Samadhi and Asana in the Yogasutram – N. Sjoman
(please note - It is Microsoft in all its wisdom that capitalizes both Samadhi and Microsoft)
Vyasa’s commentary on the Yogasutram takes the dhatupatha meaning of the root yuj as Samadhi. The base meaning of that root, which is the root of the word yoga, is joining and the sense Samadhi is said to be a later addition. However, it is on this edifice that Vyasa, the first commentator, introduces and builds the sastra stating that yoga is Samadhi. Within the sastra however, it appears that kaivalya, isolation of the purusa, accomplished by a series of Samadhis is the goal. That is, Samadhi is a means and not the final end as stated at the beginning of the sastra and indicated by the development in the Samadhi pada. Further, even though the Vedantins are willing to take the meaning ‘join’ in the sense of joining the individual soul to the cosmic soul, the sense of isolation militates against that and, of course, against the very idea of a dualistic metaphysic.
The Yogasutram defines Samadhi in relation to an object. It then describes qualitative progress (from gross perceptible to subtle to the undifferentiated final entity prakrti) in those samadhis that are within the knowledge complex (object, process of knowing, consciousness) until a Samadhi (nirbija) arises in connection with the concentration on consciousness that blocks all the knowledge complex samadhis and is itself then blocked. It does not describe this Samadhi as it would not possible to describe it with words that are within the knowledge complex. It is a different form of knowledge than the previous. The Samadhi pada takes us up to this door and then leaves it up to us to open it and go through.
In previous writing (The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace, Yoga Touchstone, Dead Birds) I have referred to the following meanings for Samadhi. I have given a sense of concentration based on the grammatical constituents of the word Samadhi. This is supported by the Indian commentators referred to in those books who have classified Samadhi, dharana and dhyana as forms of pranayama dependent on the quality of the pranayama (this reference is in The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace). I have however put a particular slant on this sense. I have also referred to ideas of sameness or balance by taking the prefix as sama rather than dividing it as sam a. This sense is alluded to in the Bhagavad Gita and the Hathapradikika. I have also referred to the contrast with vyadhi, disease, where it comes to have a sense of balance (of the humours of the body) in contrast to that sense of disease. In most western thought, the word Samadhi has been taken to refer to a particular transcendent state and I believe that this is the influence of western Christianity or western thought which separates the sacred and the profane, and, it may as well be stated, mind and body. On the basis of that, I have suggested that the word Samadhi would better be taken in the sense of the slang term ‘together’ (see Yoga Touchstone) which indicates that the person referred to has accurate knowledge, an intuitive knowledge, if you will, in respect of whatever they do. It refers to a particular state of mind rather than a specific knowledge complex.
This is not the only similarity. Abhinavagupta in the Abhinavabharati and in the Locana speaks of the visranti required to effect the transcendent aesthetic emotion. He specifically relates this to the knowledge experienced by yogis. This visranti specifically refers to a ‘laying back’ of the mind. We understand the slang term ‘laid back’. I would like to put the particular slant of ‘laying back’ into the sense of nirodha that is such an important part of the Samadhi complex.
In the Yogasutram, when the knowledge complex Samadhis reach consciousness, the seer, after attaining some skill in that, achieves a state of knowledge that is ‘bearing of truth’ rtambhara YS 1.48. I have discussed the word rta in Art:the Dark Side. I have argued that rta is the source of the word art. It is older and more meaningful than the Latin ars, artes. That refers to an entertainer. But the word rta, now in disuse, originally meant truth. There were two words for truth in Vedic Sanskrit, one was rta and the other was satya. Satya referred to an objective truth and rta, referred to the truth of the moving cosmos. We get the word rite, ritual and so on from that as well as the word art. In Sanskrit, rtu or season comes from that. It was possible to consider rta as an entity in Vedic times because, as Gonda says, the Vedic Indians saw the world in terms of moving patterns of energy rather than as a mass of objects. This is reflected in the verbal richness of Vedic Sanskrit and has made Sanskrit a transparent language where you can see through things (nouns) back to their basic energy (their verbal source). Rta was, in Vedic times, the underlying order of things. Objective truth does not necessarily correlate with the truth of the rta, the cosmic truth, artistic reality or whatever one wants to call it, as we are finding out to our peril. Indeed, the word rta, is, for the most part, absent in later Sanskrit. But we find it in this sutra which is a description of the state of the mind merged in consciousness just before it blocks the knowledge complex structure and moves into objectless (nirbija) Samadhi. It is the doorway.
