How can we know if we have ‘right knowledge’?

Article written by Ed, Yogafurie Academy Lead Instructor and Hot Yoga Teacher.

I have a five-year-old son, and he’s just discovering the joy of painting and drawing. Together, we recently watched a video describing how to draw one of his favourite TV characters. It started with a line drawing, which had perfect perspective. Everything was the right size, shape and position in relation to everything else.

Obviously, the Yoga tradition is humanity’s greatest achievement! The second coolest thing we’ve done is finding ways to record information[1]. We’re recording more and more – by 2025, we’ll have 175 zettabytes of it.[2] This growth is fuelled by our demand to record everything in hi-def, be it pictures, movies, music or stylish documents. The modern world relies on records as the best sources of reliable information, and another blog discusses the internet explosion in more depth.

The thing is – the picture my son and I saw was flat. Real objects have depth, and in looking at any scene there are smells, textures and sounds as well. Even hi-res, surround sound captures only a fraction of the real experience. What’s more, modern communication includes error-recovery: the info received really is a 100% accurate copy of the info sent. We’re busy creating absolutely accurate copies of the “flattened” versions of real experiences.

buddha sitting peacefully, the knowledge behind yoga

Ancient Yogis were well aware of this. This webpage has a good potted history of Yoga, explaining that early writings were on very fragile leaves. Also, the vocal intonation used reciting Yoga’s sacred texts was as important as the words themselves. The only way to preserve teachings properly was to memorise them, word for word. The written record couldn’t be trusted: it would degenerate, and it didn’t convey the intonation very well. Brahmins still learn these sacred Yogic texts, word for word.

Some sources suggest that this way of preserving the Yoga tradition orally allowed one group to maintain control over the rest of the society. Very little is in the “public domain” for analysis and evolution.

ed teaching at yogafurie, teaching practice

So, we are at a crossroads: modern, hi-def records aren’t a true reflection of reality. But at least our partial information encourages sharing and co creation of new ideas. How can we “know” anything?

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras offer an answer. Patanjali may have been one person, or a name scribed to several authors. At any rate, the book describes a mental state in which normal thinking has been suspended, but awareness is still present. The Yoga Sutras describe training techniques to develop and install this state. 

A group of people meditating in modern day when we've learned how to greatly record information.

Why would such a state be useful at all? Patanjali links the problems we experience in life to misconception. One of the most serious misconceptions we can make are those that negatively affect our lives. Out of irrational fear, prejudice or plain dislike, we can cut ourselves off from that which is good. On the flipside, misplaced trust or even loving devotion can bind us to difficulties, bad habits bad people. All along, we’re often not aware of what we’re doing to ourselves. And so, an uncoloured perception is regarded as the best way to know things; then, we know them as they really are and not simply as what we wish they were (or weren’t).

This outcome of extended Yoga practice is extremely practical in life. It’s worth reflecting that the goals of Yoga may seem lofty and idealised, but are in fact very helpful guidelines for life in general.

Join Ed for a Hot Yoga class in Bristol when we reopen from lockdown this May 17th! We would love to see you there. And if you enjoy learning all that you can about Yoga, check out our Yoga Teacher Training in Bristol.

[1] Writing is obviously symbolic: the symbol on the page represents a sound. The sound happens to be a word: writing is the technique of using symbols to encode and preserve meaning. It’s maybe less common for us to recognise that words themselves are also symbols. But they are: words are symbols written in sound, symbols that convey meaning, symbols that allow people to exchange information. 

It’s hard to pin down when we started talking. It’s possible that Neanderthals had language 500000 years ago, even before modern humans emerged in Africa 200000-160000 years ago. We’ve been writing for almost as long: some sources say as many as 70000 years. Clearly, humans have communicated using symbols for a very long time. 

[2] The amusingly-named zettabyte is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes.

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