The Parts and Particles of Happiness

A dancer and yoga practitioner reflects on the body’s happy state as an ideal to follow.

There is the body, and then there are ideas of the body. The body as an instrument in the service or pursuit of a desired ‘higher’ ideal or as a means to sublimation, perfection or even transcendence is a heartily accepted idea across cultures and theologies. But for an embodied practitioner whose faith lies in the potentiality and sensitivity of matter, and hence in the materiality of the body itself, the ideal may not be external to the body but embedded within the body itself. It may, thus, not require any imaginative assumptions, but, instead, an exploration of and a progressive sensitisation vis-à-vis the materiality of the body within its various dimensions, be it the body, breath, perception, memory, imagery, speech, movement, experience and so on.

The Samkhya school of thought, for instance, is determinately silent about the idea of God. It views mulaprakriti, the essence of matter, as the primary cause. It sees the cause of matter as not divine or external but as a being-in-itself, a causeless-phenomenon that not only is inherent to matter but also can be materially achieved. Towards this, the darsana offers a percolative grid of twenty-four evolutes through which gross matter can be distilled unto its subtle-most mula-prakriti state.

By the 6th century CE, Tantra revises and further expands the Samkhya grid to a total of thirty-six contiguously connected evolutes, with prithvi, the earth element, being the grossest, and Siva being the highest. The promise of Tantra too is that the elemental body can be tempered through the distilling technology of Yoga to achieve the supreme state of Siva. In other words, the sublime state of Sivahood can be materially attained. Patanjali too, whose Yoga Sutras are based on Samkhya Darsana, categorically offers a materialist choice by making the belief in Iswara (God) optional, as a means of attaining the highest yogic state of kaivalya.  

As a yoga practitioner, I’d like to dwell upon three key words from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, namely abhyasa, sukha and prajnya towards understanding how the body can be recovered as an ideal of experience. Abhyasa, meaning praxis, is literally the very first proposition that Patanjali makes as a means to achieve the idealised state of yoga. However, he rather hastily qualifies abhyasa as a practice marked by the condition of vairagya, or detachment. In other words, he is proposing a focused practice that is both assertive and progressive, but one that is divested of personal ambition. I liken the practice of abhyasa-with-vairagya to the making of an experiment, where I carefully perform the experiment for the purpose of then observing its results and aftereffects from one-remove, without projecting any pre-decided ideas upon it. The vairagya or detachment then lies in the holding back of my preconceived ideas and projections, allowing my tempered body to speak for itself, while I remain open to the uncensored-absorption of the responses that may arise within my body. In other words, I become super alert to the subtle responses of my own body, and thereby accrue sensitivity which may become even more distilled through ongoing practice.

Navtej Johar in Vishnu Pose. Photo: Amar Khoday

The abhyasa of asana, the way many of us practise today, is a method designed to harmonise the body-mind by effectively tempering the three gunas or ‘tendencies’ that constitute the body—the slothful tamas, that is characteristically inert and dull, and resists movement; the dynamic rajas, that is defined by overdrive and cannot withhold movement; and the buoyant sattva, that is non-ambitious, detached and luminating. The perpetually-operative oppositional forces of the first two gunas can form a gridlock and loop the body-mind into a compulsive pattern of repetitions. It is abhyasa then that serves to counter this self-perpetuating lock. A finely crafted asana practice can effectively energise the slothful-tamas while exhausting or draining the overdrive of rajas, resulting in a momentary disabling and opening of the gridlock and the release of the buoyant sattva. This disabling of conflicting resistances and compulsions and the release of buoyancy can be deeply comforting, stilling and pleasurable. It is exactly for this reason that the savasana at the end of fine practice can be so absorbed in deep repose or sukha.

Sunaina Arha at a training session. Photo: Navtej Johar

Sukha comprises of the phoneme kha, meaning space, and the prefix su which implies good, auspicious, or a sense of rightness that is just-so! Sukha then points to an uninterruptedly fluid and uncluttered state of mind, that is free, absorptive and expansively spacious. The Buddha offers sukha as one of the primary four dhyanas, and Patanjali later proposes it as a qualifying condition of asana.   

Prajnya, often translated as wisdom, is a wisdom that pertains to materiality, i.e. the body. It is categorically, a first-hand revelation that results out of mindful calibration of the body, breath, senses, attention. In simple words, prajna is insight, akin to the experience of ‘the penny dropping’. It is, therefore, not received-knowledge but knowledge that may randomly shine forth or erupt-forth in the sky-of-the-mind. And it is often, not necessarily though, a result of both abhyasa and enquiry. Prajnya is thus, a “first-hand experienced wisdom”, an authentic insight that accords the experiencer, an irreducible authority. It can further illuminate or even call into question the existing repertoire of received truths and values contained in the mind. Between the first-hand, insightful experience of prajna, and the received knowledge systems that inform one’s life, there may emerge a gap as the two might not necessarily match or validate the other. And thus, the physical practice could then move to include a parallel cerebral practice of enquiry into the genesis and the validity of a belief system.

Tarun Dang at practice. Photo: Navtej Johar

Prajnya, which arises out-of-the-blue, potentially catapults the seer-practitioner into a new dimension of understanding autonomy. And will incrementally bring the individual closer to occupying the centre of his or her initiative. Giving rise to not only the authenticity of first-hand experience, but also authority. It is, however, important to note that prajnya is not to be confused with knowledge gained from empirical deducing, which is based upon clinical observation alone, because it is necessarily experiential, if not intuitive. And, due to the holding back of projections and the non-biased acceptance of any aftereffects of abhyasa, it is open and sensitive to the ineffable ‘excess’ that lies embedded within the body. An excess that lies between mulaprakriti, the causelessness seed of prakriti, and prakriti, that is endlessly bound in the cycle of causation. To me, this excess is nothing more than a sensitivity, a murmur, that lies embedded within the body. And, though its restlessness might be subtle to the point of being passive, it still has a pukaar, a ‘calling from within’. It is able and willing to speak for itself, reveal itself and divulge its truths through an array of insightful words, images, sounds, textures, forms.

Tarosh Rao (left), Meghna Bhardwaj (right). Photo: Navtej Johar

The murmuring of this pukaar can be easily overlooked and overwhelmed by the dark dullness of tamas or the ever-eager overdrive of rajas, and thus it requires the conditioning of the reposeful-alert state of sukha for it to be registered. Insight or prajnya, to my mind, is not free of pukaar, i.e., prajna is not one-sided. It is a revelation that also places a demand; a demand that is intrinsically poetic in nature. A ‘calling’ from within asking for a shift from the gross to the subtle, literal to suggestive, real to abstract, seeking once more, an attempted articulation of the in-articulatable in the process of progressive sensitisation of attention.

Kaapi LILA with Navtej Johar
A Report on a Kaapi LILA with Navtej on the first International Yoga Day, 21 June 2015. This workshop happened in the basement of Priya Ravish Mehra’s New Delhi Residency, which she called Nasheman, the nest. The report is made by Anandi Mehra, Priya’s daughter. The three-hour discussion and practice inquiring into the depths of Yoga’s connections with body and thought in Priya’s basement was our way of creatively responding to the mass hysteria around instant yoga in public places on the Yoga Day.

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