With those things in mind, I would propose that Samadhi is an experience that is a shift to a different part of the brain. This is not something unknown – for example, we have the popular expressions of right and left brain shift in the case of artists. The experience referred to in the YS is different from our ordinary knowledge complex. The sutras say that it is a direct perception (visesarthatvat YS1.49). However, it is a direct perception that is outside of the ordinary perceptual complex. We see directly something that is not ordinarily perceptible. And the latent impression from that blocks other latent impressions (thus samcita and agami karma, the karma or latent impressions that have been laid up in previous lives and that which is being laid up by our actions now) just as the latent impressions of wrong knowledge are eliminated by correct knowledge. Thus, the perception referred to there seems to be akin to that of the seer. And, through the word rta, used to describe that Samadhi, we might even want to consider this as something linked to an idea of artist as seer – someone who can look into the real essence of things. Purusa, as Isvara, is defined in the YS not as an actor, but a seer. He is someone who, untouched by karma etc witnesses everything presented by memory and the sense organs (YS 1.24). The complex - perception, memory, perception and so on - is considered to be the wheel of samsara. Thus we can understand purusa as attaining his reality only when isolated from this, when he is only perception (note the correspondence of the definition of Samadhi). Thus the idea of Samadhi in the popular state as something different, something beyond, appears to be a superimposed meaning. It is superimposed by a system of thought that only gives validity to objects only and thus, by its own logic requires a transcendent entity. I have discussed that with comments from Indian thinkers over more than a thousand years in Dead Birds.
An initial note. The second pada begins with the sutra speaking of kriyayoga. This has been taken in various ways; indeed, some people have purloined the name for their specific trademark yoga. The Saivites give 3 phases to their spiritual discipline basically those people who are just there (sambhopaya), those who have to use power (saktopaya) and those who have to resort to detailed means (anavopaya). And then they go on to say that these means are not mutually exclusive – that there is no absolute demarcation between them. This pada should be taken in the same way. The following will provide specific reasons for that.
There are two sutras on asanas in the Yogasutram. YS 2.46 & 47.
These sutras have generally been translated as asana is steady and joyful. They are done by slackening the effort and meditating on the endless.
I have gone further with the interpretation of these sutras in Yoga Touchstone and Dead Birds. I have first of all, stated that, in asanas, there is a difference between the balance muscles and the movement muscles.
The first sutra, YS 2:46, describes what an asana should be – steady and joyful. If we reflect on this, we can understand that the movement muscles do not give steadiness. They are initiated by desire, the desire to reach a certain goal and thus throw the body out of balance. A body out of balance does not experience pleasure because there are stresses placed on the body and a loss of energy through expenditure. This causes a shortening of muscle groups that, when they become habitual chronic, can cause severe discomfort. Thus the first sutra describes asana as a position wholly under the influence of the balance muscles.
The second sutra, YS 2:47, is not descriptive, rather it is a functional definition. It tells us how the asana should be done – by slackening the effort and meditating (literally Samadhi here) on the infinite. The word asana itself means to sit or come to rest (see Yoga Touchstone for specific details. Thus, in the case of an asana, we are told to accomplish an asana by loosening the movement muscles (it is obvious that they have to be used to enter the asana configuration) and then meditating on the infinite which we can take as a means for bringing the balance muscles into play. In other words, we have to move from the desire area of the brain into a totally different area. This can be profitably compared to the movement from the knowledge based Samadhi complex to the objectless Samadhi. The movement muscle complex is within the range of the object oriented knowledges (even though it is accomplished by the autonomic nervous system and thus the unconscious), and skill in them, meaning the ability to return through them to consciousness (ultimately making the unconscious conscious), puts us into a distinct form of awareness.
