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Yoga training for the mind


A few months ago I wrote about yoga for the first time. It’s taken me so long to get around to writing about this because its so vast and complex. What started for me 12 years ago as a nice stretch in the gym has turned into a tool which has guided and shaped my life. Going back to 1999 I was working for KPMG in a fairly senior position in corporate finance. It’s hard to imagine how doing simple yoga stretches can change a person but I feel it has changed the way my mind works.  I’m going to try to explain some of the process (apologies to the many experts on the Yoga Sutras and Hatha Yoga Pradipika out there).

The first point to understand is that the physical aspects of yoga you see in a class or a gym, are just one aspect of Yoga. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written over 2,000 years ago distil knowledge from seekers of knowledge from the previous 2,000 years. Its content is very similar to the foundations of Buddhism. Nowhere in the text does it explain a system for physical exercise. It took another 1,500 years before the physical aspects were documented in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

Like Buddhism the Yoga Sutras encourage us to enquire what truth is. However it’s the search for truth that’s important because there is no perfect point of view or perfect observation. In order to illustrate this point I will demonstrate how what we perceive to be truth is an illusion created by our tendency to view and judge our surroundings based on how we have learnt to filter and absorb information

How we perceive the world

We all perceive the world through a prism of past experience. The information that we are primed to observe depends on how we have observed information in the past and what our current mood state is. I’ve written about this many times. For example our ability to see spectrum’s of colour and detail is dependent on how we feel and what we expect to see (or are told to expect to see). I’ve used this example before but check this out if you don’t believe how expectation directs perception http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1D07neiB7HI

In Yoga and Buddhist philosophy it is the misperception of reality which leads to pain and suffering. For example, if I strongly hold to a belief whilst those around me hold different views based on how they see the world, this can lead to isolation, frustration and confrontation.

In Yoga misperception of how the world appears is called Avidya . It is the belief that our view of the world is correct and permanent. This creates separation between people because the view that you will have will be different to mine. Your processing of information will be enabled by how you have learned to perceive the world. Once we’ve made our minds up about “a thing” (say marmite) it’s really hard to experience the thing in a different way.

As soon as I write marmite people think about food types and whether they like or dislike it. I could have used the example of a favourite colour, or whether to vote Conservative or Labour, or whether to believe in climate change or not, or whether to believe Israelis are reclaiming their homeland or invading another’s. These different view points enable humour, gossip and help bring advances in science and the arts. Exploring difference through dialogue is a joy but some people lack the awareness that their view is but one of many.

Amongst other things Yoga teaches us about impermanence and humility. The more we learn, the more we know there is more to learn and the less certain we can be in our beliefs.

Observing many selves within us

In last weeks blog/newsletter I explored how we think and act as often being directed by deep subconscious patterns – bundles of deep lying thoughts and emotions which direct our behaviours.

I’m going to try and explain how yoga practices unbundle these packages of conditioned thoughts and emotions, and enable us to understand how we see the world, and how the world really is, are not the same. We learn to become confident in our uncertainty and this uncertainty drives us to ask others about how they see the world. It makes us more communicative, creative and adaptable to change.  In order to observe these deep “packages” that direct our behaviours, we first have to appreciate that when we observe ourselves (thoughts, emotions, behaviours, physical sensations) we are already primed to observe ourselves in a way that is directed by how we feel right now.

For example, when I examine my own thoughts, feelings and behaviours, there are times when I can observe that I am confident and strong and there are other times when I can feel small and low and abandoned. If I sit still I can observe that I act/think/feel in many different ways depending upon context. In truth I am not one self but made up of many different selves.

This is a really hard thing to explain especially as Western Psychology often fails to explore the idea of multiple self and context. To give you an illustration of how context changes behaviours I’ll give you the example of the good Samaritan study:

In an experiment, a group of students studying theology were asked to take a mock psychology test but at the last minute were told that they had to change venues to do the test. Half of the students were primed with words like “you’d better get a move on because the new venue is a good 10 mins walk away and the exam starts soon”. The rest were told to proceed to the new venue at their own pace. Halfway between the old and the new venue an actor paid for by the study designers pretended to be hurt. It looked as though he had been attacked or had a serious accident. In the study, the number of people who stopped to give the man assistance was significantly less from the group primed with time-scarcity words compared to the other group. And remember these were students studying religion well versed in the story of the good Samaritan – for those that don’t know the story the good Samaritan was a dude in the bible who helped an injured person on the road to Damascus thereby finding God. Just to emphasise the point a little more – the designers of the experiment had arranged that just before the mock psychology test the students had actually received a lecture on the good Samaritan story from their tutors – it was right at the front of their minds but time-scarcity, or the perception of it, changed their behaviours.  For more about this study go tohttp://www.spring.org.uk/2009/12/when-situations-not-personality-dictate-our-behaviour.php

So now consider how in a busy city our behaviours/thoughts/feelings/perception of sensations are highly contextual and influenced by our surroundings. The only way to observe these different “packages” of behaviours/thoughts/feelings/perception is to somehow slow the world down to enable us to observe our myriad selves behaving in many different ways.

When I practice self-observation I can observe that when I feel confident and strong I’m more likely to try new things and catch up with friends. I can also begin to observe that this confident outgoing person can become arrogant. When I’m time pressured I can be aloof. I can also observe that certain triggers make me feel insecure and vulnerable. When I work with my charity YourStory I feel kind and generous. These selves are all contained within this thing I think of as me. But each of these selves acts and behaves in different ways depending on context.

Each of us have many selves within. Each nurtured by past and present experience. Each directing our behaviours. Yoga trains us to concentrate the mind to observe these selves and how they impact our actions.

Don Juan, the Yacqui Native American tutor of the anthropologist Carlos Castaneda, explains that to perceive the world you have to stop the world. You have to be still to notice that what you observe is what you expect to observe based on past experience. To see the world through fresh eyes is to raise the veil of Avidya or ignorance.  To do this its useful to to concentrate the mind so that you can train yourself to begin to observe these selves within and how they influence behaviour. In future articles I will (try) and explain how each of the 8 steps of Yoga help raise this veil of Avidya.

In order to stop the world for a moment you can do a number of things:

– Put yourself in a place of great beauty. A place that shocks the senses. As I write this I’m looking at the Southern Cross in a clear night sky – wonder and awe are great at fostering humility and uncertainty about your views and place within the world.

– Meditate on the breath – in a relaxed state you engage the parasympathetic nervous system and concious thoughts slow. With practice this focus and concentration allows you to observe noisy thoughts from myriad selves that jostle for attention. Meditation practices do not empty our head of thoughts but allow us to observe these thoughts and how they influence behaviours.

– The next step is to be aware that as we learn to observe these different strands of self bubbling to the surface there is no one coherent self. Sometimes we observe packages of thoughts/feelings/behaviours/sensations which are confident and happy, sometimes lonely and sad. With ongoing practice we observe that these different selves may be very different from one another and that there is no one coherent self (accept maybe the self that observes these things).

– With further self-enquiry we observe that these different selves have emerged as patterns throughout our lives.

Each of the eight limbs of yoga seeks to concentrate the mind and lift the veil of ignorance that bounds us to a view of self separating us from true knowledge of our surroundings.

Untying the knot means becoming relaxed with uncertainty and going with the flow rather than trying to think our way to happiness. We get tied up by clinging to our thoughts and believing that they are us. Like everything else they arise and pass away over time. Everything around us is in constant flux and therefore we need to train the mind to be adaptable. In this way we can see the world afresh and remain youthful and vibrant.