Ashtanga teacher and practitioner, Gregor Maehle is the author of Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy, Ashtanga Yoga: The intermediate Series, Yoga Meditation, and Pranayama: The Breath of Yoga. With each book, Gregor takes us deeper into the practice of yoga. Now Gregor has taken us to the ultimate culmination of the yoga practice, Samadhi. Gregor’s new book, Samadhi, The Great Freedom, is available and is sure to blow some minds and ruffle some feathers.
Gregor so graciously agreed to an interview about his latest work. This interview is intended to awaken your curiosity. To get all of your questions on Samadhi answered, get your copy of the book here. I am sure that this book is going to change my thoughts on Samadhi and maybe even make some of my previous writing obsolete. I will keep you posted!!!
APP: What is Samadhi?
GM: There is actually a whole chapter in the book clarifying this and defining samadhi. Importantly samadhi is an impermanent state that you enter and exit. There are also not just one but eight samadhis, which ideally are practiced sequentially similarly to the eight limbs. Each of these eight samadhis has a different effect, so you do not automatically experience all their benefits just because you experienced one of the samadhis.
APP: Why a book on Samadhi?
GM: Prior to this text there was no practical instruction manual on samadhi. The few books that exist on the subject are so vague that they should rather be called books on common sense. Due to that very little is known about samadhi and very few people actually practice it.
APP: What is the most common misconception about Samadhi?
GM: Well there are quite a few: That samadhi and ‘enlightenment’ are the same. That you are done and finished with yoga when you have experienced samadhi. That all samadhis are the same. That samadhi is a blankness of mind, a void-like state. That it arises spontaneously. These are all misconceptions.
APP: There is a recent trend of yoga practitioners who feel that the Yoga Sutras have nothing to do with modern yoga and that people who tie them together are grasping for straws. What are your thoughts?
GM: I spent several years in India during the 80’s and 90’s. This was way before the new Western yoga fad. Whenever I mentioned that I was here for yoga, the Indians would say, “Yoga, Patanjala darshana.” In other words what every single traditionally educated Indian stated was, “Oh, so you are studying the Vedic system of philosophy (darshana) that is based on Patanjali’s Sutra.” To me the new fashion of disconnecting modern yoga from the Sutra is colonialist. We found something interesting but because it would be great to simply reduce it to a sexy body and money making, we are disconnecting it from its ancient, sacred source that makes us uncomfortable.
Yoga that is not based on the Sutra is not yoga, therefore if we say that ‘modern yoga’ is not connected to the Sutra we are really saying that modern yoga is not yoga. There is a very strong case for arguing that modern yoga is not real yoga but only yoga by namesake and a lot of modern practitioners are very happy with that as it pretty much means that you can make yoga anything you want it to be. This is exactly what we are observing today. The latest fad is nude yoga. I’m saying that without any scorn. I just think that so much more is on offer. My emphasis is to turn people back to the source of yoga. The Sutra is one of the most important aspects of that source.
APP: Do you feel it is important for modern day yoga students to study the Sutras?
GM: If you want to be a true yogi you cannot be without the Sutra, at least not without its spirit. If you were taught by an authentic yogi you probably would not have to study the Sutra directly but where do you find authentic yogis today? Being short of such a teacher the Sutra will give you a tool to measure the authenticity of your teachers. By studying the Sutra you take responsibility for your own yoga.
APP: Do you have a personal experience of Samadhi?
GM: Yes, it is my main form of practice today. I usually practice several hours per day asana, kriya, pranayama and Kundalini meditation to keep myself tuned to my main practice – samadhi. There are eight different types or levels of samadhi, which I practice with a varying degree of success. The samadhis are ordered on something that resembles a exponential scale, with each successive one being around 10 times as difficult and rewarding as the preceding one.
APP: You mention the need to be “de- conditioned”. What is that?
GM: Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind. Look at the pond metaphor. If the surface of the pond is still you can see your own reflection clearly. If the surface is ruffled you can only see a distorted image. A thought dropped into your mind will leave distortions similar to a stone dropped into a still lake. We call these distortions thought waves, vrttis.
