Bird of Paradise

What do you see when you look at the bird of paradise? I’ve always seen this magnificent flower as the head of an exotic bird. They line the corridor of the school, and I often bring them in to add colour to our earthy space; architectural, vivid, with great green leaves that seem to cope with our harsh winters if they get enough light and protection from frost.

But the other day a friend of mine pointed out that there isn’t only one way to view them. He suggested that I look at the orange peaks as wings instead of a crest, and the ‘beak’ as a tail. And so, for the first time I witnessed a complete bird diving into a flower.

Such a delight!

Can you see it too?

This is exactly the sort of instant dismantling of a certainty that can happen in a yoga practice.

In yoga the question of perception is so central: How do I see the world? How much influence does my mind have on what I take to be true or real? Is that a pain in my knee or is it fear?

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Our popular western models of perception are increasingly revealed to be problematically limited in the way they handle these questions. Research on memory and emotion demonstrates that our responses to people and situations, including our feeling states, are a construction formed of the aggregate of all that we have experienced and learned rather than, as we’d like to think, any objective encounter with ‘truth’.

In her book, How Emotions are Made, (2018), Lisa Barret Feldman states boldly the implications of recent research, namely that ‘in many cases, the outside world is irrelevant to your experience. In a sense, your brain is wired for delusion: through continual prediction, you experience a world of your own creation that is held in check by the sensory world. Once your predictions are correct enough, they not only create your perception and action but also explain the meaning of your sensations.’

And this mechanism is so instantaneous that catching it happening is virtually impossible.

At a conventional level, this might mean that two neighbours trying to agree on whether to replace their boundary fence are likely to get stuck if they hold that their individual worldviews are more closely aligned with some factual, objective, reality that exists in the world, rather than their own acquired biases in perspective.

On an ultimate level, this is inherently a question of the way we assume a separate and enduring identity, and the impact of this assumption on the nature of our thought. It challenges what we hold to be reality itself. Intellectual reflection on the subject can end in a minefield of conjecture and opinion, seemingly well-reasoned and argued, but ideas nonetheless. We remain stuck in the very place we are attempting to escape. How then to work with this dilemma?


BKS Iyengar often lamented that his practice was labelled ‘physical yoga’ as opposed to the more ‘spiritual’ lineages that existed around him in his lifetime.

Mr Iyengar’s innovative application of technique is often defined in the narrowest sense as being a means of attaining a more balanced physical expression of each asana. Technique is sometimes accused of getting us caught in our heads, in thinking more and more about what we are doing and disconnecting from the reality of our tissue and bones.

But the practice of yogasana with a focus on technique invites us back again and again into what is happening right here and now. The more challenging the asana the higher level of skill this demands. In this way, Mr Iyengar shows us not only how to work with our body more safely, but how to establish a relationship with the present moment by cultivating attention. Developing concentration beyond thought, our mind is trained to become acutely receptive, to listen, unlearn and unravel its thinking function so that it is used in its proper place. Mind becomes the beneficiary of reality, rather than as is so often the unfortunate case, its dictator.

Sensation is changing constantly. In everyday life, if we encounter a strong or unfamiliar sensation we can be quick to call it pain and use whatever means we can to remove it. Working with pain or discomfort in our practice we can learn to see texture, layers, how quickly sensation elicits emotion, and, that emotion in turn influences what it is we think that we feel. In practice our work is never finished, never complete, never something we can tune out of. The practice process sensitises us, refines our attention and in turn, our capacity to constantly respond to feedback from the body in an appropriate way. This can mean both that we learn to keep going when things might typically feel too much, and at other times stop, even though we might want to convince ourselves that we can go on.

Although BKS Iyengar mastered this practice over his lifetime and invited us to explore its depth using his method as a guide, often what we notice is how difficult it is to stay present. We wander off into thought or ideas about what is happening, about other things entirely, or into self-view, our capacity or incapacity in the face of the demand. We often fail to notice that we have energetically left a part of the body in favour of the idea that we’re still ‘in it’. Our willingness to invest in this process, bringing honesty to bear, helps to cultivate the capacity to remain present and to respond with appropriate action, to finer and finer areas of the body in increasingly complex ways. When we can no longer feel what we are attempting to feel, we learn how to adjust how we are applied in order to become more effective.

The comfortable, easy knowing that we use as a reference for our interactions in the world grows out of an assumption that all we’ve learnt and who we are are edifices: solid, impervious to challenge and able to serve us into the future. In asana, this subjects our practice to what the French novelist Gustave Flaubert termed the ‘rage to conclude’, risking habitual, mechanical, top-down performance. Although apparently helping us take decisive action, getting into asana by removing obstacles, or performing the way others can at times, regardless of what we do to get there, it pulls us further from responsiveness and in most cases disconnects us from the present moment risking damage and ongoing instability. Concluding is the expression of an inability to remain in ambiguity, in indecision, in doubt, all of which are inherently exposed and vulnerable states. Conclusion works effectively when we find others who share our worldview, and more fundamentally, when things do not change, evolve or grow. But this is not how nature works and most assuredly not the reality of the body, nor of life.

In a letter to his brothers, the poet John Keats captured the trouble with this kind of tendency. Coining the term ‘negative capability’  he recommends that instead of immediate conclusions about people, ideas or situations, we are better off “resting in doubt and continuing to pay attention and probe in order to understand it more completely.” The best course of action is one of ‘being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” (Keats quoted in R. Gunderman, 2011)

We like to think we know a lot, especially as we gather experiences over a lifetime. One of the problems with the acquisition of more information is the pride accompanying our sense of knowing. Without a process for examining the behaviour of mind, we can end up further and further from self-awareness and increasingly stuck in the echo chamber of our delusions.

The setting aside of pride and assumption requires what Keats termed the ‘capability of submission’ referring to the questioning of our assumptions and the capacity to adopt new perspectives, offering far greater access to new insights and a broadening of understanding as we travel life’s path.

Yoga practiced as a self-study or Svadhyaya is just such a rigorous process through which we return again and again to explore and test the nature of mind and our relationship with it in the situation of each asana from one moment to the next, day after day, over years, decades, a lifetime.

What it offers us is an education in how we (often fail to) see reality and how to work with this.  Things that we know with so much certainty are seen to be mistaken and we learn that we are often, mostly, likely to hold fast to delusions as truths and biases as objectivity until those truths are experientially tested, and our biases- often painfully- revealed.

We learn to see multiple perspectives on the external, as well as our inherent worlds, and to exist in a more fluid, elemental and open-ended reality that we understand can change at any time. We learn not to remain stuck in the head of a bird but can also experience the whole bird in flight. A world less tainted by fixed ideas, our past, or our identity can be glimpsed through practice of this kind.

References

Barrett, Lisa F., How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, Pan MacMillan, UK, 2018

Gunderman, Richard., John Keats’ concept of ‘negative capability’- or sitting in uncertainty- is needed now more than ever. Indiana University, 2021

BKS Iyengar, Light On Yoga, HarperCollins UK, 2001,