The illusion of being, Maya.


In Ashtanga Vinyasa tradition women are advised to take usually three days break from the yogasana practice during menstrual cycle. In this tradition, yogasanas are practised with firm focus on breathing with sound( an adaptation from Ujjayi Pranayama), which essentially creates little heat in the body. To avoid additional heat creation and assist downward flow of menstrual blood, female practitioners are advised to resume practice post the cycle.

Once while getting up from bed on 3rd day of my period break, I felt a debilitating pain in one side of my hip. Evolutionarily pain via feedback has been the primal aspect of survival for self preservation. Anytime one experiences pain, they must know its body’s way of telling them that something needs to be re-looked or re-examined. And so I started reading everything possibly I could to understand the pain I was experiencing. I had to effectively step back from the practice for a while, however the pain didn’t budge with rest. Yogasana practice had been the unwavering foundation of discipline and calm to me in the past decade. So being unable to practice without any incident of injury was perplexing and frightening at the same time.

Soon I saw myself falling into the lap of lethargy as I had an excuse to not practice. Invariably pain kept invoking fears of receding to a turbulent past or anxiety regarding the timeline for resolution of the pain. At this point I firmly realised I had to get back to the practice. I’m not against rest or rehabilitation when in pain, but I could see the sense of equanimity slowly diminishing inside me. Meanwhile I also took multiple consultations with health professionals hoping to return to the mat at the earliest but nothing helped. I decided to apprise my teacher of the situation, his only advice was to practice conscious breathing.

Respecting my teachers words, I returned to the practice after a few days when pain subsided a little. From my past experiences, I had understood that conscious breathing meant respecting the pain thereby avoid exasperating the situation at hand. But such was the nature of pain that basic act of breathing was causing immense discomfort, as a result I ended up practicing like a quarter of sequence I used to earlier. The pain had now brought trembling sensations in the yogasanas, recanting the stillness to agitation. Letting the ego aside of doing the same yogasanas earlier at much ease I continued to practice with conscious breaths. After a while I did re-discover the familiar terrain of stillness, which helped establish sattva guna inside me.

I mentioned above a phrase called guna, what does it mean? According to Samkhya philosophy, guna is an attribute or a quality of Prakriti (material nature). Prakriti constitutes of three gunas, namely Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas. Humans owing to their body of material origin are also under the influence of gunas in Prakriti.

The sattva in me wished to be in stillness, the rajas wanted to resolve the pain I was experiencing. While the tamas had forged a strong identity with old self, who could move through asanas at ease and was unable to accept the current circumstances around pain sometimes. As per Yoga Choodamani Upanishad,

“āsanena rujaṃ hanti prāṇāyāmena pātakam vikāraṃ mānasaṃ yogī pratyāhāreṇa muñcati” ||1||

(rujaṃ— instability, hanti — destroys).

Asanas help destroy the fickleness (rajas) in us. Setting aside time for yoga practice at a specified time in the day itself help diminish lethargy out of the body (tamas) and brings discipline to our day to day activities (rajas). While practicing, the stithi dimension of asanas particularly instils harmony to our being (sattva).

I was happy that I had gotten back to the stillness in practice, however it felt a little lacking. This wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling, only much more amplified because of the pain may be. I had been feeling this way for a while now prior to the emergence of pain. But in the usual humdrums of life I had been too occupied to reflect on it. To get some clarity on the subject I turned to Bhagwad Gita, according to Gunatrai Vibhag Yog (14th chapter of Bhagawad Gita) verse 20:

“guṇān etān atītya trīn dehī deha-samudbhavān
janma-mṛityu-jarā-duḥkhair vimukto ’mṛitam aśhnute” ||2||

(guṇān — the three modes of material nature; etān — these; atītya— transcending; trīn— three; dehī— the embodied; deha— body; samudbhavān — produced of; janma— birth; mṛityu — death; jarā— old age; duḥkhair — misery; vimukto— free from; amṛitam— immortality; aśhnute— attains)

