22 July 2008

Self-knowledge in Stellenbosch

Yoga is not, and never was intended to be, an exercise practice. Claire Latouf goes on a yoga retreat to find the real meaning of this ancient philosophy.


Most people think of physical movement (asanas) when they hear the word yoga. At least, this is what I always thought yoga was – an exercise regime from India.

A weekend yoga retreat in Stellenbosch made me realise that there was a lot more to it than that.

The weekend took place in a beautiful studio surrounded by stark oak trees and winter storms, and allowed me to dip my toe into a pool of expansive wisdom.

Between the centring effect of the asana movements, hot chocolate by the fireplace, the silences of intense contemplation and eruptions of laughter, I found my own spiritual practice, to suit my lifestyle, one that I could relate to my own life.

I have often ‘taken up’ yoga, but I’ve never kept it up for longer than five months, and I eventually lost the urge to explore further. So I was vaguely reluctant to partake in the yoga weekend. However, the teacher, John Weddepohl, had often dropped comments during my ‘normal’ yoga classes that made me realise there was more to yoga than the physical practice.

The weekend seemed to be the way to crack the code. I still had apprehensions, however, thinking that I might get bored; and the torrential rains of winter didn’t make leaving my warm home in Stellenbosch easy. But it was worth it a million times over: I learned so much.

The eight limbs of ashtanga
I had not realised that physical yoga is only one of the eight limbs of ashtanga, but had encountered a deeper process at work during my ‘getting fit regime’. I now understand it by seeing the whole thing as a spider, with ashtanga as the body, and each of the eight legs a logical step to the next one. Ashta means eight, and anga means limb. Ashtanga prescribes adherence to quietening one's mind, and merging with the infinite.

  • The first of the legs is yama, which are the don’ts. They relate to non-violence, truthfulness, control of the senses, and not stealing.

  • The second leg is niyama which are the five dos. These are purity, contentment, austerity, study of self and surrender to God’s will. John jokes that you can remember them by remembering what to be “jammer” (yama) and “nie jammer” (niyama) for.

  • The third limb is asana which is the steady postures we westerners know as yoga today. Traditionally the reason for asanas is to detoxify so we can be comfortable enough to meditate without the distraction of dis-ease in the body. The body’s bloodstream can be visualised as a river. When branches and debris fall into a river, it creates stagnant areas where the river doesn’t flow properly. In much the same way, toxins and wastes getting caught in the joints cause blockages where disease forms. Asana helps break down these toxins through deep stretching. After clearing out the debris, the natural flow of energy returns.

  • The fourth limb is pranayama, basically the expansion of prana or the life force through breathing exercises. Prana means vital force and energy, and ayama means expansion. Once the toxins get cleared, deep yogic breathing expands the energy leading to our natural state of effortless wellbeing; less stress, with a focused mind and energy. After all, what is health other than effortless wellbeing?

  • The fifth limb, pratyahara, is said to be the withdrawal of the senses;

  • The sixth is dharana, or concentration;

  • The seventh dhyana, meditation, and not a practice as such, but the result of the other practices.

  • The final leg is Samadhi, which is total absorption. Samadhi is complex; ultimately no mind has been able to describe this place because in it, there is no mind.

John attempts to describe it simply thus: “When someone does tapestry, for example, they get totally absorbed. Time and the need for identification disappear, as the embroidery facilitates our being with our ‘self’.”

This could be described as a form of Samadhi. However, the letting go happens unconsciously. When we get to know ourselves, we no longer get affected by thoughts. Samadhi is the conscious letting go of ignorance about oneself.

More about the weekend
The weekend immersion was about yoga and an introduction to self-knowledge, and included meditation techniques, breathing, chanting, and asana classes. I asked what happens when samadhi is reached.

John explains, “now knowing ourselves ‘who we are’, ‘the’ path disappears and all the paths appear; we can then choose whichever path we want”. My interpretation of this grew through the weekend as I realised that nothing is ‘awakened’, but rather it is a process of letting go.

The goal: self-knowledge
There are many paths in yoga. The Bhagavad Gita famously distinguishes several types of “yoga” corresponding to the duties of different natures of people, with four main paths: Jnana (knowledge) yoga, Bhakti (devotion) yoga, Raja (meditation) yoga and Karma (action) yoga.

