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Advanced Yoga Practices
Main Lessons
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Note: For the complete lessons, with additions, see the AYP Easy Lessons for Ecstatic Living Books.

Lesson 330 - Self-Inquiry and the Limbs of Yoga

From: Yogani
Date: May 15, 2009

New Members: It is recommended you read from the beginning of the web archive, as previous lessons are prerequisite to this one. The first lesson is, "Why This Discussion?"



Self-inquiry is found in all systems of spiritual development. Wherever there is discrimination on the spiritual path, there will be self-inquiry. Whether it is relational self-inquiry or not is another matter, and that is the key question. Is the witness present when we are inquiring?

Some systems of spiritual development are philosophical by nature (mainly in the mind) and teachers may subscribe to self-inquiry as a stand-alone practice in order to adhere to the strict tenets of the philosophy. The philosophical system of Vedanta is one of these, and its strong stance on the non-dual (advaita) nature of existence, and the non-existence of the world, may leave the practitioner with little choice but to declare the truth of non-duality, whether it is being experienced or not or just walk away muttering.

Vedanta means "the end of the Veda" (the end of knowledge). It relies on Indian scriptures such as the Upanishads and Brahma Sutras to make its case for the non-duality of existence. The case is philosophically sound, if not easily realized outright by the average student. Vedanta also relies on the Bhagavad Gita to support its assertion that existence is non-dual in its nature, and therefore the world will be known to be unreal even when we are fully engaged in worldly activities. Fair enough.

Interestingly, the system and philosophy of spiritual development known as Yoga finds validation in these same ancient scriptures, even though yoga is often regarded as a dual rather than non-dual system. Yoga also subscribes to and has its origin in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which prescribe a range of practices designed to bring about the very condition of non-duality (Oneness) held by vedanta as the ultimate truth.

The remaining systems of Indian philosophy and spiritual development are about equally split with regard to being considered dual or non-dual in their approach. There are six systems in all, give or take, depending on who is doing the counting. All of these systems recognize the unified nature of existence, just as high school quantum physics does nowadays.

This raises a question: If all of the systems recognize the non-dual nature of existence, then which one is the right one in its approach?

The answer is, it depends what you are looking for. What is not often suggested is that all of the systems, and their methods, can be applied together for maximum effect. If the boundaries between them are dissolved, then the best of all worlds can be realized Oneness. This will not be easy for those with a sectarian streak, which is a paradox for those who may consider themselves to be staunch non-dualists. How can anything be separate with that point of view? Crossing boundaries will be necessary for sectarians before they will know the truth, for the truth lives in all.

Yoga does not suffer from such conflicts, and happily embraces all philosophies and systems of spiritual practice that lead to the best results. At least the most effective yoga systems do.

Patanjali was so complete in laying out his famous Eight Limbs of Yoga that yoga philosophy is able to accommodate many angles of approach for cultivating the process of human spiritual transformation. He may not have intended it that way, but his all-inclusive model, reflecting the full range of capabilities for spiritual transformation found in the human nervous system, has turned out to be compatible with multiple strategies and systems. The eight limbs form a good checklist for considering the completeness of any system of spiritual practice.

Patanjalis eight limbs of yoga include:

  • Yama (restraints non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, preservation and cultivation of sexual energy, and non-covetousness)

  • Niyama (observances purity, contentment, spiritual intensity, study of spiritual knowledge and Self, and active surrender to the divine)

  • Asana (postures and physical maneuvers)

  • Pranayama (breathing techniques)

  • Pratyahara (introversion of the senses)

  • Dharana (systematic attention on an object)

  • Dhyana (meditation systematic dissolving of the object)

  • Samadhi (absorption in pure consciousness)

Note: Also see Lesson 149.

There is an additional category of practice called Samyama, which integrates the last three limbs of yoga together dharana, dhyana and samadhi. The mechanics of samyama are closely related to the performance of relational self-inquiry, picking up an intention/inquiry, and letting go in stillness. Meditation cultivates the abiding witness, and samyama enlivens the witness in a way that promotes the effectiveness of self-inquiry.

