BOOK REVIEW: Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali ed. by B.K.S. Iyengar

Light on the Yoga Sūtras of PatañjaliLight on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali by B.K.S. Iyengar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

The “Yoga Sutras” are 196 aphorisms about yoga that were penned by a sage named Patanjali around 400 CE (i.e. AD.) Unless you’re a Sanskrit scholar with expertise in the history of yoga and the region that birthed it, it’s hard to gain anything from reading the Sutras directly. The Sutras are written in a terse style in a sparse language, and so most readers aren’t equipped to interpret them – which takes not only knowing the language but have some understanding of the context in which they were written. This means the Sutras are most commonly packaged into a book-length manuscript that includes not only the translation but also analysis and commentary.

There are many such books available, but the challenge is to find one that: a.) comes as close to the original meaning as possible without either misunderstanding or tainting the meaning with the translator’s and / or commentator’s worldview / ideas / ego; b.) is approachable to a modern reader. With respect to the latter, it’s easy to find free translations on the web, but often these were produced over a century ago, and can make for challenging reading for today’s readers. While it may seem like it would be closer to the source material, it can also be thought of as injecting another layer of culture in between the original and the present-day reader.

The Sutras are organized into four sections. The first section introduces the reader to yoga and explains the state of mind called Samadhi. The second section outlines the eight-fold practice of yoga called Ashtanga Yoga. The eight limbs include the two aspects of yogic ethics, yama and niyama, as well as postural yoga (asana,) breath exercises (pranayama,) sensory withdrawal (pratyahara,) concentration (dharana,) meditation (dhyana,) and the aforementioned Samadhi. The third section focuses on the super-normal abilities yogis are said to achieve, along with a warning that the pursuit of these abilities can become a fatal attraction with respect to one’s growth. The final section discusses the liberation, that is the ultimate objective of the practice of yoga.

The organization of this volume makes it suitable for readers of a wide range of levels of experience and scholarly understanding, and allows a reader to benefit from a shallow or deep approach to reading / research of the Sutras. It includes the original Sanskrit, then a Romanized alphabet phonetic write up of the original Sanskrit Sutra, and then a listing of the various meanings for each of the Sanskrit word. Then it has the English translation of the Sutra as literal as possible. Finally, there is B.K.S. Iyengar’s commentary and analysis. Sometimes these elaborations are just a few lines and sometimes they’re a few pages, but most commonly each is about one page. I like the approach of providing the original as well as information that facilitates the reader systematically piecing together his or her own understanding of each Sutra. I think it shows both humility and eagerness to support students on the part of the editor.

There are various appendices, indexes, and a glossary to make the book more useful.
This isn’t the first book of translation and commentary of the Sutras that I’ve read. However, it is the most readable, approachable, and useful that I’ve read. I would highly recommend this book for all practitioners of yoga.

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My Year of Discovering How Weird the Mind Gets, Pt. II [the Tank]

Source: Wikipedia via Floatguru

This is the second installment in my series of posts examining experiences with altered states of consciousness. This month I visited a float tank, what would have at one point been called a “sensory deprivation chamber” or an “isolation tank,” but now days they are called by more soothing sounding names such as R.E.S.T. [for “restricted environmental sensory therapy”] chamber. I like “flotation tank” because it’s the most neutral term, but it doesn’t necessarily convey what this technology does — which is to place one in body temperature water loaded with Epsom salt (increasing buoyancy) and cut out as much light and sound as possible by enclosing one in an insulated pod.

[Before I proceed, those interested in reading the first installment of this series, describing my experience with psilocybin mushroom tea — and which lays out my plan for the year — can find that post here.]

Withdrawing from sensory stimulation has a long history here in India. In yoga, it’s called pratyahara, and it’s one of the eight limbs of yoga described by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras that date back to around 400 CE (that’s AD for the old school.) Of course, back in the day pratyahara was practiced in a cave or other isolated spot that cut one off from light, heat / cold, and sound as much as possible.

However, the technological approach is quite new in India. I visited 1000 Petals in Bangalore, which — as far as I know — is the first commercial float tank in India, and is — excepting the one at the company’s newer Mumbai (Bombay) location — among the only commercial tanks in the country as of now. [By “commercial” tanks, I mean only those that customers from the general public may visit. Who knows how may private tanks exist among India’s spice, coffee, and industrial barons? However, it’s an expensive piece of hardware for a private individual to own and maintain.]

