Easy Question, Hard Question • 14 July 2009

What is yoga?

Come on, you know this one.

But RF is filmed in aporia over the question, as if he’s just been asked What is the universe? What is life? What are you? As if yoga, this ridiculous, historically specific creation of modern humans, is itself the mystery.

Five years I have cast about inside my mind and through texts ancient and modern, cast my legs over my shoulder and my tongue right up toward my brain; and still I write this journal to idle with the question. I let the question idle, let it mix with my waste and give off fumes. Useless.

And as long as I remain mystified about the nature of my practice, I disattend to a much better question: What is existence, life; what am I?

Our life is a faint traicing on the surface of the mystery allright, but I’ve just realized that I’ve substituted an easy mystery for the hard one. Because… the hard one is hard; and… the easy one is easy.

What is yoga?

It’s a stupid question!

I did a “teacher training” years ago: it opened with a sharing circle in which 40 people went around the room, reciting their names and their personal, precious answer to the easy question. Each question equally vacuous, emotive, a performance of self, a display of ignorance. Equally shallow. Mine included. All 40 definitions equally right in our happy, non-confrontational, SAFE pluralist world in which everyone is equally insightful, equally deep, equally qualified to teach. (As long as you can cough up the grand).

Here's an old bromide to dissolve the other 40:

Yoga is the calming of the fluctuations of the mind. Its goal is samadhi.

And, according to Gotama Buddha and about every aspect of mainstream eastern practice since, Samadhi is the basis for insight in to the nature of reality… it’s the starting point for answering the big question. (This is the interesting part…)

Technically, the old school definition of yoga is relatively wrong now because the 40 teacher trainees are relatively right. There are as many yogas as product brands and self-identity projects: choice and relentless, obsessive self-expression and affirmation are the logic of capitalism. Democracy and easy credit (not Nagarjuna) are why we say that everyone is already equally enlightened right now.

I am not nostalgic for the shores of the ancient Ganges; and I do not assume that Patanjali-era humans were deeper or smarter than we are now (they actually sound kind of facile, and didn't have good abs). But what if we "trainees" had been humble enough to set aside our little stretching hobby and take an interest in the simple project—the concentration project? Humble enough to let it just be that? Educated enough not to be mystified by the easy questions?

I don’t know.

Also: what if we didn’t mystify this “samadhi” as something irrelevant—restricted to the ancients and to RF—but actually just got our shit together and DID it?

That I do know, accidentally; and many people reading this know it too.

Or so I have been instructed this past week. Let me suggest, as per these instructions from various first-person mind researchers, that samadhi is a one-pointed concentration that anyone can learn simply by practicing it in a regular, dedicated fashion. Someone with the dedication to do asanas every day already has the baseline scheduling and tapas in place, and can choose to add mental training to her workout. It takes hundreds or thousands of hours or whatever to find samadhi, but then you’ve tasted it and can recognize it the next time. You can get back in to it within ten or fifteen minutes anytime you set your mind to it. It’s so accessible, even, that there is a whole modern literature and research programme dedicated to it: the work on flow states. And so common that all kinds of meditation teachers have a term for it: access concentration.


For what it is worth, this is not only a basic teaching that seems to be implicit all over the place; it’s also accurate to my experience. So is the first part below.

Two things about access concentration.

One: if you go there consistently, you will unwittingly open yourself up to even deeper states of absorption. In a mostly forgotten literature, these are called jnanas. On which more later. I can’t believe I’d never even stumbled over this old framework before, but it is incredibly grounding, comforting and inspiring. If MB is the key to the queendom, the jnanas are a crude interstate map.

Two: once you’ve learned absorption—not a particularly hard project if you consider ashtanga yoga itself doable and if you give it as much time as you give your backbends and stuff (or, I would assert to much disagreement…do it during your backbends and stuff) —there is something that comes after. Something to which this concentration yields access.

Most yoga hobbyists don’t want the next step because they’re doing the sense pleasure thing. That is completely ok. It's also why the ashtanga world is the insane, sometimes vapid, party it is. But for those who want the next step, or who cannot say no to it for stupid reasons they don't understand, there seems to be a specific (beautifully specific) way to use refined concentration to ask the hard question. The one about the nature of reality and who am I.

And, for someone who is already a super-skilled concentrator, the hard question is weirdly tractable. Workable. Askable.

Having open hips doesn’t hurt either.

::::EDIT:::: If you just got all the way through that and are wondering what I'm smoking today, that's cool. I just re-read it and am wondering the same thing. Not sure what to do with this, but since we've already generate a comment thread, I'll try to, er… play it as it lays. Good practice in recognizing the effort I am always putting in to doing-being-myself and looking like a unitary character here and elsewhere.