Yoga beyond duality. Inclusion for non-binary folk & everyone elseJun 15, 2023
In practice yoga has been identified with privilege- olden days we have the Brahmins (higher social caste) & men, nowadays often predominantly white, relatively wealthy women. But the ideas it advocates have always been radical, the practices a way to experience a reality undefined by prejudice. Let's see how!
Recently there has been a very beautiful reel audio on social media- you may have heard it. A female voice describes: “Asana, just one of the 8 limbs of yoga, teaches us discipline….”
It’s a fantastic attempt to encourage us to broaden from asana. But is discipline really the role asana plays?
In the Patanjali Yoga Sashtra (sutras), the role of asana is to expand our awareness BEYOND dualities. I know from my own experience, and I see from many that I teach, that discipline is often what we are ALREADY accomplished in. We are trained to disobey our deepest desire from an early age! Going to school although we don’t really want to, getting to the gym, going to work- we are masters at discipline and deny ourselves our deepest truths.
Perhaps discipline is the very last thing we need more of!
When we attempt to shift the focus in modern yoga, from “yoga as asana” to something more, we often refer back to the 8 limbs- with asana as just one of these 8 anga (auxiliaries or limbs). We may know that not much is said about asana- only 3 verses or threads. It is true- there is so much more than asana. Often the following verse is cited:
sthira sukham asanam. Asana is steady and comfortable. II.46
But its after this verse that it really gets interesting! What happens when the posture becomes a place of ease. Or HOW it becomes a place of ease. Fortunately we only need to go to the next sutra to find out. This one less often quoted, (probably because the words are harder!)
Prayatna- saitilayananta-samapattibhham II47 (Such posture should be attained) by relaxation of effort and by absorption in the infinite.
Now for the radical bit- when we are absorbed in the infinite all DUALITIES cease to exist:
Tato dvandvanabighatah II.48 Translated by Bryant as “from this one is not afflicted by the dualities of opposites”.
The sutras are always read with the commentary- sutra texts always are because they are deliberated condensed texts. Like a zip file filled with ideas we need to unpack & explore and extrapolate at length. In this case, Vyasa in the first commentary on the sutras, describes that through asana, our awareness shifts beyond the pull of the body, towards heat/ cold/ hunger/ thirst. Our awareness expands beyond these limited perceptions.
Consensus now seems to be moving towards this first commentator being Patanjali- see Phillip Maas for more on this, either way we can take this as an authoritative commentary.
...a deep and radical acceptance that can free us of our fears & our shame.
In yoga philosophy (mostly), the body is a microcosm of the universe or the multiverse. We are a part of the whole. Exactly how this micro-macro cost unfolds, is a matter of debate for another day (dual, non-dual, no-self etc.) But the koshas model serves us well as a brief outline for what we need to understand. Here the boundaries between the Physical / Energetic/ Mental - Emotion/ Wisdom & Bliss realms are intertwined. We may experience them separately- we feel bound by the body- but we can free ourselves of this limiting identity because ultimately we are a part of an unlimited interconnected web being.
So...we can take it as read that when we experience the body beyond duality, when we rest in the infinite, we find a place of truth. Perhaps the posture- let’s say its lotus pose, or a seated twist- is not inherently comfortable. It’s not that we don’t make any effort ever, but that having found a pose, we expand our awareness beyond our immediate experience. Beyond the effort and into ease. We investigate what lies on the other side in a judgement free manner.
It is not only on the physical level that we broaden our experience. We also train the mind to shift it's biases, to acknowledge one idea and then to entertain its counterpart.
“When negative thoughts present themselves cultivate and think the opposite thoughts with feeling" Sutras II.33
This is the practice of pratipaksha bhavana- or cultivating opposite thoughts. It is a technique that has been adopted by psychologists, and has proven benefits of mental health as well as for developing more acceptance within a society. By entertaining an opposite view to our own we see how this view also can hold some validity.
Yoga's is so powerful because we work simultaneously on so many levels. The sutras also offers us ways to look and reflect at our own prejudices by recognising the role ignorance has in forming our ideas & experiences.
The sutras describe how "avidya" or ignorance underlies all prejudice and is the foundation for hatred or aversion "dvesha". This is described in Sutra II.12 on the "kleshas" , the obstacles to knowledge, contentment & to yoga. Avidya is the root cause of aversion and by educating ourselves and challenging our perception of reality we expand what we feel comfortable with.
In turn we start to experience ourselves as wholly acceptable & learn love for ourselves as well as others. There is always another side to truth and until we see the both truths- the one we want to believe and the one that irks or terrifies us, we limit our perception of reality. Otherwise avidya- ignorance limits our perception.
There is no judgement here. It’s an invitation to live closer to the truth with a map of the path to follow. Yoga is a path of liberation. Free of our fears & prejudices we can embrace reality beyond dualities. It is a path deep and radical acceptance that can free us of our fears & our shame.
One that also encourages us to check our prejudices, to think beyond the binary and to thank all those who live differently, so that we can all appreciate life’s incredible diversity.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Edwin Bryant, North Point Press
Note on Phillip Maas - info from various podcasts & readings.
He went to India, researched the Patanjali sutras - many variations to systematically study different versions. He concluded the Vyasa commentary was Patanjali for various reasons. One being that the subject/ object of certain verses require both the sutra and the commentary to make sense. This means we would rename the text as a sashtra- ie a text with an auto commentary.
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