Last week, my husband sent me a link to a strange article about a woman in Russia who was asked to dive naked into extremely frigid waters near the Arctic (30 degrees Fahrenheit to be exact) to tame Beluga whales because it was suspected that the Beluga whales don’t like the texture of wetsuits worn by other tamers.
The reason my husband sent me this article was because the woman was a yoga expert and, according to the article, used meditation techniques to hold her breath for 10 minutes and 40 seconds in the cold water when most humans would die within five minutes.
This is certainly not the first time that people have cited advanced yoga techniques for attaining seemingly miraculous feats of physical wonder. And it won’t be the last.
In fact, the Yoga Sutras talk all about the Powers one can attain from yoga.
The Yoga Sutras are divided into 4 chapters and the first 2 are most often cited and studied. This is because the first 2 chapters deal with general philosophy and the more gross aspects like the physical body, breath practices, and being a good person. These practices are easy to understand.
Once you get into the third and fourth chapters, Patanjali begins to explain how to practice yoga at an advanced level with an understanding of the subtlest of the subtle. It is here that the Siddhis, or powers, are described.
These powers are born from mastering subtlety and they sound ridiculous to the common human being. People who are steadfast about criticizing yoga as some hokey practice can easily point to the statements in these last 2 chapters in the Sutras as “proof” that yoga is a bunch of cockamamie. The powers include the ability to levitate, make yourself invisible, travel through space, read people’s minds, become aware of your past lives, know exactly when you’re going to die, survive without food and water, and summon the great yoga masters of the past in visions.
To the rational mind it makes no sense. And yet, it also has this universal allure. How many people have risked their lives (and some even sacrificed) for some crazy endeavor that seems/ed impossible? For example, flight at one time in the not-so-distant past seemed impossible. Granted, that was flight with a machine, but still, the ability to fly has long been one of the most coveted superpowers of all superheroes in all of make-believe land. So if there is some ancient text basically giving away the instructions for how to achieve such a thing you can bet that there will be human beings greatly interested in giving it a go.
The one line that invalidates the attainment of all of the powers
Many people end up practicing yoga to attain these special powers. It takes incredible discipline and practice to get there. Yet, achieving power is so far from the point of yoga practice, it’s almost comical.
Explanation of the powers begins in the third chapter of the Sutras up until Sutra 3.37. It’s like the escalation of a really great plot line and you get SO excited about the climax of the story that you just have to stop reading because you can’t handle how awesome everything sounds. The problem is that people conveniently forget Sutra 3.38 which states:
“These experiences resulting from samyama are obstacles to samadhi, but appear to be attainments or powers to the outgoing or worldly mind.”
If you were at the edge of the cliff, you just plummeted hundreds of feet down to the rocky formations below. What a downer. All of these powers DON’T MATTER even though they are possible. They are simply distractions from the whole process. Thanks, Patanjali, for the warning. Unfortunately, too many people forget this little course correction.
The glorification of the (non)power of doing crazy shit
I see this play itself out on a more physical field in the practice of yoga today. Whereas the original forms of yoga included asana, which meant a few simple postures to help people sit for long periods of time in meditation, it was never the focus of the practice of yoga. Somehow in the West we’ve taken this need for physical perfection to an extreme in the name of vanity and a good work-out. In fact, while there may have been many forms of asana in creation, most masters only taught a few to their students based on each individual’s needs so that each individual could comfortably sit for hours. That meant some students benefitted more from hip stretches while others needed to loosen the lower back and still others needed more strength. None of this “everybody do the same thing over and over and over again” routine.
The glorification of asana has been taken to new heights in the past 50 years. Entire systems of postures have been created promising faster results (of what, I’m not sure). It’s all about how we can take shortcuts to save time and money on this path toward enlightenment, which by the way traditionally has taken multiple lifetimes.
And then there’s the fact that asana has never been the path toward enlightenment anyway. Yes, it’s important that we have healthy bodies to facilitate the much deeper work of the mind, but nowhere in ancient texts was the practice of yoga asana “prescribed” as the ONLY way to stay healthy.
This leads us to classes today where students and teachers alike are drawn to the hardest, most pretzeled, challenging postures not because that is going to bring them closer to enlightenment, although some practitioners probably do think this to be true, but because all of humanity has gotten completely distracted by what my friend Charlie Gilkey calls “Bright Shiny Object Syndrome.”
If someone can do crazy one-armed inversions with lotus legs, then surely this particular person is the person we should emulate to be because putting yourself in crazy shapes and defying gravity is the goal. Sorry, you’ve hit one of those obstacles on your path.
There is no goal in yoga
Our ego gets so caught up in being cool and doing cool things that we forget that there is no real goal in yoga.
The ultimate paradox is that we practice and practice and practice and expect to gain something in return, when in reality, the practice of yoga is all about releasing all the attachments that have become obstacles to the simplicity (in all its complexity) of life.
My own perceptions and beliefs about what yoga is are constantly changing as I continue to study and experience, and my hope is that you put yourself into multiple experiences and continue to study this practice and your life so that you too can begin to form your own idea about what is worth pursuing and what is an obstacle to your spiritual growth.
I’ll admit that I have so much fun in the “advanced” classes where we are going upside down and balancing on our hands and toes. I love it because I can do it and yes, it makes me feel cool. But I also remember that no one cares and mastering Forearm Stand doesn’t bring me any closer to universal understanding. Being able to push up from Crane to Handstand is neat, but it doesn’t make me a better human being and it doesn’t allow me to contribute in any meaningful way to the betterment of this planet.
Follow the path of resistance
In the strangest way, we pursue these unimportant, extraneous physical pursuits as a way to conveniently forget that we’re not doing the REALLY HARD work in the mind. We forget to be kind, we forget to enjoy life in moderation, we forget to breathe, and we forget (or flat-out refuse) to give ourselves time to sit in silence. On the outside it seems harder to stand on one hand. But it’s also the most attainable low-hanging fruit on the path. We’re getting stuck in the tricks and avoiding the real work.
May you remember that yoga has the ability to bestow upon you incredible powers. The true practice of yoga is mastering the ability to not become distracted by those powers.
The power of yoga lies inside. Only then will you really start to learn about your place in this world.
I humbly invite you to walk this path with me as we figure out together in our own lives how to move through these inevitable obstacles and stay focused on the intention of being the best version of ourselves we can be.
Yoga Sutra translation from Jnaneshvara in The Unadorned Thread of Yoga by Salvatore Zambito.