The Waking Level of MInd

If we position awareness in the physical body and the physical realm, and we spend all our waking hours in that conscious state of mind, naturally we are going to identify with that body, that realm and that state. Cool cat

When we practice a deeper yoga that focuses on breaking out of this three-faceted sense of false identity, we find ourselves stepping back and detaching into a watcher awareness, observing the physical body, the physical realm and the conscious state of mind.

At first, this watcher awareness is faint because it has arisen inadvertently as an unanticipated consequence of a general yoga practice. Yet, as we catch the idea this state of detached observation is worthy of intentional pursuit, we begin to cultivate watcher awareness as a yoga in itself.

Working to hold watcher awareness, we find we can study the power of our instinctive nature from a distance where we can feel its magnetism just beginning to pull us into all-encompassing experiences of seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling and tasting in the physical realm. We also find we can investigate just how this involvement with the physical realm through the instincts of the physical body can trigger emotions that urge us to seek solace in the intellect. Finally, we find we can examine the intellect to see how its development begins with a manipulation of remembered information rather than truly original thinking.

All of this and more we can learn about the conscious state of mind by simply being that watcher that can only see what it sees because it is separate enough from what it sees to see it clearly. From this we can also sense that, when we are the watcher, we are not in an externalized state of consciousness at all. We are outside externalization—or to put it more precisely, we are inside externalization, looking out at it.

If everyone suddenly pulled back into watcher awareness, the conscious state of mind would not be what it is at all, for it is what it is only because of the externalization of those consumed enough in an awareness of it to be caught by it. “Externalization” here refers to a state of mind in which nothing beyond a world perceivable through the five senses is acknowledged as having substantial existence.

Because the conscious state of mind is a product of awareness consumed in the physical realm, it is also a product of awareness preoccupied with physical things to want and have. Since blind ignorance is the common ground of awareness bound in this conscious state of mind, no one caught there knows that no thing can yield happiness. Thus, most everyone caught there seeks happiness by seeking things.

Additionally, since being caught in the conscious mind also means identifying with the physical body, those thus caught also seek happiness by thrilling, clothing and feeding the body—and by making a lot of money to do more of the same. Such stuck-in-the-body living is like treadmill-running after a satisfaction that is forever advancing ahead of us, just out of reach.

When we feel trapped in this most externalized state of consciousness, we experience a stark variety of fear that can only arise when we are so completely cut off from our own intuition we have lost even the faintest sense that we are actually an immortal entity impervious to harm. As might be expected, it is when we find ourselves so fully at the mercy of a fear like this that we are so understandably inclined to cobble together whatever externalized security we can derive from name, fame, fortune, and the like.

Though we could be in any of many places besides this outer condition of consciousness, we will not be anywhere but there so long as we remain unknowingly addicted to the lure of our own fascination with novelty. Drawn into the conscious mind by intrigue, curiosity and desire, and hounded there by fear, we seek a seeming safety in a fortress we build around a false sense of “I.” Although this hard-walled stronghold of wrong identity makes us insensitive and tough, we perpetuate it at all costs—even when it begins to cost more than the sense of security it was created to nurture and protect.

Thus it is that a primary objective of yoga is to withdraw from the conscious state of mind—when we are ready, of course, for how could such withdrawal occur otherwise? When we are finally ready and withdrawal does finally occur, the conscious state of mind becomes an object of study and a point of focus for internalizing rather than externalizing awareness.

Yogas - Variations on a Theme

There is yoga and there are yogas. To be more specific, it could be said of yoga, and the family of yogas it has become, what might be said of anything made manifest: “First there was one; then there was more than one.” Such proliferation could not really be dubbed beneficial or not any more than a cell dividing or a couple having children could be considered helpful or not. It’s simply a natural consequence of the life of something—anything—doing what it does, which is (among other things) to bloom out of innate simplicity into manifest complexity. Lion plus cubKnown history maintains that yoga was officially codified as a practice by a man named Patanjali who lived about 200 BCE. Although the Vedic Upanishads indicate yoga was practiced at least a thousand years before Patanjali was born, Patanjali has been given credit for getting yoga established in an official way because he was apparently the first person to write down a coherent description of it.

In his terse handbook, the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali laid out a set of disciplines he called ashtanga yoga, “the yoga of eight limbs.” This ashtanga yoga came to be known as raja yoga, “the king of yogas.”

The “eight limbs” or progressive steps of ashtanga yoga are yamas (restraints), niyamas (observances), asana (posture), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (mystic oneness).

