The Mirror of Yoga: Awakening the Intelligence of Body and Mind
On the cover of The Mirror of Yoga, there is a photographic demonstration of Gomukhasana, cow-face pose, shot against the infinite sky. Over centuries and in many countries, the cow has been perceived as life-producing and symbolizing the creative principle. In yoga, the posture promotes heart opening, encourages observation, triggers awareness, and nourishes a feeling of tranquility. The Mirror of Yoga does all this, too.
All the systems of Indian philosophy strive to answer some basic questions, such as: Who am I? Why have I come here? What is my relationship with the universe and other human beings? What is the nature of my being? What is the relationship between consciousness and objects in the world? What are the guidelines for action while we live in the body and the world? What is true?
Having source in ancient hymns known as the Vedas, all the systems of Indian philosophy share common characteristics like direct experience, practicality, respect for sages and scriptures, open-mindedness, logic, stability, harmony among the schools, the practice of yoga, laws of cause and effect, moral and ethical teachings, acknowledgment of suffering, belief in eternity, and a holistic approach.
Including orthodox and heterodox systems, there are more than six schools of Indian philosophy. One of them, Samkhya (literally, to count or innumerate), holds that nature and consciousness co-exist in the universe and are interdependent. They are described as purusa (the conscious) and prakrti (the unconscious). Prakriti arises when an imbalance among the states of activity, inertia, and poise produces the material world. This teaching is said to be the mother of mathematics and auyrveda.
Yoga is the practical application of samkhya theory. In The Mirror of Yoga, author Freeman leads the reader on an exploration of a wide variety of traditional philosophies and practices. His stated intention is to inspire intelligence, imagination and a heart-opening to direct experience of life. He draws references to scriptures, sutras, texts and teachings such as the Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, Rig Veda, Vedanta, Ramayana, Samkhya Karika, Mahabharata, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, and others.
All Sanskrit terms include diacritical marks, and a pronunciation guide is given at the conclusion of the book. A glossary of Sanskrit terms is provided, as is a thorough index. Eight “drawings of the undrawable” by Susan Chiocchi illustrate the concepts presented in The Mirror of Yoga; each one deserves attention and meditation, as do seven chants given in Sanskrit and English (hear the audio on the publisher’s website). The Mirror of Yoga is presented in nine chapters without sub-heads. Some paragraphs are longer than a page; however, the content flows freely, allowing the reader to really drink deeply from the teaching.
First there is an introduction to the phases of practice and classical forms, noting that there is no one methodology, but an underlying web of similarity that connects all approaches to yoga. Freeman calls this web of interconnectedness the matrix that sustains everything. For example:
Hatha yoga works with body and breath, uniting opposite patterns in the system in order to open up the core for observation;
Jnana yoga inquires into the nature of things, developing discriminative awareness and nonattachment;
Astanga yoga provides an ethical framework from which other practices thrive;
Bhakti yoga examines relationships to others via viscerally experienced connectedness;
Tantra yoga addresses the sacred nature of everything, detailing and organizing the processing of experience;
Karma yoga is work or action practiced as an offering to others;
Buddhism is presented as a mirror for the schools of yoga, stimulating growth and practice, in contrast to resting in doctrine. Questioning the structure of everything, including the school to which one “belongs,” refines one’s understanding and boosts the awareness of living in a continually fresh experience of life.
The body and mind are discussed as fields of experience. Used as a path through direct experience of clear, open awareness, yoga can lead to an undoing of misery. Asana (posture) is the physical “juice” of experience; the mind functions to represent things, to organize, make symbols, put things into words, and then to reorganize everything. Ultimately all yoga practices (asana, pranayama, mediation, study of philosophy, etc.) open the core of the body, the heart and the inner working of the mind, giving insight into one’s true nature and into the ego structure and habitual ways of perceiving and reacting. The foundation of yoga practice is to train ourselves to observe the presentation of the mind-stuff, whatever it is, whenever it comes into our awareness.
The purpose of hatha yoga is said to be the contemplation of the awakening of the susumna nadi, the channel along the central axis of the body, to find the deepest root of the mind. Mental patterns of separation and fear, formed from previous experiences, deaden the connection between body and mind and cause the mind to become dull; this causes suffering. By shaping and stretching the body and thereby freeing the breath, we can liberate the mind. The intent of hatha yoga is to get an even, complete flow of breath and energy throughout the entire body and observe what actually is, rather than our own theories, desires, or perceptions of what is. Freeman explains the profound metaphorical value of symbols like Ganesa, an aspect of divinity who removes (and sometimes perhaps places) obstacles in life’s path.
To understand yoga, it is important to give oneself license to entertain different ideas. The intention of original philosophers was that one would learn to think for oneself, so one could experience reality as it is. We human beings generate theories about what is going on in life; sometimes we can’t appreciate others because our thoughts are stuck in those theories, and we experience confusion and suffering. Confusion prevents us from having genuine relationships. In yoga, we observe what is actually happening in the present moment, instead of relying on mind-generated theories. We begin to gain greater understanding of the processes of evolution, change, and impermanence.
