Yoga Philosophy: What Seneca, Steve Jobs and Patanjali have in common

After learning about the 8 limbs of Yoga, I can’t help but see some similarities in modern sport science, technology or even ancient Greek philosophy. These concepts helped me understand some of the terms better and I hope it does for you too!

Ishvara Pranidhana: Greek philosophy and Stoicism

Ishvara Pranidhana’s literal translation is surrendering to God. However, other interpretations of “God” can also be true self, awareness, consciousness or unchanging reality. Hence, when we surrender ourselves to the reality, it also means we should have total acceptance of whatever life will throws at us and have the peace of mind to know that many things are simply not under our control.

While pondering upon Ishvara Pranidhana, I can’t help but think about what the ancient Greek philosophers like Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus thought about Stoicism. In Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, he gives another glimpse of what it is to embrace Ishvara Pranidhana:

You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.

Aparigraha: Dieter Rams and functional minimalism

Aparigraha means non-hoarding of both thoughts and physical things. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the current wave of minimalism also has similar roots.

In fact, in technology and design, Apple and its founder Steve Jobs have been known to apply the principles of minimalism when designing its products. Possibly, in an increasingly complex life, bringing out awareness to simplicity is a way to find clarity. Steve Jobs was heavily inspired by Dieter Rams, the German designer behind the brand Braun. And this is what Dieter Rams has to say about “Aparigraha”:

Good design is as little as possible. Less, but better, because it concentrates on the essential aspects,
and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.

Swadhyaya: Erik Anderssen and deliberate practice

Swadhyaya means self-study and broadly it can also mean self-reflection, self-contemplation or studying oneself. It is easy to just practice the Asanas every day without much thought or analysis given to the process of doing it. But recent research on talent and creativity is also revealing that “Swadhyaya” is even more important than the very activity we want to improve upon.

Erik Anderssen, the author of Peak has delved into the psychology of how expertise is honed in any talent or the creative fields. He mentions “deliberate practice” as being the cornerstone. Notice how he talks about the mind and mental representations just like “Swadhyaya”:

Deliberate practice both produces and depends on effective mental representations. Improving performance goes hand in hand with improving mental representations; as one’s performance improves, the representations become more detailed and effective, in turn making it possible to improve even more.

Pratyahara: Csíkszentmihályi and the psychology of Flow

“Pratyahara” is known as the withdrawal of external senses in such a way that the consciousness of the individual is totally internalized. This probably happens when we are trying to hold and focus in a challenging balance posture.

I had a difficulty in explaining this phenomenon until I came across Csíkszentmihályi’s work in Flow state psychology. When people are in a Flow state, they are in some sort of a hyperfocus region. They might appear unfocused on external sense but totally immersed with the activity at hand.

The objective is to set the environment and the task at hand in such a way, that will be easy to get into “Pratyahara” or the Flow state. And the clue lies in these 3 conditions that the flow state has outlined:

  1. a clear set of goals and progress: a clear yoga sequence to do
  2. the task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback: can we get into the supposed posture?
  3. a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and their own perceived skills: regressions and progressions must be just right so that we are neither anxious nor bored

Conclusion

Just like the Yoga Sutras (or thread) that Patanjali summarized, there is a common thread or sutra running through many psychology studies, ancient philosophy or even modern ways of training and building technology. Yoga Sutras need not appear very foreign or unreachable. They are all around us! Just look around for their manifestations and apply them in our daily practice!

Namaste,
Sayanee (YTT June – August 2018)