Self-inquiry is included in the Niyamas (observances) in the form of study of spiritual knowledge and Self (called Jnana Yoga), and is also woven throughout all of the eight limbs in the form of discrimination, where particular modes of practice are favored over the many kinds of experience that can arise. Taken together as a systematic integration, the methods of yoga bring realization of the same truth of non-dual Oneness that is expounded in advaita-vedanta. It is accomplished by promoting a gradual process of purification and opening within the human nervous system, leading to its highest expressions of abiding inner silence, ecstatic bliss, and the unity of outpouring divine love. So, all that has been written about non-duality, regardless of system or approach, becomes the direct experience of the practitioner. That is where the rubber meets the road, after all.

Regardless of its convincing logic, a multi-pronged cause and effect approach like yoga might make a devout non-dualist cringe. But, as has been discussed in previous lessons, if real (relational) self-inquiry is going to be happening, cultivation of the abiding inner witness via deep meditation, as a minimum, will be a prudent course. In the language of the eight limbs of yoga, the witness in daily activity is abiding samadhi (pure consciousness). There are many names for it. We will know the witness when we see it, and are it. A rose is still a rose by any other name. It is the essential constituent of self-inquiry and enlightenment. No abiding witness, no relational self-inquiry. No relational self-inquiry, no stable experience of non-duality/unity. Before then, we may be dipping in and out of non-duality, but it will only be the real thing when the witness has become stable to the point of never being overwhelmed by the mind. This is the importance of meditation, even for advanced practitioners of self-inquiry. And especially for those adhering to advaita-vedanta and having difficulty stabilizing self-realization. It is a common issue these days, with so many dropping their toes into the non-duality experience.

There is also an energetic component of non-duality/unity, as odd as that may seem. For those who have entered into the non-duality experience, even just a little, there is found to be a great dynamic occurring. Stillness is constantly moving, shimmering, shining, and animating the actions of all in creation, and it becomes particularly noticeable once one is able to release into the unity condition. If there has been insufficient groundwork, the energy awakening can be dramatic and unsettling, and must be addressed by appropriate means before the non-dual condition can be stabilized. This is the energetic (kundalini) side of the equation, and it too has a relationship to self-inquiry. We will look at it more closely in an upcoming lesson. The energy dynamic enables inner stillness to express as unending ecstatic bliss and outpouring divine love, even as we find the essence of our self to be unwavering and located in unity everywhere we look.

But before we reach such a liberated point of view, it is possible to be drifting into the battle of ideas, doctrine and dogma, though it doesn't have to be that way if the key levers of human spiritual transformation are put to good use. Then the battle lines in the mind will evaporate quickly.

Just as there are those with a rigid view of advaita-vedanta (is this non-duality?), there are those within yoga who subscribe to a singular practice, or other narrow approaches to the exclusion of all the rest of yoga. It is the flights of fancy we discussed in Lesson 308.

It is easy to get stuck in a mode of little progress when taking a narrow view in yoga, advaita-vedanta, or any approach to spiritual realization. These are self-limiting views, entrenched in the mind field, which is duality, no matter how "non-dual" the argument may be philosophically. As long as we give it a name, it is in the field of duality.

It takes a flexible integration of methods to penetrate the veil of ideas, emotions and perceived materiality in front of us, to permanently realize the eternal luminous reality underlying it all, which is our true Self. Just as a broad view of the systems of Indian philosophy can be beneficial, so too will a broad application of the methods of yoga be more likely to bring results than a narrow view. This includes self-inquiry in both the execution of the practical techniques of yoga, and in the ongoing inquiry into who we are and what we are doing here. We are That which is beyond the mind and all the identified (enmeshed) perceptions of our awareness. When we are able to let go into our abiding inner silence, we will know what it is. Our awareness is That.

This is consistent with the proclamation of advaita-vedanta the direct realization of the non-dual nature of existence. With an ongoing desire (bhakti) to drop our imaginary boundaries both in perceptions and in practices, and a willingness to utilize the full range of yoga tools that are available to aid in this, then we will be on our way. It is only be a matter of determining what methods to apply, and in which order. It will be largely a matter of personal preference, and a logical application of causes and effects to find out what works best for us.

The guru is in you.

Note: For detailed discussion on the practical utilization of self-inquiry, see the Self-Inquiry book.
For detailed instructions on building a balanced daily practice routine with self-pacing, see the Eight Limbs of Yoga book and the Liberation book.

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