The Relevance of the Upanishads in Contemporary Yoga
How is the study of the Upanishads relevant to the contemporary study of yoga, and what role might the teachings have in how you teach yoga?
These are the questions to an essay for my teacher training, and I keep staring at them and the blank space below. Some very childish part of me wants to say, “Well, it’s *very* relevant, and it plays a *big* role in my teachings. The end. Can I have dessert now?”
Needless to say, these are Important Questions to simmer on. (And I know how hard they are to think about, because I keep procrastinating by checking my Twitter and Facebook.)
I will always remember one day in my 200-hour training when my teacher Kathryn Payne prepped us for the study of the ancient texts. She prefaced by pointing out how prevalent yoga has become, it can now be found in high school gymnasiums and health clubs across America. You can now buy Om tanks and Shanti cami and Chaturanga pants from the GAP. I don’t know if they have it yet, but I’m pretty sure some car designer out there is thinking about an in-car yoga mat holder.
“And so,” Kathryn said, “it’s now more important than ever to study the roots of yoga.” (Yes, even beyond the wisdom of ancient Californians.) And so to the roots we go, waay back in the day, even before Patanjali’s time, back to the Upanishads.
How is the study of the Upanishads relevant to the contemporary study of yoga?
Before delving into this question, it’s helpful to define “the contemporary study of yoga”, and furthermore, the study of yoga in North America as I know it (contrary to the popular belief, it’s very hard to see Russia from here).
In the days of the Upanishads, life–in terms of basic needs–was very difficult. The caste system further imposed a sense of eternal condemnation, generation after generation of the same societal status. Thus, the desire was to escape the SSDD cycle, to pack up and fly away from all the harsh conditions of life. They certainly weren’t concerned with getting the perfect yoga butt.
In our time, the emphasis tends to lean more towards the physical benefits of yoga, at least in the early stages of Yoga Exposure ™. Modern comforts have brought modern stress, both on the body and the mind. As a culture shackled to physical perfection, we are hell-bent on getting bendy with the practice of the yoga postures. On the surface, it appears that (for some of us), the final goal is not some kind of liberation, but to look like the Yoga Journal cover models.
And yet, beneath the glitters of fancy stretchy yoga pants and the hottest (pun intended) trendy yoga class, the level of human neurosis hasn’t changed very much over the millennia. A quick look at any magazine newsstand will reveal that we are all still trying to find love, peace, and happiness, concepts borne out of our minds as a product of how we view ourselves and the world. Everyday on my Facebook friends page, at least one person will confess to wanting to be somewhere else, doing something else. The yearning to escape is still ever strong.
Therefore, since it addresses the very desire of all living beings to be free, the Upanishads have tremendous relevance to the contemporary study of yoga.
Now, let’s get more personal and specific.
For me, the study of yoga has evolved to mean the study of myself. This one little bit of simple realization may not seem very earth shattering, but it has been a long time coming.
The Identification with Material Possession
Twelve years ago, I was a scrawny 15 year-old doing yoga for the first time on one of those aerobics foam mat in a local mom-and-pop gym with a wild-haired teacher straight from Woodstock circa 1969. I did yoga, but I knew nothing about the philosophy of yoga, and couldn’t tell the difference between yoga, pilates, and stretching to save my life.
Had I truly understood yoga beyond “sitting with the soles of my feet together on Saturday mornings”, I would have perhaps sailed through smoother waters during the teenage years.
There’s a good chance I would not have identified myself so much with the cool clothes I couldn’t afford and who’s more “cool” to sign my yearbook, had I been as wise as Naciketas telling the God of Death Yama that fair women (or Leonardo di Carprio) cattle, horses, elephants and gold will not cut it.
But, O Death, these endure only till tomorrow.
Furthermore, they exhaust the vigour of all the sense organs.
Even the longest life is short indeed.
Keep your horses, dances and songs for yourself
Katha Upanishad, chapter I verse 26
The Identification with the Capability of the Body
In my early twenties, while continuing to attempt the yoga asanas in Power and Bikram yoga classes, I remained largely ignorant of the rest of the teaching. I was dedicated to doing yoga, and there was a time when I would go to class twice a day. I thought for sure I was progressing as an advanced yogi.
Like many other young women in our society, I had a dysfunctional relationship with my body, expecting it to look a certain way and do certain things. I’m pretty sure there was a part of me that badly wanted to look like the Lululemon ads.
I didn’t know then the story of Indra and Virochana seeking out the secret to “obtain all the worlds and all desires” from Prajapati.
O Indra, this body is mortal, always held by death.
It is the abode of the Self which is immortal and incorporeal.
The embodied self is the victim of pleasure and pain.
So long as one is identified with the body, there is no cessation of pleasure and pain.
But neither pleasure nor pain touches one who is not identified with the body.
Chandogya Upanishad, chapter VII verse 1.
When I started taking on the study of yoga seriously (at Pacific Yoga), I learned to notice my state of mind in the asanas, and then how to observe the unconditioned breath, I began to see what it means to “be the observer”. So *this* is the difference between yoga and aerobics, *this* is the difference between yoga and stretching.
By thinking of yoga as postures or breathing techniques or the practice of a mantra, the most meaningful definition of yoga is easily lost. And what is said to be yoga is not actually yoga. It becomes the new thing that I’m getting right or not getting right.
There’s nothing inherent in a Sanskrit mantra or a yoga posture that’s liberating. It’s only yoga when the real definition of yoga is having an impact on the experience of the mantra or posture and each of these becomes a new type of experience, a progressively purer experience, freer from the intrusions of identity hoping for a good result, or fearing that it will not be reached. – Vyaas Houston
The Meaning of Om
Let’s say I measure my yoga maturity with my ability to do Hanumanasana, and let’s say I seek out fame and glamor, and accessorize with the latest yoga bling. Even if nothing else from the Upanishads is relevant to me or my yoga practice, there would still be one thing from the Upanishads that makes the study of yoga sweeter, and that is learning the meaning of the mantra Om.
“Om” is ubiquitous. Not only do we have Om tanks, Om tees, and Om incense, in Seattle alone we have a health club named Om, and a brand new dance/yoga studio named Om Culture. In studios across America and the world, somewhere, someone is chanting Om. I myself chanted Om for many years before I learned the origin and significance of Om, and my relationship with it has never been the same. I now make sure that I pause after each Om, to honor the silence from where all sounds come from.
He is the Lord of all.
He is the knower of all.
He is the inner controller.
He is the source of all; for from him all beings originate and in him they finally disappear.
Mandukya Upanishad, chapter I verse 6
The Relevance of the Upanishads to Contemporary Yoga
The study of yoga and Upanishads are complementary. I could sit and read and discuss the Upanishads until the cows come home, but it would be merely an intellectual game, it would not be lived and experienced. My physical practice has been an extremely useful tool to actually put the teaching to the test.
(Some would argue that you could just live the teaching of the Upanishads in “real life”, and I would agree that that’s the ultimate goal. I think of my practice on the mat as similar to musicians practicing the scales, or riding a bicycle with training wheels.)
On the other hand, I would not have come to the understanding of the different states of consciousness, I would not have discovered the meaning of Om on my own, at least not in the time I’ve been given. And that is where the reading and studying of the Upanishads come in to illuminate, to reinforce my practice of Hatha yoga and the rest of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga.