Is Yoga about being spiritual, mystical or enlightened?
What is a spiritual person? A mystic? Do these things automatically make them a 'good' person? In the Yogasūtra of Patañjali, we are introduced to a concept called enlightenment. It is presented as a worthy goal for all human beings, as to be enlightened means we will be permanently free of all of the suffering we might experience in this human lifetime.
Is this enlightenment related to spirituality or mysticism? The text of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra, a term which refers to the Yogasūtra-s of Patañjali together with the commentary (further explanation) of the sage Vyāsa, is actually very big on being clear and concise, specifically defining any terms which are used. For those in the legal profession, it is reminiscent of legal statutes in which any terms used in the statute are clearly defined. That is, “When I use this word, this is what I mean”.
This state of enlightenment hints that the person may have become so elevated as to think of themselves as being above all other humans. But fortunately, transcending one's ego is a necessary part of the journey to enlightenment, as are other requirements such as causing no harm and purifying the nature of one's thoughts and actions. So, enlightenment is not possible if one wants to act obnoxiously! The road to enlightenment requires all bad behaviour to be completely rooted out. Not by someone else, but by one’s own efforts.
Tired of your own bulls**t?
Recently I saw a meme on Facebook attributed to the author Elizabeth Gilbert. It said “I’ve never seen any life transformation that didn’t begin with the person finally getting tired of their own bulls**t.” This is what yoga is really about. Transforming ourselves, in the form of changing our current experience/state. We don’t want to suffer anymore, we recognise our own contribution to what we’re currently going through, we stop blaming others for it, and we set about looking for a way to change. Not a way to change others, but to change our own selves.
This change is internal; therefore, we can’t change others, and nor should we presume to. Often what we don’t like about behaviour of others is how they respond to our behaviour! A good question to ask ourselves is: “What am I bringing to the party? Am I bringing my best self ? Do I have a lot of baggage and is my baggage as challenging for the other person as it is for me? (By the way, we all have baggage! The term from the yogasūtra is karmāśaya or samskāra-s (latent impressions) – our baggage is our big collection of the latent impressions left behind from every past thought, feeling, emotion, action, event, everything that has happened to us, everything we’ve learned - all of this forms the foundation for our current life experience and is behind our unconscious (automatic or default) thoughts and actions.
Because our own experience is our own experience, we have to be the ones to change it if it's not to our pleasing. This doesn’t necessarily mean changing our external circumstances, as whatever changes we make in terms of environment or relationships will still require that we bring our own thoughts, feelings and behaviours with us. So, it’s important to consider whether changing the relationship or the environment will help us change ourselves, or simply lump on a new set of problems for us to deal with.
This is where Patañjali comes in, holding up the big, bright, shining goal of enlightenment, but also helpfully giving us step by step guidelines and frameworks for how to make changes and transform our current experience. We may not reach enlightenment, but if we take even some steps in that direction, we will experience positive change. It’s a voluntary effort - no-one can make us do it and no-one can do it for us. If we want it, we have to do it for ourselves.
What do these Sanskrit words mean?
This blog article came about because of an online discussion in a yoga group, so some concepts that follow presume prior knowledge. For readers who may be encountering some concepts and Sanskrit terms for the first time, the insights into some of the frameworks that Patañjali presents us with may spark your interest to pursue this further.
Patañjali says that Yoga is samādhi. Samādhi is concentration. But it’s not any old concentration – the way we concentrate and what we concentrate on is crucial. Samādhi itself doesn’t make one’s conduct flawless and enlightened, nor does it necessarily bring about positive change. Patañjali/Vyāsa addressed this from the very first sūtra I.1 – in the commentary: samādhi is possible in all five mental states. Not all of these experiences of samādhi will lead to yoga. Samādhi (concentration/absorption) on worldly or material things (with a mind in kṣipta/rājasika state, or a mind in mūḍha/tāmasika state) will not lead to yoga (the ultimate freedom), only to more suffering.
This framework helps in understanding the relevance of the guṇa-s (three fundamental characteristics of the mind state) and why the development of the guṇa of sattva (a calm, clear, stable, steady, strong, peaceful, balanced and pleasant state) in mind, body, breath, senses, food, relationships and environment is of utmost importance. Going back to the kṣipta and mūḍha mind states of I.1, these states are indicative of a preponderance of rajas (hyperactive, stimulus-seeking, impulsive, material-goal-focused thinking) and/or tamas (inertia, inactivity, demotivation, burn-out, unclear thinking, indecisiveness, blame-shifting thinking).
On the path to enlightenment, the rajas and tamas must be reduced so as to bring about a preponderance of sattva. This leads to samprajñāta-yoga (also introduced in the commentary to I.1), a level of yoga/samādhi which must be reached before the next stage, asamprajñāta-yoga, is possible. In the former kind of yoga, there is still potential for the guṇa-s to operate and cause fluctuation. In the latter kind, the mind is now beyond the sway of the guṇa-s altogether.
