The Eight Limbs of Yoga, or, how to practice a thing really hard.


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This piece is my best try at explaining my current understanding of the eight limbs of yoga as described by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. I’ve had others over the years, this one just works for me right now. And of course many have had other interpretations. Maybe different ways of languaging the same idea. Maybe different ideas pointing towards the same place. Maybe totally different models entirely.

Listen to them all and weigh their validity against your own experience. None of them are adequate to describe the state that the Yoga Sutras attempt to describe because it is inherently a state beyond language.

The practice of Yogasana is the repetition and gradual refinement of a progressively complex series of physically challenging postures.

At first glance there may appear to be nothing inherently spiritual about such an act when framed so unromantically. However as a practitioner develops his skills it becomes clear that the most important skill he develops is not the skill of asana, which is really the province of strongmen and acrobats, but the skill of practicing itself.

The art of practicing, whether it’s practicing an instrument, a martial art, or even a seemingly menial workplace skill, requires the practitioner to make a purposeful decision to move from a state of compulsion and reactivity to a state of one-pointed focus in order to repeat, dissect, integrate and gradually refine the skill in question. In theory at least, the ultimate refinement of this one-pointed focus itself is a state called Samadhi, where the individual identity of the practitioner and the object of focus both dissolve and merge with the whole of creation in it’s totality. This is said to be the goal of yoga.

It’s a rather bold aspiration to be sure, but if it was easily attainable, we might focus on the goal and not on the practice of practicing practice, which, as I said, is the whole point of the practice.

So when we perform the yogic postures, what we are really trying to develop is a skill that we can apply to literally everything in our life. When we do asana, we are using physically challenging positions to mimic the challenging positions of everyday life, so that when we are met with them we can remain calm, treat meeting the challenge as a skilful act and hopefully move from compulsion and reactivity to one-pointed focus.

The Eight Limbs, or Astanga, of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras should be understood in this light. Not as commandments, rules, or even precepts. But simply as an invitation to, first, apply this ethic of practising to each aspect of your life, and eventually, to refine the act of practising itself so that the one-pointed focus that is the product of practice becomes progressively deeper and more powerful.

The first 4 limbs invite us to turn our life into a skilful act.

1. Yama – We endeavour to turn the way we interact with other people, the world around us and ourselves into a skilful act

2. Niyama – We endeavour to turn the way we navigate, propagate and nurture our inner psychological world into a skilful act

3. Asana – We endeavour to turn the understanding, care and manipulation of the physical body into a skilful act

4. Pranayama – We endeavour to turn the understanding, manipulation and propagation of energy and information throughout the body into a skilful act

The second 4 concern the gradual deepening of the one-pointed focus that is the product of turning one’s life into a skilful act. The gradual deepening of the act of practice.

5. Pratyahara – As the practitioner develops focus the normal apprehension of the senses not immediately concerned with the object of focus begin to fall away.

6. Dharana – As the practitioners focus deepens the flow of thoughts not directly concerned with the object of focus begin to fall away

7. Dhyana – As the practitioners focus continues to deepen not only do the flow of thoughs directly concerned with the object of focus fall away, but the thought of the object itself also begins to fall away.

8. Samadhi – Once all thought forms are stilled, the object of focus ceases to be an object, and the focusing subject ceases to be a subject. The meditator and the object of meditation merge.

An asana practice can cultivate this deepening of focus in many different ways. But while the 7th and 8th limbs are being approached it would no longer be appropriate to assume difficult physical postures as the thoughts required to keep the body safe and stable would no longer be coherent. Only seated meditation postures will be useful at this point as the practice becomes so focused that it no longer matters what the practitioner is practicing.

At this point all methods become identical.

This is a very important point for the aspiring yogi to understand. There are a lot of different methods of yoga and a lot of different approaches to teaching them. The details of each may have a great deal of bearing on who is most suited to them for physical, mental or spiritual reasons. If someone has serious mobility issues, the challenging peak postures and vigorous movement of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga will be completely inappropriate. A simple therapeutic asana practice or even a seated breathing or meditation practice will suffice to develop the practical skill of gradually deepening focus that is the purpose of yoga. For someone in good physical condition a gentle practice will likely not challenge the attention in a way that is useful, for this person those physically demanding postures may be ideal. As the body develops, one may move to the other. As the body ages the process may reverse. Perhaps a persons passion or work can be approached as a type of yoga such that asana or a traditional meditation practice may not be strictly necessary. As a performing musician with 27 years of practice under my belt, far longer then my asana practice, I can attest to the fact that music can get you every bit as far as an asana practice if it’s approached as a practice in the same way. And of course, if we really take practicing seriously, the practice will eventually leave the boundaries of whatever discipline we pursue and will be applied to all the activities of our life. Eventually, each method will dissolve and the outer form of the discipline will become irrelevant.
So do your practice, whatever it is, but whatever it is, try not to focus on the results. Do your practice because it’s your practice, because practicing is the whole point.

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The Bhagavad Gita Part 2: Fundamentalism and Dharma

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So here we are. Arjuna is about to go to war with his extended family, loses his cool and in a fit of angst drives his chariot out into the centre of the battleground between the two armies with his loyal friend Krishna, who also happens to be a god. He feels compelled to fight, but he decides that he ought not to and becomes paralyzed with uncertainty about what to do.

So what is this all about?

Like most important religious mythologies the plot and central premise of the Bhagavad Gita can be read in a multitude of ways.

One of those ways, which is to my mind the least satisfying, least compelling and least constructive way is the fundamentalist interpretation, which sees the events of the Bhagavad Gita as either a literal historical narrative or a flawless and unambiguous pronouncement direct from the mind of god not open to personal interpretation. Probably both.

To my mind, the idea that the Bhagavad Gita is meant to be read as a multi-layered allegory which need not require, and indeed suffers, a narrow fundamentalist interpretation is established literally in the second line of the text.

1.1: Dharmakshetre Kurukshetre

Now I’m not a Sanskrit scholar so take what I say on matters of translation with a grain of salt. But taken slightly out of context this sentence literally means: “On the field of Dharma. On the field of the Kurus…”

Reading multiple translations of a text is really interesting because it opens up this web of meaning and interpretation, and really reveals the layers. It also lets you peek behind the curtain and examine the personal styles, historical biases and cultural assumptions of the translators.

“The field of Dharma.” Is variously rendered in the following ways:

“The field of right”

“The field of the evolving dharma”

“The holy field”

“The place of pilgrimage”

“The field of truth”

“The field of righteousness”

You get the point. I think the varieties of interpretation that can be gleaned from this single word are illustrative. There isn’t one correct translation. On some level they’re all correct. On the one hand this is a book about justice, about political engagement. Seen another way this is a book about humanity, and mankind’s evolution towards a higher version of itself. Seen another way this is a book about the individuals search for meaning or self-realization. Seen another way this is a book about god, and mans relationship with the nebulous higher intelligence that seems to inhabit the world we perceive. This is a book about the challenges of life. About the mysteries of death. Most importantly, the statement that the following narrative takes place, firstly, on the field of Dharma, in addition to the physically concrete field of the Kurus, indicates that this is a book about you. About your unique, karmically-propelled path through the baffling melodramas of being.

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A more concrete injunction against fundamentalism is, in fact, to be found in the 2nd chapter of the Gita itself:

There are men who have no vision, and yet they speak many words. They follow the letter of the Vedas, and they say: “There is nothing but this.”
Their soul is warped with selfish desires, and their heaven is a selfish desire. They have prayers for pleasures and power, the reward of which is earthly rebirth.
Those who love pleasure and power hear and follow their words: they have not the determination ever to be one with the One.
The three qualities of nature are the world of the Vedas. Arise beyond the three qualities, Arjuna! Be in Truth eternal, beyond earthly opposites. Beyond gains and possessions, possess thine own soul.
As is the use of a well of water where water everywhere overflows, such is the use of all the Vedas to the seer of the supreme

The Vedas are the traditional religious scriptures of ancient India, but the word could also refer to any sort of codified knowledge. I think that this statement, so early in the text, serves as a warning. It’s almost as if the authors knew how important it would become and wanted to protect against its use as a tool of manipulation and oppression, encouraging the reader to always litigate the truth through the clarity of their own experience. To look through the inevitable detritus of history to the perennial messages that naturally reveal themselves to eyes unclouded by longing and are only ever imperfectly hinted at in books.

So it is disappointing, yet hardly surprising, that the Gita has indeed become a foundational text, or at least a scapegoat, for it’s own variety of fundamentalist.

The importance of understanding the nuance, context and, yes, the human fallibility of a book like the Gita and it’s translations cannot be overstated, even as we celebrate it’s wisdom. The reason I’m going through so much trouble at the outset of this little project to place such emphasis on this notion is because, at some point, if you’re following along, you will stumble onto passages like the following:

The destruction of a family destroys it’s rituals of righteousness, and when the righteous rituals are no more, unrighteousness overcomes the whole family. When unrighteous disorder prevails, the women sin and are impure; and when women are not pure, Krishna, there is disorder of castes and social confusion.

Obviously there’s a lot to unpack there. The first thing I want to point out is that this is another of countless instances where this word Dharma pops up. The concept of Dharma is central to the philosophy of The Gita so we should spend some time exploring what it means.

Dharma is a Sanskrit word with no real analogue in the English language. It is here translated as righteousness, but is often translated as law. This is imprecise in that it’s definitely more analogous to the laws of nature then the laws of civil society. We can see from the text above how this sense of the word law could colour it’s meaning. In a certain context the word implies a sense of righteousness, justice and appropriate behaviour. In another it connotes a sense of predetermined purpose, the results of the force of karma, of causality that have led you to the specific circumstances of your life. This interpretation is fair enough, but in Asian society, this understanding of the concept of Dharma has long been used to defend the rigid social hierarchies of the caste system and the patriarchy. If you are a dalit, a member of the untouchable caste, it is your dharma to be a dalit and the dharmic way to behave is to accept your station and to yield to the will of your betters. As if the concept of untouchableness is both inevitable and immutable and not a construct invented by a dominator class eager to enshrine their power with the authority of religion. In the Mahabharata, of which the Bhagavad Gita is a part, it is clear that this is part of it’s message, as evidenced by the above. Obviously, the work was written in a historical period very different then our own but it’s important to acknowledge this because it is currently being used to defend alot of terrible shit.

However, the Bhagavad Gita is not merely a piece of the Mahabharata. Its style and motives are discontinuous with the rest of the work and it stands on it’s own merits as a spiritual text. It quickly takes on a distinctly mystical position and sets out to transcend the clumsy worldliness of these narrow interpretations of Dharma that are so burdened by political context.

You see what Dharma is about, ultimately, is liberation. It doesn’t actually have anything to do with a particular method of social organization. It doesn’t have anything to say about whether one political system is better then another, and there is certainly nothing about the concept of Dharma that defends the subjugation and objectification of anyone.

Your Dharma is simply whatever it is that you’re doing, in the physical world, right now. Are you sitting in a coffee shop trying to write a blog? Guess what. That’s your Dharma. Are you a member of an anachronistic underclass fighting against a cowardly theocracy more concerned with resisting change that upsets their power then anything related to truth, justice, compassion or liberation? Well that is most definitely your Dharma. Living a life that is dharmically appropriate is not so much about the situation you find yourself in the physical world. It is about how you use whatever that situation is to awaken. It is a process that happens inside you.

So what does it mean to awaken? And how does one go about awakening?

These are really the central questions of the Gita and we’ll do our best to explore them in the forthcoming posts.

That’s enough for now.
We really didn’t dive too far into the text here so I’m going to say read up to the end of chapter 3 if you care to read along.

Peace Peace Peace

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The Bhagavad Gita: Part 1 – Quick! Summarize the longest novel ever written!

