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The Yoga of Unlearning

Updated: Oct 10



As a student, or more specifically, as a ‘sādhaka’ of Yoga for the past 12 years, I have come to see that the word ‘Yoga’ cannot be used loosely and carelessly. The word “Yoga”, by itself, literally means ‘union’ - a state of experiencing all of existence as one. Appending the word ‘Yoga’ to any other word must be done with extreme care. Traditionally, there are three major paths of Yoga -‘Karma Yoga’ (The Yoga of Action), ‘Bhakti Yoga’ (The Yoga of Devotion) and ‘Jnana Yoga’ (The Yoga of Knowledge). Then there are many derivative forms such as Kundalini Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga, Hatha Yoga, Svara Yoga, Mantra Yoga, etc. But essentially, it is important to understand that each of these are a complete path in itself – from whatever may be our current state of consciousness towards this inner experience of ‘union’ with all of existence that is the state of being in Yoga. To understand what a ‘complete path’ means, a simple analogy would be to imagine water flowing from the inland, finding multiple paths towards the ocean – any path that is complete from end to end can take one towards experiencing the ocean, but not every path of the water channel is necessarily complete. This is why recklessly adding the word ‘Yoga’ to mere work out routines and feel-good philosophies can be quite misleading, particularly given that one of the common misconceptions about Yoga is that it is seen merely as a form of exercising the physical body (which is quite far from truth). So while systems which brand themselves with names like ‘Power Yoga’, ‘Face Yoga’, ‘Chair Yoga’ which, may, in fact, have certain physical benefits in certain contexts, they still fall extremely short of being qualified as a complete path or a “Yoga”. It would be an absolute sacrilege to the sanctity of traditions that have so very carefully handled this term for thousands of years if I even try and address the more extremely grotesque and corrupted distortions that have happened in the name of yoga such as Goga (Goat yoga), Doga (Dog Yoga), Hoga (Horse Yoga), Beer Yoga, etc. - some of which have to be seen to be believed!

But where does unlearning fit in here? What does Unlearning have to do with Yoga in any way? Unlearning has been a tremendous source of most of what I know today. I see unlearning as a way to slow down and bring enormous attention to every aspect of life the way it truly is – beyond the distortions of our biases, assumptions and conclusions. It involves bringing a deep sense of openness, awareness to observe and experiment — noticing even the subtlest of things within and around us with enormous sensitivity in our daily experience of life. In one way, it can mean coming alive to life itself. In my own journey of unlearning, everything from what I eat, how I dress, what I aspire for, how I value relationships, how I define my politics to the very way I sit, breathe and sleep has been going through a world of change experientially through this constant unlearning process.


If we pay close attention to life, we can see that the entire experience of life is just learning. The way I see it, learning IS life and life is learning. One who is truly alive cannot but be in a state of learning. The term ‘learning’ here, is certainly not restricted to the mere retention of information as knowledge but extends to embrace multiple dimensions of knowing. However, this learning can either happen consciously or unconsciously and that makes a world of a difference in how we experience life. It is a fundamental nature of human intelligence to want to know, to grow towards a larger experience and expression of life. However, one of the fundamental clogs in the process of this authentic learning and thereby, living authentically, is a false sense of knowing or ‘misperception’ that we create within ourselves. I feel the English language falls short here, of being able to capture the essence of this human experience as a term, in its wholeness. In Yogic terms, the word that I can best relate to this is, ‘Avidyā ‘ which to me, simultaneously encompasses ignorance, misconceptions, misunderstanding, incorrect knowledge and a fundamental ‘misperception’ of life.


In one way, Yoga can be understood as the movement of experiential transformation from the delusions of Avidyā to the clarity that is vidyā (Vidyā encompasses knowledge, perception, wisdom, etc). Yoga as a complex and profound science, offers not a single path, but a multitude of ways for human beings to move towards a state of remaining rooted in vidyā at all times. To me, the journey of unlearning can be, in some sense, very similar as it captures this essence of movement from ‘untruth’ to ‘truth’. There is no one way for experiencing this unlearning and it may differ entirely from person to person. It is a fantastically organic and subjective experience of transformation, leading one towards true knowing.


