GOPI KALLAYIL explores the purpose of yoga, and how it can help us in today’s busy world.
The purpose of yoga is contained in the meaning of the word ‘yoga’ itself. I find that kind of self-referential encapsulation quite beautiful – our group of computer science-loving classmates at university would call it ‘recursive’ as an inside joke.
Translated from Sanskrit into English, ‘yoga’ simply means to join or achieve union. Join what? Join the individual consciousness to the universal consciousness. Or join our sense of self to the sense of something out there that is larger than ourselves, no matter what label you are comfortable with – source, energy, consciousness, universe, God, Brahman.
Join what? Join the individual consciousness to the universal consciousness.
Or join our sense of self to the sense of something out there that is larger than ourselves,
no matter what label you are comfortable with
– source, energy, consciousness, universe, God, Brahman.
According to yogic philosophy, the purpose of yoga, in fact the very purpose of life, is to achieve this union. Why should this matter? Why should we care? Yogic philosophy goes on to explain that a good portion of our problems – suffering, dissonance and disillusionment – stems from a sense of separation, a sense of false identification and a sense of limitation. I had heard some version of this in the trainings and lectures I received over the years. But it took me many years of reflection before I began to understand the essence of this wisdom. I explain it best to my students using the analogy of an ice cube.
An ice cube is a translucent piece of solid matter at zero degrees centigrade, composed of frozen water molecules and with a specific shape. If the ice cube could talk, it would say something like this, “Hello, my name is Cool Ice, and I belong to the Ice Cube species. I am one cubic inch in size, always at zero degrees centigrade, a bit translucent, and I don’t change my shape or dimension.
“If you raise the temperature, I will simply melt and cry, nay, die.” If you were to point out to the ice cube the flowing water in the Amazon River or a puff of steam rising up to become a cloud, the ice cube would respond, “I am extremely envious, but I simply could not flow like the mighty Amazon River or float freely like a white cloud. Those are not the intrinsic properties of an ice cube. I could not aspire to have that kind of formlessness or flow.”
Yogic philosophy argues that we are in the same state as the ice cube. We are bounded and limited by our sense of false identification with our limited self around us. Our jobs, our bodies, our wealth, our possessions, our neighborhoods and our social status define us. They give us our sense of identity and, more tragically, trap us in it.
This in turn leads to a sense of separation. The people we see around us are seen as distinct and separate from us. They have different jobs, bodies, wealth, possessions, neighborhoods and social status. And from this sense of separation, we start making comparisons that are the source of our unhappiness and suffering. Suffering in the forms of jealousy, greed, acquisitiveness, coveting and eventually rage.
Ancient wisdom traditions, travel,
the interconnection made possible
by the technology of the Internet
– gateways such as these offer a space through which,
like the ice cube, we can merge
into the vastness of the river-ocean-water system of the earth
and lose our sense of separation, our sense of limitation.
But if we take the ice cube and stand on the Golden Gate Bridge and drop it into the San Francisco Bay, in an instant the ice cube disappears. The ice cube has lost its limited identity and merged into the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. But it is not simply the Pacific Ocean. The notion of a separate Pacific Ocean is an artificial distinction created by humans. In reality, the entire oceanic system that covers 70 percent of the planet is one large interconnected body of water. The one-inch cube of ice that was limited in its physical presence is now this entire oceanic system. It is vast and carries within it more forms of diverse life than exist on land. It is so gigantic in its proportions that in places it is deeper than the height of Mount Everest. It is so massive in scale that gigantic tankers float on it like tiny corks. The ice cube has discovered its infinite potential, power and capability. But it does not stop there.
The molecules of the original ice cube may evaporate from the ocean’s surface and become part of a gigantic cloud. And there, as a complete miracle, a body of water that weighs 1,000 tons can float effortlessly in the sky. The same ice cube is now floating effortlessly 10,000 feet above the earth’s surface, despite its staggering weight. Just as suddenly, it can turn from a vaporous state to liquid and come down to earth as a torrential downpour and end up as water flowing in the Amazon. The same ice cube that denied it had anything to do with the river is a part of the gigantic river system and has changed its form again.
Yogic philosophy says this is similar to our human condition. We operate like the ice cube. We trap ourselves in our own sense of self-defined limitation when we could be tapping into a vastness of potential that exists inside and outside us. As Marianne Williamson wrote, “We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world.”
It is our sense of separation that leads to the distrust or dislike that we experience because the ‘other’ person has a different ethnicity, nationality, orientation, socioeconomic status, imagined privilege, religious belief, or an endless other set of attributes we can pick on. And it is that sense of separation that leads to other forms of suffering, as we make comparisons with the wealth, beauty, success, possessions, and an endless set of other stories we carry in our head. Ancient wisdom traditions, travel, the interconnection made possible by the technology of the Internet – gateways such as these offer a space through which, like the ice cube, we can merge into the vastness of the river-ocean-water system of the earth and lose our sense of separation, our sense of limitation.
Article by GOPI KALLAYIL