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Hello dear friends.

Well I’m back from India and am still processing and resettling and freaking out a bit and screwing my head back on straight. I’m settling in a new town; Ottawa, for a while, trying to find opportunities to teach yoga and make a little money for my next adventures. Ottawa is not without its charm though regaling you with stories of my daily trip to the coffee shop where I agonize vociferously over the particular non-dairy substitute I add to my cappuccino would make a pretty lousy travelogue. And though my spiritual life is hardly place dependent, most of my inner work for the next little while will likely be a sort of quiet integration into the vicissitudes of day to day urban life, which is interesting, but requires a bit of context in order for it to be enjoyable to write about.

So I figured I’d change my plan with this blog for the next little while. Essentially it will shift its tone to being more exclusively about the philosophy, psychology and mythology of Yoga. A subject which is very interesting to me, though it may interest some of you a great deal less then my clumsy misadventures in the Himalayas. So be it. If you’d prefer to look at pictures of a bendy dude doing fun bendy things my instagram is joelbeauchampyoga and I can promise high-quality bendiness and no philosophy of any kind!

However! Should you decide to stick it out with me here at the Supernormalblog I promise that I will keep the high falutin metaphysical abstraction to a minimum and do my best to keep things plain and relatable with maybe a pseudo-intellectual flight of fancy here and there because that’s just how I am sometimes.

I figure for each blog post I will pick either a text, or some broader body of knowledge from the yogic lexicon, and attempt to apply it’s wisdom to my own life. For me the word yoga encompasses a very broad window of definition, so it could be just about anything from the canons of philosophy, religion, psychology or latter day navel gazing woo. At the end of the post I’ll announce what I’ll be studying for the next post in case you care to read along.

Today we’re going to start at the beginning.

The Bhagavad Gita; book 1.

So this is the part where I summarize the backstory of one of the most complex and multifaceted works of human history, here goes nothing.

The Bhagavad Gita is a very small part of an absolutely gigantic hindu epic called The Mahabharata. It’s sort of like the Hindu version of The Iliad, though it’s also considered to be an important religious text. There are so many micro and meta narratives embedded into the Mahabharata and so many characters in it’s pantheon that any summary of them would (and some do) easily run the length of a short novel. Luckily for us we only really need to get to know 2 of them. Arjuna and Krishna.

Arjuna is a prince, but he’s not just any prince. Before he was born, his dad Pandu, king of the Kurus, shot a pair of deer while they were making sweet love. It turns out the deer were really a holy man called Kindama and his wife who liked to become deers when they did their thing.

Who wouldn’t.

Well, shooting a holy man with the power to transform into a deer is obvy bad news and old Kindama placed a curse on Pandu such that if he ever tried to make sweet love to his 2 wives, he would drop dead. Well it just so happens that his first wife Kunti had, as a young lady, been granted a mantra that could summon a god of her choice to conceive a child with her. After Pandu’s curse, Kunti used the mantra 3 times and Pandu’s other wife Madri used it once, but on twin gods, and Pandu wound up with 5 sons, collectively known as the Pandavas. Arjuna is the 3rd of the 5 sons. These are the good guys.

Pandu had an older brother, Dhritarashtra. Ordinarily the oldest son in a royal lineage would inherit the crown but Dhritarashtra was born blind so it was decided that Pandu would be king instead. Dhritarashtra’s wife Gandhari would eventually give birth to a superheavy greyish lump which she then divided into 100 pieces, each of which she placed in a clay pot. The little pieces incubated in the pots and grewinto Dhritarashtra’s 100 children, the Kauravas. The bad guys. After Pandu had the curse placed on him he handed the kingdom back over to Dhritarashtra and went into seclusion in the forest where he would eventually die making it with his wife.

This made the process of succession a bit confusing and it fell to Dhritarashtra to declare an heir. Under pressure from his council he chose the virtuous Yudhisthira, Pandu’s oldest son, rather then his own son, the not-so-virtuous Duryodhana. Duryodhana loses his shit over this and vows to reclaim what he sees as his rightful inheritance. After an unsuccessful attempt on their lives the Pandavas go into hiding.

