How do you know?

My bedtime reading right now is a novel about a little girl who went blind and had to learn afresh how to interpret her world, how to navigate it in a very practical way, as well as how to interpret it on the basis of the different sensory inputs she now has.

yoga bookshelf.jpgOn the other side of the bed Hubby’s having trouble getting to sleep and asked me if I had a “boring yoga book” he could borrow to help lull him to nod off. Slightly amused I offered him Freeman’s Mirror of Yoga or Bryant’s commentary on Patañjali. Not I hasten to say because I think either of these estimable works is boring myself…!

He got frustrated with Freeman quite quickly (brief excitement at the ‘matrix’ metaphor which sounded cool, but wasn’t — or not in the way he wanted it to be!). He is now wading his way through Bryant’s intro these past few nights and because this is bit of a plunge in at the deep end he asks me questions from time to time.

Earlier in the week he was reading about yoga lineages and how all modern schools can trace their roots back to the original big three. He slyly asked me what Bikram’s lineage is and why he wasn’t mentioned… Not for me to say.

beginner brainLast night something sparked him to ask about a posteriori knowledge and we got into a bit of a late-night philosophical debate about how we know stuff (or think we do).  Not so much ‘what is truth’, but more how we acquire our own measures of understanding. I guess for me arguments a posteriori are most comforting. Defending my beliefs based on my own experiences. It makes knowledge almost tangible. How very reassuring!

All this got me thinking about the transmission of yoga, the role of the teacher and student in the broadest sense. I wondered about the difference between received wisdom and personal experience, between faith and understanding, lineage and tradition versus innovation and novelty.

My understanding of yoga shifts and twists constantly. Every day presents new understanding and different experiences. It feels somewhat ironic that yoga seems to lead me not to new fields of faith but open vistas of uncertainty. As I see the world through fresher eyes each day now, so too the comfortable familiarity of what I once understood, how I once interpreted my world, is now more contingent. Nothing is as it used to seem. How can that be so?

In the midst of this shifting world view I’m clinging a little to anatomical details: this much, this flesh and blood, how joints articulate and muscles co-ordinate seems the most tangible form of knowledge. My mat as a life raft on a sea of exhausting uncertainties. If I keep moving in my physical practice, and keep within the framework of simple āsanas, maybe the bigger more complex questions will resolve in time.

wide-legged-forward-bendBut I’m even hearing my teacher’s cues in class in a different way now. They used to be simple instructions to follow as best I could. Now I’m aware there’s some anatomical logic behind them and I’m having fun figuring it out. Decoding it through my muscles. “Soft chest” in wide legged forward fold reveals itself to me as a way of protecting hamstrings, avoiding arching in lower back, tilting the pelvis too much and pulling the hamstrings long by gravity. Lining the back leg up along the centre of the mat in extended royal pigeon seems to be a trick to align the pelvis more evenly, encouraging the head of the femur to nestle square in the hip socket.

This is what I understand today. But I didn’t understand it yesterday. And who knows what will suggest itself tomorrow.

No matter, it’s just technical stuff that I will know some day from book study, from listening to my teacher and absorbing his understanding, and from feeling the truth of what he says in my own body.

But what about all the other stuff, the knowledge that I can’t verify through my direct experience? Until I can accommodate myself to new understanding, must I simply trust that it is how others say it is? I’m know I’m not very good at appealing to a higher authority, which is how yoga seems to work. Teacher, guru, lineage, tradition. It’s always one remove away from little me.

scales.jpgThere’s clearly some balance to achieve: there’s me, my curiosity and my need for personal experience on the one side and on the other there’s greater wisdom accumulated experience, respect for my teachers, and their lineage.

My ego sits in the middle wanting to be in control, impatient, arrogant — yet full of doubt and craving reassurance.



image source: wide legged forward fold from; scales from


5 thoughts on “How do you know?

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      1. I just got back from a lovely 2 hour session at the institute where we had a couple of speakers talk on the Sutras and Samkhya philosophy. It was a mini Sanskrit lesson of sorts and I remembered you.

        Liked by 3 people

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