I’ve been dancing around Sutra 2.29 in two recent articles. The first was “Tapas & Relationships” and just yesterday as I was exploring Sutra 2.31. I didn’t have any intention to write about it until a recent debate began between myself and Bob Weisenberg on the comment thread of one of his Gita Talks posts. The debate broke off after I wrote a length reply that got lost in the commenting system. I will be using this post to pick up the thread. Sorry for the delay Bob.
A Table of Contents
On the face of it Sutra 2.29 seems like a straightforward list of “ashtanga” the 8 limbs of Yoga:
- Yama – your attitude toward your environment.
- Niyama – your attitude toward yourself.
- Asana (physical practices)
- Pranayama (breathing practices)
- Pratyahara (quieting the mind)
- Dharana (focusing the mind)
- Dhyana (meditation)
- Samadhi (integration / being present / clear perception / …)
For an overview of Yoga it seems to be in the middle of nowhere – but it’s actually strategically placed:
- It’s not in the 1st chapter – which is about Samadhi – which, interestingly, is the last item on ashtanga list. If you can relate to and experience what is described in the first chapter – then you don’t need this list. If, like most people, you don’t then the 2nd chapter is there to help you.
- The 2nd chapter is about practice – the things you can do to get to a point where you will be able to take on the 1st chapter.
- The 2nd chapter starts with an explanation of why practice is required – to overcome obstacles. It explains about the different kinds of obstacles and how they effect us.
- Only then, when we have some perspective and understanding about what it is we are trying to do, a system of tools is introduced in Sutra 2.29.
Weight of Practices
A table of contents can be, and in the case of Yoga in the west, is misleading. Let’s have a look at the number of sutras that are dedicated to the topics.
- Yama & Niyama (external and internal attitudes) take up a better part of what remains of the 2nd chapter – 16 sutras.
- Asana (physical practices) is mentioned in 2 sutras and in a 3rd sutra in which it shares a place with breath.
- Pranayama (breathing practices) is mentioned in 4 sutras and shares a 5th in which it shares a place with asana.
- Pratyahara (containment of the senses) is mentioned in the last 3 sutras of the 2nd chapter and serves as a transition into the 3rd chapter.
- Dharana, Dhyanama & Samadhi (which make up the domain of meditation) take up the entire 3rd chapter – 55 sutras.
How does this reflect on your practice? Are you practicing asana or Yoga?
Samkhya Separates – Yoga Integrates
What set me on this path was a parallel I believe exists between this list and the philosophy of Samkhya. Samkhya is one of the ancient philosophies of India and is closely related to Yoga. Samkhya is a practical philosophy based on a number of assumptions:
- There are two ultimate realities: Spirit (Purusa) and Matter (Prakrti).
- The universe had a beginning – a “first movement” or “first cause”.
- The “first movement” is beyond the intellect – so there’s no point in pursuing it intellectualy.
- It is better to work with what is there now – a dynamic universe which arises from Spirit & Matter.
Samkhya then goes on to describe a process of evolution from which our “current universe” arises:
- From a meeting of Spirit & Matter evolved Gunas.
- From a meeting of Spirit & Matter came an Intelligent Will.
- From Intelligence Will evolved Separation and individuation.
- From Separation evolved Mind and thought.
- From thought evolved Sensing.
- From Sensing Qualities evolved the Subtle Elements of Nature.
It seems that Ashtanga is a process that retraces the path set out by Samkhya:
|Yama & Niyama||Subtle Elements||Our external and internal attitudes are in relationship to a physical universe.|
|Asana & Pranayama||Sensing||Initial practices are designed to create an awareness of the workings of the senses.|
|Pratyahara||Mind||Until there is an awareness that can tell tell apart the workings of mind from what the sense report through it.|
|Dharana||Separation||When the mind has become aware of its inner workings it can begin to focus clearly (without distractions)|
|Dhyana||Intelligent Will||It can experience a sense of disintermediated connection with a higher intelligence.|
|Samadhi||Gunas||Finally mind is no longer a slave the Gunas|
In my experience it is rare to find such a tight, thorough & systemic coupling of philosophy and actionable practice. I have a great respect for it and for my teachers who have introduced it to me in a way that is professional, inspiring, relevant and caring.