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but had some basis for guesses. The general expectation is that with less stimulation, the brain both dials up awareness of the limited available input and may even start to create false signals. I’ve had experiences during meditation with under-stimulated sensory systems “acting up” in the face of reduced input — though this has primarily been during extended sessions of meditation. During the Vipassana 10-day meditation course, I frequently had morphing shapes play out scenes on the inside of my eyelids  — purple on a black background — and on occasion heard vivid music in my head (but which I knew was solely in my head.) Also, on a number of occasions during the Vipassana course, I had sensations that my body was stretching toward the ceiling.  I once even had an intense flowery scent that I’m not sure was an olfactory hallucination or a combination of the wind blowing just right to bring pollen into the meditation hall and my sensory attentiveness being dialed up to eleven due to under-stimulation. With possible exception of the flower smell, I never had any experience that would meet the common conception of a hallucination — i.e. sensory experience that I couldn’t tell whether was real or false. [Except in as much as I have only a vague notion of what being “real” means. An approximation suitable to getting through life in polite society.]

The question of the moment is whether the experience matched or defied my expectations? The general answer is, “both, in some measure.” Where it matched my expectations was in the fact that it was extremely relaxing. I spent much of the hour in a hypnogogic state (the state on the edge between wakefulness and sleep) and came out of the tank in the comfortably numb state that I associate with a good massage.  Unlike meditation, where one starts to have back aches and leg pains that detract from comfort, keep one awake, and eventually cause endorphins to surge through one’s system, the flotation tank makes one as comfortable as one can be from the outset. This doesn’t mean that the tank cuts one off from all tactile sensation. Just because the temperature matches one’s body and one is floating so as to not be in contact with anything but salty water, doesn’t mean one becomes completely numb. Sensations do arise, and, even though they might be so subtle that they ordinarily wouldn’t draw one’s attention, one becomes aware of them because one’s mind is so yearning for input.

The biggest way in which the flotation tank defied my expectation was the utter lack of response to the dearth of visual signal. At one point I realized I could get a little of that purple on black shape-shifting that I experienced in Vipassana, but only if I consciously turned my attention to the underside of my eyelids. It didn’t force its way to the center of my attention like it had during Vipassana. There are several factors I can imagine playing into this disparity. For one, the float tank session was just one hour, where as the Vipassana course days lasted about ten hours on the mat. For another, the float tank was pitch black or as near to it as my eyes were capable of discriminating, whereas the mediation hall had windows and was merely dim. A more personal possibility is that, having done a lot of meditation in the intervening time, my mind isn’t as distressed by a lack of sensory input as it once was.

I can’t say that my mind didn’t respond to the lack of sensory stimulation at all. It just didn’t seem to respond to the lack of visual input. I didn’t opt to wear ear plugs (which were available,) but the water went into my ears and — except for some initial sensation while settling in — there was very little to be heard. Mostly, I could hear my own breathing and occasionally hear / feel my pulse. [I found I could dully hear external sounds in the bass range such as construction workers pounding or a helicopter flying over, but not at a level that was distracting, and my mind didn’t  do anything with these stray sounds.]

As there was no smell to speak of and I could only taste the inside of my mouth if I turned my attention to it, this left tactile sensation as my primary source of stimulation. It’s funny, there is little to feel it would seem, but because one’s nervous system dials into what’s there, it begins to feel like one is laying in a perfectly form-fitting solid rather than on a liquid. And I became acutely aware of any sensations that came along. I didn’t have any strange “Alice-in-Wonderland Syndrome-eque” sensations like stretching or melting that I’ve experienced to a limited degree in meditation (possibly because those experiences may have resulted from an endorphin dump.)  I did have a couple instances of leg twitch in the hypnogogic state, and I couldn’t feel the twitch at all because the leg wasn’t against anything solid, but I knew it happened from the ripples lapping up against my torso. 

So, long story short, my mind didn’t behave strangely when subjected to an hour of sensory reduction. It was very relaxing and brought about an extended hypnogogic state — oddly without the imagery that I usually associate with that state.

Looking ahead: Next month, I’m going to be in the more familiar territory of meditation. However, I’ll be looking to see if ramping up the intensity of my practice to at least one hour every single day, produces any interesting outcomes. In April, I’ll be attending an introductory level workshop of the Institute for Clinical Hypnosis and Related Sciences (ICHARS) to learn how to extend my familiarity with hypnotic trance induction from self-hypnosis to working with others.

2019: A Year Finding Out How Weird the Mind Gets, Pt I [The Mushroom]

For the past five years, since I moved to India, I’ve been studying what my mind is and what it’s capable of. I’ve used tried and true methods, including: yogic dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation) techniques, Vipassana meditation,  dream yoga/ lucid dreaming [albeit, with limited success,] and the practice of self-hypnosis.

In 2019, while continuing the trend, I’m going to get into the weeds and see how strange the mind gets. I was originally going to entitle this “My Year of Exploring Varieties of Conscious Experience,” but that sounded punishingly boring. The current title may come off as frivolous, but I hope is more intriguing as well.

