My current yoga studies are so full of juice I can’t help but share some sips. The following stems from my studies of TKV Desikachar’s The Heart of Yoga and its short but rich coverage of yoga’s ideas on the mind. Note: the cat thing just sorta happened…its a bit silly but they seem to illustrate the ideas here…so cat person or no, maybe go with it???
Many in the West equate yoga to physical stretching and pretzel poses but it is SO much more. Physical poses, or asanas, are but a small tile on the beautiful mosaic masterpiece of yoga. Yoga is a system of thought, a path toward transformation and enlightenment, a practice and a way of being that finds its way into every nook and cranny of our existence if we are truly practicing the whole of yoga.
Like many systems concerned with human existence and the path of liberation, yoga concerns itself with the mind, its qualities, and how we may influence the mind for the better. Desikachar says that yoga is the ability to direct the mind without distraction or interruption. He emphasizes the ability to be present, to accept the self, to be fully integrated—the breath, the body, the mind, the whole of us.
Yoga suggests that problems arise in our lives because we fail to see things as they truly are and act accordingly (or perhaps we do see clearly, but fail to act for our highest good due to some obstacle). Patanjali calls this AVIDYA in his seminal Yoga Sutras. Avidya is likened to a fog or a veil that hides what is true. It is a chief cause of our human suffering.
AVIDYA are like blind spots—they result in a lack of seeing or understanding—a false perception. These blind spots develop in our field of vision because of countless unconscious actions and perceptions we’ve made in our past—our habits and our conditioning. This is known in yoga as sam skara. It’s like driving with one eye closed—we lack depth perception. “We confuse the gross with the subtle,” notes Desikachar.
So this can happen on a situational basis in the sense that we do not see what is actually happening because of our habitual layering of reality with our own thoughts and feelings. Say my partner is trying to share something with me—it’s an opportunity to listen and connect. But I do not choose this. I am not able to perceive what he is really saying because I am mad about something else, or I am tired, or preoccupied, or maybe I reject what he is saying because it triggers something in me, or maybe my ego steps in and says that I’m right and he’s wrong and I miss the whole point. I miss the truth and the opportunity in this moment. I may miss the moment altogether. And I will likely act, or rather react, in a way that creates disharmony rather than harmony.
But it’s also so much bigger than this. Avidya is at play anytime we don’t remember or fail to see the Truth—big “T” truth. This is BIG Truth—the truth that we are all connected (and all one), that we are spiritual beings having experiences in a physical body, that there is an innate divine light in each of us that is always present and can never be snuffed out, regardless of our external situations, that we are perfect exactly as we are, that there is nothing to fear. This is the deep Truth that exists in all of us and cannot be compromised by Avidya. Much like the sun on a cloudy or foggy day, it is ever present even if we forget. Our ability to see the sun is vidya—or clear seeing.
Desikachar notes that avidya is elusive and hard to become aware of. So how do we know when Avidya is fogging our perceptions? What are some tell tale signs? Put simply, we feel dissatisfied. We feel a deep unnamable emptiness. We experience troubles in our lives as a result of our choices.
Yoga says there are four branches or qualities of avidya that are easier to spot. These are also known as the klesas.
Branches of avidya
This branch is one we all know well—that darling ego. It gets us into trouble when it starts comparing us to others and making judgments. It emphasizes a seeming separateness between us and everything else. “I am better/worse than that person at such and such,” for example. Or “I am right and she is wrong and that is all that matters here.” (A comment from a yoga teacher that has always stuck with me: Do you want to be right or do you want to be free?)
This branch is that force in us that insatiably wants and demands from life. It whispers or sometimes screams—“I want this thing I do not have” “I want more of this thing I do have” “I demand that this person do this or be this way.” Raga is also that tendency to cling, to attach, to that which we have.
We may want something simply because it once served us without realizing that it will not serve us today. So for example, maybe we had this great lover and all was bliss for this period of time. But things changed and this relationship no longer serves us, but we cling to it as if it will because it once did.
Or let’s choose a less charged example. Let’s say yesterday we felt great and we did this amazing and intense yoga or other workout. That night we didn’t sleep so well and we are tired the next day. We want to do the same yoga class again because it felt so good yesterday. But today, it may not. Perhaps what will best serve us is gentler yoga, yoga nidra, or a nap. But we act from raga and we deplete or injure our bodies.
Opposite in some ways to raga is dvesa: rejecting. One way this manifests is when we have had a difficult experience in the past and we reject any and all people, thoughts, or environments that we connect to this past trauma. This is the adult who can’t go near dogs because one bit him as a child. It is also what I imagine keeps many of us single and/or out of emotional intimacy. We were hurt and we reject any risk of being hurt again, whether or not our immediate relationships pose similar dangers as those in the past. Dvesa is where our victim mentality lives.
Another way we reject is when a person, thought, situation or environment is unknown to us. We have no experience positive or negative with the stimulus, we simply reject because we aren’t familiar with it. Now, I can see how this serves some survival purpose for us as a species, but when we simply act from this ignorance (in a situation that obviously poses no threat to our survival) we are surely under the veil of avidya and unable to see clearly.
This one is big right? This is an elusive aspect of avidya and permeates all levels and aspects of our life. Some say all fear arises from our core fear of dying. We fear this inevitable impermanence and so all things that are impermanent or may be so (e.g. jobs, relationships, living conditions, health). We feel uncertain in our lives, unstable, fearful, doubtful, concerned, worried.
So we all know how avidya feels. Surely, I can relate to each of these and think of countless examples of how they’ve manifested in my life. I know how it feels when I act from these places. I’d bet you do too.
But how do we know VIDYA, clear seeing, correct understanding, true wisdom and knowledge?
We know vidya when we feel a profound sense of peace within us—there is no tension, no unrest, and no agitation. Our understanding is clear when there is quietness and calmness deep within. Desikachar doesn’t say a whole lot more than this on vidya, specifically. To be clear, however, yoga (including meditation) is intended to help us cultivate vidya and diminish avidya.
I find myself wanting to know more (a little raga perhaps) but I do know this feeling of vidya. I’ve found it in the middle of a noisy rainforest when a clear sense of our interconnectedness to all life washes over me. I’ve heard its whispers as I curl up after a yoga session, warm and at peace with my being. Vidya met me in labor as I approached the spirit door to bring forth my child. Vidya sings to me sweetly in tender moments of motherhood. Vidya has even found me after the loss of my father. There is a deep peace in me when I see clearly what is true about his passing. What is true about this life and what is so much bigger than this life.
Where/when have you felt vidya? What cultivates this sense of peace for you? What moments in your past shine because you had such a deep sense of clarity, calmness and peace? How can we cultivate more moments of vidya on and off the mat?