A few months ago, I engaged in an email discussion with Andy Davis, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee and an Ashtanga practitioner. We explored the subject of thinking during asana practice. Many practitioners hold the erroneous assumption that the goal of yoga and meditation practice is to stop thinking. Andy and I discussed this assumption and some of my alternative viewpoints based on reactivity:
Andy: I’m wondering about the stray thoughts I have during practice. By ‘stray thoughts,’ I mean thoughts not directly related to the asana at hand. Yoga teachers often define or describe asana practice in relation to “citta vrtti nirodha” [cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness], which is the stated goal of Patanjali Yoga. On one understanding of citta vrtti nirodha, all my stray thoughts are signs of deficient absorption in what I am doing. But in my experience, sometimes stray thoughts seem to get in the way of practice and sometimes they don’t. I’d like to ask you some questions about this.
How would you describe the general relationship between thinking and asana practice? Is practice a form of thinking? Is it opposed to thinking?
Iain: I suppose the answer to this would depend on a precise definition of “thinking”. For example, can we consider actions and responses in movements of the physical body as a form of “thought”?
The abstract, disembodied process of mental conceptualizing, which we commonly refer to as “thought”, must have gradually developed over time in our homo sapiens ancestors and our other ancestral species. What were the experiential precursors to the abstracted and disembodied thought processes which characterize much of our lived experience today? Can we still feel these sorts of ancestral precursors to thought at an organic, embodied level, where the boundaries between physiology and psychology become blurred? Can we refer to these phenomena as “thinking”? Can we/should we think in this way during our asana practice?
If you prefer to stick to a definition of thinking as something that is inherently disembodied and abstracted from our phenomenal level of experience, then I suggest that asana practice is a method through which we use a formulaic set of conditions to objectively observe whatever habitual patterns (samskaras) tend to manifest within those conditions. If abstract thinking is one of those patterns which arises, then we accept and observe that. So, I wouldn’t say asana practice is biased either towards or against this form of thinking.
Andy: One type of abstract thought is what is sometimes called the ‘inner monologue’ or ego-based narration of past and future events. Will Johnson suggests that when we are fully present in our lived, ongoing sensations, the “inner monologue” shuts off completely (Aligned Relaxed Resilient pp. 19-20). Should we work to diminish this form of thinking?
Iain: In general, I would say that physical practices which promote embodied concentration within a limited field of awareness will – over a long period of continuous practice – tend to reduce the degree of unnecessary or superfluous thinking. Having the inner monologue “shut off completely” is a relatively rare phenomena, which represents a very deep form of concentration that leads into the first stages of samadhi. This is unlikely to be experienced by most practitioners – even those who have engaged deeply with their practice for many years. To suggest that this should be the case would be discouraging to the vast majority of people, who are likely experiencing the opposite of this form of “cessation”.
Superfluous or unnecessary thought tends to be based on reactivity. The phenomena of having certain thought loops and themes which we revisit again and again – and that we can’t let go of – tends to be caused by a deeper reactive pattern (samskara) which is playing out on the surface of our conscious awareness. A long term practitioner should train himself to concentrate on – and ideally become absorbed within – the experience of sensation and feeling in body and breath for the duration of his daily practice. If this absorption within embodied experience is coupled with the intention of objective (non-reactive) awareness, the reactive samskara patterns will become weaker, as will the persistence of superfluous or excessive thought.
Is the goal to eliminate thought completely? No. Thought is useful, and essential to function in the human world today. I feel that practice can help us to avoid falling into the trap of reacting to our thoughts, and building those reactions up into grooves and loops which we become trapped in. But I don’t feel that practice should be viewed as an attempt to eliminate thought.
Andy: I find your emphasis on reactivity helpful. Instead of performing a classification of thoughts, sorting them into categories of good and bad, helpful or harmful, we might attend to the manner in which we take up the thoughts. An otherwise ‘good’ thought can become obsessive. Even something that begins as embodied awareness can become a reactive loop. Sometimes the concern for alignment in a pose can become a loop that sucks attention away from the lived conditions of the body into an abstract, ideal body. I’ve certainly aggravated my body by pushing a pose to the place it was yesterday, rather than the place it wants to go to today, using an abstract marker like whether my chin touches here or there on my leg. By contrast, a thought about something very unyogic can arise and dissipate without any problematic reactivity. Does the awareness or observation of a reactive loop as such naturally diminish or dissolve it over time or have you found additional steps necessary?