Meaning transcending the gunas of Prakriti (Nature), one can be free of birth, death, old age, misery and attain immortality. After a careful reading of the 14th chapter and some introspection, I realised that the gunas are always in a constant flux and associating or resisting them is a vain effort. For instance one may have an insight of knowledge of some kind so they are in sattva guna mode. Then they may start thinking (mental activity) themselves to be better than people around them and slip into rajo guna. With time they might even feel that the knowledge they have is ultimate and forego the opportunities to invite insights or offer resistance to welcome change. At this moment tamas has clouded their intellect already. Defining ourselves with any guna doesn’t help but only obliterate the truth from us (be it be even sattva guna) and this is Maya.

[Image by Christian Spencer]

The picture above captures the exact moment when sunlight penetrates through the feathers of the humming bird, it creates a prism effect filling their tiny wings with a wash of rainbows. Notice the momentary change in the appearance of Sun’s white light post its interaction with the bird. A beautiful snapshot of Maya indeed.

Although I had experienced moments of calm and serenity in practice, there was always an undertone of emptiness (lacking) on account of identification with gunas and “truth of being / existence” had not revealed itself yet. Even the desire for stillness is still a desire and is born out of rajas. The experience of stillness(sattva) in Yogasanas was sullied with rajas because of desire. I was little surprised initially when my teacher advised me to shine the light of consciousness intensely over pain, rather than suggesting which asanas are to be modified or avoided in practice. This was an attempt from his side to impart pure sattva guna inside me.

We certainly can’t evade influence of gunas, so are they any good to us? Sattva guna mode is quite clearly a guna we all can aspire to be in, but we learnt how attachment to it can bring bondage to us. What about Rajas and Tamas? The Rajas in me was rigorously examining every aspect of my daily routine to find the causality behind the episode of pain. It made me take a thorough look at my postures through the rest of the day, my diet and anything which was potentially overwhelming me. In this instance, Rajas had brought renewed awareness to my routine activities.

We may hear people sometimes define themselves as, “I am a lazy person”(deriving an identity from Tamas) while some say “I like to be busy”( in this case Rajas). In order to survive and thrive we can be neither be lazy as a rock nor busy as a bee. To earn a living everyone needs to work and contribute to society. At the same time no productive outcome can be reached if you are just mindlessly repeating something like mundane duties at workplace, religious rituals or even yogasana practice. Forsaking the identity from gunas we can find the path forward to strike balance between work and leisure and find our true calling for truthful (and appropriate) actions. As we can see here Rajas has a bright aspect when allied with insight (sattva) and a dark side when it is linked repetitive actions (tamas).

Is tamas all bad ? Well tamas offers inertia to change, which can provide the foundation for continuity, steadiness and stability. For example it would be quite short-sighted to practice yogasanas routinely when in pain and simply reject the rest and rehabilitation tamas offers. It is tamas at the joints of our body which helps coalesce the skeletal structure, else we wouldn’t be able to stand or even walk. It is then that we can go out, make a living and experience life. Transcending gunas doesn’t mean they are to be outright disregarded, only that we don’t derive an identity from them. We accept them and watch them as they continue to pass through our psyche in various permutations with an equanimous state of mind.

According to Yogic philosophy, human body is composed of five different planes of existence called koshas. Each kosha has different quantum of the three guna. The five koshas represent lower planes of existence and the truth of being / pure consciousness(Purusha), which is beyond gunas lies above them. The five koshas (from lower to higher order) are mentioned below:

Yogasutras recommend “eka tattva abhyāsa“ (one essence practice) and Vairagya (non attachment to gunas )for removal of disturbances from the mind-intellect-ego (Chitta) in order to reach the Anandamaya kosha.

“Om ajñāna-timirāndhasya jñānāñjana-śalākayā
chakṣur unmīlitaṁ yena tasmai śrī-gurave namaḥ”

In the next part of this blogpost: an episode of serendipitous encounter with the truth of being.



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