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Laya, Absorption & the Purpose of Yoga

At the risk of getting a bit technico-philosophical for those who've just started their journey into Yoga, we thought that, ours being a blog characterized by reads that are not for the faint of heart, we owed it to ourselves to breach the concept of Laya.

One of Tantric Hatha Yoga's most fundamental ideas, the notion of Laya is at the heart of the very experience of Yoga. Ironically, it is seldom discussed in most Yoga classes or in Yoga Teacher Trainings (even advanced ones for that matter); and with very scant literature out there on the topic, Laya nowadays is often conflated with a particular type of practice involving chanting and practiced in Kundalini Yoga classes.

Needles to say, this is not the type of Laya that Tantric forms of Yoga are after ––we are actually speaking of a practice the scriptures call Bhuta Shuddhi. The term Layayoga used to be the umbrella name of the very branch Tantric Hatha Yoga and other traditional forms of Yoga (such as Raja Yoga) actually derive from. Invented by sage Gorakhnath ––who in turn was the disciple of sage Matsyendranath–– Layayoga "is that form of yoga in which concentration is developed through the absorption of all cosmic principles, leading ultimately to samadhi" (Goswami 1999, p.11-12).

Indeed, Laya is a concept best understood through personal experience ––the kind of experience which requires not only the ability to control the fluctuations of the mind through sustained concentration (meditation), but also the ability to go even beyond that (Samadhi). And herein lies the issue; because, as it is, most teachers out there have, in general, little to no experience with doing either of these things. Yes. You heard us. Most teachers out there don't have a regular meditation practice, let alone know how it feels to reach samadhi. And so, from the lens of traditional Yoga, they are not Yoga teachers. At best, they are workout instructors; and you will know how to spot them because they will not be including meditation (and perhaps also not pranayama) as part of their class.

The reasons for this are manyfold and we've discussed some of them in the past; but for simplicity's sake we can say that the two most important ones have to do with 1) the need to transcend the ego in order to prepare for Laya and 2) daring to take a leap of faith into a territory impossible to imagine or describe.

What the Scriptures Say

The scriptures are very clear when it comes to the practice of Laya. In this sense, a text such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (2012) already includes several sloka that meticulously describe the very process of 'how to Laya' proper (verses 32, 33; 34; 65; 66; 78). The etimological origin of the word Laya is itself revelatory with regards to the actual process. A Sanskrit term, Laya comes from the root 'li' for 'disappear, dissolve, swoon'; but also for 'cling to, stick to, adhere.' Slightly paradoxical if you will, the term has come to stand for an experience where the movements of the mind are completely arrested ––a type fo swooning or fainting of the mind–– for a definite period of time. Thereby, the Ego part of our individual can dissolve and disappear by clinging, holding on to, and adhering solely to the sweet inner sensation of beingness as it is conjured into being. We know this sounds a bit abstract, but as said above, it's an experience that defies description.

You may be wondering why would anyone want to suspend the movements of the mind? The answer, of course, is as simple as it is complex and we've touched on it in the past. But let's just say that, suspending the movements of our (monkey) mind is the one tool that will help us deal and eventually disindentify with the roots of our suffering; or put differently, it will help us escape from the vicious cycle of unconstructive thought, followed by emotions, followed by unwanted feelings, followed by unhelpful action, followed by more unconstructive thought...on and on and on.

This is the reason why we meditate: to break free of this pernicious cycle for increasingly longer periods at a time. Only when we manage to suspend the uncontrolled movements of our mind do we get to really experience pure being, or that state otherwise described as existing free of mind.

The Anteroom of Samadhi

In this sense, Laya can be considered as the anteroom of the process of full absorption of mind into Source, or Samadhi ––aka, the very purpose of Yoga. You can think of it as something akin to our mind learning to listen to an inner sound that was there all along, a sound that precedes it, and that will eventually come to supersede it completely.

In this regard, Laya is in itself a state, but one that must also be transcended in due time in order for our Self to merge fully with Paramatma (allbeingness). Hence the importance of building a meditative practice early on and of learning to detach and disidentify ourselves from any expectations we may have about 1) the process of meditation; 2) from any feelings and sensations that may arise during the very process of meditation; 3) from anything and everything we tend to label as an 'I.' The subtler the nature of the experience, the higher the need for disidentification. For only a disidentified meditator can experience Samadhi.