The Yoga of Observation: part 1

Exploring how observation for a yoga teacher can be a form of meditation

Observation as a Meditation 

By loosening our attachments to our own bodies and understanding our mind’s working we are able to see deeply into another.

Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra 3.38

In 1988, BKS Iyengar came to the UK as part of his 70th birthday celebrations. I attended a five-day intensive with him in Cheltenham; one lasting memory is his deconstruction of someone’s body from his observations of the student’s trikonāsana. At the time, I was thoroughly in awe. From trikonāsana, Iyengar deduced information about the state of his hips, his spine, his legs, his arms. Perhaps I’m fantasizing, but I remember thinking that he was able to see his very soul.

Looking back, twenty-five years on – it makes me think of someone explaining advanced calculus to someone who can barely add up. I was illiterate when it came to observation, so what Iyengar said or deduced was way beyond me, and the truth was I had no way of understanding how he made his deductions. They might have been absolutely true, they might have been rubbish – but as far as I was concerned they were magic. Trikonāsana is asymmetrical – it’s a tremendously difficult posture to make many observations because it’s so complex and there are many variables. Generally, the simpler the posture, the easier it is to see what is happening – especially for the novice observer.

The third chapter of the Yoga Sūtra, called Vibhūti Pāda, is full of mystery. Vibhūti are special powers, the fruit of practice – they are also known as siddhi. The process of moving towards siddhi is sādhana, or practice. Sādhana is the instrument of siddhi – it makes what was previously impossible attainable. The siddhi described in the Yoga Sūtra at first seem outlandish – growing very big, growing small, becoming invisible, having knowledge of all the stars, understanding all language. But think of the extraordinary abilities that people develop with consistent practice: the strength of a dedicated weight lifter, the speed of a great runner and the knowledge of any scientist or artist who has dedicated time and effort to really understanding their subject.

My Iyengar did not come to his level of siddhi in observation quickly – it took a lifetime of observation. This siddhi of observation is something that all yoga teachers can and should cultivate, but like any siddhi it takes time to grow – it takes practice. As the writer Jack Kerouac once said: “walking on water wasn’t built in a day!” One of the great joys of training teachers is watching someone who has not taught before come to the front and teach a practice or a posture. They often express surprise at the change of perspective since it is very rare to really see anyone else practice when they are in class. But standing in front of the class you can observe how bodies are different, and attitudes to posture are different – someone here has their eyes open, someone here is looking distracted, someone here is moving beautifully with coordinated breath.  And beginning our journey of observation can be as simple as that: not to make assumptions or come to conclusions, but just to notice.

Many people have memories of “being put on the spot” by a teacher (especially, for some reason, maths teachers!) and their minds going blank as they struggle to answer a simple question. The same thing can happen with student yoga teachers – if they are asked to make observations about someone practicing asana there will often be a rise in anxiety and an avalanche of internal thought along the lines of: I can’t see anything! What should I observe? Other people see more clearly! I’ll look foolish!  This is often accompanied by a “freezing’” in the body, a greater self-consciousness. The phenomenon is entirely predictable and it is even talked about in the Yoga Sūtra[1] itself – it is called saṃyoga. In saṃyoga we become “glued” to our thoughts, and this crude self-hypnosis blocks us from seeing clearly. We just see our thoughts and then we impose our thoughts onto what we are supposed to be observing. It all gets mixed up.

This dynamic was very clearly explained in a workshop I attended with Peter Hersnack many years ago. He re-iterated that our responsibility was to look at the student – and when we become overly concerned with our own lack of skills in observation or our inadequacies, our attention moves from what we should be observing to ourselves. It is a subtle form of narcissistic behavior. Whether we can see or can’t see, whether we are good or not, whether we are top of the class or bottom – these are not our responsibility. Our responsibility is to observe the student, to be there, to be present and open. Maybe something will arise – a new insight or perception – and maybe it won’t. But what arises is not our responsibility. In a sense, we cannot not observe – but the real question is: what are we observing – the student, or our chattering minds? In order to really see the other, we have to loosen our attachments to ourselves.