The positive psychology of the Yogasūtra
Sūtra I.33 is sometimes spoken of as the sūtra of positive psychology, because it breaks down different ways to work with changing our thoughts and emotions for the better. The words used in I.33 are cittaprasādanam – not just stilling or calming the mind, but rendering clear or, more significantly, purifying the mind. On the path to yoga, it is necessary to purify the quality of our thoughts, because thinking ultimately becomes action. Therefore, if our behaviour is to change for the good, we must first work on our thoughts. Although the priority is working on ourselves, the result is positive for those around us too. The person who has refined and purified their thoughts/actions will positively affect others, or at the very least, not impact others negatively.
The word upekṣa (indifference) in I.33, in relation to how we feel about the horrible actions of others, does not mean “not my suffering, not my problem”, rather “not my suffering, it is not in my power to change it”, although actually the first part of the statement is also incorrect, because it IS our suffering. The point of upekṣa is that the evil actions of others contribute to our pain, discomfort and suffering. We experience outrage at the bad behaviour or others; we get all judge-y on them and experience a measure of self-righteous pride in pointing out their shortcomings and bad behaviour. These thoughts and emotions ARE our suffering. We are the ones having them!
That person will behave badly, regardless of whether we condone or reject their behaviour (particularly if they don’t even know we exist – e.g., our outrage might be towards a politician in a country on the other side of the planet – we might spend much time being outraged and angry at them, but it has no impact on them whatsoever). All we are doing is disturbing our own peace and, consequently, we are upset and suffering. We might even be banging on about it to others endlessly and causing them to suffer, too!
This upekṣa/indifference is a form of accepting that we have no direct control over the behaviour of others, and should instead put our energies into what we can change – ourselves. By transforming ourselves, we cause those around us to have a more positive experience. Perhaps we inspire someone to step onto the path of personal transformation, or shine a light of possibility and hope to those in despair. If every person puts effort into positively transforming themselves then society will be transformed.
A journey of skillful action
The Yogasūtra is packed with tools and frameworks for skillful action to refine our messy interactions with our own selves and with others. I.33 itself correlates with the four brahmavihārā-s of Buddhism: maitrī/mettā, karuṇā/karuṇā; muditā/muditā; and, upekṣa/upekkhā. This comparison shows the Sanskrit word and the corresponding word in Pali language.
The relationship of cause-and-effect is without doubt a foundation of the path of Patañjali. The principle is introduced early on in chapter I, sūtra 5 – every thought leaves a latent impression and latent impressions in turn give rise to subsequent thoughts. Known as the vṛtti-saṃskāra cakra (thought and latent impression cycle), this is a succinct presentation of the cause-and-effect relationship. This cycle operates continuously in all of us from birth to death, without our conscious awareness. The practice of yoga is about recognising this, voluntarily interrupting the cycle, and consciously changing its nature (or the thoughts that we feed ourselves with) from kliṣṭa to akliṣṭa (in English, kliṣṭa = thoughts which lead to more suffering, and akliṣṭa = thoughts that lead us towards freedom).
Yet more skillful actions are found in the guidelines of yama and niyama (sūtra II.30), which can be collectively considered as dharma. Without upholding the principle of what is right and true and uplifting for the other/for all, there is no upliftment/freedom for oneself. The five yama and five niyama of Patañjali might perhaps be viewed as representative of the all-encompassing principle of dharma - kind of giving us the point without going into numerous examples. After all, the sage Yājñavalkya (from which we have access to the text, the Yoga Yājñavalkya) had earlier suggested ten yama and ten niyama. The point is, we need to understand the over-arching principle, and apply it to our own selves within the context of our current life journey.
Change yourself - change the world!
So is Yoga about being spiritual, mystical or enlightened? If I was to take Vyāsa's approach, the first step would be to clearly define those terms. That in itself is challenging and would require gathering information from several sources and reaching a consensus. Perhaps suffice to say, the practice of yoga is a journey of getting to know oneself better through a greater awareness of the gross as well as the subtle goings-on of one's own self. Uncovering the possibility of 'pain relief' through one's own skillful actions can be revelatory, surprising and mysterious as one discovers a power for change that was previously unknown; and, if enlightening means educational (or throwing light upon a subject) - most definitely yoga is educational - we learn skillful ways to lighten our load. What are the possibilities if we decide it doesn't need to be a finite journey?
So, is the practice of yoga a worthy pursuit? Does it help others? It is not selfish to prioritise positively transforming oneself – it is essentially the only way for the positive transformation of society.
Interested to learn more?
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