscovering the deep and subtle connectedness between the various arts and the practices of Yoga that we can bring alive the vibrancy of antaranga yoga, and enable people to experience psychological healing in small ways every day. The yogic way of healing after all, is one filled with celebration of oneself and one's world!

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