Kena Upanishad I.5 – Language in Yoga

“That which makes the tongue speak but cannot be spoken by the tongue, know that as the Self.  This Self is not someone other than you.” ~Kena Upanishad

This idea is echoed in the Tao:

That Tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.

The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name

The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin of all particular things.

Simply put – the Self can not be described or put into words

In Yoga we have this tradition of words falling short, being inferior, and even in the way of, connecting to the Self.  However, we need language not only to communicate as human beings, but to communicate this practice.  Words and language are unavoidable.

Not only are they unavoidable, but they shape what we consider the reality, or truth of our experience.

In the sutras, it says that an experience (which we describe in words) is made up of perceiving through the senses, the perceptions are transmitted to the mind, the mind draws on past experiences to categorize and understand the perceptions, and then we decide on an experience.

It might go something like this:

You wake up in the morning and look out the window.

Perception: see a rainy day

Mind categorizes based on: past rainy days, images of rainy days, plans made for the day that will be canceled/modified, how it’s felt in the past to cancel/modify plans in general and specifically for rain, expectations you had for a sunny day, etc.

Mind decides on a worded description of the experience: “This sucks.” “Cozy day, awesome!”

Action:  Follows based on the worded description of the experience.

Generally, we are unaware of this process and arrive at the words, and possibly even the action, totally unconsciously.

It is the mind’s reaction, put into words, that we understand as our experience. And it is upon this understanding that we take action. It is therefore of utmost importance that we are active participants in this process of framing perception with words.

Michael Stone says that often, when we are suffering, and believing the world to be a place that is “wrong” in some way, it is actually our description that is wrong.  We have the power to decide on our description of the world. The opportunity to reorient or create a shift is always open to us.

This does not mean that we put a happy face on things, and just think positively.  It is much more challenging than that. To own our experiences, words, and in the end, world, we must connect to the perceptions, be active in the mind’s processing, and carefully choose the words we use to describe both the perception and the processing.  This means that when we perceive that It’s a rainy day. we stay right there with the perception and then watch the mind move. We then select the description, and consciously act accordingly.

This empowers not only our own lives, but the lives others as well.  The words we choose to speak, become perceptions themselves to other people.  When we speak the truth, we mutually create, with others, a whole world of truth.  Anna Lappé, in her recent book launch of Diet for a Hot Planet, spoke about the work being done on the negative environmental effect of factory farming. As a general rule, there is a disproportionate amount of animals for the size of land they are being kept on.  Which means there is a disproportionate amount of fecal matter for the land.  People in the factory farming industry refer to those areas of the land in which the feces pools, as “manure lagoons.”  Anna and her compatriots have chosen to rename them “manure cesspits.”  This evocative wording is much closer to the truth, and will create perceptions within others that bring us closer to the truth of the situation than the word “lagoons” ever will. When we speak more accurately, the mind processes the accurate information, and can therefore act, or not act accordingly.  The ability to change the world is founded on the way we turn perceptions into words and share, or disguise, the truth with others.  Of course as this works on the macro-cosmic scale, it will absolutely apply to the microcosmic ~ our personal relationships.

In the end the Kena Upanishad is a description of the Self. And when we get to the heart of perception, and immerse ourselves in that practice, there is eventually a dropping away of the languaging of separation between self and Self. In other words, we move from “I feel pain” to the more accurate “My body feels pain” to the even more accurate “perception of pain” to “pain” to the perception without words at all.  It is when we distill language to its essence, without the attachment of pronouns of I (asmita), we break through words to the Self.

In yoga, we cultivate practices that allow us to slow this process, to focus the mind so that the ability to be an active participant in how we decide on our experience is possible. These are the timeless tools of breath, bandhas, dristhi, and intention that are the foundation of yoga asana practice.

Savasana ~ corpse pose

Pattabhi Jois is quoted by Michael Stone in “The Inner Tradition of Yoga”, as saying that savasana is the one pose you should do, if you can’t do any others.  This might surprise some yogis who have heard that sirsasana (headstand) is the king of all poses. The ONE to do, not only if short on time, but also as a palliative. October seemed a fitting month to explore the pose and the concept of death in its yogic context.

