It was a twisted gum, hollowed out by bushfire, home to tiny flickering animals and support to slow-growing saplings. I’d go there to feel at home. I’d run bare foot along the old cattle tracks that passed by the horse yards and into the scrub. I knew that track so well I could follow it on a new moon, went there so often the horses would only flicker their ears as I brushed past. Once there, I’d sit with my back against the trunk. Just sit. And listen.
Like that, as a scraggly kid with no spiritual upbringing and little moral guidance, on a farm in the heartland of conservative Australia, I somehow, without having ever heard words like ‘yoga’ and ‘meditation’, began to learn about the journey of yoga and meditation.
Many years have passed since then. I sit on my yoga mat. There are translations of sanskrit and commentaries on sacred texts and cups of tepid chai tea scattered on the floor around me. I’ve been thinking about the Bhagavad Gita and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras – some of yoga’s most sacred texts, and hand-books for wanna-be yoga teachers. And I think of how now, in the final stages of a 200hr yoga teacher training, I’m not much further into my journey than that kid was. If anything, after many a meander through personal crisis, a step in “deep-shit”, and a stumble in ignorance, I find myself nearing that same cattle track.
The sense of wonder, unity, and indivisibility bound to the simple practice of being in the world and listening. That is what I found when I was a child sitting under the gum tree. That is also my rudimentary understanding of yoga as it is taught in the Bhagavad Gita and the The Yoga Sutras.
For me, both these texts speak of the internal battle we face in dealing with the impermanence of the “I” and it’s signifiers, alongside our glimpses of the permanent Ultimate Self from which all these impermanent objects (ourselves included) emerge, and to which all return. In other words, both deal with what it is to be human, and the lofty ideas that go hand in hand with that. The texts go about exploring these topics in different ways, which I have interpreted through the lens of my experiences.
The Bhagavad Gita, in my interpretation, is an allegorical conversation between the egoic “I” and the boundless Ultimate Self about who we are and what we need in life. Arjuna represents the “I”—the discrete individual with a personal history, a bunch of possessions, and several complexes that can be drawn out through psychotherapy. This is the ‘I’ who asks the perennial questions of existence. For most of us, these questions reap no clear reply: “who am I?”, “why am I here?”, “what is reality?”, “what am I looking for?”, we ask between rounds of hitting our head against the walls of our existential crises. Our cries echo through the lacunae of the known, then fade into philosophical static. Arjuna, however, has Krishna to tell him the answers. Krisha, in my reading, is the personification of the answerer and the answer inherent within us all. Here, Krishna is the mouthpiece of the Universe. He is The Ultimate Self, externalised to provide the answers that are within us all.
The Yoga Sutras takes a scientific approach to these perennial questions.
Patanjali systematically investigates the cosmology and psychology of suffering and liberation. With this as his foundation, he identifies the eight moral-spiritual steps one should take to work towards liberation. He then explores the attributes of spiritual adepts and the meaning of liberation. Here, one is presented a “how-to” guide to finding the answers through meditation.
At this point in my journey, Patanjali’s ideas about spiritual adepts, and the forms of ecstasy are beyond me. I can only really interpret it through the realms of action—the terrain of The Bhagavad Gita. So, while I acknowledge the philosophical rifts in the common understandings of The Bhagavad Gita and The Yoga Sutras (the matter of non-dualism and dualism, for one), my personal interpretation of either text is inextricably linked to the other. The question of what these texts mean to me (a very different question to what these texts are historically about) finds its answer in my early forays into yoga—the times I sat beneath that tree—and reflects what I still feel now, as I sit on my yoga mat. I see these texts as bound to a fundamental idea of unity. Because I can not personally speak of any true meditative experiences (that is, meditation in the sense of Dhyana) for me, this unity means that a person need not retreat from the world to find liberation, but should aim for equilibrium in their embodied action. Such equilibrium calls for continual practice and devotion, which ultimately manifests itself in a form of embodied and enacted oneness with Love itself.