At the beginning of Chapter 3 of the Yoga Sūtra (Vibhūti Pāda), Patañjali outlines three steps to move towards siddhi. These are called dhāraṇā (directing the mind in one direction), dhyānam (staying with that direction and deepening the relationship) and samādhi (profound and unselfconscious meditative absorption). When these three processes are applied consistently over time on the same object of perception, it is called saṃyama[2]. These ideas can usefully be applied to the journey of a student teacher learning to observe their students.

In dhāraṇā, the thoughts tend to wander off like wayward sheep, it is our responsibility to notice this tendency and round them back up. We become sheep dogs for our own errant mind. In a sense, what we are doing here is blocking our tendency to get distracted – we are using tamas, the energy of resistance, to help us direct our focus. Of the three stages of saṃyamadhāraṇā requires the most work since it is the effort to put the supports in place; it is building the foundation. As observers of our students, we are simply staying with the observation – not jumping to conclusions or getting lost in internal monologue.

As the process deepens, we move more closely to the object of our investigation. It is as if we come into the gravitational field of our object, and we start to be “pulled” effortlessly. Instead of resisting our mind’s wanderings, we become increasingly drawn to and fascinated by our object. This state is called dhyānam – and in the texts there is a beautiful word used to describe the quality of the object of our investigation: guru. Here, the term guru has a double meaning – it means both a teacher and also something with weight, something that is heavy. As the process of investigation becomes less effortful, we are “drawn” towards our object and – most importantly – we are open to receive something from it, we open ourselves to learning. The object is both compelling and a teacher for us. We are using rajas, the energy of movement, to receive something back from our object of investigation. By staying with the observation of our students without becoming distracted by our own thoughts, we begin to open to learning; we begin to notice aspects that were obscured before and something new is revealed.

The final stage of saṃyama is called samādhi – deep meditative absorption. Patañjali says of this state that it is as if there is no observer; certainly there is no internal monologue or self-consciousness. The mind is so still and luminous that we are able to see with tremendous clarity; the form the mind assumes is the form of the object, so what we see is without distortion or colouring. Samādhi is actually the tool of yoga, it takes us to profound understanding both of any object of perception and also of ourselves.  Now the mind is filled with sattva, the energy of clarity. It is at the level of samādhi that we can have extraordinary perception in relation to the students we observe, but that perception does not come from imposing ideas or memories, it comes from a deep and profound stillness, a lack of self consciousness and an opening. I would even go as far as to say that it requires love; the sort of love that enables you to stay with something and let it reveal something very precious of itself to you.

The process of saṃyama needs a focus; what is it that we need to investigate in order to really see another? In a very mysterious, but beautiful sutra in the third chapter, Patanjali gives us a clue. He says that by “loosening our attachments to our own bodies and understanding our mind’s working we are able to see deeply into another” (YS 3 .38). It is not simply enough to watch another, it also requires us to loosen our own attachments to our own ways of being and thinking, to relax our bodies, soften our eyes, quieten our minds. Then our senses will follow our attention as we become deeply involved with seeing (and experiencing) another. In his commentary to this verse of the Yoga Sūtra, Vyāsa says that the senses follow the mind like bees following their queen. It is a form of profound empathy – almost as if we have inhabited another’s body and can feel it from inside – and it requires that we step aside and get out of the way.

For a teacher learning to observe their students, before learning what to observe, some reflection on how to observe is invaluable. Saṃyama on our habitual bodily contractions and mental tendencies helps us to loosen those patterns and receive new information. It is a vital tool to help us keep learning from our students and open to fresh perceptions – surely one of the most important goals of our ongoing journeys as yoga teachers.

Ranju Roy

1716 words

[1] YS2.17 “The cause of actions that produce painful effects is the inability to distinguish what is perceived from what perceives” (TKV Desikachar translation)

[2] YS3.4 “when these processes are continuously and exclusively applied to the same object it is called samyama” (TKV Desikachar translation)