by Zoë Slatoff
What we strive for
is not what turns us
into the lit angel
and then nourishes
- David Whyte, The Winter of Listening
I would like to question the whole premise of my previous article. I originally explored how contemplating the opposite can be a method for overcoming the oppression and obstruction that can be caused by negative thoughts and impulses. The ground for my inquiry was Patañjali's Yoga Sūtra 2.33, which posits this process as the foundation for the yamas and niyamas, the first two limbs of ashtanga yoga. The yamas and niyamas lay out an ethical framework for living in the world, one that is not set in stone, but which leaves room for interpretation, debate and exploration of the polarities. For example, if you are having violent thoughts, Patañjali suggests that you should reflect on its opposite, nonviolence, or ahiṃsā (the first yama), while simultaneously reflecting on your original emotion. This can be a very helpful method to resolve the conflict in your mind, but the trouble with "opposites" is that they confine our thoughts and vision to the space between two points. These points then become separate and rigid in our minds. They limit our perspective and keep us from simply observing the intricacy of what we observe in the world around us.
I would now like to entertain the idea that this basis in polarity, itself, could contribute to the difficulty in understanding the yamas and niyamas and making sense of them within our lives. We could instead allow for a broader spectrum of possibility, rather than limiting our language, our thoughts, and thus our vision of reality to polar opposites, such as violence and non-violence, truth and untruth, celibacy or unconscious sexuality, purity or pollution. What if we made space for a reality to emerge that acknowledges the shades of grey, the rich complexities that are an inescapable part of being human?
An oversimplification of language and conceptualization automatically makes us gravitate towards viewing the world through the lens of polarity, and usually creates a propensity towards one side or the other. This two-dimensional view of opposites is not broad enough to encompass the multiplicity inherent in every individual soul as well as in the soul of the world. The polytheistic view of the psyche, which underlies the very traditions in which these concepts were born, allows space for the many aspects of our selves to grow and develop. Perhaps we can move beyond the framework of duality and non-duality, by acknowledging the full spectrum of who we are. Our many selves – past, present and future – coexist within us at all times.
This idea of a polytheistic worldview has historical precedence just as strongly as mono-centric devotion. For example, the one and the many are considered to be synonymous in the Upaniṣads. The many gods of Hinduism give voice to the different aspects of Self. Brahmā is creativity, Viṣṇu is sustenance, Śiva is destruction, Sarasvatī is knowledge, Lakṣmī is fortune, and so forth. By honoring different Gods we are bowing to and making space for different aspects of ourselves. Rather than trying to silence or integrate these elements into a singular unity, they are allowed to exist in their own right and contribute to who we are in the world. To deny any of these parts of ourselves means to be less than we truly are. Welcoming our different selves into the world allows them and therefore us to manifest to our fullest potential.
Another part of the problem with contemplating opposites, is what we choose to oppose. As James Hillman explains in Revisioning Psychology, "we falsify the psychological situation by imagining the basic opposition in the soul to be between East and West. Because this pairing is horizontal it tends to project its oppositions outward into the literal geography of external space, catching us in identification with Orient or Occident and in fantasies of uniting our souls by a meeting of East and West. The other pairing in our souls is that of North and South, light and shadow, conscious and unconscious, a vertical division between what is above and what is below, a reflection in imaginal geography of our cultural history." (223)
The current popularity of yoga speaks to the desire for horizontal balance, seeking an answer in the polarity of the East. But as Hillman emphasizes, what often gets lost in this effort towards equilibrium is the South. We seek North, rising up above, the home of spirit, in a desperate attempt to escape the dark underworld of ourselves. But the South is where our soul lies, and it sits there just as clearly below the East as below the West. When an opposition is made between soul and spirit, soul is often condemned to being lowly, worldly, complex, fragmented, and complicated, while spirit is elevated, rising up above, transcending the mud of who we are. The spirit world is alluring. The thought of a world of spirit, of love and light and liberation can be very seductive. But it is an approach where we miss the realities of our soul, our beautiful depths. "What we strive for in perfection is not what turns us into the lit angel we desire." The choosing of spirit over soul is the root of what is often termed spiritual bypass. Ignore the soul for too long and it will start acting out in loud ways that send you crashing back down from the heights of spirituality to the depths of the belly of the earth. True spirituality must be embodied, and thus must come from a place of soul – of embracing, accepting and honoring the soul. Although this may be frightening and hard work at times, it is where our true essence lies. "What disturbs and then nourishes has everything we need."
Āsana or postural practice has the potential to connect these two worlds of soul and spirit and yet it often falls short. Only if it is approached with the aim of flexibility of mind and not just of body, can it become a bridge between North and South. This involves the integration of soul and world, letting practice be a way in, rather than a way out. When practice is a way to be more accepting of our multiple dimensions, it can allow us to live in the world in a more holistic way. In all four chapters of the Yoga Sūtra, Patañjali only gives three sūtras on āsana practice:
स्थिरसुखमासनम् ॥ ४६ ॥
II.46 sthira-sukham āsanam
Postural practice should be steady and comfortable.
प्रयत्नशैथिल्यानन्तसमापत्तिभ्याम् ॥ ४७ ॥
This can be attained through the relaxation of effort and by moving into a state of deep concentration.
ततो द्वन्द्वानभिघातः ॥ ४८ ॥
II.48 tato dvandvānabhighātaḥ
Then one is not afflicted by the opposites.
By loosening our effort we are no longer striving for that perfection which spirit often represents. By moving into a state of deep concentration we are listening to and embracing the many aspects of our selves. And in so doing, we end up in a position that is both steady and comfortable. So, although the yamas and niyamas are a means of contemplating the opposite, āsana practice, the third limb of yoga, is a means for being un-afflicted by these very opposites. Patañjali very clearly states that the intention is not to stop contemplating these opposites, but to be an-abhigāta, or un-struck by them. The dualities are presented here as potentially dangerous. For unlike the many, which is considered to be synonymous with the one, duality and opposition tend to create aggression and conflict, dominance and submission. If we are not caught up in the power of opposites, we can see beyond these tensions created by opposition.
Perhaps this is why there is such an emphasis on āsana in the modern practice of yoga. In a world already full of violence and conflict, it is the embracing of the multiplicity and diversity within each of us and within the world around us that may move us towards the realization that the world is now asking of us. The practice of yoga is asking us to withhold our judgments, judgments that stem from viewing the world and others through the lens of duality. To be enmeshed in the questions of right and wrong, good and bad, pure and impure keeps one forever on the first two steps of the eight-limbed path of ashtanga yoga. Śrī K. Pattabhi Jois used to always say that pratyāhāra, the fifth limb of yoga, means that you look at the wall and see God. This suggests that anything you look at, be it a person, animal or inanimate object, you see as divine. Divine does not imply perfection or the need to live up to a certain ideal; it entails seeing with unclouded eyes, without preconceived notions.
The Yoga Sūtra presents a dualistic system, based on the distinction between puruṣa and prakṛti, Self and Nature, in which all suffering is seen to come from the misidentification with this duality and the differences it presupposes. However, the eventual goal of yoga is kaivalya, most literally translated as oneness. Could it be that this oneness is inclusive of multiplicity, just as the color white contains all of the colors of the rainbow? The oneness Patañjali presents seems to be a way of seeing the world through a non-dualistic lens, implying wholeness and emphasizing individuality, in all of its complexity. In this spirit, when we practice yoga, we do so by accepting and honoring the many facets of who we are, not by attempting to banish them or force them into a unity, but by allowing them to flourish.
What is precious
inside us does not
care to be known
by the mind
in ways that diminish
- David Whyte, The Winter of Listening