The Hat Stand Principle

Dr. Rishi Vivekananda Saraswati (Brian Thomson, Australia)

As students, teachers and practitioners of yoga we will need to answer questions about yoga. This may be preparing notes and sitting examinations, writing articles, designing research, an academic dissertation, preparing lectures, enquiries about yoga by students or people in general, and interviews by journalists of print, television or radio, etc. We may have an extensive knowledge of the many details of the answers in our memories, but how can we ‘dig’ them up and present them in a sensible sequence?

We can use ‘hat stands’! In the days when everyone wore hats, there was a piece of furniture inside the front door, consisting of a vertical rod with hooks all the way down where the hats and coats were hung. This image came to my mind many years ago when I was thinking of the memory categories we will be discussing here – an object with a series of ‘hooks’ that can be used to attract various details out of memory and ‘hang’ them in a logical order to be used.

From the memory point of view we can define a ‘hat stand’ as: “A category we already know, whose members can be used to help us remember, in a logical sequence, the various details of that category.” We don’t have to learn these ‘hat stands’, we already know them. We only need to develop the ability to recognize the most appropriate one to use, and apply it to the question at hand.

SOME ‘HAT STANDS’

Koshas

These are a fundamental part of yoga. They define the great extent of yoga as compared with many other systems of human development. Often, the first question asked in interviews is “What is yoga?” We can use the koshas to answer this. For instance, Swami Niranjan gives this definition of yoga: “Yoga is an ancient system of philosophy, lifestyle and techniques that evolves the whole person, the physical, the vitality, the mind and emotions, the psychic and wisdom qualities, and the realization of the spiritual reality of each of us.” Here he has obviously used the koshas for the definition.

Another common question is: “Are there any advantages yoga has over Western psychology and psychiatry?” The koshas can answer this. In psychology they talk at length about the body, but don’t include the important pranamaya kosha; they deal with manomaya kosha and a bit about vijnanamaya kosha, but not with the psychic aspects. And they don’t deal with the spiritual dimension, the most important in yoga, the real destiny of the human being. So we can start by saying, “There are many similarities between the two, but yoga goes further than psychology . . .” We have thus brought out of our mind a ‘hat stand’ to deal with a question we didn’t expect. We can use these in all sorts of ways, and as we practise them we start to recognize the form of the question, so that by the time the person has finished their question we have the best ‘hat stand’ ready.

Chakras

This is a good ‘hat stand’ to use if we are answering any question on the benefits of yoga for the personality, as the personality aspects of the chakras include: security (mooladhara), joy, sexuality (swadhisthana), action, power, self-esteem (manipura), love (anahata), communication (vishuddhi) and intellect, intuition, wisdom (ajna).

A question may be: “How does yoga help to develop the personality?” We can start to answer thus: “According to the yogis, the basic aspects of the personality are security . . . etc. . . . and yoga helps to evolve these by clearing the mental blockages that are stopping us from realizing the highest levels of these within us . . .” If the person persists with “How . . . ?” we can continue by describing how the practices of yoga (another hat stand) work in this way.

We can also use the physical aspects of the chakras such as the musculo-skeletal system, the internal organs, the nerve plexuses, the endocrine glands and the immune system. These give us information as to how certain practices will affect the physical areas as well as the pranic, mental, emotional, etc.

Gunas

This is a good perspective to use. If we are talking about the evolution of the personality, we are really dealing with the movement upwards from the tamasic complex of ways of thinking, feeling and behaving – the animalistic attitudes and inclinations – through the rajasic tendencies to the sattwic, and then transcending them all. So we can really answer any question about human development by keeping the qualities of the gunas in mind – using them as a ‘hat stand’. We don’t have to mention them by name; most people (especially in the West) won’t understand what we are talking about. So unless we are actually teaching about the gunas themselves we just talk about the ‘hats’ and ‘coats’ hanging on the hooks of the ‘guna hat stand’.

Ida/pingala

Swara yoga is fascinating because firstly, the basic concept is so simple – the balancing of the basic dimensions of the nature. Then there are their relationships to the flow of the breath through the nostrils, and the way they control the dominance of the cerebral hemispheres – the flow of the breath through a nostril activating the hemisphere on the opposite side. By simply controlling the flow of the nostrils by various easy means, we can move from the cautious-negative thought patterns of the right hemisphere to the outgoing-positive patterns of the left hemisphere, or balance both.

