Updated: Oct 31, 2021
For this newsletter we pick up where we left off on the last one. We were looking at tools and skills that yoga can offer. One of those is that we learn to deal with the "afflictions", which prevent us thinking clearly.These specific notes come from the discussion notes from a workshop where the theme was "Body Image and Relationships with Food".
The concept of how our thinking can get clouded is applicable to us all in one way or another, although the actual examples given here with regards to food might not be relevant to you. We hope you enjoy these thoughts.
The afflictions essentially get in the way of clear thinking. They were first outlined by Patanjali in his ‘Yoga Sutras’ several centuries ago. Yet the need for clarity of thought is arguably more relevant today than ever. The afflictions are:
Avidya - Incorrect Knowledge/Ignorance/Lack of Insight/Lack of Wisdom
Avidya gets to the heart of why diet and exercise regimes are so prone to failure. We falsely think that if we just stick to the diet, our health problems will be resolved. I would even go as far as to say that deep down we know that what we are looking for is not to lose 10kg, not to lower our cholesterol or blood pressure, but to find a happiness within us that seems unreachable. Perhaps a strict diet and the satisfaction that comes with the result will give us the thing that seems lacking in our lives. Stated like this, it’s clear that this is incorrect knowledge, or lack of wisdom. We don’t need the knowledge from the calorie counter, we need a deeper, more intimate knowledge of ourselves to be able to look at why we do what we do, and find a connection to our true selves.
In the course of producing these notes, I had a rare day of being home alone to do some research and write up some thoughts. I got so excited about my day at home, I went to the bakery and bought some fluffy white bread – the highly processed, high sugar variety. I went home, made vegemite on toast for breakfast, and sandwiches for lunch. Now here’s the thing: I know that fluffy white bread doesn’t agree with me. I know it upsets my digestion, and I know that I am the only one in my household that will eat it, so I will eat a whole loaf.
Why did I do that? There are probably many reasons, amongst them my childhood memories of white bread and vegemite and the association with family, the opportunity to eat without judgmental eyes on me, possibly an addiction to processed food and many other subtle reasons I am not consciously aware of. The way for me to move away from that sort of eating is not to increase my knowledge of nutrition. It is reflection and a long, hard look at myself that will result in me understanding my urges. And only if I understand my urges, whether consciously or intuitively, will I be able to rein them in. This is what yoga has to offer us: A slowing down, a look at life from a different perspective.
Asmita - Self-Image/Egoism/Arrogance
Vyn Bailey, in his book Patanjali’s Meditation Yoga (p62), describes Asmita: We live on the surface, seeing ourselves as husband, wife, father, mother, tinker, tailor, ageing, youthful, brilliant, ordinary – all we are seen to be. This surface level is the level of Asmita (self-image). I think “I am this” or “I am that”. I do not realise that, quite simply, “I am”. Afflicted by this self-image I always think of myself in terms of what I am, or of what I have. “I am a millionaire.” “I am top of my profession.”
We could add to Vyn Bailey’s list: I am fat/ I am skinny I am healthy/I am unhealthy I am ugly/I am beautiful I am too tall/ I am too short I am blonde I am old/ I am young
Raga - Desire
In Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (p115), BKS Iyengar discusses desire: Dwelling on pleasurable experiences ignites desire and a sense of attraction, which creates attachment. Pleasurable experiences generate greed and lust, which strengthen attachment and stimulate a greater craving, as one always wants more and more. One becomes absorbed by the pursuit of pleasure, and addicted to gratification of the senses. The aspirant may thus forget his chosen path and allow himself to be caught up in sorrow and sickness.
Is this not exactly what we do with food? My brother-in-law used to bring us a block of chocolate each time he came to visit. Together, my husband and I decided we would ask him to stop, because we did not want to be eating as much chocolate as we were. He did stop, but I think at first he was not convinced we were serious, and he brought the chocolate along anyway. It was not until we put it aside, left it on the table and did not eat it in front of him that he eventually stopped bringing the chocolate. That last time though, he brought the chocolate and it did not get eaten. My husband, knowing me all too well, quietly took it and hid it in his clothes cupboard, thinking we would share it on the weekend as a treat. Please understand this: the chocolate was not in the kitchen within my sight. The chocolate was not within my reach. The chocolate had not been mentioned. I had forgotten about it, but I was home one day, doing that smooching around the fridge thing that you do when you want chocolate but the fridge has vegetables. I remembered the chocolate, and I went on a rampage to find it. I literally had to stand on a chair to get it down from Ben’s cupboard, and I didn’t know that it was up there. (It was not the first place that I looked.) Even then, I took two pieces and put it back, but couldn’t contain myself after eating those two. I went back 5 times, eating two pieces at a time until I’d eaten the lot. I got on the phone and told my husband. He wasn’t angry, but disappointed that we didn’t get to eat it together. I felt sick from the overload of chocolate, then guilty as well. You could take Iyengar’s description and substitute a few words to describe what I did:
Dwelling on [chocolate] ignited desire and a sense of attraction, which created attachment. Pleasurable [eating] generated greed and lust, which strengthened attachment and stimulated a greater craving, as I wanted more and more. I became absorbed by the pursuit of [chocolate], and addicted to gratification of the senses. I thus forgot my chosen path and allowed myself to be caught up in sorrow and sickness.
Dvesa - Aversion
Aversion is what we do when we try to avoid pain, physical or emotional. In the yoga sutras there is no suggestion that pain can be avoided. Yoga acknowledges this basic truth: our lives will contain pain. We aggravate and perpetuate that pain by trying to avoid it. A yoga practice is quite literally a “practice” for the pain of living. When our thighs start to burn in a standing pose, but we stay, and instead of avoiding the pain, we look at it, objectively, as an experience, we have found a way to deal with pain. Comfort eating is a means of avoiding pain. Through a yoga practice we can find a different way to deal with emotional pain.
Abhinivesah - Survival Instinct/ Self-preservation/Attachment to life
My first thought was that this affliction is not relevant to the subject of body image. On reflection, however, I realised that Abhinivesah is what we are dealing with when we resist the aging process with creams, botox, etc.
I remember when I was about 42, my then 19-year old daughter looked at me and told me I should most definitely start dying my hair again. “Mum,” she said “you look like a 40 year old.” I had at the time been trying to phase slowly into my grey hair, letting it fade naturally. Even though I had the opportunity (and took it) to tell my daughter I was, in fact, over 40 and what is wrong with looking that age if I am, still I find myself now, some years later dying my hair again. It occupies my time, my finances and my thoughts, however subtly.
More recently, I was at my Mum’s house with my two adult children, looking at photos from when they were babies and children. I was delighted with how young I look in those photos. I had a fleeting moment when I thought that I would not have any more photos taken with my younger daughter (two years old at the time). Best to preserve the youthful shots and pretend the wrinkles are not there now. It was a fleeting moment, but serves as an example of how here I was, having the opportunity to enjoy time with my family, and instead I was getting side-tracked with my fear of aging.