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Yoga: The Product is You !

(Published in Namaskar Magazine, October 2014)

Early in my almost distant teenage years, I realized that I no longer wanted to be a walking billboard. I began to wear clothes without logos and invested in a good seam-ripper that could swiftly remove pesky brand-name tags. Eventually this movement gathered momentum. Publications and organizations sprang up to further the commercial-free cause.

Practicing yoga and meditation had already been a part of my life and, for me, these practices supported the non-commercial attitude. I sought to explore and experience truths. The practices were leading me towards self-understanding and self-reliance not dependent upon status or image. Most of what I saw in mainstream society seemed to be leading the other way: what defined an individual were the brands, bands, fashions and products that they displayed.

As the 1990’s dawned, yoga studios started to mushroom up around the US. Even though I continued practicing, I steered clear of studios, yoga clothes and magazines. To my cynical but wide-open eyes, they seemed to be selling a branded image more than the teachings of yoga. But once I did venture into studios, I immediately realized just how many people were being helped, uplifted and guided. Because modern yoga had developed locations and points of access, millions were able to find teachings and teachers that were of service.

Our global yoga community continues to struggle with this tension today. Does the successful marketing of yoga degenerate the value of the teachings? We would hope that the integrity of yoga could be preserved for the benefit of all, regardless of whether one is in a famous studio wearing a fashionable outfit or merely under a bridge in some scroungy old shorts.

The illuminating organization Adbusters made famous the proclamation: “The Product is You.” This meme helped many realize that ad campaigns aren’t merely seeking to sell a product, they’re seeking to indoctrinate the audience with a set of beliefs. The slogan reveals that advertising portals (websites, TV shows, etc.) sell the consciousness of consumers to their advertisers. So in fact, the product being sold is the viewer – you!

This phrase also seems applicable to yoga and its related industries. Advertising for yoga products often promises to embed a different identity within your consciousness – to create the feeling of a newer, fresher, healthier you. At the same time, ancient yoga teachings sought to erase identification with the transient body and mind. From either perspective, a product of yoga is the shift within your identity.

But this can be a risky proposition. Without caution, the sparkly, promising yoga cult might warp our sense of who we are. We could even begin to believe that we need to wear, eat or say certain things to be included and defined as a “yogi”.

Thankfully, at its heart, yoga is not a specific image to be purchased or attained. Yoga is a collection of practices designed to reveal the truths of one’s self. For some, these truths may be physical (“If I strengthen my abdomen, I can relieve back pain.”). For some, these truths may be more transcendent (“By watching, I realize I am not the body, I am not the mind.”). But no matter what variety of truths yoga reveals, they are verified by individual, internal, personal experiences.

The blessings of the external world can be priceless motivators: we may find the camaraderie of our yoga tribe supportive, we may be allured by the latest daring yoga fashions, we may enjoy exploring the our shift of habits into a different lifestyle. But these experiences should help guide us towards our internal practices and not away from them. The comforts of modern yoga can be valid, expedient means that eventually lead to genuine practice. My concern is that branding oneself as a yogi could become just another escape from actually looking inside to see what truly exists.

I have come to realize that everyone’s relationship with yoga is individualized and personal. Regardless of whether one looks like a yoga magazine cover model or not, one’s internal practices can still guide towards self-knowledge. I cherish my friends who practice and receive insight, without feeling pressure to conform to any yogi identity, modern, ancient or other. I now honor the fact that yoga’s product is you, but only in one meaning of the phrase.

That is, I no longer cynically shy away from yoga groups, businesses or public displays of yoga (PDY’s, if you will). I trust that genuine practice will guide us towards the truth and keep us from being identified with the false. So for me, the product is not you: it is not the collection of identity assumptions someone might make when glancing at you in the elevator on the way to class. Nor is the product you: your awareness unknowingly served up on a platter for enterprising marketers. Instead, the product is you: the clear and multi-faceted gems of wisdom, pools of self-knowledge that exist absolutely nowhere except deep within.

Dylan Bernstein is a recovering cynic teaching yoga in Hong Kong and globally, www.stillnessinaction.com

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On Detached Action

as noted in Dao De Jing, Bhagavad Gita and Patanjali
by Dylan Bernstein

Throughout the history of spiritual studies, truth seekers have been confounded and confused by ancient texts that describe action. The Dao De Jing, Bhagavad Gita and Patanjali Yoga Sutra all grace the topics of effortless action, non-doership and detachment. These venerable guides to self-discovery and proper living often give the student mind-boggling contradictions. One is told to sense without sensing, die without dying, do without doing and so on. Are these ancient teachings hiding some deeper understanding of existence … or is the answer simply staring us in the face?