Iain: The cultivation of equanimity is central to the teaching of the Buddha, and also plays a role in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. “Upekkha/Upeksha” is the term in Pali/Sanskrit which refers to this quality of non-reactiveness. It does requires some degree of effort and awareness to cultivate. In fact, cultivating increased sensitivity without a corresponding emphasis on cultivating equanimity can be detrimental, as reactiveness will naturally tend to increase with sensitivity. Some Ashtanga practitioners become highly sensitized as a result of their embodied concentration in the energetically stimulating practice. This sensitization can lead to emotional and energetic imbalance if they have not cultivated an ability to experience their increased sensitivity in a relatively non-reactive way.
Attempting to not to react to a thought is slippery. In the Vipassana meditation technique, it is understood that the locus of sensation/feeling on the body is where reaction actually takes place. We may feel like we are reacting to a thought, or an emotion, or an external object, but what we often fail to realize is that with every experience that we have, there is a corresponding sensation and feeling in the body. Samskara is formed through reaction to this sensation/feeling on the body. So, a central part of the Vipassana technique is the conscious attempt to decrease reactivity towards sensation on the body. I apply this technique to all of my practices, including asana and pranayama, and I feel it is extremely important to develop.
For powerful and deeply rooted samaskaras, it can take months or years of cultivating non-reactivity before we start to feel their power and influence over our lives begin to diminish. With long term and regular cultivation of increased embodied sensitivity and non-reactivity towards that sensitivity, we should experience that the influence of our samskaras gradually diminishes over time.
Andy: Are there kinds of thoughts (or ways of having them) that you have found to be beneficial to asana practice?
Iain: Any thought pattern which arises during asana practice creates the potential for a reactive tendency or samskara pattern to manifest. The point of asana practice is to encounter these reactive patterns and become more consciously aware of them, so that we can learn to work with them more effectively. One could argue that any thought pattern which arises is beneficial, because it gives us the opportunity to encounter and potentially transform a habit, which is certainly more beneficial than ignoring or repressing it.
The question becomes: What do we do once that thought pattern arises in our practice? Do we allow it to distract us from the experience of being absorbed in embodied sensation? Or, can we allow the thought to play itself out in the background with minimal disturbance to our process of embodied absorption in the process of asana? The second option is the field where authentic transformation can take place.
Andy: Are there thoughts (or ways of having them) that you have found to be obstacles to asana practice?
Iain: Being extensively trained in Buddhist practices, I see all practice as a method of observing “reality as it is”. Any thoughts which naturally arise during our practice are helpful, as they represent some tendency that we have. In other words, by observing those thoughts which naturally arise, we are observing a natural part of who and what we are – whether we like that part of who and what we are, or not.
What can be contradictory – and even dangerous – to mix with the above described process are thoughts which are intentionally conjured up, because we feel it may be good for us to try to think in a certain way. If we are “trying to think” certain things, or even “trying not to think at all”, then we are not observing ourselves naturally, and we often end up repressing or avoiding what is actually there. We hide the reality as it is with a “suggestion”. I consider this to be inauthentic practice. Unfortunately, this process is widely taught and promoted in the name of “spirituality”.
Andy: A thought which is natural to me might be forced for you and vice versa. This suggests that teaching yoga is very difficult because the likely result of a specific teaching is that the student will “try” to have a different practice than he naturally has, i.e. he will try to have a practice that looks like the teaching. The problem with ‘spirituality’ you identify also seems to be a problem with teaching more generally. By attending to the teacher’s insight rather than our own, we get to avoid ourselves and believe that we have found our true selves at the same time!
Iain: Absolutely. Accepting any form of dogma without having experienced the truth of it ourselves – at the embodied, sensation/feeling based level – is fallacious. I feel the main role of a teacher should be to train people how to experience and feel things for themselves.
Andy: Do you take specific precautions to reduce certain kinds of stimulus or certain kinds of thoughts during asana practice?
Iain: I think it is helpful to practice in a space that is as neutral as possible. A neutral environment will promote concentration and the lack of strong stimulus will promote natural arising of samskara patterns which are normally hidden in the deeper layers of our subconscious.
Andy: Can you say a bit more about what you mean by “neutral” here?
Iain: By neutral, I mean attempting to remove stimulus which promote reactivity. For most people, that would mean things such as one’s phone, or any external object which will tend to draw one’s attention away from being present with embodied breath and sensation. In places like Southeast Asia, it is common to find yoga shalas in stunning beachfront locations. I find this distracting. A shala should be simple, and mostly enclosed by walls. It should be a protective “container” which keeps one’s awareness and energy within the room, and ideally within one’s own body and breath. Even excessive instruction from or interaction with a teacher can take one’s attention away from being present with embodied sensation and breath. A good teacher should also strive to be “neutral” in their presence.
