A Humble Version of Enlightenment
Why Do We Do Yoga?
Stress, tension and pain are the three main reasons that I do yoga, teach yoga and am fascinated by yoga.
There, I’ve said it. My principal reasons for practising yoga are mundane and rather unspiritual. I’m really just practising so I can better manage my anxiety and achy joints. Like most yoga students, what brings me to my mat is not the quest for enlightenment or self-realisation. I’m driven to practise as it reliably reduces stress, tension and pain. These three bedfellows have sporadically accompanied me for most of my adult life. Yoga helps me to pacify these inflammatory characters which, if left unchecked, would cause all kinds of havoc in my brain, in my body and in my life.
Enlightenment as the Goal
If we are to believe the gurus and the ancient yogic texts, my approach is all wrong. Practising yoga to benefit oneself is not the point. Instead, I should be devoting my practice to the realisation that everything in life (including my stress) is an illusion (maya) and that the only reality is Consciousness. This pursuit of the union between my individual consciousness (atman) with the Universal Consciousness (Brahman) should be my main purpose and really I should have a Guru to guide me there. I wonder sometimes if I am even practising real yoga, as my practice does not look one bit like this.
What is Enlightenment?
This state of being has many names in the English language. Enlightenment, Self Realisation, Union with the Divine and Recognition of Oneness are some. In Sanskrit, the technical language of yoga, the state of enlightenment is called samādhi
Samādhi: The state of superconsciousness where Absoluteness is experienced attended with all-knowledge and joy; Oneness; here the mind becomes identified with the object of meditation; the meditator and the meditated, thinker and thought become one in perfect absorption of the mind.
Samādhi is a Natural State
For many yogis, this state of samādhi is the goal, the Holy Grail. Yet, many people who practice yoga regard this state as personally unattainable. At least within their current lifetime. Even though my main reason for practising is to reduce stress and alleviate pain, I don’t view samādhi as unattainable for us ordinary folk. My feeling is that it is a natural state, accessible to all, albeit easily obscured by the many distractions and complications of ordinary life.
The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali are a collection of ancient yogic teachings, thought to be synthesised and organised by the Sage Patañjali between 500 BCE and 3rd century CE. Here is a section of this text describing samādhi.
The settled mind is known as samādhi.
In samprajnāta samādhi, the settled state is accompanied by mental activity:
first on the gross level,
then on the subtle level,
then a feeling of bliss,
and finally the sense of pure I-AM-ness.
It is near for those who ardently desire it.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali translated by Alistair Shearer (my bold highlight)
Peace is Accessible to All
To me, this passage means that the experience of a settled mind, of oneness and joy, can be felt by anyone, whether they practise yoga or not. You don’t have to profess to be “spiritual” to experience this state and you don’t have to have reached the state of having no thoughts in your mind. Although many humans do experience this samādhi, it is often fleeting and cannot be rekindled at will. The practise of yoga is designed to create the ideal conditions for settling the mind. The second verse of the Yoga Sutras states this very clearly:
“yogascitta vritti nirodhah”
“Yoga is the restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff”
– translation by Swami Vivekananda
The more one practices the wider teachings of yoga (the ethical principles, as well as the breath, postural and awareness practices) the closer one gets to an experience of the settled mind-stuff. However to access the higher states of samādhi that the settled mind is capable of reaching, takes deep and regular practice. This can be dangerous territory and it is essential to be under the guidance of a teacher who has a clear understanding clear communication of the journey you’ll be navigating, a journey that lies beyond our regular understanding of the psyche.
Settling the Mind
So, back to Earth and our mundane version of samādhi. My own feeling is that although my practice is primarily geared towards reducing stress and pain, my mind settles as a result. Perhaps it is because my mind is settling, that I experience a reduction in stress, tension and pain. The method I use is known in yoga as pratyahara, in science it is called interoception. As I turn my attention inward and focus on body sensations, my mind settles. As my thinking slows, I become much more interested in the space between the thoughts than the thoughts themselves. This gradual settling of the mind from the gross to the subtle can be experienced during pranayama (breath practice) and asana (movement and posture practice) as well as in relaxation and meditation. I describe this process in more detail in my recent article Yoga and the Wisdom of Stretching.