Freeman says that with training in yoga, there is no fear of the hidden and no need for certainty. In modern society, this may seem hard to believe, but if we can rest with the knowledge that all is impermanent and trust in the process of not-knowing, insight into the truth of impermanence is possible. Understanding this is considered to be the dawning of the light of discriminative knowledge. Buddhi (true intelligence) is the ability to discover the real meaning of things by linking them into their contexts. This intelligence allows us to understand and fully experience purusa as purusa and to comprehend that everything we perceive is prakrti. Freeman gives hints about how meditation and yoga practice allow us to trace direct sense experiences back through various layers of mind and buddhi to watch prakrti reveal purusa.
The Bhagavad Gita (Divine Song) is an epic story that teaches that bhakti (love) allows the refinement of multiple practices so they fold into each other and transform into the indescribable experience of the present moment. Again, Freeman urges us to learn from the metaphors presented throughout the story. The warrior Arjuna finds himself at a point of irresolvable ethical conflict, where formulas and habitual responses will not work! Krsna, who takes form as Arjuna’s charioteer, confidante, and lord, teaches him to use yoga to train the mind to be open and to invite the “aha!” moment. Arjuna learns much about action, conscious sacrifice, and meditation. Ultimately, he learns that he must give up the concepts and images he has of himself, the other warriors, and people in his life, and follow his unique calling. Through relationship with others we find ourselves – this is the underlying teaching of the Gita.
The world is being presented to us in every moment, and even the ordinary is sacred, when the mind can simply observe it without interfering, and then experience joy rather than merely observing. Conscious awareness and present-moment experience sound simple, but are they easy? Freeman offers cooking and eating as examples. Both can become part of a meditative practice, or an escape from it, if the ego is allowed to huddle in the “distraction.”
Practitioners of tantric yoga are focused on accessing joy for themselves and others, attending to all aspects of experience with intention and devotion. Freeman describes tantra (literally, weaving of threads) is a composite of practices between various yoga philosophies and a language of exchange among schools of practice, which has evolved as distinct in the yoga tradition because the ideas are complex, sometimes controversial, and seemingly secret. Tantra is concerned with organizing and ritualizing ordinary experiences to stimulate and focus the mind. However, when one’s focus dwells on detail, concepts can get lost, especially if the practice is done from an egocentric perspective; Freeman voices caution about practicing tantra out of context or without a proper teacher.
In the Yoga Sutra, the sage Patanjali suggests that whatever our life circumstances are, if we find any kind of pleasing content of the mind that can inspire us and become a seed for contemplation, we should contemplate it. This way, yoga improves the thinking process rather than creating a catatonic state. Patanjali described yoga as the restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff. The way to systematically and most easily attain yoga is to approach the teaching from multiple angles and cultivate the insight from various aspects of awareness. The Mirror of Yoga provides a clear and thorough discussion of the modifications of the mind-stuff and the astanga (eight-limbed) approach, the “eight-wheel-drive vehicle of yoga,” as Freeman calls it.
Restraint is reached through practice and nonattachment. Practice includes all the efforts of collecting mind and body so the workings of the mind are revealed. Nonattachment is to let the patterns of the mind run their natural course to dissolution, neither ignoring nor engaging them along the way. The process of establishing patterns, allowing insights, then releasing patterns and insights, is continual; the yoga practice is always starting over. This is one of the paradoxes of practice: insight comes when we have released the object of concentration. Freeman calls this process “catch and release.” Samadhi (deep concentration of the mind) is said to occur when the one meditating, the object of meditation, and the process of meditation are no longer distinct. Samadhi is sometimes discussed as a “result” of astanga practice; in The Mirror of Yoga, we learn how to use samadhi as the basic tool of yoga. This is a welcome reminder of the depth and variety of practices and the potential of our own lives.
The Mirror of Yoga concludes with a chapter entitled, “Cutting through Fundamentalism.” The term guru (literally, remover of darkness) has gained all kinds of associations in modern society. Freeman says the relationship with a guru or teacher is a building block in the ethical and theoretical web of philosophy, while techniques and specifics of practice are secondary. A teacher should be stable and undisturbed by circumstances; eventually, the student finds the guru in his or her own heart. Yoga tradition encourages an open, trusting, constantly inquiring mind. A good teacher must be a good yogi, demonstrating clear thinking, openness, respect and honesty in communication and relationships with others, while refraining from building ego. Good teachers continue to practice and study; they provide an environment where students feel comfortable enough to observe the processes of the mind. “There is really no hierarchy of achievement, ranking, or levels of attainment that we should take too seriously in the practice of yoga” is a true and bold statement for the author to make, in a time when society places very much value on achievement, advancement and competition.
Many students come to yoga when they are in a vulnerable position in life and want to explore the subtleties of the mind, so an ethical teacher is essential. Imagining that yoga will make us happy, we may start “doing yoga” to benefit the body. Eventually, yoga does us . . . as we apply the practice in all aspects of life and look at reality with fresh eyes and an open heart, the process becomes the constant hum that underlies everything. Freeman says that yoga is for those who are deeply inspired and work in a focused, concentrated way. The Mirror of Yoga is for those yogis.