Modern exercise yoga practices include such as Iyengar, Bikram, Kundalini, Ashtanga, Vinyasa and so on. The difference between them is different asanas; however, all have the same goal: self-knowledge.

Yoga is not, and never was intended to be, an exercise practice. Simply getting into the pose is what many students distract themselves with for hours and days, yet yoga is not about achieving an end goal, but rather a tool to letting go so that brahma (a state of consciousness) can shine through.

What are we letting go of in the practice?

John explains: “When we are born, we have no name. We are given the name. We then create our identities. Nothing comes along with us. Our identities have absolutely nothing to do with who we are in reality.” Around the age of five, says John, through identification, upbringing and education, we start acquiring and reinforcing identities.

The practices of yoga and meditation lead to self-knowledge, which enables us to see ourselves clearly, and means the need for identification begins to drop off. The practice enables us to release those identities, to be in a place of our true “self” rather than identify with the “I”, to know who we are.

This took me a while to understand because when I walk into an airport I cannot say, “I am brahma”. I need to say “I am Claire Latouf, daughter of Thomas Latouf, and my identity number is…” to get my ticket. John clarified this for me by saying that the only time you need an identity is to be strong in the world and negotiate your life. Your identity is therefore not separate from your self, “one without a second”.

I therefore interpreted that the practice enables a person to get to a point of not being dependent on identities for an outcome. The key of this lies in the words “not dependent”.

Some interesting questions in the self-knowledge aspect of the weekend that stayed with me were: “We may all need an identity to negotiate our way in the world, but do we need any identity to exist?”

The delusions of identity
If this all seems complicated… well, it is and it isn’t, and it’s these paradoxes which make it so useful to have a teacher. John says some of the modern practices of yoga are aggressive in nature because they lack understanding of the context within which asanas are traditionally practiced. That is why he started the self-knowledge and yoga weekends, he says.

They take place on the first weekend of every month. He does not give any promises of “enlightenment” – in fact, he makes jokes about there being “no enlightenment here”, as it is not an external thing to acquire. Nor does he hold himself up as a great teacher.

“To be conscious is not dependent on anything,” he says, “or upon doing anything” – for that, in itself, can just become another identity with which to delude ourselves.

The moment someone identifies with a name, a belief or a practice (as in “I am a yogi, I am a spiritual person”), they are deluding themselves. And a practice should not become another habit, like shopping.

A practice should only aid us in the process of letting go of our need for identities, not in the creation of new ones. John says a teacher is not as someone who holds up the truth or happiness for you, but rather someone who gives direction until the student realises that the truth and knowledge were never separate from themselves.

The tradition of Advaita Vedanta, the Siddha tradition, recognises John as a yoga master – yogiraj. After his extensive travels through India, he was given the Siddha name, Siddharthan, and asked to represent the Siddha tradition internationally.

I believe we don’t need teachers, because we are our own teachers. So against the backdrop of the designer gurus and boot camp yoga weekends I have cringed at, Baba Ryneveld (as we jokingly called him) was refreshingly humorous, modest and accessible (on that note, have a look at his tongue-in-cheek and hugely relevant guru/teacher checklist on the Yogalife website ).

Stories of travels
John flows with stories of his travels. One that really grabbed me was how the Siddhas go into Samadhi. Samadhi is the last resting place of a Siddha. The Siddhas slow down their metabolism and heart rate, and manage to remain alive without food or water for years. They internalise their breathing allowing their bodies to go into a state of suspended animation. Their hair and nails grow around them like the roots of a tree, burying into the earth surrounding them.

Another piece of information that interested me was that Tamil is said to be a more ancient language than Sanskrit, and the Tamil Siddhas talk of Sanskrit as being a code, password or shadow language used to convey the hidden secrets and knowledge of yoga.

The self-knowledge that this incredibly modest man imparts to his students is an introduction, a map of the inner workings of consciousness. The practice of yoga and the teachings of self-knowledge not only remind us who we are, but together they reveal the knowledge and the truth about ourselves.

So if you have ever asked the questions about why we are here, what the truth is, how one acquires consciousness and effortless health, this weekend is a must. I walked away feeling as if I had found a ruby in a heap of coal, a gem of knowledge.

More information: Yogalife

(Claire Latouf, Health24, July 2008)


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