Although ashtanga yoga was originally conceived as a one system, parts of it have been separated out to become yogas in themselves. Prominent among these are hatha yoga, highlighting body development; kriya yoga, emphasizing breath control; and jnana yoga, featuring introspection. Knowledgeable yogis also assert that karma yoga, focusing upon selfless service, and bhakti yoga, focusing upon devotion, were derived from the yamas and niyamas of Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga.

The spawning of these first spin-off yogas inspired the development of other yogas out of Pantajali’s original ashtanga yoga. These included japa yoga, nada yoga, and kundalini yoga. Through the passage of time, even more yogas came—many of them named after their teachers or the places they were originally taught. This snowballing multiplication of yogas continues today. But it all started with Patanjali and his ashtanga yoga.

The greatest good that has come from the proliferation of yoga into yogas has been its extensive development through specialization. The basic pranayama of raja yoga, for instance, which originally offered only a simple means of preparing for meditation by controlling breath to calm body, mind and emotions, got sophisticated into kriya yoga. Kriya yoga is a system of breathing exercises so elaborate and complete within itself it offers a path to God Realization through breath control alone.

The greatest harm that has come from yoga’s proliferation has been its frequent forfeit of original intent. Since the literal meaning of the word yoga is “to bind back,” as in binding back to source, it should not seem unreasonable that a practice called yoga should be yoga in the truest sense of the word. Yet, many of the specialized yogas that have developed out of raja yoga are not binding back to source as much as they are bounding forward toward some end or ideal within their own area of expertise. Hatha yoga, for instance, is often taught only as physical exercise for physical health.

The most intriguing evolution of raja yoga from its inception to the present has been its successful absorption back into itself of that which blossomed out of it into specialization. When this amalgamation of developed-new back into stable-old is allowed to occur wisely, which usually means under the guidance of a qualified teacher, those developed parts getting merged back do not change the original structure of that from whence they came as much as they support and enhance that structure. Thus, it may be said, in best-case scenarios, today’s raja yoga has not lost the house it built but has instead gained for that house a constructive reinforcement.

In yoga as in life, knowledge is power. Because this is true, we can be sure the foundational knowledge we bring to any yoga we practice will most certainly increase that yoga’s benefits tremendously. Yet, to maximize these benefits, we must assimilate this knowledge we bring with the desire we have. As of now, 39 steps into our journey, we have a fairly healthy stockpile of knowledge. What we might be lacking, however, is a clear and honest perception of exactly what we want out of our yoga practice right now.

It is not so important that we want yoga’s ultimate “binding back” right from the start of our practice. Higher desires cannot be forced. But they can be enticed. Yoga—however it is practiced and for whatever purpose—entices the high through an overall overhaul of the low.

Breath: Life of Body, Leader of Mind

lionHave you ever noticed that your breathing slows and occasionally stops when you concentrate deeply, and your concentration diffuses out offocus when you breathe deeply? Awareness literally moves on breath. For awareness to be still, breath must decelerate and occasionally pause. For awareness to move, breath must become active.

Practices built on a recognition of this connection between breath and awareness are designed to help develop what is often referred to as “mind control,” but might more appropriately be called awareness control. The working principle here is that awareness, which is not physical, can be controlled through the skillful manipulation of breath, which is physical. This is a most practical teaching. It states that, if we find our awareness fixed in a place we do not want it to be, we can unfix it by simply breathing deeply. Conversely, if we like where our awareness is, we can keep it fixed there by calming the breath into stillness.

The first practitioners of yoga thought of breath as life. Hence, their term for breath control was pranayama, literally “the control of life force.” As those early yogis and yoginis worked with this life control, they learned that pranayama could boost physical health by enhancing the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the physical body. They also learned that pranayama could bring an element of transcendent control to both yoga and life.

There are many pranayamas. All pranayamas are significantly strengthened when they are performed rhythmically. A rhythmic pranayama is a breath control that is measured with a counting that is felt as a pulse. Rhythm brings hypnotic cadence to breath control and makes it enjoyably sustainable. It also awakens a powerful mysticism.

From a mystical perspective, rhythm is a trance-building pulsation of doing interspersed with being—each pulse is a do; the space between each pulse is a be—that can yield, in any action performed rhythmically, nearly limitless power. Such a marvelous potential is too often left sleeping in life, but not in yoga. In yoga, rhythm is extolled for all its worth.