The year has begun, and so has my year of exploration. January was the month in which I first experienced psilocybe cubensis — what the kids call “magic mushroom” or “shrooms.” I should point out that — besides alcohol and caffeine — this was my first experience with any mind or mood altering substance. [With the exception of one afternoon thirty years ago when I was prescribed Tylenol with Codeine after having all four wisdom teeth pulled — an event that probably remains the most bizarre mental experience of my life.]

I’d like to be able to say that I’m the type who boldly tries out new things with derring-do, but those who know me know I’m the kind who reads hundreds of pages of research and commentary and then cautiously dips a toe into the waters. Among the extensive pre-experience reading I did was Michael Pollan’s excellent book, How to Change Your Mind and a study finding psilocybin mushrooms to be the safest of the mind and mood altering substances. (Yes, that includes being much safer than alcohol — a finding, the veracity of which, I have not a doubt. Those curious about this topic are encouraged to see Drugs without the Hot Air by David Nutt, which delves into how society’s approach to such substances can be absurd and without merit in logic. Nutt was famously fired from a government position in Britain for openly stating that alcohol and nicotine are both considerably more dangerous /damaging than a number of prohibited substances)

What was my experience like? Strange and fascinating. However, even at the time, I found myself wondering whether I was cursed with knowledge. How much did all that reading and research influence my experience for the good, the bad, or the indifferent? I don’t know, perhaps a lot, but maybe not at all. I’ll give some examples. One of the early and persistent effects was seeing the world overwritten in prismatic geometric forms. The closest I could describe this is to imagine the shapes seen in jaali — the latticed windows seen in Indo-Islamic architecture — but with a repeating “echo” of lines and a kind of rainbow prismatic effect.

Jaali

I suspect this is a neuro-chemical effect of the substance on one’s brain, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether my experience was trained by having read Aldous Huxley’s descriptions of “sacred geometries” during his own experience. (Of course, it also makes me wonder what Indo-Islamic craftsmen and architects might have been taking.)

As I mentioned, I could see where prior knowledge could have both positive and negative influences on the experience. I’ll start with an example of a possible positive effect of prior knowledge. One thing the reader needs to understand is that the physicist’s conception that things at rest will stay at rest and things in motion will stay in motion doesn’t hold in the mental world of psilocybin — everything goes into motion. It could be the breathing letters of a word on the page or the gentle writhing of a house plant, but not much just sits there. As I stared up at the ceiling, the staples that held the cable to the ceiling fan in place became blocky ants on the march, and soon any dot anywhere became an ant on the move. Now, I can imagine how this might stir in some people a “bad trip,” freaking out about the infestation. However, my mind always somehow recognized that the animation of those still objects was in my brain and not in the room. I was trained to think of these experiences as the effect of a serotonin mimic going hog-wild inside my brain, and I never thought that maybe I’d kicked open Huxley’s famed “Doors of Perception” and something real was now on display to me that I couldn’t ordinarily see. [Though I can’t eliminate that possibility.]

However, I also must wonder whether I might have had a grand breakthrough or experience of enlightenment (probably little-e) — as many claim to have had — if my experience wasn’t so grounded. I scribbled about seven and a half pages while I was “tripping,” and I was very curious about whether it would be gibberish or pure illumination. It was neither. About half my sentences broke off about 2/3rds of the way through, but those that I could make out were not wide the mark of my day-to-day philosophy. It reflected the diminished self and euphoria of the experience (which I’ve  also experienced in meditation), but wasn’t otherworldly. I will say, my psilocybin self was a wee bit bolder, realizing that — like a dog chasing its tail — if I ever captured the understanding I seek, the fun would be blanched from life. The closest thing to a revelation was that I needed to embrace my ignorance — a conclusion my sober self had already come to acceptance of in its bolder moments.

What are my recommendations if you plan to partake of a cup of mushroom tea? Make sure your environment is not overstimulating. Make sure there is nothing fear or anxiety inducing in the area (perhaps including knowing the legal status where you are.) Have a calm state of mind. Realize that for about 30 for 45 minutes you will think the tea had no effect upon you and the strangeness will come on gradually. Some people say you should have someone around. I don’t know that I’d say it’s necessary, (unless you have anxiety issues and then you might not want to partake without seeking medical advice)  but if you do make sure it’s not someone who gets on your nerves.

So what is next? February will be the month in which I try out a sensory deprivation float tank. In yoga, one of the legs of practice is pratyahara (withdrawal from the senses.) I’m fascinated to see what effect the body temperature Epsom salt water has — if any — over and above closed-eye meditation in a dim room.

