Jnana Yoga: Asking the Big Questions
I remember when I was young, I would look up at the stars in amazement and wonder what the hell was going on. Somehow the infinite space in the sky opened up space in my mind for big questions like “Who am I?” “What am I doing here?” and “What’s the purpose of my life?” When I watched my older siblings reading chapter books, I thought, “Maybe those books have the answers to all my questions?” I was very disappointed when I finally started to read those books and realized they were all about human drama.
As I got older, I bought into a story about my life, which focused on finding a partner, settling down, making money, etc. It was a nice story, but it didn’t include those big questions, which hung over me like stars, always there, but imperceptible in the light of day.
I was obviously looking for some clear spiritual guidance, and I didn’t find that until I started practicing yoga more deeply in my twenties. As I began studying yoga philosophy and the teachings of Swami Satchidananda, I was excited to learn that the process of asking these questions is a key element of yoga practice, called Jnana Yoga, or the path of wisdom and self-inquiry.
What a relief it was to find teachings that focused on the meaning of life and how to be happy. When I first heard Swami Satchidananda speak, I remember sitting in stunned silence with the feeling that he was finally addressing my big questions. He constantly quoted from the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali and the Bhagavad Gita, two of the main sources of information about yoga philosophy from classical India (there are many other scriptures that make up this rich tradition).
For many people, yoga philosophy seems confusing and out of reach, but I’ve found these teachings offer clear answers to many of life’s big questions in a way that nothing else has for me—and I’ve always had a lot of questions!
Uncovering the Divine
According to these texts, the key teaching of yoga is that each of us is an aspect of the divine and that we all have that universal consciousness within us. It’s not something we have to get or achieve—it’s our most essential self. To touch that place, we practice yoga, which is mostly about working with the mind and making peace with the inner voices of anxiety, greed, and fear. The yoga practices are specifically designed to help calm the mind. And all those crazy yoga poses are really about how you feel inside!
In the Bhagavad Gita, the big questions are offered in the context of a story about a battle. This is an analogy for an inner spiritual struggle. Krishna, who is the divine incarnate, counsels the protagonist, Arjuna, a great warrior prince. Arjuna is about to confront his extended family in battle, and the story begins with his emotional turmoil at the thought of fighting and killing his own kinsmen.
After going on and on about why he can’t fight, Arjuna finally gives up, collapses at Krishna’s feet, and tells him, “I am weighed down with weakmindedness; I am confused and cannot understand my duty. I beg of you to say for sure what is right for me to do. I am your disciple. Please teach me, for I have taken refuge in you.”
The Yogic Wisdom of Not Knowing
Arjuna represents the mind, and his willingness in this moment to admit that he doesn’t know what to do is a turning point in the story and in his life. Not knowing is the beginning of a conscious spiritual path. Only when Arjuna realizes he has talked himself in circles and can’t find an answer, can he let go and allow his divine consciousness (Krishna) to guide him. Have you ever felt like Arjuna, confused and not know where to turn? Arjuna’s surrender represents an openness to his own intuition and spiritual growth, which is a model for our own transformation.
Arjuna’s big questions lead him to the realization that he doesn’t understand the nature of reality. He’s confused and needs help—just like me! In fact, that feeling of confusion is something I’m learning to appreciate in my own practice.
Sometimes I try to meditate and just end up in tears. I used to think that I was too messy, but now I see that this is the most powerful kind of practice. I cherish those moments when I can cry out for help to my own inner guide, my own inner Krishna. I know that my big questions are the door to answers that rest in my own heart, and it’s a door that can only be opened by admitting that my mind doesn’t know the answers. After Arjuna collapses, Krishna smiles and begins to teach him about yoga—the practice of living in the world in a peaceful way.
An Accessible Jnana Yoga Practice
Find a very comfortable position seated in a chair, seated on the ground, or lying down, and check your posture. Close your eyes or keep them open enough to read these questions.
Relax your body. Take a few breaths, focusing on long, slow exhalations.
Ask yourself these questions, and let each question reverberate in your mind for a few moments before going on to the next one:
Who am I?
Am I my body?
Am I my mind?
Am I my thoughts?
Where are these thoughts coming from?
Who is listening to the thoughts?
Who am I?
4. After a few minutes, deepen your breath and then slowly open your eyes.
Another article from Jivana Heyman and Baxter Bell, MD – Accessible Yoga-3 Tree Pose Variations For Every Body.
Reprinted with permission from Yoga for Healthy Aging.
Jivana Heyman, C-IAYT, eRYT500, is the founder of Accessible Yoga, an international non-profit organization dedicated to increasing access to the yoga teachings. Accessible Yoga offers conferences, trainings, an Ambassador program, and an online network dedicated to sharing yoga with everybody.
For over twenty-five years Jivana has specialized in teaching yoga to people with disabilities with an emphasis on sharing yoga philosophy. His passion is making yoga accessible to everyone. Jivana has led more than fifty yoga teacher training programs around the world. In December 2015, Jivana was invited to teach Accessible Yoga at the United Nations in Geneva, and he continues to work toward expanding access to the teachings of yoga. For more information and upcoming Conferences and Trainings visit www.accessibleyoga.org