A Humble Enlightenment
The gradual settling of samprajnāta samādhi is obviously a much more accessible phenomenon than the higher states of the full-blown experience of samādhi that Swami Krishnananda describes. However, it is no less valuable for being the more humble version. This more conscious and embodied settling of the mind has the effect of alleviating pain and releasing the mental and physical tension associated with the stress of everyday living. As the mental noise (the Sanskrit term for this is manas) of problem-solving, criticism, judgement, assessment, comparison, despair, hope, pride, organising, admonishment, condemning, catastrophising, fear-mongering, panicking and raging of the mind settles… I am able to connect with what is obscured by all of that mind-stuff… Well, on a good day, anyway.
Difficulties of Meditating in Stillness
As anyone who has tried meditation will know, it is really challenging. Precisely because all the manas comes right up to the fore as soon as we turn our attention inwards. This is why I find it more helpful to teach moving meditation. By taking our dense, physical bodies through slow, undemanding yet therapeutic and precise gentle movement, we give the more subtle mind something tangible to focus on. The mind becomes deeply absorbed in the present, as it tunes in consciously to the process of sensory-motor communication. The sensory-motor nervous system is the way our brain communicates to and from our muscle fibres. Usually, sensory-motor communication happens on auto-pilot subconsciously unless we are learning a new skill. So much focus is needed to keep track of the subtleties of the slow movement, that the mind gets a little overwhelmed and we move into a state of trance, our mind slows down. Indeed, Swami Krishnananda describes samprajnāta samādhi as a “cognitive trance; state of superconsciousness.”
The deeper effects of accessing the state of samprajnāta samādhi involve a gradual development of the understanding that we are all at once, the meditator, meditation and the meditated. This expresses itself as an ability to witness our thoughts, sensations and actions, from the calm, quiet state of consciousness that is our individual consciousness, the atman. This individual consciousness, (sometimes known as the “witness consciousness”) accompanies all the parts of our mind, body, ego and personality as we journey through this life. Yet crucially and incredibly, it is unaffected and uninfluenced by all these parts of us.
“Two birds of lovely plumage; inseparable friends, dwell on the self-same tree.
One eats the fruits of pleasure and pain; the other just looks on.”
Mandukya Upanishad 3.1.1
Finding Peace, Perspective and Resilience
The technologies of yoga enable us to become more identified with the atman, that friendly bird who simply looks on. This gives us space to relax and recover from the hard work of being engaged in life, tasting the fruits of pleasure and pain. Bringing our attention to the atman or witness consciousness enables us to have a rest from the processes of worldly life (samsara). Recalling the existence of this deeper, quiet part of ourselves can give us a sense of peace, perspective and resilience as we journey through life’s ups and downs.
I’m deeply grateful to the many, many sages, Swamis and teachers from India and other parts of Asia who, throughout the ages, have devoted their lives to developing, exploring, refining and teaching these yogic teachings and technologies. I deeply appreciate these teachings, which are so useful and relevant in our fast-paced post-post-modern world, even though they were developed many hundreds, if not thousands of years ago.
Yoga philosophy and practice offer vital keys to discovering a state of calm tranquillity within, despite living during a time of chaos, confusion and injustice in the outer world. Rather than using yoga to escape such problems, by finding some peace within ourselves, we can each contribute to creating more peace in the wider world.
Dear Yoga Students,
I hope you are enjoying this new way of receiving the Holistic Yoga Newsletter. Thanks so much for reading, commenting, liking and sharing the articles. As you know, I actively welcome your comments, corrections, and the sharing and exploring of the ideas we’re exploring. See the note about comments below1.
Holistic Yoga – Classes and a Retreat
If you would like to have an embodied experience of these ideas, please feel welcome to come along to my online (on Zoom) or in-person yoga classes (in North London). The classes are very gentle and accessible and tend to be tailored to people who have stress-related ailments, joint or back pain. If you are feeling stressed, tired or achy these classes will be just right for you.
Tilton House – Early May Bank Holiday Retreat
Find out more about this heavenly Holistic Yoga retreat in the South Downs here. Booking is open. You pay a deposit online, and I’ll send you an invoice for the reminder. This is a really lovely way to immerse yourself in the practices and experience the settling of your own mind.
Yoga for Back Care A 12-week, in-person course supporting people with back pain or sciatica. From Wednesday 2nd March at Lauderdale House, Highgate N6
12pm – 1:30pm (in person only, you’ll have access to home practice guides online that accompany this comprehensive course)
Saturday In-person classes (currently on Zoom)
From 26th February at Union Church, on Weston Park, Crouch End N8.
Usual time 10:15am – 11:45am (will be live-streamed also)
Let us conduct our discussions in the spirit of the yogic principle of nonviolence (ahimsa). Please be kind, respectful and open to the idea that we are individuals and have the right to think, feel and believe different things.