There was no shortage of knowledge (or wisdom) at the Omega Yoga Service Conference this weekend. Two jnana yogis (jnanins) in particular really lit up the room lecturing on key topics for service yogis.
Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University (the top ranked uni for graduate psychology programs in the US), delivered a brilliant presentation on compassion, some of the neurophysiology behind it, and how people in the helping fields can strengthen this powerful skill.
We were treated to summaries of findings by Paul Gilbert and host of other leaders in psychology and compassion research (Fiske, Goetz, Longe, Slovik, et al.) – years of scientific mining filtered down to the gems of their labor (priceless for the lay people in the audience, including myself!). And despite the limited time, we were offered several hands-on exercises to nourish our own compassion, or to utilize in a clinical setting. Kelly’s presentation was practical, clear, and absolutely inspirational as both a yogi and an aspiring academic.
“Kelly McGonigal is a leader driven by compassion and pragmatism.” – Forbes.com 20 Inspiring Women
Trauma was a big theme throughout this conference and Bessel Van der Kolk closed the gathering with a presentation on Yoga, Neurobiology, and Trauma. Bessel’s approach was a comfortable mix of personal sharing as a clinical psychologist and the intriguing new research emerging about which areas of the brain are most affected by trauma. He opened with a few aesthetic representations of trauma, including a video clip from shell-shocked WWII veterans in Europe – otherworldly and fundamentally disturbing.
We were later shown brain imaging scans of PTSD patients just a few years back – illustrating almost complete lack of activity in their temporal parietal insula and parietal cortex areas. For PTSD patients, sensations from the body were almost totally blocked. Their brains no longer wanted them to physically ‘be,’ their trauma had been so severe. Bessel described pranayam as the only known technique to regulate the brain stem, the part of the nervous system in charge of automatic functioning. He also discussed the importance of the vagus nerve, which contains 80% efferent fibers, nerve communication going to the brain.
Clearly, I’m still connecting some of the dots; all this information, along with my discoveries in Health Psychology and Mindfulness and Meditation in Psychology this year, clarifies the “why” questions that pop up when I suggest asana, meditation and pranayam to my students. The scientific research might seem redundant to hardcore practitioners, but is absolutely vital in locating the process of efficacy, what *exactly* is working, *how* is it doing what it does, do duration and frequency of practice make a difference, and if so, how much?
It’s also great fodder for recruiting new yogis (especially you skeptical lot!) – something this yoga evangelist is very keen on (be warned! ;)).
Already what I’ve written could be broken into *two* blogs, one about Kelly’s presentation on compassion/science and one about Bessel’s on trauma/yogic techniques/science. But this is a blog on how grateful I am for jnana yogis. Yogis like Kelly and Bessel who are discerning the Real from the unreal or illusory, yogis who exhibit the best of svadhyaya (self-study). Their extensive studies and commitment to yoga provide great clarity in the grey areas that arise where Eastern philosophy meets Western science.
If you’re a traditionalist, you may find my definition of a jnani rather modern. Kelly and Bassel did not give presentations on spiritual texts like the Bhagavad Gita or the Upanishads – and they made absolutely no mention of self-realization. Would they call themselves jnanis? I have no idea! But they’ve shone a flashlight along my path, a light that came through their profound study, and so, for me, they are jnana yogis to be grateful for!
A Traditional Explanation of the Path of Jnana Yoga
Jnana Yoga is considered one of the many paths of yoga (along with Hatha, Karma, Bhakti, Raja/Classical/Patanjali, etc.) – though the techniques and nuances of philosophy differ, they all lead to one state: samadhi (bliss, liberation, self-realization, etc.). Jnana Yoga is known as the path for the intellectual. According to Sadananda in his Vedanta-Sara, a fifteenth century text on jnana yoga, there are 4 principal means for attaining liberation on the path of jnana:
1. Discernment – viveka – between permanent and the transient
2. Renunciation – viraga – of the enjoyment of the fruit of one’s actions
3. The six accomplishments: tranquility (shama), sense-restraint (dama), cessation (uparati), endurance (titiksha), mental collectedness (samadhana), faith (shraddha)
4. The urge toward liberation (mumukshutva), similar to the bodhi-citta of Mahayana Buddhism.
(Feuerstein’s The Yoga Tradition, 31)
If you’re interested in diving into what jnana yoga is all about, the Bhagavad Gita (500-200 BC) is the first text to reference this path, and Swami Vivekananda is said to be the penultimate example of a jnanin. His commentary, “Jnana Yoga,” published by Advaita Ashrama, though written in the language of the Victorian Era, is an elucidating read on the subject.