Besides respecting the words of Pattabhi Jois, why else should we study death?  First, consider that no matter what lineage, what style, what teacher, what location, what day time or other variable, every yoga class will include savasana.  We study intently, over long periods of time, our alignment in trikonasana (triangle pose), the depth of our exhale, our meditative seat, the correct prop to modify a pose, along with multiple other aspects of the practice.  In the same way, savasana, and therefore death, deserve the same treatment.

Second, it is not only what we are inevitably born to do, but it is what we currently are.  In the Buddhist tradition, impermanence is one of the three basic characteristics of existence.  To study death is not only a study of the future, but of the present moment.

Third, it cultivates a respect for the present moment from which blooms gratefulness. Also from that cultivation arises a reminder to savor and live each moment fully.

How, then, do we work with becoming intimate with impermanence, with death?

1)      Become intimate with the breath. The breath is a precious and vital yogic tool which aids the yogi in multiple ways. With the repetitive birth-death cycle (inhales & exhales) of the breath as guide, certain insights may arise about the nature of birth and death on a larger scale.

2)      Become intimate with all the “tiny deaths” that surround our daily life, such as the cycle of a day, the life cycle of clothing, the cycles found in the food you eat, the balance of your bank account, the ink levels in your printer, the pens you use to write, the technology that surrounds you, the blink of your eye, teachers and teachings.  All of these express impermanence.  It is a yogi’s challenge to refute Yuddisthira’s observation* in the Bhagavad Gita, by remaining aware of these little deaths, and, just as with working with the breath, begin to allow the seeds of insight to dig in your awareness.

3)      Death meditation. There are various ways to practice a death meditation.  Locations can range from your living room to a cemetery to a loved one’s hospital bedside.  Methods can include visualizations, reading literature on the stages of death (scientific, or in such philosophical texts as “The Tibet Book of Living and Dying”), contemplating the world you have created around you without you in it, or any of several other techniques.  The basic work in this kind of meditation to fully confront your (specifically and uncomfortably) death.

4)      Let Go meditation.  Set aside a time that will allow you to wander through each room of your living area completely.  As you move, contemplate each belonging. Stay with that belonging, keep it in your gaze, until you become comfortable with it no longer being in your life.  Do this with everything from the new computer you bought, to the hand-me-down couch that needs to be donated, to the ring your grandmother passed to you, to your collection of music, to your photos, to whatever you have on you at that time.

5)      Contemplate during asana, meditation, or quiet reflection the Yoga Sutras, Tao Te Ching, or other texts’ passages on death. For example: Tao 50 “…He holds nothing back from life; therefore he is ready for death, as a man is ready for sleep after a good day’s work.” This passage speaks to how practicing savasana after asana is a practice for dying after life, bring this to your next practice, both the asana and savasana portions.

6)      Pull from your own experience. As with all yoga practices, make it relevant to you and your life.

Allow these practices to be uncomfortable, disconcerting, frustrating, upsetting, uplifting, freeing, joyous, exhilarating, or boring.  Recall the “This too shall pass” popular yoga story:

A student was struggling in his meditation practice. His body constantly called him away through pain or other distractions. His mind wandered. He saw himself as foolish for wasting time sitting around. Frustration and anger resulted from every session. He considered quitting. He went to his teacher and told him this.

His teacher considered and replied, “It will pass.”

The student returned to his practice. Time went by.  His body began to settle and fall away from his mind’s eye when he sat. His awareness was steady. Soon he began to feel subtle shifts in his perception. Elated, he returned to his teacher to share the good news.

His teacher considered and replied, “This too shall pass.”

Inspirations for this post include:

Michael Stone (especially his chant “Life and death are of supreme importance…”)

Tao Te Ching

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

Jack Gilbert “Tear it Down”

Tias Little‘s dharma talk at the Shala, NYC, 10/11/2009

*When asked, “Of all things in life, what is most astounding?” Yuddisthira replied, “That a person, seeing others die all around him, never thinks that he will die.”