This weekend, my teacher and mentor, Chase Bossart, came to Austin to teach a workshop to yoga teachers about Observation. He credited Mr. Desikachar with saying that “80% of what we do as yoga teachers is observation. When you have that down, you’ll know what to do.” In class, we did lots of great observing of each others’ bodies. We learned how to better assess our clients and to address their needs with āsana and that has already been helpful as I work with my yoga therapy clients. This practical piece is so useful and right away, I could see that this would be worth all those weekend hours and the tuition, but part of what I love about learning from Chase and this Krishnamacharya lineage is that there’s always more. There’s the other stuff that has to steep for a while and then slowly, sometimes after years, the understanding comes. There’s a reason that we observe in a particular way, and there’s a basis for understanding how we gather and come by correct knowledge. This may be the real gem of the weekend. As I’ve reflected, I can see it isn’t the first time I’ve learned this. There was a tough lesson learned on a really horriblly long night several years ago, but I’ll say more about that later.
In Patañjali’s yoga sūtra I.7, we get pratyakṣa anumāna āgamāḥ pramāṇāni. For those of you that don’t know the ancient language of Sanskrit off hand, this sūtra presents three ways we can gather accurate knowledge (pramāṇāni): we can see or perceive something directly (pratyakṣa), we can infer (anumāna), or we can seek information from a reliable reference (āgamāḥ).
If we can see that smoke fills the room and it’s really hot, that’s pratyakṣa. That’s what we are seeing and sensing directly. When we make the logical leap and say, “The apartment building must be on fire!!!” that’s anumāna. We can’t see the fire, but we’ve smelled smoke before, we know what associates with it so we can assume that fire is near. If we walk up to the building and see fire trucks and then our trustworthy apartment neighbor is standing there with soot smudged across his forehead and he tells us, “the building has been evacuated because there’s a fire on the fourth floor,” that’s āgamāḥ, or reliable reference. We aren’t seeing the smoke or the fire but we are hearing from someone we trust about the situation at hand.
So why do these means for gaining correct knowledge come to us in this order? Patañjali has good reason… #1-pratyakṣa, when we perceive something directly, that’s our best bet at correct knowledge, especially if we have done some yoga and have a clear and balanced system through which to perceive. #2 – anumāna also deals with our experience. A lot of inference is based on memory. We can make the logical leap and sometimes it gets us to accurate information. #3, āgamāḥ puts a few things between you and correct knowledge. Someone else is delivering the information to you. And it’s worth noting that the person may be amped up from narrowly escaping the dangerous fire and may not have perceived accurately but believes that he did, so he’s going to communicate what he believes to be true with great conviction. Reliable? Hopefully. Did you see it yourself? No. This is one sometimes effective way of getting to accurate perception or pramāṇāni, but it’s not always there. Yogi’s best chance at accuracy is still with #1. Make no mistake.
I hadn’t really considered this until I had a very scary night a many years ago. Dave was out of town and he was in a bad way. I knew he was in trouble. We were talking on the phone and then his phone went dead and I couldn’t reach him and at that moment, I actually believed that he was dead, too. I freaked out. I called the police in the town he was in and told them everything I knew about the situation. I called family and best friends and I told them all that he was dead. I was telling everyone this thing that I really believed was true. It was hor—ri–ble. At some point, Dave’s brother got on the phone with me and he’s a police officer. I guess he deals with hysterical people who throw around all sorts of anumāna and āgamāḥ all of the time, so he, in a level-headed and pratyakṣa-based way, reminded me that we didn’t actually know that Dave was dead and we had to wait until we knew.
It was at that moment that I felt the tiniest bit of hope spring up under all that darkness and desperation and I also realized that I had made a mistake. I had made an assumption and in this important and terrible moment, I had spread that misinformation around causing pain for many many people that love me and Dave. And perhaps the worse realization, I probably did that kind of thing all of the time.
I thank God, that night turned into the next morning and Dave made it through. I don’t know that I really had a way of applying what I learned about how we gather information, and make assumptions, and know things, but I also didn’t forget how I felt in the moment that Dave’s brother reminded me that some information was correct knowledge, and some wasn’t based on what we actually knew. It wasn’t based on what had been seen. That reminder helped me get through that night.
We move so fluidly between all of these methods of accessing information and the ‘knowing’ is not all of equal quality. But ther it is, coming in as one big blob of information and we give equal weight to all of the sources. We don’t distinguish between the different ways of knowing and we let ourselves believe and give as much credibility to the anumāna and the āgamāḥ as we would if we had seen it with our own eyes. But, heeding Patañjali’s, Chase’s, and Dave’s brother’s wisdom may help us to better navigate tough situations and stay clear about what kind of information we actually have.