Andy: Have you found that there are separable ‘stages’ of awareness (e.g. like the 4 jnanas of Buddhism or Patanjali’s Dharana-Dhyana-Samadhi) that one climbs like a ladder as the asana practice deepens?
Iain: Not really. I don’t feel that there is a particular end goal to yoga practice and therefore, I don’t feel there is any form of linear path to reach a goal. All eight of Patanjali’s limbs can and should be experienced together. I don’t really consider them to be separate things. They all support and loop back into one another and should not be thought of as sequential or linear. The ability to observe oneself and one’s own samskara patterns with less reactivity will gradually develop over time, but this manifests within all forms of consciousness and awareness, from the mundane to the sublime.
Andy: Do you have advice for students who find themselves easily distracted by stray thoughts of such a powerful nature that they derail practice or cause them to lose their place in the rhythm of the practice?
Iain: This is the power and beauty of the vinyasa count. If we hold ourselves accountable to “staying with the count”, we will be much less likely to be pulled completely out of our embodied experience of practice by distracting thoughts. When one forces oneself to stay with the count, one must necessarily pay more attention to the breath. This will lead to a deeper phenomenal experience of the sound and sensation of breath and body. As a teacher, this is the main thing I look for when assessing the maturity of a practitioner. Is a student able to remain absorbed in the vinyasa count – and therefore absorbed within themselves for the duration of their practice? Or, are they constantly slipping out of that flow (flow of body and breath and flow of concentration) and losing their focus? I see beginners doing half primary or less who are very focused and absorbed in the vinyasa count and within themselves. I see long term practitioners doing intermediate or advanced series who seem to give no importance at all to the vinyasa count and are constantly distracting themselves with superfluous movements, props, and unnecessary fidgeting. They seem to be doing everything that they can to avoid their phenomenal experience of the practice. It is clear to me which practitioners are experiencing the deeper benefits of working with the unique tool of embodied absorption within the flow of the vinyasa count. This has little to do with which postures or series they are practicing.
A group Mysore class is usually conducive to this process. A good Mysore style teacher will promote an atmosphere which is conducive to concentration and accountability towards the vinyasas count. The main benefit of a once or twice a week led class is also to teach students how to be accountable to the vinyasa count.
If one is unable to practice in a Mysore class, then creating a neutral space at home – where external distractions which might tempt one to drift away from the essence of practice are kept out of sight and out of reach – is helpful.
Andy: This makes me wonder about led classes. They would certainly encourage accountability to the vinyasa count, but they can also pull the practitioner away from the timing of his or her own breath. I have experienced them as mixed blessings, helping me focus in some regards while disrupting my focus in others. What role do you think led classes play in the process of developing a non-reactive, embodied awareness?
Iain: Led classes can be tricky in the way you described. We are often forced to move in a way that is not in harmony with our natural rate of breathing or counting. But, this can also be a good thing. We can become attached to the habits we develop in Mysore style practice, and unwilling to move in a different way. The led class shakes up these attachments (reactions) by forcing us to let go of our own particular pace and habitual way of moving through the sequence. If we allow ourselves to be open to the insights that this brings, it can then have a profound effect on how we practice Mysore style. Practicing led primary series and led intermediate series with Sharath Jois profoundly influences the way that I move through the vinyasa count in my own independent practice. When I am practicing on my own, I don’t necessarily move at the same pace that Sharathji uses in the led classes, but I find that I do hold myself much more accountable to the integrity of the vinyasa count due to the influence of his led classes. As a teacher, I have observed that students who do not regularly experience led classes often have something missing from their practice, which is connected to the integrity of the vinyasa count.
Andy: For counterpoint: do you think some students are, in fact, not thinking enough during practice?
Iain: There are practitioners who are able to stay within the framework of the vinyasa count effectively, but who are not absorbed in concentration on their internal experience, because they are coasting on autopilot. A teacher can sense this when nothing about the student’s practice ever changes – even after a long period of time. There is no inquiry, no receptivity to information that is coming from the embodied experience of practice. Practice should promote evolution of the self, and this can only happen when we are paying attention to the information we receive in the form of embodied sensation. Subtle and gross changes within the structure of one’s practice should occur over time if one is paying attention to feedback and “thinking” about it. This form of thinking is similar to what I described in my answer your first question. It is as much a property of the responses of the body to its environment, as it is an abstract, disembodied process.