While in hiding, Arjuna wins the heart of the lovely Draupadi. When he takes his bride-to-be home to meet his mother Kunti one of his brothers announces that Arjuna has brought something he’d like to show them. Without looking, Kunti shouts out that whatever he has brought he must share it with his brothers. Rather then passing it off as a hilarious misunderstanding, as you might imagine the sane thing would be, all 5 brothers marry Draupadi.

Of course, polyandry was in no way a socially accepted familial arrangement in vedic India, but I guess if you’re descended from the gods and trying to really pound out a good metaphor then the rules get a bit murky.

Shortly thereafter, the brothers return to the kingdom and Dhritarashtra decides that to squash the beef they’ll split the kingdom. The brothers graciously accept and build a glorious palace on their new land. They invite the Kauravas over for a little diplomatic housewarming, but the palace is so glorious that Duryodhana keeps mistaking the glistening, glossy floors for pools of water and refuses to step on them. When he is informed of his error he walks into an actual pond thinking it will support his weight and gets all wet. It seems to me like a bit of an interior design fail to design a public space in this way, but everyone laughs at Duryodhana for being injured by an obviously intentional optical illusion he was conveniently misinformed of while a guest in their home. He is upset by this and starts to devise a devilish scheme with which to exact his revenge.

It turns out that Yudhisthira, though otherwise a paragon of virtue, is a bit of a gambling addict. Duryodhana manages to arrange a dice game between Yudhisthira and their uncle Shakuni. The game is rigged and Yudhisthira winds up gambling away all of his wealth, his kingdom, his wife and the freedom of himself and his 5 brothers. Dhritarashtra decides to put a stop to the obviously crooked game and gives the brothers back their freedom but for some reason Yudhisthira agrees to play again. The outcome is that the brothers are sent into exile for 13 years.

While in exile Arjuna has a bunch of psychedelic adventures, meditates alot, meets Shiva on the top of a mountain, acquires a telekinetic weapon capable of destroying the whole world, and hangs out with his father, Indra, in his palace, in heaven.

They try to return after their 13 years in exile, Duryodhana refuses to allow them to, and war is declared.

At this point it is necessary to introduce our 2nd interlocutor, Lord Krishna.

Krishna is an extremely complicated figure. There are numerous differing accounts of his life, qualities and exploits in a vast canon of literature that includes, in addition to this one, the important religious texts the Bhagavata Purana, the Vishnu Purana, and the Harivamsa. On one level Krishna is god. On another he is the eighth avatar of the god Vishnu. On yet another he is a powerful prince and Arjunas closest advisor and best bud.

We can talk more about what Krishna is all about later, but at this point in the story we find Arjuna and Krishna standing at the front of an enormous army on the field of Kurukshetra, preparing to do battle with Arjuna’s estranged family. Arjuna is despondent. You see, it’s not just his devilish cousins that he is about to go to war with. Duty and propriety have led his beloved uncle Bhishma, his teacher and mentor Drona and countless other friends and family members, to side with his cousins. Yet it seems that fate has tied his hands in the matter. Duty, honor, history, even causality have led him to this place. His very karma dictates that he must fight, but he’s starting to lose his cool. He asks Krishna to rig up his chariot and together they drive it into the centre of the field of Kurukshetra, between the 2 vast armies, establishing the central metaphor of the forthcoming text and this is where The Bhagavad Gita begins.

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We’ll begin the ACTUAL text of The Bhagavad Gita in the next post. The first half of the first chapter contains alot of exposition with big lists of names like that time you tried to read the bible from the beginning and stopped after like the 3rd page. The real meat of the thing starts in the 2nd chapter. So lets say we’ll do chapters 1 – 2 next.

Hope this works! Like I said if your idea of yoga is more about bendy pics interspersed with pictures of fermented vegetables I got lots of em on instagram at joelbeauchampyoga.

Love you all.
Sorry bout the wait.

OM