My tentative schedule is:

January  —  Mushroom — check

February — Sensory Deprivation Float Tank

March — 30 days of hour-long meditations

April — Hypnosis (attending an intensive workshop)

May — EEG feedback meditation

June — Tummo / Wim Hof Method / Holotropic Breathwork

July — extensive Yogic dharana  and dhyana practice

August —  resumption of dream yoga / lucid dreaming practices

September — periodic fasting (and, maybe, controlled sleep deprivation)

October — Biofeedback pranayama (breathing exercises)

November — Poetry of the Subconscious Mind

December  — mixed practices, putting it all together

I plan to keep up documentation of my practice, and hope you’ll follow along when I post something. I’m also interested to hear about the experiences of others regarding these and other consciousness related practices. I don’t know how strange it’ll get, but things might get pretty weird.

5 Seated Meditation Postures & How to Choose the One Right for You

Sukhasana (Easy Pose)

5.) Sukhasana (Easy Pose): One simply folds the legs so that each leg rests on top of the opposite foot. This is a popular crossed legged seated posture. For reasons to be explained, it’s usually not considered a meditative posture.

Pros: As the name suggests, it’s an easy seat for most people to assume. Because the leg is resting on the opposite foot, the knees don’t have to (re: can’t) lay flat on the floor, and so this is pose is more comfortable for practitioners with tight glutes or who otherwise can’t open their hips — for short time periods at least.

Cons: The downside of not putting the knees down, is that the posture is not nearly so stable as the others that will be mentioned. Instead of a big triangle running from one’s sit-bones out to the knees and between each knee, one is resting on a small triangle with the gap between the sit-bones as its base. Furthermore, there will be a pronounced tendency to slump in the back in this pose, and this makes Sukhasana not ideal for sitting more than a few minutes.

Notes: As I mentioned, this isn’t a good meditative posture because it’s unstable and prone to back pain over relatively short periods. I mention it here because many beginners can only manage to do this pose. If that is the case for you, you will probably want to look at using props to achieve a comfortable position (e.g. lifting the hips), if you intend to practice more than five minutes or so.

 

Swastikasana (Auspicious Pose)

4.) Swastikasana (Auspicious Pose): Note: this pose and the next (Siddhasana – Accomplished Pose) are quite similar, and it’s hard to see the difference in photos, but I’ve added a couple pictures and some text description to try to clarify the difference. Bend the left knee and place the left sole against the inside of the right thigh. One will then bend the right leg and, squeezing the left foot into the space at the crook of the right leg, tuck the right foot into the space between the left thigh and calf muscle. Tucking the feet in is important to making the posture comfortable — particularly the bottom one, which can be compressed if not positioned properly.

The difference between this pose and Siddhasana is simply that the heels aren’t aligned on one’s center-line, but rather the left heel will be to the right side of one’s center-line and the right heel will be to the left. If one’ imagines the line below were straight and on the body’s center-line, one can see how Swastikasana has the heels / ankles offset.

Pros: The posture is much more stable than Sukhasana and, while not quite as wide a the base as Siddhasana, it avoids Siddhasana‘s disruption of circulation caused by the bottom heel being pressed against the perineum / genitals (depending upon gender.) That makes Swastikasana‘s strength its position on the middle ground. It’s stable enough for meditation but doesn’t require as much flexibility in externally rotating the thighs as does Padmasana (Lotus Pose.)

Cons: Some people (including the author) have troubles squeezing the feet into the gaps between thigh and calf — i.e. if one has thick legs, it can be problematic. Both this pose and Siddhasana are contra-indicated for those with sciatica or sacral infection (Sacroiliitis.) Some traditionalists would say that the lack of stimulation to the moola bandha / perineum is a con as well.

Notes: Both this posture and Siddhasana can be practiced with either leg folded first, and many teachers recommend alternating for those students who spend a lot of time in meditative poses, because the postures aren’t symmetrical and muscular asymmetries may develop if one always does it on the same side.

 

Siddhasana (Accomplished Pose)

3.) Siddhasana (Accomplished Pose): As mentioned, the gist of this pose is the same as Swastikasana, except that the bottom heel will be aligned on one’s center-line, pressing into the perineum lightly, and the heel of the top foot will be in alignment with the bottom foot. (Note: Males will probably have to do some genital re-positioning to make this position comfortable.)

The picture below shows how the heels are aligned on the body’s center-line.

Pros:  While not without controversy, many teachers propose that having the heel pressing into one’s body has advantages in stimulating the moola bandha – including helping the practitioner be chaste.

Cons: The aforementioned controversy involves potential damage done by long-term disruption of blood flow in the area. It should be pointed out that there’s no reason to think that short term pressing of the heel into the groin — as is done in janu shirshasana (head-to-knee pose) — is problematic. However, meditation may involve much longer disruption in blood flow. So while some opponents of Siddhasana would agree that it helps attain chastity, they might argue that potentially causing impotence is not an ideal way to achieve that control over one’s sexuality — if control is even needed in the first place. 