In most of my conversations with people, whether it comes to their career, lifestyle, relationships or

well being, I have seen that they may not always have absolute clarity about where exactly they want to head or what they really want in life. However, almost everyone certainly has a good grasp of sensing what isn’t working well for them. Our innate sense to know what isn’t working for us, or what some people may relate to as a sense of ‘something missing’ or something ‘feeling off’ is much more profound in our experience. This is because ideas we have about what or who is right for us, what to aspire for, what is good, bad, right and wrong, are all influenced by the time period, place, culture, context we are born and grow up in. While this may have enormous practical value in our social life, if we really learn to look at it for what it truly is, they are just stories we have subscribed to consciously or unconsciously, according to our conveniences and which we have become deeply identified with.


It is similar to how we relate with money. In reality, a currency note is literally just paper, is it not? But if a huge pile of cash is set on fire in front of someone, most people may hit panic because they have attached great value to what is lost. But this value is simply something we have attached to it because enough people around us have subscribed to the same. On the one hand, it has enormous social significance as a transaction currency, but it is also true that it is just paper and ink, isn’t it? For one who is so invested in seeing currency as money, there is one kind of suffering because they have bought into only one type of story. On the other hand, there is another kind of suffering for someone who blindly dismisses all money as just pieces of paper because they have bought into another story what is not fully in tune with the transactional nature of our social realities. To me, being in touch with the truth is to be aware of both simultaneously – to recognize cash for the value and potential it has in the social realm but to also always remember that they are just pieces of paper that we have chosen to attach value to. If we can experientially be in touch with this truth, and not just intellectually, there in emerges an equanimous wisdom that can profoundly impact the quality of our life and the choices we make.


Unlearning is a process of being able to recognize these stories as stories within their relevant context. Once the illusions we hold on to in life shatters, what remains can be only the truth — we can then truly begin to see things just the way they are. One question I’m often asked is, ‘Once unlearning has happened, how do we re-learn the right things?’ It isn’t difficult to see the logic this question is based on. How do we fill our container with ‘good stuff’ after emptying out the ‘bad stuff’? But when it comes to embracing unlearning as a fundamental process of knowing life, it is important to notice that unlearning what is untrue and re-learning the truth are not two different processes. For example, we call the test where a machine is used to tell if someone is telling the truth a ‘lie detector’ test and not a ‘truth detector’ test. This is because the machine can only detect if we deviate from the baseline (truth) and one of the most reliable way to the truth is by eliminating all possibilities of deviating into a lie. As untruth recedes, truth alone prevails. They are not two separate processes. Unlearning is as simple as that but as a journey is sometimes far from easy.


“However, the most important unlearning about unlearning to take away is that, just like with Yoga*, unlearning is a consequence. It is not something that you can do. If you do the right things, unlearning happens as a consequence.”


Yoga places a lot of emphasis on purifying the human system – the body, mind and energies, because

removing what is toxic to our system is a powerful way towards heightening human perception and our experience of life. Unlearning, to me, can also be this powerful purification process of human

experience, inside out. So while I am not in the least, inclined to coin the term “Unlearning Yoga” no

matter how radical or brand attractive it may be, I do want to acknowledge that a good chunk of my

journey so far has been a certain ‘Yoga of Unlearning’ — I feel that the unlearning journey can

certainly be worthy of that honor. However, the most important ‘unlearning about unlearning’ is that, like Yoga* itself, unlearning is a consequence, not an activity. Unlearning is not something that you can do. If you work on the right things, unlearning will happen as a consequence.


What are then some things we can begin working on for unlearning to happen? Well, we can begin by becoming deeply sensitive to life, build enormous balance to our system and evolve a keen sense of observation and awareness. We can begin by unlearning how we ‘Listen, Breathe & See


*Despite the many widespread misconceptions that are prevalent, Yoga is a state of being and not doing. What we ‘do’ are various practices or sadhana which could be physical postures (Asanas), chants (mantras), breath practices (pranayam), meditation (dhyan) and so much more in an effort to attain to the state that is Yoga.

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