One of Plato’s books offers us a thought experiment. He describes a scenario in which prisoners are chained facing a wall. All they can see are shadows of events, all they can hear are echoes of the sounds of the events. Between them, the prisoners find explanations for what they can see and hear – they build a whole reality based on echoes and projections.
We talk about this a little during Yogafurie’s 200-hour Yoga and Hot Yoga teacher training course, because it illustrates a really important concept handed down the long history of Yoga. Eyes can see – but they can only register a small band of wavelengths, the rest is undetected and invisible. Ears can hear, the nose can smell – but again, in a narrow range: for instance, dogs can see and smell far more keenly. We have a sense of touch – but the nerves in the skin can only react to the textures and temperatures we see commonly on Earth. The majority of what’s “real” is undetectable, invisible. Yet we all build our rationality and reality on what we experience, as if that was the whole truth. We’re just like the prisoners from the story.
Yoga’s philosophy goes further, and it maps the dimensions of our lives to our physical senses. So, for instance, love – represented by the Heart Chakra – is paired with the skin and the physical sense of touch. Makes sense, right? The whole expression, feeling and experience of love at all levels is tightly coupled to touch. Babies need the closeness of the caring adults, especially Mum, and we all need a hug no matter how old we are. Even our language acknowledges this – how often have we spoken of needing a firm hand to guide us, etc? Yoga tells us that relationship – and the quality of relationship – is key to thrival (survive AND thrive = thrival). When relationships are wrong, when the kind of contact we get is damaging (even when it seems to feel good) then we’re heading for trouble.
There’s more to it than this, and on the Yogafurie teacher training course in Bristol, we can look deeper and practice meditations and methods to still the mind and feel the connection between sense information coming in and the response from our minds and bodies. But let’s stick with the Heart Chakra today, and ask ourselves: what’s the impact of social distancing?
Let’s be clear: if it works, the impact is great. It reduces the cross-infection of Covid-19 massively, and that’s good for everyone. There’s nothing wrong with social distancing. However, closeness and relationship are challenged in a very new way. People look afraid as they pass each other in the street. I’ve even seen people walk into traffic to stay away from others on the pavement. Of course, these people might have Covid-19 – the behaviour could be highly justified.
Grief is the shadow emotion of the heart chakra: grief is the subtraction of love, the negative case. As well as the outright worry about the consequences of infection personally, and the disruption to income and economy, we’re all grieving for the things we enjoyed so much: the meet-ups with friends, the chats over a coffee or a meal out, all the ways we used to connect with each other just a couple of weeks ago.
But of course, the message from the long tradition of Yoga is that connection is literally the heart of everything. We’ve been living disconnected from the natural world for a long time – squandering all the natural resources, polluting the seas with plastic, filling the land with rubbish and nuclear waste, the list goes on. Experts speculate that we encountered Covid-19 because we’re encroaching on animals far too much. Logging has displaced and destroyed the habit of orangutans, but there was no deadly cross-infection. We’re likely to see more if we really do just “go back to how it was before”. Honouring the Heart Chakra means more than meeting up with friends – it means a change in how we connect with the natural fabric of the world.
Plato’s story goes on to describe what happens when one of the prisoners is suddenly free: he turns around, and see fire directly for the first time. He shields his eyes from its brightness and can’t bear it. He longs to turn back to the wall of shadows and echoes, to the familiar things he can cope with, even if they’re not real. It’s an allegory of the awakening of the soul: that actually, the truth can be tough to deal with and uncomfortable to accept.
Hatha Yoga is just one of Yoga’s many methods for generating this awakening, for revealing the truth of things as they are. We often practice Yoga and Hot Yoga for exercise, or to help with sleep, or for rehab from physical or emotional injury, or for a host of other reasons. These are exactly the right reasons to practice. Don’t worry about awakening or enlightenment: the practices are old because they work. Practice, and realisation slowly dawns anyway. It can take time, but working through the physical discomfort, finding the discipline to get to class when you’re tired – these are all a practice run for those moments of insight and clarity which are inevitable, some day.
I am very humbled to work at Yogafurie in Bristol, because we can discuss and work into these depths on the Yogafurie Academy courses. Teacher training is the start of a profound journey – life changing for many – and it’s very important that we teach the extent of the tradition. At Yogafurie, we do this without dogma: we’ll explain what’s in the books, but it’s up to the individual how much they take it on board.
This blog was written by Ed, who works at Yogafurie. These are simply his thoughts and reflections!