Note: When practiced by women, this posture is sometimes referred to as Siddha Yoni Asana, which just reflects that contact point with the heel is a bit different owing to differences in anatomy in the region.

 

Ardha Padmasana (Half Lotus Pose)

2.) Ardha Padmasana (Half Lotus Pose): The left foot will be folded in so that the left sole rests on the right inner thigh, much as in Swastikasana, and the right foot will be folded up into one’s left hip crease with the left heel as close to the navel as possible. One may need a prop (e.g. block or rolled up towel) under one’s elevated knee — especially for long term sitting. As mentioned with regards the previous two poses, this pose can be practiced on either side, giving one the opportunity to work out the asymmetries.

Pros: Half lotus offers some of Padmasana‘s (Lotus Pose) advantage in terms of stability in the lower back, without having to have quite as much flexibility in external rotation of the thigh. As a person with thick legs, but flexible hips, I find ardha padmasana and padmasana tend to be more comfortable than the preceding poses for me, personally.

Cons: The asymmetry of this pose is considerable, and failure to balance it out will be problematic. Also, if one doesn’t have sufficient hip flexibility, one may end up putting a dangerous torque onto the knee joint.

 

Padmasana (Lotus Pose)

1.) Padmasana (Lotus Pose): One will take the left leg and fold it so as to put the left foot into the crease of one’s right hip with the left heel as close to the navel as possible. One will then take the right foot and folding it over the top of the left so that it comes to rest at one’s left hip crease. One may want to (or need to) press both knees inward to get the legs into a stable position.

Pros: This posture is not only very stable; the lower back achieves a tension that allows one to keep one’s back upright for much longer periods of time without the back starting to slump — leading to the back pain inherent in that slump.

Cons: This takes: a.) a fairly high level of hip flexibility; b.) strong knees that will not become damaged by the torque of getting into or maintaining the pose; c.) the ability to live with discomfort, because it will be somewhat uncomfortable at first even if one has flexible hips and strong knees.

Note: For meditations of less than 30 – 40 minutes, I find padmasana to be the most comfortable and stable pose. However — at least with my thick legs — disruption of circulation of both blood and lymph becomes problematic for longer practices, and in longer meditations I tend to use poses with hips elevated and legs loosely crossed.

 

This is by no means a comprehensive list of seated poses used in meditation. Notably, there is the posture vajrasana (thunderbolt pose), in which one is seated back on one’s heels with the knees pointing in front of one. Since this pose puts the entire body weight onto the lower legs, circulation disruption can be substantial over long periods. Virasana is similar, but one sits down between the feet, which is challenging for the knees. While both of these postures may be hard to hold in their classic form for extended periods of meditation, variations using props — e.g. a bolster — may be the perfect solution for students who have trouble with all of the poses listed above.

5 Notes on Bending Over Backwards to be a Good Yogi

Chakrasana (Wheel Pose) in Himachal Pradesh

There are a few challenges that I observe regularly regarding back bends. Back bending poses can be difficult for a number of reasons, running from spinal processes (the bony projections on the back of a vertebrae) that simply won’t allow much range of motion to anxiety that may prevent practitioners who have the range of motion from performing these poses because of fear of falls or injury.

5.) Range of motion in the shoulders in Wheel pose (Chakrasana): The most frequent difficulty I see with wheel pose is an inability to get the hands under the shoulders when one lifts up into the pose. In the picture above, notice how one can see the face (or at least the nose and chin) forward of the arms. Often the head is well inside the arms, and this means that one is trying to hold oneself up with an unfavorable alignment. Physics isn’t on your side. Parents who’ve tried to hold a baby with a poopy diaper at arm’s length will know how heavy an otherwise light child can be when cantilevered out from the shoulders. Same idea with trying to do wheel pose with hands that aren’t under the shoulders.

 

Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose); note: navel on floor and arms bent

Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Up Dog); Note: weight is all on tops of feet and palms, i.e. thighs / knees are off the ground

4.) Mixing up Cobra pose and Up Dog: This is probably the most common back bending problem that I see. Practitioners straighten out arms in Cobra pose (with thighs resting on the mat.) Why is this a problem? Because, unless the individual has the spine of a Beijing acrobat, the practitioner will have a huge kink in his or her back and one spinal process will be ramming into the spine below it. One needs to lengthen the spine as one stretches it in order to avoid kinks (all the bending coming at one point with a great deal of pressure at that spot.) One can straighten the arms in up-dog because the spine is elongating downward by virtue of the legs hanging rather than resting.

A major cause of this problem seems to be that individuals with hyper-kyphosis (excessive rounding of the chest region of the spine) have great difficulty lifting up their chest because they are working against that excessive rounding. (And increasing numbers of people have this condition.)

