The Yoga of Observation: part 2

Developing the idea of observation as meditation to observation as profound empathy which changes both the viewer and the viewed

The Yoga of Observation Part 2

Questions regarding the past, present and future states of one’s body, in the forms of: “Who was I and what was I? What is this body? How did it come about? What shall I be in the future? How shall it be?” get properly resolved in a yogin.

Vyāsa’s commentary on Yoga Sutra 2.39 (discussing the fruit of aparigraha)

In the last article, I discussed the idea that observation is a vital art for a yoga teacher to cultivate, and that the very process of cultivating this art is akin to meditation. As we deepen our practice of observation, we lessen our self-consciousness and open ourselves to the object of our observation.  We then learn from our object (just as we do in meditation) as it starts to restructure both our perceptions and our thinking.

The two great themes of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra are the way we perceive the world and the way we live in the world. These two can be summarized as Seeing (epistemology[1]) and Being (ontology[2]) – and they give birth to one another in an ongoing dialogue. How we perceive alters our very stance; and of course how and where we position ourselves radically changes our perception. So observation – seeing – is every bit as important for a yoga teacher as āsana or prāṇāyāma. It is another practice and it changes not just our teaching but our very being. As Anais Nin said: “we see things not as they are but as we are”.

For an experienced practitioner of āsana, one of the dangers is that postures can “loose their innocence” – we know this, we know that – and consequently they no longer have the same impact on us as they once did. This is a very common phenomenon and we should watch out for it. In contrast, despite their lack of experience, a beginner can have a more profound experience since they are open to each new perception and thrilled by the new vistas before them. Of course, the problem for the beginner is that there is no body of experience upon which to draw; each new experience has no antecedent. 

For the yogi as observer, we need to cultivate the innocence of the beginner with the experience of the seasoned practitioner. Then we continue to see with fresh eyes, but with the wisdom that comes from experience. Are there actual disciplines that we can practice towards this end? First of all, it is important to look – to direct our vision – without coming to conclusions. Take every opportunity to simply watch people’s gait, their stance, the way they sit down, stand up, walk, pick up a cup, hold a drink. This process can be both formal and informal. 

As we watch, we slowly begin to build a memory bank; often this is an unconscious process. This memory bank can then be drawn upon to inform our current perceptions; the important thing is not to allow this bank to obscure our perceptions by encouraging us to jump to premature conclusions about what we are seeing. In this case, we stop looking because we presume we have seen all there is to see. If, on the other hand, the memories help us contextualize what we see by giving us clues as to where to look and what to look for, then instead of obscuring our current perceptions they enhance them. Each memory directs us to a new area of investigation and opens up new questions for us; curiosity is kept alive.

Just as with āsana practice, so the art of observation must start from where we are. The novice’s perceptions and understandings in any new area of enquiry will be gross; so for the beginner observer it is important to keep it simple. Understanding how the major joints of the body can move is a good start: look at the spine, the hips, the knees and shoulders. It is useful to feel the range of movement in one’s own body in these joints – for example: how far do the knees close (flex)? What stops them from closing further? Experiment in different postures – for example, a full squat (pūrna utkatāsana), knee to chest posture (apanāsana) and kneeling (vajrāsana). It may be that a joint moves more in one posture than another, because the limiting factor is not operating in the same way.

It is also helpful to compare the sides of the body. Are the hips/ knees/ shoulders symmetrical – or does one side appear to have a greater range of movement than the other? Don’t conclude – just notice. Do the joints seem to move freely, or is there any indication of pain or discomfort? As we begin to build our memory bank, we can start comparing our current perception with other bodies we have observed (and our own) – is the person we are observing unusually stiff or unusually flexible? 

Becoming more experienced in any subject allows us to make finer and finer distinctions as we see more clearly. This process of discrimination is called viveka and Patanjali asserts that the cultivation of viveka is the way to disentangle ourselves from our habitually confused states of mind[3]. As we cultivate viveka in relation to observation, we begin to make subtler distinctions: this shoulder is stiffer than that one; this hip is higher than the other, the lower back does not move well; turning the head to the left is freer than turning to the left. 