Sometimes, when I’d go and sit beneath the tree of my childhood, I’d read. I had a book of poems that had belonged to my mother when she was a schoolgirl, a plain volume with yellowing pages. I’d read aloud, letting the sounds wash over me, each syllable a doorway to infinity, just as I now recite mantras: “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of stars, and the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of a wren”. I was always amazed at how well Walt Whitman could express the sense of oneness, the total connectedness I felt in those moments. When I read the poem I could see the stars, when I saw the stars I tasted the poem, and both were written within me. I’ve tried to dismiss this feeling as an early example of the “hippy shit” I’d fall into as a teen. But now, I see Whitman’s stanza could have easily be a passage from The Bhagavad Gita or The Yoga Sutras. The Yoga Sutras famously opens:
Yoga begins now. Yoga is the restraint of the modifications of the mind stuff. Then the Seer abides in its own nature (YS 1-3).
Likewise, in The Bhagavad Gita, Krishna gives voice to the Seer or Pure Consciousness, saying:
I am ever present to those who have realised me in every creature. Seeing all life as my manifestation, they are never separated from me. They worship me in the hearts of all and all their actions proceed from me. Wherever they may live, they abide in me” (BG 6.30 – 31).
Both passages point to something eternal and indivisible that we owe our lives to: Something ever “now”, “ever present”, from which we “are never separate”. This Seer is who we are when we are not in our heads or in our bodies, what exists when the faculties of thought and self identification have been stripped away. Moreover, this is also who everyone else is.
Yoga, then, is the search to realise Pure Consciousness as “the deathless in the heart of all who die” (BG 13:27-28)- that is, to see all reality as a continuously creative manifestation of the divine. The fluctuations of the mind that Patanjali speaks of arise from the forces at play within the cosmos. This cosmos, Prakriti, is a resonance of Pure Consciousness, the creative ripple that forms the world as we know it (S. 27). From the primordial disturbance that is Prakriti arises further disturbances of lightness, darkness, and energy–known as the gunas–through which the human emerges, and to which human thought is subject.
I recently saw an interview where the NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller speaks of something very similar. “We are dead stars, looking back at the sky”, she says. I stopped what I was doing and turned the volume up. I listened as Thaller pointed out that everything we are made of was created during a supernova explosion. All the elements came about at the point where a star started to collapse and our universe began. Alan Watts, patron of East-meets-West philosophy that he is, makes a similar point, highlighting that if we are to support the theory of the big bang, then we must also, logically, support the idea that we are a continuation of that primordial energy:
You are the big bang, the original force of the universe, coming on as whoever you are. When I meet you I see not just what you define yourself as…I see every one of you as the primordial energy of the universe coming on at me in this particular way
Similarly, the Bhagavad Gita says that:
The wise…see the same self in the spiritual aspirant and an outcast, in an elephant, a cow, a dog (BG 5:18).
According to both The Yoga Sutras and The Bhagavad Gita, the yogi must recognise that the comprehendible world, governed by these disturbances, is continuously at flux and is thus impermanent. And yet, the yogi must also see the eternal Pure Consciousness within everything.
It’s a slippery paradox, complex in theory and even more complex in practice. Both texts suggest that the secret to realising this dual awareness of im/permanence is the practice of stilling the mind without attachment. As The Yoga Sutras says:
These mental modifications are restrained by practice and non-attachment (YS 12).
Patanjali explains that “practice” means a devotion to stilling the mind, continued over a long period of time. In Hindu tradition, this may mean a continued practice through many lifetimes, with the karmic seeds of each life counting towards a gradual practice. This also means a daily dedication, which for many people translates to a yoga asana and meditation sadhana. Importantly, this is not mere goal setting: In fact, the meaning lies so completely in the process that any grand ideas about goals would undermine the purpose. The practice must be without attachment. By attachment, the yoga philosophers mean holding onto a particular idea, thing, desires, and people, including the notion of a self.