 

“Ears between the arms,” the constant refrain.

3.) Excessive neck bending: If an individual doesn’t have a large range of motion in her spine or is anxious about back bends, many times she will tilt her head back to create the impression of back bending. This can cause undue strain on the neck, not to mention delusions of spinal flexibility.

 

Vrischikasana (Scorpion pose)

2.) Don’t forget the psychology: I must admit, I’ve only ever taught scorpion pose in kids’ classes, but I’ve taught it in quite a few such classes. Kids love it as much as adults find it terrifying. As I’ve mentioned several times, some practitioner’s problem with back bends is rooted more in anxiety than anatomy. What I’ve come to realize is that it’s important to treat both of those causes with respect and compassion.

This may be an extension of my realization that it’s important to treat with compassion those whose weakness is strength, just as does one whose weakness is weakness. “Weakness is strength?” That doesn’t seem to make any sense. But the first “weakness” I’m referring to is yogic weakness — i.e. having a turbulent mind. Yogic weakness can result from weakness in terms of being frail and fearful of injury, but it can also result from delusions of grandeur and other mental handicaps that result from being strong.

 

Bactrian Camel in Nubra Valley

1.) Go to the Himalayas, and try a camel: The options abound.

Ustrasana (Camel pose)

BOOK REVIEW: Be As You Are ed. by David Godman

Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana MaharshiBe As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi by Ramana Maharshi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

In the early days of yoga, before there was Power Yoga or Yin Yoga — or even Hatha Yoga or Raja Yoga, there were three approaches to yoga. Bhakti yoga was devotional yoga, the yoga of the believers who pursued the path through worship. Karma yoga was the yoga of action: practiced by doing selfless deeds. Jnana yoga, often said to the hardest, was the path of knowledge, and it involved intense study and – in particular – introspective study of the jnani’s own mind. Sri Ramana Maharshi was one of the most well-known Jnana yogis of modern times (he lived from 1879 to 1950.)

This book presents Sri Ramana’s teachings in a question and answer format. The editor, David Godman, begins each chapter with an overview of Ramana’s views on the subject at hand, and he then launches into the Q&A exchange that makes up most of each chapter. The preludes are beneficial not only because they set up the topic, but also because they help separate Ramana’s core beliefs from the way he occasionally explained matters to non-jnani’s or those who weren’t ready to grasp what he believed was the fundamental teaching. (There’s a fair amount of, “Until you realize the self, X is true, but after you achieve self-realization Y will be true.)

Sri Ramana’s central teaching is that the jnani must actively inquire about the nature of the true self (a practice called atma-vichara, or self-inquiry.) As such, the book is organized as a guide to building a practice of self-inquiry.

The book’s 21 chapters are divided among six parts. The first part investigates the self as Sri Ramana refers to it. This isn’t the individual self that one is normally referring to in common speech. Part II is entitled “Inquiry and Surrender” and three out of the four chapters, herein, discuss the process of self-inquiry. Three chapters may sound like a lot, but this practice really is the core of jnana yoga. These chapters not only explain how self-inquiry is done and what it’s supposed to achieve, they also contrast the practice with others that bear a resemblance to atma-vichara, such as reciting “Who am I?” as a mantra, as well as, neti-neti — an exercise in negation in which one considers all the things that aren’t the self (e.g. “I am not my body.” “I am not this thought,” etc.)

Part III is about Gurus and transmission of teachings. It takes on such questions as: is a Guru necessary, and what constitutes a Guru (i.e. must it be a living human? Can it be a book?) The second chapter in this part is about sat-sang, which may be literally translated as “sitting with the guru,” but refers to a kind of transference that flows from being together.

Part IV is on meditation and yoga. Sri Ramana differentiates self-inquiry from meditation, though superficially they seem to be similar activities. He discusses dharana (concentration) and mantras in these chapters as well. One inclusion that may seem unrelated to the general theme is chapter 12, which is about the four-stage model of life called the asramas (student, householder, hermit, ascetic.) The chapter on yoga is about the eight limbs of yoga described by Patanjali, and their relevance to the practice of Jnana yogi. It should be noted that Ramana downplays the importance of these practices to the jnana yogi (a.k.a. Jnani) with the exception of pranayama (breathing exercises.)

Part V discusses samadhi, siddhi (supernormal psychic powers that some yogis believe can be achieved), and other challenges and phenomena that may be experienced during one’s practice of self-inquiry. While superpowers sound cool, Sri Ramana (as well as Patanjali) warned against he pursuit of these abilities as they become distractions from obtaining self-realization.