Andy: Do you think there is tension between embodiment and some forms of thinking or is all thinking part of the body and therefore part of being embodied?
Iain: Over tens of thousands of years, we have manufactured a human world of conceptual abstraction, which has nothing at all to do with the physical reality of rocks, wind, water, trees, animal bodies, etc. Most modern humans spend most of their hours of conscious awareness immersed within this abstract, conceptual human made world. We treat it as if it has an objective reality of its own, independent of humans. As human society becomes more complex, our absorption within the abstract, conceptual human world seems to increase, to the point where it feels more real than the physical world of rocks, trees, wind, water, and animal bodies. This is largely why our planet earth is in such a critically unhealthy condition today.
The interesting thing is that if all the humans died tomorrow, the abstract, conceptual human world would vanish along with us. It has no objective existence of its own, and it means nothing to the rocks, wind, trees, water, and animal bodies. The reality of the abstract, conceptual human world of thinking and thought is entirely dependent on the world of animal bodies. But, the reality of animal bodies, rocks, wind, water, etc, is not dependent at all on the abstract conceptual world of human thought. It is unfortunate that the legacy of Descartes’ fallacy of dualism is so strong and enduring. Mind and matter are inseparable and any distinction between them is illusory. I feel that the “union” of yoga is to remove the illusion of separation between body and mind. We can experience all thought in an embodied state, and we are much less likely to become lost or deluded by our thoughts when they are grounded in conscious, phenomenal, embodied experience. Paying more attention to the rocks, water, wind, trees and animal bodies can help with this.
Andy: If we reject dualism, what does it mean to say that a certain sort of thinking is ‘disembodied’ or ‘abstract’ activity? You seem to identify some human activities as natural and others as unnatural or as out of sync. Can you say more about this and how you aren’t suggesting some form of nature/culture dualism that follows from a body/mind dualism?
Iain: I don’t think nature and culture are separable, just as I don’t think body and mind are separable. Culture is an inherent part of human nature. We are social creatures and culture simply represents our way of social interaction, just as it does for other social animals such as primates, wolves, ants, etc. I think the “out of sync” problem refers to an overemphasis on social interaction within our own species, and specifically through our abstract ideas. We have narrowed the sphere of our social interactions to such an extent that we have almost completely fallen out of awareness of our relationship with all that is more-than-human. We forget that our environment has shaped who and what we are over millions of years of biological evolution. Our environment is part and parcel of being human (this is also why I think the idea of colonizing other planets is a form of madness). The agricultural, industrial and technological revolutions have progressively diminished our awareness of this fact, to the extent that we are now destroying our environment and our heritage. We are thus losing touch with and destroying an integral aspect of who and what we are as a species. A person who cuts off his own legs would be considered insane, yet this is essentially identical in nature to what we are doing by destroying all of the other species and aspects of the more-than-human world which we are structurally coupled to. This is the fundamental reason for the “void” and lack of meaning that pervades so much of modern human culture and society, and the necessity of inventing religion as a means to anesthetize the discomfort of that void. We have abandoned something that has accompanied us for millions of years. I don’t think it is a matter of nature/culture dualism, I think it is more of a lack of inclusiveness of the sphere of our ancestral social interactions with the more-than-human world within our “culture”.
Andy: Would you describe bandha as necessarily bringing with it a certain kind of focus, attention or equilibrium of thought or is it possible to have ‘aligned fluidity’ in the body without having it throughout the fields of attention and thought?
Iain: Embodiment and intuitive phenomenal awareness are necessary conditions for a true experience of bandha. It can be difficult to teach this concept to students who are fixated on intellectual, biomechanical analysis of what constitutes bandha. Bandha is a deeply felt continuity between self and environment, where the borders between where one ends and the other begins becomes blurred. This certainly requires a degree of concentration and focus. The illusion of discontinuity between body and mind must be yoked for the illusion of discontinuity between self and environment to be yoked. So, I would say that a true experience of bandha takes the union of body and mind one step further by creating a fluid union between body, mind, and environment (see my article “The Tree of Bandha” for an in depth discussion of this).
Andy: I’d like to thank you for taking the time to explore these questions. As I have continued my practice, I have found your responses helped guide me away from self-criticism that perpetuated reactive thought patterns. It has been a valuable discussion for me.
Iain: Thank you. Your questions are a valuable opportunity for me to examine and clarify my own beliefs and biases. I look forward to the next discussion.