From a philosophical standpoint, if one is attached to a desire for material things, ideas, or identities, then one denies that Pure Consciousness is in everything. That is, if everything is pure consciousness, and thus everything is connected, then desiring something is kind of like walking around looking for your sunglasses while you’re wearing them. It’s an ignorance of our true state, where, in my teacher Chris’ analogy, we act like waves that have forgotten our ocean. We are looking for something, but we’re confused about where to look, so we look for it outside, when it is always already within.
Perhaps our attachments come from this deep sense that we are more than our bodies. The problem seems to arise when we rightly see this connection in things, but also see these things as part of the material world outside of us. Because we see it as outside of us, we think that we must obtain or maintain these things if we are to have a connection. This, or something like this, is the dominant view in Western thought. Plato, for instance, tells an allegory of humans as originally androgynous beings–great spherical things that were both male and female. Zeus cut them in half, and, ever since, people have looked for their “other half” so they can “heal the wound of human nature”. Plato’s idea, defines love through lack (albeit very poetically). It suggests it is in our nature to need, and that we are not whole unless we attach ourselves to something else. My reading of the Bhagavad Gita and The Yoga Sutras, on the other hand, would posit that are never separated, even when space and time and physical boundaries come between us and the sense objects: we don’t look for love, we are eternal love, and we remain the vessel of both masculine and feminine energies. The hard part is remembering that. The Bhagavad Gita, then, would rewrite Plato’s fable in the style of quantum entanglement, saying that the sense of separation is itself the filleting knife, a self-fulfilling illusion of separation. It would suggest that we could heal the wound of humanity by seeing the illusion for what it is, then realising that we are always already whole.
Of course, we cannot overlook the simple reality that, at the level of Prakriti, there is a sensory division, separating objects in space and time. While I might be made up of the same pure consciousness as you and my yoga mat, the powers at play have forged us into different people and substances that can be sensed and interacted with. Here is where the practical side of non-attachment comes in. These sense objects and ideas about sense objects give us joy and make up our lives. But, as products of prakriti, they are impermanent, constantly at flux. If we accept this, we can appreciate their ephemeral beauty. But if we begin to think that they are the only things that can make us happy, then we are bound to suffer when they change. This is why the Buddha says that “the root of all suffering is attachment”: the thing, concept, or person (or lack there of) does not bring pain in itself, our attachment to it does.
There have been times in my life when I convinced myself that I would be happy if certain things happened. In highschool, my life was run by a chain of attachments. Some were physical: “If I lose 5 more kgs, I will be beautiful, which will make me popular, which will make me happy”. Then there were ideological ones: “If I work hard, I will get good marks, which will show my parents I’m not useless, which will make them happy, which will make me happy”. I was so sure that my happiness and self worth rested on these variables that when/if something happened–I gained a kilo or my mother failed to acknowledge my work–I felt I’d missed my shot at happiness. I pushed myself to an unhealthy weight. I got dux of my year. But still, the happiness I expected did not arrive, and, as a result, I felt crushed.
The Bhagavad Gita emphasises that existing in the world necessitates action in the world, and that we should enjoy what Prakriti has to offer, but we must renunciate our selfish attachments—expectations like the one’s I had.
Krisha counsels Arjuna:
You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established within himself–without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat (BG 2:47-48).
We must live and work in the world, but we can have no control over the outcomes. Hard work does not always guarantee good marks, and good marks don’t change someone’s view of you, and happiness can never stably rest on other’s opinions.
According to The Bhagavad Gita, “practice” is not just sitting on a mountaintop in meditation: Practice extends to an attempt towards equilibrium in thought, word, and action as we peform our duties (our dharma) in daily life. “Yoga is skill in action” (BG 2:50), or, in Gandhi’s words, “Nishkama Karma”, selfless action.