The degree to which your mind is distorted by cognition of objects is the degree to which you are in the throes of your conditioning. In the early phases of our biological and spiritual evolution we walk through life more or less like conditioned, meaning programmed, robots. In such a state we cannot experience the world as it really is nor can we experience our own true nature because our robotic programming compares each new potentially ecstatic experience with our painful and fearful experiences of the past. It then tells us why we should be afraid, feel threatened, have to worry or experience pain, etc. Hence we are not truly alive in the now but live life according to our experiences of the past. The extent to which you break free of your robotic programming, your conditioning, is the extent to which you can experience samadhi and be truly alive.
Patanjali constantly mentions the need and the process of de-conditioning. For example in the sutras I.50-51 he states how samadhic subconscious imprints slowly replace samsaric (i.e. conditioned) imprints and how this eventually produces objectless samadhi. Patanjali yoga is thus a systematic approach to de-conditioning.
But let me give you a more metaphorical and poetic approach to de-conditioning. Paramahamsa Ramakrishna used to be the temple priest at the great Kali temple of Dakshinesvar in Bengal. He so desperately desired to have a divine vision of Kali that eventually scaled Her central temple image, in which she brandished a sacrificial sword, used to behead foes and devotees alike (note that beheading is metaphorical for going beyond the ego). Ramakrishna, while balancing on Kali’s image threatened Her to impale himself on her sword if She would not appear to him. Just before he was about to plunge himself into her sword, She revealed Herself to him, so the story goes.
There are some very important implications here, listen closely. Superficially the story tells of a somewhat disinterested deity or at least one that needed to be convinced by a heroic act of the devotee to finally consent to show the goods. But on closer examination this does not stack up. The Great Goddess Kali, as other forms of the Divine, is infinite and eternal and therefore egoless. Ego is what limits you in space and time and therefore since She is infinite and eternal she cannot have an ego, right? If Kali does not have an ego, she also does not have an ego from which to withhold grace and Her own vision from Ramakrishna. Who did then withhold the vision from Ramakrishna, who performed the act of separation from the Divine? The answer is Ramakrishna’s conditioning, his subconscious, he himself. In the sages case his particular conditioning was constructed in such a way that it took the scaling of a Great Goddess statue and becoming totally ready to impale oneself on Her sword for conditioning to be released and freedom to be experienced. In other words we ourselves are the ones that shield ourselves from freedom with conditioning being our character armor. Freedom is an underlying reality but it cannot be cognized as long as we are under the sway of conditioning. Hence the need for deconditioning arises. Which ever of the three main strands of yoga you follow, whether Bhakti (as Ramakrishna did), or Jnana or Raja (other term for Patanjali and samadhi yoga) deconditioning always applies. Rather than segregating the three yogas, the direct road to deconditioning is to integrate them into a single whole, as suggested by the Indian sage Aurobindo.
APP: Many people describe a sense of absorption during a physical yoga practice. Is this objective Samadhi?
GM: You can be completely absorbed into a B-movie or into a game of football. Is that samadhi? During samadhi you need to go beyond identification with the body. That is easiest achieved in a meditation posture that brings the body into perfect equilibrium such as Padmasana or Siddhasana. In other words there is a link between asana practice and samadhi but asana is just one of the supports of samadhi and not a means to achieve it. While a daily asana practice even of say 90 minutes helps with achieving samadhi, in order to improve your odds it must be supplemented with alternate nostril breathing with breath retention, Kundalini and chakra meditation and then taking yourself through the octave of the samadhis.
APP: Do we have to go through objective Samadhi to have objectless Samadhi? Can you not awaken spontaneously?