A piano player may have to learn the left hand part and the right hand part separately before combining them together in one fluid movement. From initially seeing different parts of the body in isolation, we also begin to link them up as our perceptions become more refined and we start to see patterns. Thus we may notice how the flexibility of the hamstrings impact on the freedom and mobility of the pelvis, which in turn changes the whole shape of the back in a forward bend. We may begin to notice movement where there should be none, and rigidity where there could be movement as we perceive the whole body as one system. 

One very effective way to begin to see the whole body as one is to use our peripheral vision. There are two types of receptor cells in the eye: rods and cones. Cones distinguish colour, and are mainly in the centre of the retina. The rod cells, which are more densely concentrated on the perimeter of the retina, are unable to distinguish colour, but are very sensitive to movement.  Peripheral vision uses rod cells and is thus more sensitive to movement than direct vision – an evolutionary imperative that developed to help us survive unexpected threats that may lurk. 

This peripheral vision can be trained – for example, jugglers develop better peripheral vision because of the need to aware of numerous moving objects at the edge of their field of vision. Part of much shamanic training is to use this peripheral vision more consciously. In my own practice of observation, I find it very helpful to look away from a student to get a feel for their movement by using peripheral sight. This also may help them to feel less self-conscious. Although it may not tell me anything directly, it helps to build a whole picture of the way a student inhabits and uses their body. 

However, it is not just the range or quality of movement that we might observe, nor the way one part of the body impacts on another. The breath too is a major tool for investigation – both in our own practice and in our observation of others. Is the breath smooth? Is it laboured? Does it synchronise well with movements? Where does the breath come from? The belly? The shoulders? Can we see it mobilizing the whole spine? 

When discussing prāṇāyāma, Patanjali says the breath should have the qualities of dīrga (length, spaciousness) and sukṣma (subtlety)[4] – we can apply these to āsana too. The breath should inform the movement and it can often give us a clue as to how involved someone is with their practice. Equally, a ragged breath may indicate that the āsana work is too demanding, or that their attention is elsewhere. Here, we can also use our sense of hearing – the quality of the breath is often best perceived by its sound: generally the more subtle the breath the quieter its sound. Breath gives us clues to movement, and movement gives us clues to breath.

The process of deepening our observation thus starts with an awareness of distinct aspects – the joints, the movements, the length and quality of the breath – but develops as these discrete parts begin to join up to form an integrated and holistic picture. However, this “joining up” not only involves different parts of the body at the same time, it can also give us a clue as to how the body has come to be as it is, and how it may develop. What we are now is a snap shot between what we were and what we will be.

Posture is greatly influenced by habit; how we hold ourselves and how we move depends on what we usually do. A cyclist will often have shortened hamstrings; an office worker hunched over a computer may have an exaggerated kyphosis in the upper back. As we come to know a person, it is sometimes fun to imagine what they were like as children and what they will be like as they get older. 

These speculations can be part of our enquiries as we observe our students – and of course they should not become fixed or conclusive. Instead, they can remain as sources of enquiry. Perhaps this is what Vyasa meant when commentating on Patañjali’s notion of aparigraha[5] (not grasping, freedom from wanting): “Questions regarding the past, present and future states of one’s body, in the forms of: “Who was I and what was I? What is this body? How did it come about? What shall I be in the future? How shall it be?” get properly resolved in a yogin.” The way to explore these questions is not to come to definite conclusions, to not hold on too tightly to our ideas as we observe, but to let new impressions and understanding touch us.

The yoga of observation is thus a profound act of empathy; as we loosen our habitual self-centred stance, we can let ourselves imagine inhabiting the body of another and feel the world from their perspective. It requires love, flow and presence and ultimately, it changes for the better both the perceiver and the perceived.

Ranju Roy

1900 words.

[1] Although epistemology is generally thought of as “the study of knowledge or understanding”, I am using the term here to mean “how we perceive and interpret the world” – playing on the double meaning of the term “seeing” as referring to both perception and understanding.

[2] Ontology is the study of being

[3] YS 2.28: “When the components of yoga are practiced; then the light of understanding can shine forth, illuminating the way to discriminative awareness” (from Chip Hartranft’s translation)

[4] YS 2.50 “As the movement patterns of each breath – inhalation, exhalation, lull – are observed as to duration, number, and area of focus, breath becomes spacious and subtle” (from Chip Hartranft’s translation)      

[5] YS 2.39 “Freedom from wanting unlocks the real purpose of existence” (from Chip Hartranft’s translation)