If you missed our yoga conference at the end of July, you missed a great discussion on Eddie Stern’s new book on yoga, One Simple Thing. In this post, I’ll try to summarize the highlights of the discussion for those who couldn’t make it. I would encourage anyone with an interest in yoga to read Eddie’s new book. It’s one of the best books on the practice of yoga that I have read in a long time.
What is yoga?
Eddie’s book pulls together many of the classical Indian texts on yoga to give a clear idea of both the practice and the state of yoga. He reminds us of the big picture with respect to what yoga is and why we might take up the practice. If we remember the eight limbs of yoga from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, then we have an idea that the ultimate direction of yoga is samadhi. But, what exactly is that and do regular practitioners have any chance of experiencing it?
On page 12, Eddie answers those questions this way:
“But for yoga practice which was classified as a spiritual discipline in later years during the Upanishadic age (800-500 B.C.E.), the correct derivation is from yuj samadau, which means roughly, that yoga is a special type of concentration, called samadhi. Samadhi means “absorption”, and it is a natural tendency of the mind to become absorbed in things, whether thoughts, objects, work, ideas, a love interest, or goals. When it comes to absorbing the mind in spiritual pursuits, the mind is said to take the form of that which we are contemplating, and eventually, that deep level of absorption leads to the insight and experience of our true nature. ”
So, now we have defined yoga as a special kind of a state of absorption. This sounds like hopeful news to me, as simply being absorbed in something feels like a state that is familiar and achievable. Children naturally fall into whatever they’re engaged in. I can remember playing legos as a child and losing awareness of time because I was fully absorbed in what I was engaged with in that moment. As adults, we might have a few more challenges on the path to absorption — emails vying for attention, cell phones cheeping, and social media chiming can make choosing to focus on one thing feel more effortful — but absorption feels like a direction I can go in.
Moving towards samadhi
An additional idea that Eddie suggests, which feels like good news to me, is the idea that having a mind in a distracted state is the perfect state in which to begin a yoga practice! He defines the distracted mind as one which is calm and focused sometimes and then gets distracted sometimes. This is a great place to begin yoga because we can notice the difference between how we feel when our mind is calm and focused versus when our mind is distracted. He suggests the way forward to a mind that doesn’t vacillate back and forth between focused and distracted is moving our experience of yoga from a “state” of mind to a permanent “trait” of mind.
What about asana?
So where then does yoga asana, our practice of doing poses on the mat, come in to the big picture idea of yoga? Eddie shares this about asana on page 35: “By working with our bodies, we work with the mind, heart, and emotions at the same time…The word asana is made up of two parts: as, ‘to sit’ and ana, ‘breath’. To do an asana is to literally sit with your breath, or sit in a special way and breathe.”
So, I take away two things from that piece that Eddie shares. 1) When we do asana we are working on and with the mind. Yes, we are using the body as our tool, but the focus is directed toward the impact that we’re having on the mind. 2) Breath is an absolutely essential part of doing asana. Without attention to cultivating the breathing, it isn’t yoga asana.
What about vinyasa?
So how do we then use the tools that we work with in the Ashtanga yoga practice, specifically moving with the idea of vinyasa, to develop a calm, focused mind?
Eddie has this to say about the idea of vinyasa on page 50: “In Pattabhi Jois’s vinyasa, breath occurs as the body moves into, or out of a single position, but is not concerned with flowing into the next. This is a subtle point, but an important one, because when you are concerned with flowing into the next pose, your mind is looking to the future. When you are concerned with the breath within one posture, or one movement, your mind is in the present moment, which is where yoga wants us to be.”
This idea reminds me how we can use the tools of asana to cultivate focus and equanimity. The use of the breath to absorb us in the present moment is the practice. It is not achieving the posture, but rather it’s being absorbed in the process of experiencing the breath in the posture.
More on cultivating a calm, focused mind
Eddie goes on to offer this on page 86: “…yoga is both a practice and a state of concentration, or rather, it is the practice of developing the type of mind that reflects awareness and is therefore steady, open, aware, at ease. This is a trait of mind.”
So, he’s saying with practice then, we can move from having a frequently distracted mind to experiencing a state of concentration more often, ultimately experiencing that state of absorption as a permanent trait — samadhi. Great motivation for practice!