I had been sporadically practicing yogasana and sitting Buddhist meditation throughout all my teenage years before I dove deeply into the Dao De Jing. The short masterpiece attributed to Lao Tzu mentions a state of wei-wu-wei, literally translated as action without action. It also tells us to do without doing, leaving nothing undone (D63). As I studied many different interpretations and translations of wei-wu-wei and the Dao itself, I came to conceptualize a way of acting without exerting effort. Some say that this method of action is accomplished by returning to one’s natural condition, letting go of pretense and perhaps even free from verbal thought. Some even posit that the effortless quality of wei-wu-wei manifests because the actor is able to erase the distinction between herself and the act. Without mentioning specific practices, Daoism lays out the blueprint for a higher state of existence. In this state, the non-doer is only letting the action flow through her body:

“The highest aim is to be like water, benefiting all things without ever competing…” (D8)
“Nothing in the world is softer than water and yet nothing is better at overcoming the hard and strong.” (D78)

Thousands of miles away and much later, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra came forth to offer seekers more specific ways to reach this effortless state — a state free from identifying with the fluctuations of consciousness. Though there is no evidence of any Daoist influence, both traditions seem to have discovered similar underlying truths. In contrast to the Dao, Patanjali emphasizes the need for practices in order to reduce the chatter of the mind and the afflictions which cause them. Yet before Patanjali elaborates upon any specific practice, he notes the components needed for success. Practice is to be sustained without interruption over a long period of time — abhyasa. When one chants the sutra, the very same breath cautions that practice must be detached — vairagya. (PYS I.12)

The nature of Patanjali’s vairagya may seem cloudy at first. Perhaps one is to first foster less association with all that their senses and mind experience (I.15). Later, in supreme states, the seer could be free from identification with any and all of nature’s transformations (I.16). Presumably, the seer would then not identify with the body-mind, which is always changing and subject to nature’s play. This supreme detachment reinforces the Patanjali goal of identifying only with unchanging, eternal consciousness itself.

Patanjali also mentions the importance of vairagya in the mystical third chapter of the Sutra, Vibhooti Pada. Here myriad supernatural powers are described, such as the ability to walk on water or communicate with animals. These powers may include lofty states of existence amongst the gods and celestial creatures. Yet Patanjali is crystal clear that these states are to be renounced and transcended. Though they may appear as powers in worldly life, they are but obstacles to yoga’s highest benefits (III.38). When Patanjali describes supreme mastery over all conditions and complete omniscience, he immediately cautions that only by detachment from these accomplishments can the yogi progress towards the final state of liberation (III.51 – 52).

Patanjali clearly counsels that one must be detached from the results of one’s practices, no matter how marvelous or incredible those results happen to be.

Abhyasa and vairagya are mentioned within the same breath in another one of Classical India’s yogic guides, the Bhagavad Gita. As Lord Krishna advises the noble Arjuna on the nature of action and the practices of yoga and meditation, Arjuna asks:

“How can the mind, which is so restless, attain lasting peace? Krishna, the mind is restless, turbulent, violent, powerful, trying to control it is like trying to tame the wind.”

And Lord Krishna replies:

“It is true that the mind is restless and difficult to control. But it can be conquered through abhyasa and vairagya.” (BG 6.34,35)

Lord Krishna and Patanjali agree upon the need for detachment within meditative practices. The Bhagavad Gita further emphasizes the need for detached action within all aspects of daily life. A primary theme is karma-phala-tyaga, renunciation of the fruits of one’s actions. Krishna promises that it is through this attitude of non-doership that the cycle of rebirth can be broken and liberation attained. And Lord Krishna is clear that renouncing the results of one’s actions (tyaga) is not the same as renouncing the actions themselves (sannyasa). Arunja is repeatedly encouraged to act, yet to be detached from the results of his actions, as they are not his to claim.

Krishna’s tyaga and Patanjali’s vairagya are pathways for developing detachment. The more one is able to act in accordance with these principles, the more one’s existence resembles Lao Tzu’s Dao. The essence of these three seemingly mystical spiritual guides can be pared down to simple instructions: Remain detached, specifically from the results of actions. All of the higher states of transcendence, effortlessness, Dao, Zen, Advaita, Nirvana, Samadhi, Satori and the like seem to sprout from this same soil. Once the seeker, student or practitioner has intellectually realized what the sages offer, her only task is to experiment with living that wise advice. Of course, the actual implementation is likely to be difficult and presents a unique set of challenges, perhaps better grappled with in another article. For now, let us rest in knowing that these diverse spiritual traditions agree on the type of action which the wise seek to cultivate. Hopefully, this is more than just food for thought, it can become the basis for activity as well.

Regarding my personal journey, the early study of the Dao was incredibly useful, especially as I had already established practices within asana and meditation. Furthermore, it has been invaluably reassuring to watch my studies of the Gita and Patanjali knit together and reinforce the notions towards which Lao Tzu was pointing. We are lucky to have access to all of these teachings today. Yet they are often not clearly understood, not to mention integrated within daily life and practice. Perhaps the verbal contradictions befuddle modern readers before they are able to pause and observe the meanings behind the words. Or maybe for some, the teaching has become so accessible that it is easy to overlook the unlimited potential that lies within the message. We might be wise to cherish the lessons offered so clearly from these beneficent scriptures. Over thousands of years, the teachings have remained constant, still and unmoving. At first, they may be difficult to detect, but once seen, they’re impossible to ignore. To me, it seems these lessons are simply staring us in the face.