GM: These are two very big and important questions. Let’s tackle them one after the other. Patanjali in the Sutra warns at great length to not tackle objectless samadhi before going through the process of the 7 objective samadhis as you cannot otherwise determine whether your objectless samadhi is right or wrong. Yes, there are wrong types of objectless samadhi and Patanjali in sutra I.19 mentions two of them called videha and prakrti layanam. Prakrti layanam can be translated as being-one-with-everything. You don’t want to become one with everything but you want to abide in the infinite consciousness which is aware of everything. That’s a big difference. These two wrong objectless states are some of the reasons why today there are so many cult-leaders and charlatans. There is today little systematic and methodical teaching to reach mystical states but just a dabbling and hoping for spontaneous awakening. Reaching mystical states is essentially a skill albeit a very different one than the ones we usually train. This skill requires that we go beyond body, mind and ego. Still it must be learned as otherwise you go astray. That’s why Patanjali puts a lot of emphasis on the objective samadhi, actually more emphasis than on objectless ones.
Now to the ‘spontaneous’ awakening. Yes, everybody wants to awaken spontaneously, and we want to spontaneously be rich, spontaneously be able to play the violin, to fly an aeroplane, to be famous, etc. Do you understand what I mean? The belief to be able to awaken spontaneously perfectly fits our modern tendency to come from entitlement and instant gratification. A shaolin master, a violin master or a master of any sacred art will have to train and practice for some 30 to 50 years. That’s why they are traditionally depicted with long beards.
The great Indian sage Ramana Maharishi, by Westerners seen as the epitome of spontaneous awakenening, was once asked, “How come you talk about pranayama, mantra, Vedic chanting, worship, etc but we have never seen you do any of these things?” His answer was, “Make no mistake. Everybody who awoke and has not been seen to work on it in this present body, has put in all the hard work in previous embodiments.”
APP: Is enlightenment and Samadhi the same thing?
GM: No. Samadhi is an impermanent state, a scale of spiritual evolution. To me ‘enlightenment’ as an unfortunate term. It is borrowed from the European Enlightenment, an intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th century. The movement led to a worldview that sees us separate and estranged from nature and nature as something that we subdue, control and exploit. In truth, we are nature and the European Enlightenment led to us becoming estranged from ourselves. We lost our heart. Look where it all got us. Today we are staring into the abyss of ecocide and environmental holocaust. Even the idea of enlightenment as some state outside of life is still an estrangement from the world, from life. It implies that in order to become free we need to turn away from the world and life.
Using a different term I would suggest ‘awakening’ rather than ‘enlightenment’. But is there really a final awakening or are there not successive stages of awakening that show you more and more of an infinite reality that possibly no human being will ever completely fathom? Of course the religions had to claim that their founders had reached the ultimate and final goal that could be reached. Otherwise each religion would ultimately always be topped by the next person that had reached a higher state. I consider the view that there is an endpoint to spiritual evolution, encoded in the term ‘enlightenment’ a religious dogma.
APP: Are the 8 limbs sequential with Samadhi being the final step? Can they be experienced out of order?
GM: Both the eight limbs and the eight samadhis are fractal in nature, as is the entire universe and all creation. That means that as you drill down and zoom into the lattice of the eight limbs, you find their structure repeated in the eight samadhis. Will this go on as you go deeper and deeper? Very likely. The eight limbs and the eight samadhis are both sequentially and simultaneously practiced. That is you learn them sequentially as otherwise they would be too hard to learn. But once you master them you apply them simultaneously. That is samadhi happens inside of dhyana, dharana, pratyahara, etc.
Yes, they can be experienced out of order but, in this order, the greatest likelihood of success with the least amount of harm and disorder is achieved. For example, you can for one night, chemically open your third eye or crown chakra by taking high doses of certain psychedelics. Yet it is surprising how few people, if any, can positively integrate what they have seen and in most cases such an out-of-order event increases the existing confusion. The Indian saint Kabir once said, “I saw God for 1.5 seconds and the rest of my life was dedicated to this moment.” Practicing the limbs and samadhis in the right order ensures that once you do see Ultimate Reality, and even if only for seconds, it will change your entire being for the rest of your life, it will transubstantiate who your are.
APP: Where can we find your book?
GM: You should be able to get it at your favorite online retailer and if in doubt you can go to my own page www.chintamaniyoga.com. Thanks for having me.
Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.