By retention of the breath to the point of absence, by rigid immobilization of the body and [with] the lotus eyes half-closed we are caused to behold the appearance of the leading sages’ gesture of perfect mental stasis
Those masters of restraint [experts in Yoga], for whom the state of mental stasis comes naturally, while their sense of individual self and sense of any possession has been cut loose, they go to the state beyond Mind, devoid of any perturbations of life force into a state of being in which only heaven’s residue remains
The first clause of Śloka 20 links two concepts which may seem to be at odds with each other. Typically when one is being forceful he or she isn’t being attentive. But this is not necessarily always the case. Think of boxing. A good fighter can knock his or her opponent out in an instant, with one punch, but only if the extreme force of said punch is matched with equally great accuracy. He or she must hit certain small (and moving) targets in the head precisely to get the knock out. It’s known as “hitting the button.” And so, furthermore, the opening clause of this śloka is a fine expression of that other definition of Yoga which in my opinion is criminally under-referenced: “Yoga karmasu kauśalam,” or, Yoga is skill in action. This is from the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter Two Śloka 50, and said by none other than Krshna himself. It ought to be quoted as often as, if not more than, Patañjali’s definition which we all know and love, but it isn’t for various reasons. [Reasons I’d love to get into, incidentally, but would be beyond the scope of the current endeavor. Perhaps for my next project.] To split the chain of desires takes great effort, great force, but it cannot be applied haphazardly. The force must be directed with attention and skill otherwise the practitioner will just spin his or her wheels indefinitely. This will ultimately lead to burn out, injury, resentment, etc. Worse still, it may turn the practitioner into an asshole!
Just to be crystal clear, and at the risk of redundancy: the chain of desires is a metaphor for all those things which bind the ego to the world as we know it. As they bind the ego, or sense of individual self, they also help to define it. And so also while the chain of desires restrains the Mind, it also functions as its support. Now in this śloka Adi Śankaracarya has mixed metaphors, perhaps a bit clumsily by contemporary Western standards. In the first clause the chain is broken forcibly but in the second clause it is burned away, we can safely infer, by the fires of Agni and tapas.
And what happens when your support is burned away? Or rather, where are you left when it is pulled out from under you? You find yourself in what the Buddhists refer to as śunya or śunyata: the Void. It is the stark realization of the illusory nature of the world, and that behind the curtain there is ultimately nothing. Like a gestalt test, this revelation can be either terrifying or sweetly liberating. If you have built up to this loss of support with a lifetime of training and preparation I suspect it is more likely to feel liberating. And conversely if find yourself staring into the Void suddenly and against your will (like when just the other day I nearly had a head-on crash doing 70mph on a two-lane road in the middle of nowhere) it’s probably more likely to be terrifying.
Śloka 21, like śloka 18, describes the physical symptoms of extremely deep meditative states. To the untrained eye someone meditating so deeply appears dead: no breath, rigid limbs, and vacant, half-closed eyes. One word in this śloka is worth an extra look, and that is mudrā. Mudrā can mean a seal, or a mark, but in Yoga, Buddhism, and even Indian Classical dance the term is used to mean a gesture. And what can’t be a gesture? For example, and this might get confusing, but the bandhas are all, technically speaking, mudrās. As are some āsanas. Sarvāngāsana (AKA shoulder stand) is a variant of the mudrā known as viparita karani (roughly translated as inverse, or topsy-turvy, doing). Mahamudrā looks suspiciously like janu śirshāsana C. And so too are some of the outlandish practices described in the Hathayogapradipika, like khechari mudrā, in which one gradually slices away the frenulum so that the tongue may be swallowed back into the skull. Or vajroli mudrā in which a man controls his orgasm such that the semen, instead of shooting out, is drawn back in to the body so as to preserve prāna. In Western medical terms this is called retrograde ejaculation and the semen, unfortunately, doesn’t convert into prāna but instead goes into the bladder, causing cloudy urine. And it may lead to infertility. I’ll pass on those last two mudrās, thank you. Scripture ni scripture, as my mother-in-law might say. And then finally there are the hand mudras. There are a great many used in Yoga and Buddhism, but in the Ashtanga system we typically only see two: Anjali mudra, or praying hands (self-explanatory); and jñana mudra, in which the the thumb and index finger connect while the other three fingers are extended together with the palm turned up.
Śloka 22 discusses the big exit introduced in śloka 21. After the body has been disciplined, after the ego has been reconfigured, then the adept Yogi will go to a place beyond all disturbances which is described with a lovely turn of phrase: “a state of being in which only heaven’s residue remains.” In Western religious traditions, more specifically Christianity and Islam, heaven is the ne plus ultra— a place of eternal bliss and proximity to God. In Hinduism and Buddhism heaven is a place, albeit a very groovy one, which is finite and one’s time there is relative to one’s store of karma. So, if you’ve lived an exemplary life of selfless good deeds and piousness you may find yourself in heaven after you die. Maybe even for a thousand years. But at some point your credit, so to speak, will run out and you’ll have to take birth again down in the world. To paraphrase Baba Ram Dass, you always come down. And to quote him directly: “the goal isn’t to be high, it’s to be free.” So it’s all well and good to do the right thing and accrue good karma but the real goal is to get off the ride altogether. When that happens you never go back. From the Bhadavad Gita, Chapter 15, ślokas 5-6:
Without arrogance or delusion, with the evils of attachment conquered, dwelling constantly in the supreme Self, with desires turned away, released from the dualities known as pleasure and pain, the undeluded go to that imperishable goal.
The sun does not illumine, nor the moon, nor fire, that place to which, having gone, on one returns; that is my Supreme abode.
I believe the Scriptures are pretty clear that this departure to the Supreme abode can happen from any of the three worlds (hell, earth, heaven) if one has done the correct work. But this śloka seems to imply that one passes through heaven on the way. Thus the residue. When I think of it I see heaven as a sort of womb, and when one passes through it and into the final, quiet place there is a residue of heavenly amniotic fluid.
In the coming ślokas we’ll see Adi Śankaracarya get personal again, and see more names for the same thing. We’re closing in on the finish here, and I appreciate your reading and your feedback. Stay tuned!