Philosophy from The Sutras
“By practice of samyama on the form of your body, you disappear, as you suspend the receptive power of light from being received by others’ eyes”.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Chapter III: Vibhuti Pada
In the 4th Century CE, one of the analogues to the Christian Bible in the Ashtanga Yoga tradition, the Yoga Sutras, were compiled by Patanjali from the 196 sutras (aphorisms) that discussed the philosophical and the mystical teachings of the path of the yogi. It is mind you not rooted entirely in one theology, for it also derives from Jainism, Buddhism, and Samkhya (an orthodox and atheistic Hindu philosophy). For this reason, there are conflicting views that yoga’s views are derived from Hinduism, whereas the alternative is that due to this syncretism, yoga is as divorced from Hinduism as Gnosticism is from Christianity and Sufism is from Islam.
It is precisely because of the controversy around yoga that has led to both suspicion and wonder, not only due to the philosophical and esoteric mysticism taught through yoga, but the prospect of being more than mere mortals. This could be achieved through samyama, which means “union” or “binding together” and references the transformation of the mind through meditation that begins with contemplation, continues into meditative state, and concluding with spiritual absorption.
An example from the most direct chapter on samyama, the third chapter of the Yoga Sutras, the Vibhuit Pada from the introductory quote is further elaborated in the same chapter:
By practice of samyama on the strength of an elephant and the virtues of other animals, one gains corresponding strengths and other virtues
(Yoga Sutras, Ch. III, V. 39).
From this particular passage, we can imagine how this could be misinterpreted and exaggerated as it passes from the ears of non-students who hear stories of going into snake, monkey, and alligator poses. To use your mind and focus with intent to evoke the energy and individual grace of these animals who inspired the poses and be taught by a master who said to not try to mimic the noble beasts, but to metaphorically become them is misinterpreted as some sort of shamanic transformation, as misunderstood when traveling between ears by way of rumor, showing that the old game of Chinese Whisper (or telephone for readers from North America) is centuries old.
However, there are further gems in the Yoga Sutras that do offer a kind of power, or mastery, a virtue more valuable in of itself that is beyond the type of power that generals and kings hold over their subjects.
By the practice of samyama on the relationship between the body and the element of ether as space, and y becoming one with the lightness of cotton, one’s consciousness can move through space anywhere
(Yoga Sutras, III, 43).
What This Means For Us Today
The main message as always through yoga is meditation, meditation, meditation. It’s often misunderstood that meditation is just sitting down and doing nothing, but that itself is actually a form of meditation among many. Meditative practices can range from chanting mantras to utilizing mudras (sacred hand seals), drawing mandalas, or going through yoga with full mind-body intent and unity.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine and Taoist practices (especially in Tai Chi and Chi Kung), the parallels between the act of moving the body through the asanas of yoga today to direct the flow of prana (or chi as it is called in Chinese) are unsurprisingly the same. A common teaching in chi kung is “The chi follows the yi” or rather “the energy goes where the mind directs it to go”. When the mind is going through the asanas and imagining that we are the various animals and trees or mountains, we are directing our intent and literally becoming one with the universe, one aspect of creation at a time. When we do mountain pose, we channel the force of a great mountain. When we are in cobra pose, we are as majestic as the reptiles that gracefully move about the earth.
In other words, yoga itself empowers our minds and hearts through the intent of each pose, putting us in meditative state since the energy flow from each pose and the mind-intent focuses our thoughts, leading to personal insights leading to contemplation, reflection, meditation, and spiritual union—samyama. This is what the secret behind yoga and power was about. The misunderstanding in history, however, is parallel to a fundamental misunderstanding of yoga today for people: their egos and the mythical “yoga body” people hope to attain while dismissing the fundamentals of yoga, much like generals and kings wanted to have the mystical power over reality that yogis claimed to have.
Yogasync Me! The experience of traditional yoga: