Yoga practice can be many things; physical exercise, meditation, mindfulness, an escape from inner mental dialogue, a spiritual practice, a form of devotion, an enquiry into the nature of consciousness. If we practise for long enough it’s likely that we’ll realise all of these aspects of yoga at one stage or another, however fleetingly.
But the philosophy of India says that yoga is a state of consciousness where we forget the self, where our own individual consciousness is subsumed into the universal consciousness; a state where we cease to experience our self as an individual but as an expression of the entirety of the cosmos in human form. That state of mind is called yoga, self-realisation, or enlightenment.
Now that’s highfalutin talk, isn’t it?
Especially when you’re struggling just to throw out a few shapes on your yoga mat every day. But it’s worth considering (whether you’re the slightest bit interested in spirituality or not) that yoga practice was intended to be used as a tool towards self-realisation, to break free from the conditioning of every-day life, and realise our true nature. Whether you believe that the practice of yoga asanas has been handed down from guru to disciple for thousands of years, or it’s something that was conceived of in the early twentieth century, the fact remains that it was always intended to be a practice of enquiry into the nature of our own minds. So it makes sense that, as practitioners of yoga, we should give at least some attention to this aspect of yoga.
It’s unlikely that any of you, having read my opening paragraphs, have spontaneously gained self-realisation (enlightenment) just by having had the concept explained to you. Likewise, if you read the Yoga Sutras, Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, Puranas, Vedas, Tao Te Ching, Bible, or Koran it is equally unlikely that you’ll gain full insight into the knowledge contained therein and be suddenly sparked into a state of enlightenment, never to regard the material world in the same way again.
We know that there is some great knowledge contained in the ancient spiritual texts of the world (whether we believe those books to be literal or metaphorical doesn’t really matter) and yet, that knowledge can be so impenetrable as to make their study almost useless. Even with a good commentary by a learned scholar we still can’t guarantee that studying those books is going to alter our experience of life in any way whatsoever.
Here is the problem as I see it. All of these ancient texts (or at least portions of them) were written by great sages of the past; individuals who had gained insights into the nature of consciousness. Their insight was so profound that they wanted to share it with the rest of humanity. They were enlightened individuals who wanted to help the rest of us to gain enlightenment. But we are all too mired in the mud of everyday life to fully understand their message.
We, therefore, have appointed certain classes of individuals to help interpret these writings throughout the ages (priests, rabbis, monks, pundits), but how many generations of Chinese Whispers have passed since the writing of the Bhagavad Gita, the Old Testament, or the Vedas. How can modern interpreters explain what their original authors really meant? So many misunderstandings have developed around these texts that many, many thousands of people have gone to war over their own interpretation of them!
The big problem at the heart of all of this is that pure consciousness is not able to be described. In fact, it is said many times that, if you can explain what it is, then that’s not it!
All of this is why we need practice. Study is not enough. Even study with an enlightened master is not enough because we’re still filtering those teachings through the muddied prism of our own ignorance.
We need a practice that allows us to forget ourselves. Chanting mantras, doing yoga postures, controlling our breath, immersing ourselves in cold water, climbing mountains, running, entering ecstatic states of consciousness, a complete focus on what we are experiencing, so that our own judgement disappears and only pure awareness is present. Then it’s possible that our own sense of self may cease to exist as an individual and we feel immersed in, and integrated with, the eternal flow of consciousness. That is nirvana, samadhi, or heaven. That’s the ‘Kingdom of the Father’ where we no longer exist in the same way as we did before; a life beyond this one; an after-life without bodily death.
What I’m getting at here is that I believe that it’s almost impossible for an un-enlightened person to fully understand and internalise the teachings of an enlightened individual. And even if somebody studies philosophy for their whole life and writes a commentary on an ancient text, that does not mean that they are interpreting that text as it was originally intended to be interpreted. So even our learned teachers can, with the best of intentions, lead us up the garden path.
Let’s imagine that Lewis Hamilton wrote a book about how to drive a Formula 1 car and how to win the Monaco Grand Prix. If I read that book and I was in possession of the fastest Formula 1 car, would I go out and win that Grand Prix next year? Of course not. At the very least I would have to do thousands and thousands of hours of practice in the car before getting even close to winning the race.
Similarly, just because we are in possession of a mind and we have been given the instructions on how to achieve enlightenment, it doesn’t mean that we will be able to do it. It takes thousands and thousands of hours of practice, and still it may never happen.
Is it possible that, if I practised enough in my Formula 1 car, I might even have a chance of winning the race, whether I had read Lewis Hamilton’s book or not? Yes, of course. But wouldn’t it be a quicker process if, rather than having to figure absolutely everything out by myself, I had a guide along the way, someone who had done it before and knew how to transmit their knowledge in an understandable way? Again, yes.
And of course, as I practised more and more I would understand more of the points that my guide was trying to make. How could I listen to and understand a Formula 1 driver talking about heel-toe braking, when to accelerate out of a corner, or controlling the back-end of the car in a chicane without ever having driven a car? The finer points of driving would be totally lost on me. But if I practice then those lessons would all make more sense and they could help me to achieve my goal of winning that race.
And that’s why studying the words of enlightened individuals can be very useful.
But without the practice, no teacher, and no amount of information is going to help me to win that Grand Prix.
That is why practice is most important on the path of yoga.
But we can all do with a little help along the way.