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Active Presence and Misunderstanding

Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana difficult yoga posture
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Presence is often discussed like it is something to choose off the shelf, like selecting a can of soup for dinner. The request to “be present,” seems so simple. But really, it creates the same tension as someone requesting that you “just relax!” To be relaxed requires awareness and particular actions. The same is true for presence.

The State of Presence is just that, a state. This implies that it is ever-changing and it cannot be gripped, had, or accomplished.

Sometimes the phrasing of Yoga practices in the West have made it seem like by doing these practices, presence just comes. But, if we are not specifically looking for presence, how can we possibly find what we are not looking for?

The texts are very clear that where the attention goes (Citta), energy goes (Prana). Thus, if through incorrect reasoning, we allow our practice of Yoga to insist our attention upon something that is not real, or not the whole picture, what occurs are klishta and aklistha vrittis (painful and painless misconceptions of the mind).

Samadhi Pada (the first book) of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, verse 8-9 says,

Viparyayo mithyajnanam atadrupa pratistham| Śabdajnananupati vastu śunyo vikalpaha|

“Misunderstanding occurs when knowledge of something is not based on its true form. An image that arises on hearing mere words without any reality [as its basis] is verbal delusion.” (Translation by Sri Swami Satchidananda)

Presence is what comes when the vrittis, the vacillating parts of the mind, find stillness.

But, if the mind is not still, and our practices have not always lead us to stillness, how do we find what we have never or rarely experienced? To me, it feels like Yoga in the US is so often trying to interpret and spin these practices. Devoid of lineages and teachers, and feeling very American about it all, we feel the need to interpret what we don’t like into what feels good now. Yoga becomes PT, yoga becomes weight training, yoga becomes calisthenics or very slow motion dancing. Yoga is mixed with goats and beer and on and on.

Observing the patterns here, it seems to me like the US has used Yoga to un-fix its gaze – always weighing and rejecting when we don’t like what is offered. I have seen people say they are “moving away from yoga” to do different kinds of modality training, or admit they are going running, or defend that their bike riding is Yoga! They blame yoga for their injuries, for any mental struggles. In situations like this, I refer us back to the quotes above. The continuous changing of minds is not creating stability. It is further marrying the mind with the ever-changing external world and solidifying the “liking” and “not-liking” with the ahamkara, or as described in the Yoga Sutras, asmita – the ego.

Yoga is able to happen at all times in all things, in all moments. Yoga is not the problem. The practitioner is. This is always the case.

Asana is not synonymous with Yoga, but if done correctly, Asana is Yoga. Asana is the practice of creating a stable and steady container that can hold and direct Prana under more and more complex situations, while maintaining an unfluctuating mind. If this is not the experience on the mat or at least the attempted experience, it is not Yoga. Period. It might be interesting physical mechanics that have merit like PT, but this is not Yoga. And also, either practiced incorrectly and without proper humility and wisdom will lead to injury, sure.

So, what to do?

Something I appreciate so much about Ayurveda is that it offers us the Gunas. Gunas are 20 descriptive adjectives, which are pairs of opposites, that describe all of the Material Reality. I have found that in naming the experiences we are having in this non-emotional way, it allows us as practitioners to see what previously was not seen.

Additionally, by naming the experiences we are having, by observing the experiences we are having, we are present. Our minds are fully absorbed in what we are doing – both in observing and making choices based on true observations. The more we do this, the more steady our gaze and the less work goes into its maintenance. This is yoga!

Tat pratrishedhartham eka tattvabhyasaha |
The practice of concentrating on a single subject [or the use of one technique] is the best way to prevent the obstacles and their accompaniments (YS 1.32)

Further, Raja Yoga – that is Hatha Yoga – is an equation. Ha + Tha = Yoga. It is the balancing of opposites. This is again, why the Gunas are so helpful. Ayurveda reminds us of terms Samanya and Vishesha. Samanya is likeness. Vishesha is contrast or opposition. Yoga comes when Opposites are balanced (Ha – solar, activity, Rajas with Tha – lunar, stability, Tamas). The challenge is that likeness increases likeness because of inertia, as generally lack of challenge is easier. However, the more absorbed we get in likeness, the more likely it will be for our perception to be distorted as mentioned above. In the overwhelm of sameness, we will find change and challenge taste bad. Thus there is no Tapas and so instead of challenging this dynamic, we call tapas sweating and heat the room…

Tapas is not heat. It is not sweating. It is not necessarily “working hard.” I find these to be very American understandings. Tapas is the friction that comes when managing opposition. It maybe creates heat as a byproduct. It also creates transformation as a byproduct. Thus, if our Yoga is composed only of sameness, without actual rubbing, or if we define Tapas incorrectly as heat or sweating, we will wander astray and become frustrated that Yoga is not leading to Clarity – Sattva or Truth – Sat.

This is why Presence is so important and why believing it is a State of being is necessary.

Our environments will always pull us toward Samanya. Always.

The Ayurvedic and Yoga texts often make this clear. It is why in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, for example, there are so many ślokas spent describing the appropriate practice space. Thus as the Yogi, it is necessary to be on alert for this “Samany-ic” slide. In YS 1.30, “Dullness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, sensuality, false perception, failure to reach firm ground, and slipping from the ground gained” are all defined as Citta Vrittis, or mental distractions. They are all often caused by the unconscious slipping into Samanya.

How is this relevant now?

In the time where so much of Yoga in the West is whitewashed, it can be difficult for us to be sure that what we are practicing is Yoga (except that the byproducts are not leading to Sattva). But, if you never experienced Sattva, how would you know if you were or were not there? If you are comfortable with your personal definition of Ahimsa (though it overlooks immense suffering), why would you challenge it?

My recommendation for us all here is to go back to Primary Sources – the texts, Sanskrt, learned teachers, listening. These are also recommended in Primary source texts (see YS 1.7). Instead of challenging the practices, challenge the way each of us are practicing them. Instead of making up new things to add or subtract from practice, simplify them and go back into with keen, curious, open observation for a very long time.

Vishesha is what balances us. Diversity of practitioner, diversity in our teachers – balances the whole, allows health for the whole. Again, for my White Yogis, this comes back to De-colonializing Yoga and ensuring that our spaces, teachers, and students do not always look like us. And, the ones who do look like us should experience Vishesha, some opposition to so much sameness. This means that it is ok to say things that are challenging to the “norm” in class, in blogs, in general. It means as White practitioners and teachers we need to be mindful of language that allows people to gloss over problematic behavior. It means to continue to study and stop oversimplifying terms. It means to actively seek to find the information and teachings instead of always waiting for them to “meet us where we are.” It means to stop turning practices into cute experiences for a fun group time.

Remember that Yoga is radical. Yogis are Seekers. Thus, these commitments will turn off people who are not actually wanting to practice. Be brave. Be stable. Stand behind Yoga and it will support you.

Here is a free 60-minute Asana class that offer examples of how to apply the Gunas into practice and how to observe how Samanya and Vishesha influence the experience of wholeness in practice.
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