In my understanding, the idea of practice overlaps with action in that we must commit ourselves entirely to our dharma, applying Patanjali’s same rule of regular practice for a long time without expectation of what ‘should’ happen. This doesn’t mean just phoning it in because the outcomes don’t matter; it means dedicating oneself to the process in such a way that one is never deterred by the outcomes. As Gandhi points out, there is always a certain expectation of outcomes. That is, after all, why we act and how we plan our actions. For, instance, I expect that the outcome of reading the sutras is that I learn something. That’s why I pick up the book. Gandhi, following the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras, would say that the key is in devoting oneself to that action without demanding the expected outcome–being completely engrossed in reading, but not disappointed if I can’t remember any of it the next day. This balance is a liberating force, that allows us to pursue our dharma whole-heartedly, but without feeling our happiness hangs upon the result.
This, of course, is where a sadhana of yoga asana and Meditation serves as the yogic training ground. A daily asana practice involves showing up on the mat and mindfully engaging with sense objects, particularly the feelings of one’s body, without being attached to the outcomes. It is a type of tapah, challenge, that aims at bringing sauca, purity. In recognising one’s limitations on the mat and not lusting for more, one engages in self-questioning, svadhyaya, and practices samtosa, contentment, eventually surrendering to the universe. Through this dedication to practice and non-attachment, the physical begins to translate into the spiritual, the situational behavior of yoga asana, where we tap into the divine, becomes our every day behaviour.
It took me a long time to even grasp the idea of this balance. I started yoga following spiritual desire. I was in my teens, feeling oppressed by my own ideas of beauty and achievement. I’d come to realise that in half-killing myself to be the best at everything (which I’d always equated with happiness), I enjoyed nothing. I wanted more: more wisdom, more freedom, more of that feeling I had when I was a kid running barefoot through the paddocks. In a way, yoga and philosophy were my teenage rebellion. Every day, I did my meditation. I attempted the asana in my Iyenga book that didn’t look too difficult. I furiously took notes from books so I could arm myself for heady debate. I was pursuing spirituality with the same ferocity as I’d pursued school and exercise. And because of this, I never achieved that sweet spot between practice and non-attachment.
Later, while living in the forest, I dropped the lofty philosophy books, and Mr Iyengar’s how-to guide. I let the trees by my teachers. I watched how they negotiated their roots around rocky crags so they could extend their branches up and out to the light, meaning they could better exist in the moment. I also watched the wordless communication, the way the comings and goings of the bandicoot and the scent of eucalypt marked the passage of time; the way you could sense someone walking up the road. I was hardly a Henry Thorouh in my musings. It was mostly unconscious, and, if anything, I forgot it, as soon as I left the forest. Once again, I would push myself beyond my limits, or I would find myself so caught up with the fear of failure I’d be afraid to try. I resumed my daily practice, this time with the guidance of a teacher, and slowly, after many times falling on my face in bakasana, and realising just how challenging it is to come to balasana when everyone else is in headstand, it came to me: if you’re not challenging yourself in some way, you’re not doing yoga. If you’re challenging yourself so much you can’t maintain an easeful breathe, you’re not doing yoga. A tree never stops growing, but it also works with the obstacles in its path, and always stays firmly rooted.
Slowly, I am learning to apply this to every day life. When something arises I don’t think I’ll be good at, instead of quitting like I would have previously, I remember not to be attached to the outcomes, and to give it my all anyway. As Rumi says, “life is a balance of holding on and letting go”. Through finding this balance, we open ourselves up to the interconnectedness of all. In this sense, we start at the physical level, and work towards creating equilibrium. This equilibrium helps us see the connectedness of all.
Discovering this has been an important part in my interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras. It speaks of the unity in thought, action, and spirit. Through yoga we come to realise that
The wise see there is action in the midst of inaction and inaction in the midst of action. Their consciousness is unified and every act is complete awareness (BG 4.18)
In my personal beliefs, this means that every moment is a continuation of that initial ripple in consciousness and one with consciousness itself. All action is at once fundamentally creative and always already created. The wise see the creative force of pushing oneself to create change while also surrendering to the creation that is.
