Zeno of Elea was a Greek philosopher living over 2400 years ago (i.e. probably before, or possibly contemporary to, the time Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras were being written). He is most famous for a series of paradoxes – perhaps you’ve heard of them. The best known goes something like this:
Achilles is in a footrace with a tortoise (for… some reason). Being a charitable dude he gives the tortoise a headstart – say 100m. So the race starts and Achilles fairly quickly runs to where the tortoise was initially; however, in that time, the tortoise has moved forward a little, let’s say 10m. So Achilles runs that 10m, but during that time the tortoise has moved on a metre or so; and because they are both moving forward, by the time Achilles moves that metre, the tortoise has managed to move a little further, and so on ad infinitum – such that it is physically
impossible for Achilles to pass the
tortoise and win the race!
Which, if you think about it too hard, might make your brain hurt; you can go do viparita karani and come back in 5 minutes.
He formulated other paradoxes along similar lines. For you to walk to the end of the street, you first have to walk half way there (stands to reason). But to get half way there, you have to traverse half the distance to the halfway mark… but before you can get there, you have to get halfway to there… you see where this is going. Once again, movement turns out to be impossible because any distance is made up of an infinite number of points!
Interesting thought experiments, but perhaps a little abstract. At first this might at least be a useful exercise in reminding ourselves that reality is never exactly how it seems to us. The Advaita Vedanta parable of “The Rope and the Snake” comes to mind, illuminating the gap between absolute reality and our subjective experience of it.
But this inquiry takes on a new dimension when we start to consider the expanse of that subjective awareness. Our “inner” experience, once we start to pay attention, reveals itself as limitless: the finite dimensions of our physical body belie an infinite internal depth.
Take a moment to straighten your spine, and allow your arms to be long and relaxed. Allow your attention to rest at the very top and bottom of the spine, and feel these two points connected. Then, following Zeno, we could start to become aware that to travel from bottom to top, we must first pass the midpoint of the spine – allow that point to naturally become part of the inner experience. Watch the relationship of your breath to these points as you hold them in your awareness. And half way up and down from there, we find midpoints between midpoints. Without rushing, keep going, feeling the space between spaces, the endless expanse we can perceive within this otherwise finite length from sacrum to crown. Now notice – do you feel like your spine is longer? Physically, any change would be very small. But the inner experience of it may have shifted dramatically.
By allowing ourselves to perceive the depth and space inside, we invite the wisdom of other dimensions into our practice. The more we follow our natural breath, the more that space becomes apparent. Once we orient ourselves toward the infinite, tensions limiting our perception of that boundless expanse dissolve in the overwhelming obviousness of its presence within.
For one of BKS Iyengar’s most celebrated students, Vanda Scaravelli, this deepening awareness was at the heart of the yoga practice. In her book “Awakening the Spine” (definitely worth a read, you can browse some of it here) she describes how the spine can be felt as an expanse, how our experience of Time itself could dilate or stretch out into an infinite present. Finding the midpoint of the spine, we can allow it to expand in both directions, rooting down into the ground and growing up effortlessly toward the sky. With practice we might realize that we exist, too, as a midpoint between earth and heaven. Between generations. Between the inhale and the exhale, between the sacred and the profane. We expand both ways, the universe connecting itself through us. Our yoga is that union. Our yoga is us.