Container and Contents

In yoga philosophy, one way of looking at our existence is through the lens of the five kosas or sheaths. These are the anatomical, physiological, mental, intellectual and soul levels of our being. These layers move from the gross to the subtle and from the periphery to the core. Like nesting dolls or the layers of an onion, each sheath is the container for another layer within. The skeleton and the muscles are the outermost layer, creating our structure and our shape and providing a container for the other layers. The organs and fluids of the body create the next layer, and we could call this organic body the contents of the anatomical layer. B.K.S. Iyengar has written that the kosas are like a rainbow, with no clear cut delineation between the various sheaths. The organs of the nervous system, including the sensory organs, the brain and spinal cord and the nerve fibers, are part of the physiological body, but they closely touch the next layer – the mind and emotions. The final two layers are subtle and hard to comprehend – intuitive, discriminative intelligence, and the blissful state in which we perceive the soul.

The scheme of the kosas gives us a map for the inward journey. As the month is winding down and we enter our final week here, I find myself wondering just how much of the content I have received I can actually hold in my container. Another word for container or pot is kumbhak, which refers to retaining the breath in pranayama practice. If the pot is flawed, it cannot hold the contents placed inside it. In yoga practice, we carefully and diligently work to develop the health and vitality of the first two kosas – the outer and inner body – so that we have the physical energy, mental capacity and emotional stability to absorb, understand and integrate the profound teaching we are being given. Our container must be sound.

I am sure that the learning will continue to unfold over the months and years ahead. But for the moment, it is hard to take in the breadth of what has been given. There has been some time to reflect, but in general, I have been completely engaged with the requirements of each day. It will be interesting to see how the effects of this month carry over into my practice and teaching once I return home.

On Tuesday, August 20, the Institute celebrated the fifth Punyatithi or death anniversary of B.K.S. Iyengar. The hall was packed for a talk given by Prashant Iyengar entitled “Understanding Guruji.” The beautiful altar was adorned with flowers and there was a joyful feeling in the room of gratitude toward this great man who gave so much to his students. Prashant’s ability as a speaker is just fantastic. His insights into Guruji, his practice and his teaching were illuminating. I will do my best to summarize Prashant’s remarks, although I will say now that that is a difficult job. Prashant is eloquent, articulate and subtle. All mistakes in the following are my own, and any insight or truth is from Prashant.

Prashant first explained that even though Mr. Ieyngar had a very short time with his guru, that contact triggered the impressions (samskaras) of yoga within him. His energy level was super human. We have often heard that he worked “hard” and that is true. But we cannot really relate to what that means, because his capacity for work was super human. He was on a “high speed track.” Prashant said that Guruji’s ability was so far beyond that of even a developed practitioner, that it was like comparing the running capacity of an Olympic runner to that of a cheetah! 

Because his energy, intellect and practice were at such a high level, he could not actually teach what he practiced or what he knew. He had to teach what the students could practice. Prashant said that Guruji had a vivid imagination and he would devise ways for students to practice, even though he might never do those things himself. For example, Prashant said Guruji never practiced chair Shoulder Balance. That was invented for the benefit of the students. Even though Guruji did not teach what he practiced, it was from his practice that he derived what he should teach.

Prashant said that often, those who are great are not famous. Even more often, those who are famous are not great. Guruji had both greatness and fame. But the reasons he was famous were not the same as the reasons he was great. His true greatness could not be comprehended. He was famous for the most outward aspects of his work. But his true inner greatness could not really be understood by us. He had world wide acclaim for things that were not so important – the important things were hidden to the world. His contribution to the world and his contribution to yoga were two different things.

Prashant ended with a fantastic cosmic map, reminding us that within the vastness of the universe, the galaxy and the solar system, the earth is a speck, India is a speck and we ourselves are just specks of dust. If we primarily relate to the world, we are relating to the speck. The globe is a speck of dust in the vastness of the universe, but inside each of us is not just a universe, but a multiverse. Multi-million universes reside within us, and if we go inward, our journey will be on an astronomical scale. If we go inside, it all opens up for us.

So to know what B.K.S Iyengar was, who he was, and what was the nature of his greatness, we cannot turn to Google or Wikipedia or a biography. To know what Guruji was we will have to know yoga.

Wow – an amazing and mind opening talk! I hope we all continue to be inspired to take the inward journey and discover the vastness within ourselves, discovering all the layers within layers. As B.K.S. Iyengar took the journey inward through the kosas to experience freedom and beatitude, so should we do our best to take that journey as far as we are able. May your practice flourish!

In love and light,

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7 Responses to Container and Contents

  1. Janis Nelson says:

    Thank you so much for sharing that, Karen! I know all your students will benefit from your time in India. I’m so grateful for your dedication.

  2. Thank you, Jan. It is so wonderful to engage in something that helps me grow, knowing that I will be able to share it with others. The writing has been helping me to integrate my learning and has been a real pleasure. I look forward to seeing you in a couple weeks.

  3. Bess Kaplan says:

    Reading your blog, Karen, makes me wish I were still in your class.

  4. It is nice to hear from you, Bess! I hope you are well. Of course you are always welcome to return to class!

  5. Julie Tamarkin says:

    Thank you, Karen, for sharing your impressions and for giving us this glimpse of your experience in India. May your last week there be full of blessings!

  6. Elinore Evans says:

    Reading your reflections reminded me of various sections of Buddhist prayers I recite, in particular, the beginning of the Bodhisattva Vows, in addition to various references to the “nö chü,” the external vessel/place in the world and its contents, or the environment/world and its inhabitants or the inanimate and animate world. Additionally, I am reminded of the three qualities of a suitable vessel/pot and the three defects of a pot: cracked (hole), upside down, or containing poison, the latter of which is like mixing what you hear with mental afflictions, so aptly demonstrated by the Moor’s doubting of Disdamona’s true character in Shakespeare’s Othello.

  7. Thanks for sharing Elinore! I really like the idea of the three defects of the pot as it says so much. If the pot is cracked, we can’t retain what we are given. If it is upside down, we can’t receive anything. And if it contains poison, what we receive will be tainted by our confusion and previous impressions.

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