That last five chapters are grouped under the title of “Theory.” These chapters deal in the big “meaning of life” kind of philosophical questions. Much of these chapters consist of Ramana telling the interviewer to stop over-intellectualizing about obscure philosophical matters and start asking oneself who is asking the question (in other words, get back to self-inquiry and forget about abstract navel-gazing.) At any rate, the questions include: was the universe created, and – if so – how? is reincarnation real? what is the nature of god? is karma real? is free will real? etc. They are fascinating questions, and Ramana offers a few intriguing ideas, but mostly discounts the value of philosophizing.

There are no graphics in this book, but there is a glossary, notes, and a bibliography.

I found this book to be thought-provoking. At times it can be a bit repetitive. The key point that Ramana sought to get across is (in theory, not practice) straightforward. At times it seems like the questioner is badgering the witness because he doesn’t like the answer, such as when Godman wants Sri Ramana to elaborate on the nature of suffering and the need for compassionate acts. Ramana keeps telling Godman to just go back to self-inquiry and all will take care of itself. That said, Sri Ramana offers some fascinating thoughts, and generates beautiful food-for-thought.

I’d recommend this book for anyone who wants to know more about jnana yoga or to get a different take on the philosophy of yoga in general.

View all my reviews

5 Books About the Mental Side of Yoga


5.) Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi: This book, which is presented in Q&A format, explores Sri Ramana’s approach to Jñāna yoga, and explains atma-vichara, the exercise of self-enquiry that Ramana proposed was the key to self-realization.

 

4.) Supernormal by Dean Radin: Okay, this is an unconventional choice for the list but bear with me. (I mostly included it because I like to have an under-the-radar entry in these lists, and this seems like one that could have been missed readers of works on yoga.) Radin is a paranormal researcher who, in this case, has investigated the topic of siddhi, which are the controversial powers that Patanjali discusses in the third section of The Yoga Sutras, but which many deny are real.

 

3.) Sure Ways to Self-Realization by Swami Satyananda Saraswati: This is the Bihar School of Yoga guide to meditation, and it covers both yogic meditation methods and those from other disciplines (e.g. Buddhism, Taoism, Western / scientific [e.g. biofeedback], etc.) By “meditation,” here I mean more than dhyana. This book uses the word in a broader and more colloquial sense that includes some practices that are normally considered pratyahara (withdrawal of senses) or dharana (concentration.)

 

2.) Yoga Nidra by Swami Satyananda Saraswati:  Yoga Nidra (yogic sleep) is a sustained hypnogogic state — i.e. the state of mind on the edge between wakefulness and falling into sleep. It is used both as an intense relaxation exercise as well as to access the subconscious to plant seeds therein.

 

1.) Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: (Sutras by Patanjali with commentary by B.K.S. Iyengar): This isn’t — strictly speaking — only about the mental side of yoga, but, in the Sutras, Patanjali makes clear that yoga is a tool to advance mental calm and clarity. There are many translations and commentaries available. Commentaries are useful because the 196 sutras are extremely sparse. Iyengar’s book is probably one of the most approachable translation / commentaries for a modern reader.

5 Non-Yoga Video Channels that Are Great Resources for Yoga Teachers

As I’ve been expanding my pranayama (yogic breathing exercises) practice, I’ve found myself searching beyond traditional yogic sources of information at times. It turns out that there are several disciplines from which valuable tidbits of information about breath can be gleaned, including: martial arts, freediving, and physiology.

As I was on a freediving site (shown below, #5) learning some lung capacity expanding exercises, it occurred to me that it might be beneficial to do a post of some of the sources of information that I’ve found useful that wouldn’t necessarily be stumbled upon by those looking for information on yoga.

5.) Adam Freediver: This enthusiastic and whimsical Aussie freediving champion offers fascinating tips on respiration — many of which are of use out of the water as well as in.

4.) Physical Therapy Video: Bob and Brad, Physical Therapists, offer advice and exercises that may be helpful for students with hyperkyphosis (excessive back rounding), duck foot (excessive external rotation of legs), or a number of other common postural / bodily challenges.

3.) SOLPM (The Science of Learning Power Move): This site offers progressions and capacity building exercises that will help one with challenging exercises, e.g. handstands, that most people can’t do without a gradual building up. As with the Adam Freediver channel, not all of the videos are relevant, but a number of them are.

2.) Crash Course:: This witty educational channel presents excellent graphics and a light-hearted and watchable commentary by Hank Green (one of the Vlog Brothers.) The Anatomy and Physiology Series is particularly relevant, but there are select videos in other series — such as Mythology — that one may find illuminating.

1.) TED Talks: Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably familiar with TED, but you may not be aware of the breadth of topics they’ve covered, including meditation, biomechanics, yogic philosophy, breathing, and more.

Honorable Mentions:
Calisthenic Movement: Like SOLPM, this channel can help build up some of the challenging maneuvers, such as handstands, but you may also find out something useful about more rudimentary exercises, such as planks.

