From #YOGA to Self-realisation. Part 2.

Ayurveda, Yoga and the Evolution of the Brain.

BKS Iyengar said, “Yoga, an ancient but perfect science, deals with the evolution of humanity. This evolution includes all aspects of one’s being, from bodily health to self-realization.”


Grains of sand magnified many times.

The media, and sadly the Yoga media in particular, seems to have reached a point where it can’t grasp the basic principles of yoga. Judging by what we see in magazines and online, if we have the right mat/water bottle/leggings and practice pose after pose (any old how) until the day we die, we’ll have good health and longevity, spiritual ‘things’ will happen to us, and we’ll all be deliriously happy. That would be handy, but it’s much more subtle and much harder work than that, because self-realisation takes time, and in the beginning, a lot of sweat.

We know that yoga is ancient. Its purpose is to develop our self-awareness and lead us towards spiritual transformation. There’s even a ‘text book’, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which sets out all the information we need to achieve this. So how do we relate this to the act of unrolling our mat and get on with the job**?

Ancient YogaAyurveda takes a physiological approach to wellness that recognises the different dimensions of the human system – the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual – and recognises that each has its own form of expression. ‘Dis-ease’ in the human system could manifest as changes in your emotional state, a negative mental attitude, physiological changes, altered breathing patterns or a combination of these. One fundamental Ayurvedic understanding is that an imbalance in any of these dimensions leads to dis-ease in others. What manifests in one dimension may have a root cause in another. This system of healing spread throughout the ancient world and is the basis for all allopathic and homeopathic medicine.

Yoga practice is also recommended in Ayurvedic medicine as a preventive and as a treatment, from a psycho-spiritual perspective. Thus yoga treats all the dimensions of the human system. But how does this lead to human evolution, self-realisation, and spiritual transformation?

To begin to answer that massive question, let’s consider what Jean Gebser called the Four Structures of Consciousness, which he suggests have evolved in our brains since Australopithecus roamed eastern Africa about 4 million years ago. Gebser’s major thesis was that just like any natural organism, human consciousness is and always has been, in transition.

The Heart has its reasonsIn first transformation, the brain of Australopithecus evolved what Gebser called an Archaic Structure of Consciousness, almost completely instinctual with minimal self-awareness. The human being was totally immersed in the world unable to extricate him/herself from that world: they identified completely with that world and had no ego. (Think of a plant or a tree.) Today this manifests in our behaviour as the impulse towards self-transcendence, the need to remove the distinction between subject and object through ecstatic experiences or drug-induced states. Young people often seek this experience during their teenage years. We feel it when we are ‘at one with Nature’.

The second ‘cognitive style’, which Gebser called the Magical Structure, evolved through the era of Homo Erectus, about 1.9 million years ago until as recently as 70,000 years ago. It still pre-dates what we know as the Ego, and it operates at the archetypal level, what we call gut instinct. (My husband has this in spades!) Gebser suggests it’s also the cognitive basis for magic, some inward yogic paths, and the cultivation of paranormal powers. Today it’s active when we fall in love, when we’re spellbound, or in sympathy with someone or something. In the negative sense, it manifests as temporarily losing one’s judgment, or even one’s humanity, under the hypnotic influence of a large crowd. (Sound familiar?)

Buddha2The third transformation of the brain Gebser called Mythical. By this point, Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon people had evolved a degree of self-awareness and ego, similar to that of a child. Symbols & myths, feeling & intuition – these were the contributing factors used by our brains in the creation of sacred texts and ancient writings. The Mythical consciousness is active today when we “immerse ourselves in the imagery of the mind*”, when we express to our thoughts and feelings through poetry and art.

These transformations involve structural changes in both mind and body and as we evolve, each ‘mutation’ continues to operate to some degree within us. In the past 1-2,000 years we have evolved a fourth: the Mental. This operates in the domain of the rational mind which has now become acutely self-conscious, with a well-developed Ego. This cognitive style is based on the principle of duality – subject/object, black/white, yours/mine, either/or. And it’s proving extremely unhelpful to mankind and to the planet. Duality gives us only two choices and our fear of making the wrong choice or being told we’re ‘running away from the problem’ is exploited all the time by individuals and organisations whose sole purpose is the getting of power and money.

Your Magic Zone

Julian Lennon

Fortunately, evidence suggests there are millions of individuals who question and reject this approach. In his book ‘The Ever Present Origin”, Gebser suggests we could be witnessing the emergence of a fifth structure – Integral Consciousness. It might be wishful thinking but if he’s right, it could be the antidote to the excessive egoism of Mental Consciousness, along with its denial of our Spiritual reality and our Natural origins. Integral Consciousness transcends the ego and restores the balance between the various structures of consciousness. It will be difficult to imagine but hey – John Lennon wrote a song that describes what that might look like.

Yoga and other spiritual traditions contain within them many values and elements that could help us. The central principle is the ability to focus and discipline the mind in order for transformation to begin. So when you unroll your mat, you’re not running away from the problem. You are becoming part of the solution. Discipline is key.

To be continued.

*With thanks to Georg Feuerestein PhD and his excellent book The Yoga Tradition.
**For a classic guide to integrating yoga into your daily life, I highly recommend The Tree of Yoga by BKS Iyengar.

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