This also means that while in the world, our actions should be imbued with the knowledge that we are all connected. It suggests that when we encounter people acting in a disharmonious way—a way that perhaps breaks Patanjali’s Niyamas through harm, theft, lies, or greed—we must stand up for what is right, but also see that their actions arise out of ignorance of their true brilliance. These people do not see the play between the eternal consciousness and the ephemeral Prakriti as one. Patanjali counsels that:
By cultivating attitudes of friendliness towards the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness (YS 33).
We must recognise ourselves in the actions of others, and, in doing so, feel joyous for their joys and compassion for their sorrows and wrongdoings. In my mind, ‘disregarding’ wickedness does not mean indifference to injustice. If we are to consider that there is always action in inaction, we realise that standing by and watching another commit harm implicates ourselves in the act. However, we must intervene in a way that does not simply identify the actor with their actions – we must disregard the “wicked” side of them revealed in their actions, and see instead the good. Well-known examples of this exist in the teachings of Gandhi, The Dalai Llama, and Jivamukti yoga.
I believe the principle—that is, desiring change while also holding compassionate for what is—also applies to ourselves. Arjuna faces the army of his relatives knowing he must fight them. Krishna tells Arjuna that he must fight, and comforts him by saying his relatives will not die, merely transform. This same lesson applies when we face the darker sides of ourselves. The darker side might be the hurt child within who feels jealous when they see another person being happy, or the inner shadow who seeks revenge for wickedness, or a negative core belief. We must face these aspects of our psyche, and treat them with compassion, but also take action to reveal the light in them. Paradoxically, we transform these parts of us to what they already were, we take them back to the pure form, before the “colours” of experience tainted them. When we see the workings of both Prakriti’s fluctuations and Purusha’s eternity in everything, including in the actions of others and one’s self, and react accordingly, we develop equilibrium in how we interact with the world.
In this sense, The Bhagavad Gita and The Yoga Sutras speak of the fundamentally spiritual aspect to all thoughts, actions, and interactions. The ancient texts ask us to keep steadiness of mind, and for laypeople like myself, this means seeing the Universe at the heart of all our daily actions. Here, we come to the concept of shraddha–faith, “that which is placed in the heart”. The Bhagavad Gita tells us that “A person is what his shraddha is” (BG 17:3) . Crudely put, shraddah is a belief system. It exists in the confluence of thought, actions, and interactions, influenced by and in turn influencing our “reality”. It is how, in the flux of Prakriti, we construct and constantly reconstruct our world.
Shraddah, in postmodern light, is the metaphors we use to group entirely unique things into concepts, so that the light reflecting through the atmosphere, which never has been before and never will be again, is always referred to as “the sky”. It’s also the thoughts we have that we come to embody and enact. In Buddhist terms: “as we think, so we become”.
The Bhagavad Gita and The Yoga Sutras ask us to take as our shraddah the idea of the divine in all. With the Ultimate Reality as our shraddah, all actions unite as prayer. All dharmic paths lead to Ultimate reality. “As they approach me, so I receive them” (4:11). To me, this suggests that The Bhagavad Gita and The Yoga Sutras, often considered manuals for the art of yoga, are not entirely prescriptive. Rather, they are descriptive, speaking of the phenomena of the mind, a shraddah for us to find in our own way. This shraddah creates our world, our beliefs colour it, and it is our job to strip away these layers, through physical and spiritual actions, to see the Ultimate Reality within it all.
It was a twisted gum. But it was never really about the twisted gum. It was about how, when I walked there, the moon slipped in various guises, shadowing grass that was never the same hue. How the ants would make mounds in the rainy season and the dust would billow in the dry. It was about how the path was never the same and I was never the same. But that the feeling I could find as I sat silent in the Rhodes grass was one that said the change and I were the same, and that there was something else I could not comprehend. What any of this means for me now, as I sit on my yoga mat, is difficult to say, aside from saying that I’m on some path to a place I don’t know, and that the ground beneath my feet has intricate patterns. In the words of Annie Dillard: “we wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery”.