ASAP Science: This science channel that uses line-drawn graphics has some interesting and informative videos on topics such as meditation, hypnosis, and nutrition.

5 Fun Facts about Breathing

Annapurna, Nepal; Taken in May of 2018

5.) The Death Zone may be a myth, or — probably more accurately — everyone may have their own personal death zone:

It’s widely stated as fact that above 8,000 meters (26,000 feet) every human being is dying, no human can acclimatize, and the race is on to get back below that altitude before the body is damaged beyond its ability to repair itself. This hard-limit is widely publicized in reputable, mainstream publications such as National Geographic. There’s a certain logic to such a limit. In response to the diminished pressure of oxygen, the body produces more hemoglobin (that’s acclimatization), but the bloodstream can only take up so much hemoglobin.

Mark Horrell, in his mountaineering blog, challenges the idea of a one-size-fits-all hard limit, and provides anecdotal examples that contradict the 8,000 meter cap.

4.) Sticking one’s face in water allows one to hold one’s breath longer:

Sensory cells in the face and nostrils sense wetness and this sensation triggers a slowed heartbeat (bradycardia) and constriction of blood vessels (vasoconstriction) so as to reduce blood flow to the extremities.

A more detailed explanation can be read here.

3.) Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation works because our lungs only capture about 20% of the oxygen in each inhalation:

If we had super-efficient lungs, our exhalations wouldn’t contain enough oxygen to sustain the patient receiving cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR.)

This and many other fascinating respiratory facts can be found on the Crash Course videos on the subject.

2.) In two weeks time the breath you’re exhaling right now will have spread out around the globe.

Sam Kean’s book, Caesar’s Last Breath, discusses this subject in great depth. In fact, the title is a reference to the fact that in each breath it’s likely that one inhales a molecule of Caesar’s dying breath.

1.) When you lose weight, most of it (84%) is lost in exhaled carbon-dioxide:

This may not be a question that ever occurred to you, but I bet you find it fascinating once it’s brought to your attention. It’s not like when you cut 5 kg, there’s a fat pile sitting somewhere. More about this subject can be learned here.

Nadi Shodhana; Alternate Nostril Breathing

5 Challenging [Int.] Standing Balances

Vīrabhadrāsana III (Warrior III)

5.) Vīrabhadrāsana III (Warrior III):

What makes it challenging?

Substantial core strength is needed to obtain the capital “T” position. Straightening the lifted leg and getting it in line with the torso is the first challenge. Also, there is a tendency for the hip of the lifted leg to angle upward into an position in between Warrior III and Half Moon Pose (see below.) The front of the pelvis should be squared toward the floor. The drishti (focal point) at the extended hands also creates more of a challenge than looking straight down at the floor.

 

Ardha Chandrāsana (Half Moon Pose)

4.) Ardha Chandrāsana (Half Moon Pose):

What makes it challenging?

Largely, the same challenges that make Warrior III difficult. However, “stacking the hips,” i.e. getting the front of the pelvis squared to the wall (not the floor or at a downward angle) requires a high degree of hip flexibility. Hip openers may be necessary to be able to stack the hips without the torque of lifting the top hip up throwing one off balance.

 

Parivrtta Ardha Chandrāsana (Twisted Half Moon Pose)

3.) Parivrtta Ardha Chandrāsana (Twisted Half Moon Pose):

What makes it challenging?

Again, this posture shares challenges with Warrior III and Half Moon. While it’s less difficult than Half Moon in that it doesn’t require hip stacking, it makes up for it in that twisting motions tend to make staying on balance difficult. This is because one has to remain stable on the standing foot as the torso rotates and if one can’t stack one’s shoulders the weight distribution may be hard to keep balanced. Also, achieving the drishti (looking at the upper hand) without breaking balance is no easy feat.

 

Ardha Baddha Padmōttānāsana (Bound Half Lotus Pose) [Standing]

Ardha Baddha Padmōttānāsana (Bound Half Lotus Pose) [Folded]

2.) Ardha Baddha Padmōttānāsana (Bound Half Lotus Pose):

What makes it challenging?

The knees should be next to each other, but the knee of the folded leg wants to be forward and to the outside. Also, one must get the heel aligned on one’s centerline (below the navel) so that when one folds the foot is in a position where it can compress into the soft, fleshy tissue rather than being wedged between bones.

 

Ūrdhva Prasārita Ekapādasana (Standing Split)

1.) Ūrdhva Prasārita Ekapādasana (Standing Split):

What makes it challenging?

Straightening the lifted leg without throwing oneself off balance is the big challenge. It’s possible to put both hands around the support leg ankle, to make it even more challenging, but one must have an exit strategy in case one loses balance.