At the physical level, it is not particularly easy to abandon the movement muscles and allow the balance muscles to come into play. The movement muscles are programmed by desire, that is, by our predispositions, our habits, all of the past events in our lives. Every movement that we have made is in their history, everything we have learned and we tend not to desire to let go of that. In the previously mentioned books I have made a case for movement as a suitable basis for a spiritual discipline in yoga. That is, for asanas forming the basis for a spiritual discipline. From the above, we can understand why asanas are a suitable meditation object. Indeed, the Indians have considered movement as one of the basic entities of the world and called it karma. The extended meaning of this is familiar to virtually everyone. Thus we can see how profound the sutras on asana are and how important asanas are, from the point of view of a spiritual discipline, as a subject for meditation. This is kriyayoga, the yoga of action or movement as stated at the beginning of that section of the YS. Through asana, that is, by bringing movement to rest such that we can move to a different part of the brain, we are eradicating, blocking (nirodha), the latent impressions of movement (memory traces) that propel us back into their patterns. This is easily compared to the movement described in the Samadhipada of the YS describing Samadhi. In addition, it takes up the ideas of balance or sameness and the sense of concentration that can be derived from examining the meaning implications of the word Samadhi. It bristles against the idea of Samadhi as being something beyond us. This is an event occurring in our first world, the body and it can be taken directly to the mind from there. After all, there is no possible means of transcendence that is beyond the mind, excepting death.
Now I have stated that it is not easy to abandon the movement muscles. In the same way, it is not easy to abandon the knowledge complex for an unknown intuitive knowledge that has no status in our common world. Even coming to an awareness of the muscle groups through body knowledge requires vigorous exercise, intelligence and some kind of faith in a consciousness that is only known indirectly according to the YS. The movement muscles always override the balance muscles in the same way that consciousness always takes the form of the vrtti in the mind whether from perception or memory. The movement muscles are directly connected to desire in the brain. But the balance muscles belong to a different area, a much older consciousness. Almost no one has worked consistently with this in yoga on the floor, on the body, with the exception of Gert Van Leeuwen (see his book STOP RSI and his forthcoming book YOGA Critical Alignment. Becht, Haarlem, 2009). In body work, Feldenkrais experimented with this, Alexander to a certain extent, and Mabel Todd. It has an underlying familiarity in serious massage.
I have divided asanas into still and moving asanas in my books. Even in a moving asana, it is necessary to work the balance muscles and that is visible in movement (see the DVD in Dead Birds). Not only that, but it is necessary to block the movement of the mind in order to allow the balance muscles to function fully. Therefore, my contention is that the second pada of yoga, dealing with asanas, if pursued in a meaningful way, ultimately gives the same information as the first pada, regarding the movement to Samadhi. It requires a blocking of the movement of the mind exactly as stated in the Samadhi Pada. This is directly perceptible by someone watching someone perform moving asanas, if they are done well, and by the person who is doing them.
What are the effects of drawing on this? The first thing that happens is that one can suddenly “see”. How much you see depends, of course, on how much you work. Note the complex delineation in the Samadhi Pada of the sutras which concentrates not on the object of sight but the basic structure as it relates to consciousness. Seeing in this way means that you can develop the ability to draw on intuitive knowledge from other sources. It gives the direct means and the courage to draw on that. If we consider the time that man has been on earth and put that into the space of a year, then our 6000 years of recorded history are the last 10 seconds on that year. And what we know of that history is not very satisfying. This is what we know, what we learn. It pales in comparison to the knowledge fund that we have through language (still a symbolic knowledge even if enhanced) and through our genetics as a living person which is a more intuitive knowledge. That other mass of knowledge is accessible only through intuition. It is this knowledge that we can draw on through the recognition of this means of knowing. It means making the unconscious conscious. It is being aware of the events in our body after we decide to stand up and open the door which is simply automatic or unconscious once the decision is made. This is a knowledge form that we have access to at every moment. It is an awareness that is attained, as stated in the first sutra of the pada, by serious practice (tapas), by careful self study (svadhyaya) and by devotion to Isvara (by total adherence to consciousness).