Exercise and the Experience of Yoga.
I practice a form of yoga that looks an awful lot like exercise…actually it is exercise. However, yoga teachers who teach physically athletic forms of yoga are usually quick to proclaim that the exercise part is secondary to an inner experience that you are meant to have while you exercise.
This is fair enough.
The original and most appropriate use of the word yoga is, after all, describing an experience of spiritual realization and not an experience of…I don’t know…having a six pack or whatever.
I’ve been doing yoga for a relatively long time now, over a decade. In the grand scheme of things that makes me a sort of intermediate practitioner. My physical practice looks pretty impressive. The physical changes that have happened to my body are obvious. I am more then capable of teaching others how to use yoga to develop their physical capacities.
There’s a lot of technical information out there on how to do this but really it’s pretty simple.
Move, stretch, strengthen. Challenge your body and pay really close attention to how your body functions while you do it. There are a lot of systems and philosophies that claim to allow you to do this more efficiently, effectively, safely etc., and I have my own opinions on the matter but ultimately these debates are missing the point.
Truthfully, the best exercise is the one you’re going to actually do. Whether it’s traditionally affiliated with yoga or not is irrelevant.
However, yoga also has a psychological component. One of the most important things that makes the exercise you’re doing yoga, is the way you can download the skills you learn while exercising into your daily life, so that you can make everything you do a little bit more skilful, a little bit more mindful.
I think the exercises traditionally affiliated with yoga are a particularly potent way to do this, but again, it’s really whats happening in your mind that’s important here, not what you’re doing physically.
The psychological practice is a lot more subtle and I can’t claim the sort of expertise I have regarding the physical practice, but my mind has also transformed through the practice of physical yoga in ways that didn’t seem possible ten years ago.
I’ll discuss the details of that transformation in another post, but suffice to say my mental health has improved drastically in every possible way through yoga.
The psychological training that I do through my yoga practice mainly manifests itself outside of the practice.
So what is this inner experience that we are supposed to be having during the practice.
The philosophy of yoga points very explicitly towards a state where the thinking mind falls away or is at least perceived from an outsider’s perspective. This is the meditative experience. Eventually through the mastery of meditation the practitioner is said to be able to enter into a state of union with the rest of the universe. This is the mystical experience.
At this point I have to make an admission. I have never entered either of these states in a led exercise-based yoga class.
I have certainly entered what is called a flow state. I think traditionally this would be analogous to the state of concentration that is said to precede the meditative experience. I have most effectively maintained this state while doing my own self-practice, and I have to admit, if I’m being honest, that it’s sort of rare for it to be uninterrupted.
The only reason that I even know what the meditative experience is like is because I’ve done a couple of Vipassana meditation retreats and had the opportunity to live in a monastic setting and meditate all day every day for 10 days straight.
In these times I think I may have slipped into the meditative state a handful of times and, though it’s impossible to measure, I doubt any of these incidents lasted more then 15 seconds.
It’s possible that I’m kidding myself and simply entered a deeper state of concentration then I’m normally used to. It’s not like you can plug someone into the samadhi-meter and find out how far along they are. These things are pretty ineffable.
And at the end of the day, as far as I can tell, the whole distinction between the inner and outer experience is an illusion anyway.
It is a matter of debate about whether the philosophy expounded in the Yoga Sutras is philosophically dualistic or not, most scholarly types would say that it is, some spiritual teachers would argue that it’s not, but whatever the traditional position of “yoga”, my position is non-dual.
The idea that the outer world of physical objects and the inner world of thoughts, feelings and sensations are 2 separate realms is just a way of thinking. You don’t need to have some special experience to realize this.
If you simply consider the way the world is experienced by you and reportedly experienced by everyone else all physical objects are only ever sensations categorized by thoughts. In other words, the distinction between the supposedly inner worlds of thoughts and sensations and the outer world of physical objects is impossible to prove.
It is not parsimonious to invent an outside world to describe regular patterns of shared sensations, it is an unnecessary complication.
Thoughts and sensations exist in the same space, the space of awareness. We have intuited the physical world as existing in something inherently empty and limitless that we call the universe. If all physical objects are simply thoughts and sensations, then this empty, limitless, space that they exist in is awareness.
And while we’re at it we can do away with the distinction between thoughts and sensations, they are both just permutations of the field of awareness that we only assume are of a different character from each other because one appears to have a direct causal relationship to a separate physical world which we already established doesn’t exist.
So objects are thoughts, sensations are thoughts, thoughts are thoughts. The idea that what you are is a separate awareness that lives somewhere in the middle of a physical object called a head is just a way of thinking. Your head, and the experience of a perspective that emanates from it are both empty of inherent existence. They are both thoughts. And thoughts emerge and dissolve like waves in the ocean of awareness.
Even calling these permutations of awareness thoughts is pretty silly. A thought is only a thought because it is distinguished from a sensation or an object. But all these things are just the same. Everything is the same. And if everything is the same then how do we talk about it?
As Wittgenstein said at the end of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
So now we’re done talking. What to do?
Well, while we’re playing this game of being a moving, breathing animal we might as well move and breathe.
There’s an old zen saying that goes something like this:
“Before I studied Zen, I saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers. When I had studied Zen for thirty years I no longer saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers. But now that I have finally mastered Zen, I once again see mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers.”
I would never begrudge a yoga teacher their desire to create a sacred and inclusive environment in their classes, and the language of introspection and meditation can be an important part of cultivating that environment. It helps to relax people and encourages them to let go of expectations of performance or competition. Whatever tactics a yoga teacher employs to encourage and nurture their students are all positive, regardless of semantics, definitions and philosophical nitpicking.
But meditation is a funny thing. It’s called introspection. It looks like withdrawing from the outside world. But what you are usually trying to do is to relax the thinking mind and simply observe sensation. To sink the “inner” experience into the “outer” experience, and in doing so to simply experience experience as naked experience neither inner nor outer.
The mastery of yoga postures does not lie in escaping the potential discomfort of these postures into a “higher” experience of introspection, though that may be a part of the process. I think the moment when we dive into the posture entirely and experience the posture as something entirely physical is the moment we start to experience a taste of the merging of inner with outer. Our thoughts with objects. Our self with others.
This sort of philosophizing always dumps you out into an ocean of paradox, regardless of the route you take, so I think it’s time to stop.
The ocean of paradox is a blissful place. It is a place of letting go. I think that’s why I always wind up in these metaphysical rabbit holes whenever I talk about yoga for long enough. I’m addicted to that glorious confusion that happens when you can’t say it anymore. When logic becomes insufficient and you have to just relax and let it all happen.
So that’s it for now.
Move and breathe on!