Twin pillars of Yoga

Picture of Alan Goode
Alan Goode

I would like to examine the place of action (practice) and stillness (renunciation) in our practice and why they are essential.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras revolve around the workings of the mind and the way the mind becomes attracted and attached to things. It outlines the way to break this link and gain freedom from desire and attachment as well as from aversion and fear. The practices of yoga are examples of watching how the mind interacts with objects whether they be intense sensation or thoughts. Through the practice of asana and pranayama we learn to internalise the senses (pratyahara). This turning inwards requires that we discipline the wandering senses and direct them. Usually we have no choice as to what our senses gather – eyes see, ears hear, etc, but through the disciplines of practice our senses become engaged and often we stop hearing external noises and distractions. The senses steady and focus internally. In directing the senses we have had to do two things :

  • to focus the senses. (Action)
  • to let go of the way they normally operate. (Release)

These two movements are implicit in everything we do – action and release. In the same way that for your elbow to bend, one set of muscles contract while the opposite group relax to lengthen. Unless the opposing group lengthen the joint can not move. In the Yoga Sutras Patanjali calls this principle Abhaysa and Vairagya – Action and renunciation (or restraint). Patanjali observes that we experience the world through our senses (taste, touch, smell, sight and sound). All our experience of the world comes through these doors. In the second chapter Patanjali states :

2:17. The cause of pain is association or identification of the seer (atma) with the seen (prakrti) and the remedy lies in their dissociation

The seer refers to that place within us that is unchanging (sometimes referred to as the soul), while the seen (prakrti) is nature and includes everything of the world including our own body. This sutra describes that our inner discomfort lies in the way that we attach our happiness to objects and people – things which fade or pass, and the way to ease this torment is to see or experience the illusion intimately by studying its effects. The senses either entrap us in an endless search for pleasure and delight or help us to refine our experience and understand ourself. It is only by stilling the senses that we break their agitating effect on the mind and can find inner poise and peace. This is done by searching out the core of our being beyond changing nature. Through our senses we are pulled into desiring objects and wanting other. We become attached to worldly objects. Patanjali again : 1-2 Yoga is the cessation of the movements in consciousness
1-3 Then the seer dwells in his own true splendour
1-4 At other times, the seer identifies with the fluctuating consciousness
If yoga is the act of stilling consciousness and touching the seer (that which sees) then Sutra 1:12 tells us how to proceed…

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