Remember that most of even our simplest yoga practices balance ida and pingala as well as doing other things. For instance, pawanmuktasana part 1, surya namaskara, and so many of the other asanas with their counter-postures create perfect balance. The same applies to neti, pranayamas, yoga nidra, mantra and other practices.

A fundamental aim of yoga is balance. This is one of the reason why it is superior, in the long run, to conventional therapies that try to rectify an imbalance directly, and end up with side effects and complications. So we can use the ‘hat stand’ of ida/pingala in many answers, it only has two hooks, but it is fundamental to the conduct of yoga.

Practices

These give us the answers to any of the questions that start with the words “In yoga what do you do for . . . “ or “What sort of practices would you recommend for . . . “ We can consider the yoga practices under the following headings:

Lifestyle practices: General lifestyle – simplicity, sattwic intake, sadhana, seva; ethics – yamas, niyamas; karma yoga; bhakti yoga; jnana yoga.

Performed practices: Asanas, pranayamas, mudras and bandhas; hatha – shatkarmas; meditation; mantra – harmonious combinations of vibrations; others.

I have divided the yoga practices into ‘lifestyle’ and ‘performed’ to remind us of the ‘lifestyle practices’. When we have a question about the yoga practices, we usually start thinking about the performed practices. But then if we start talking about asanas, meditation practices, etc., we forget the other extremely valuable parts of yoga that design our ideal way of living. Of course, most of the things we will be dealing with are the performed practices and we usually mention those first because they are the things people expect to hear. Then we may say, “Of course, yoga has a definite style about it, how we live our life is very important . . .” Then this leads us into the lifestyle group.

When we are explaining these things, it is best to keep the language simple, unless we are talking to another yogi, or doing BYB work. Instead of ‘prana’ say ‘vitality’, instead of ‘samskaras’ say ‘troublesome old memories’, etc. Remember that if you are interviewed on radio or TV, there are tens of thousands of people listening who know almost nothing about yoga, and really need its help. So the more they understand about the benefits yoga has for them, the better it is. Keep it simple.

Stimulus/response mechanism

Here is a diagram of the stimulus/response mechanism:

Quite simply it tells us that a sensory stimulus (such as seeing a tiger coming or hearing the voice of a loved one) is given meaning for me (I-ness) by the brain forming a perception. Then the perception is passed through the memory to check if I have experienced it before, and if so, is it good or bad. The instinctual mind (in an untrained animal) then acts on that information to decide what to do about it (e.g. attack, approach or run); but in the human the intellectual mind may be used to make a better quality decision. If it involves something important such as food or a mate or danger, an emotion is likely to be aroused so that I am motivated to action.

This stimulus-response mechanism is, on the one hand, yogic – Lord Krishna talks about it in the Bhagavad Gita. It is also a variation of the relationship between the jnanendriyas, the antah karana and the karmendriyas. On the other hand, it is also basic to Western psychology – just look at the table of contents of your psychology books. If we keep it in mind, it gives us one of the best ‘hat stands’.

In fact, the whole mechanism can be used as a ‘hat stand’, with each of the stages as one of the pegs. For instance, if we are trying to remember the characteristics of a mental illness such as anxiety disorder, we will see that most of these stages are affected by the disorders, and that helps us to remember the symptoms and signs of those conditions.

Another example is, for instance, the question: “How does the ‘evolution’ of our personality affect our life?” We can explain how our perceptions of other people and our world become more positive, how our thoughts and attitudes become more positive, with better use of our intellectual abilities, positive emotions, enthusiastic motivation and harmonious behaviour and social relationships.

By using the stages of the stimulus/response mechanism as ways of ‘jogging’ our memory about what we know of those characteristics, we ensure that we think of as many as possible when we are answering.

Anatomy/physiology classification

We can use this ‘hat stand’ to answer many questions about the benefits of yoga in the prevention and management of physical disorders. We already know so many of these that we can give a good answer, but this is a way to get as many as possible out of our memories in a logical order. Human anatomy can be neatly classified as: (1) cellular physiology (2) support systems – skeletal, muscular (3) maintenance systems – respiratory, cardiovascular, digestive, urinary, reproductive, skin (4) control systems: – nervous, endocrine (5) defence systems – immune, blood coagulation. If we also combine this useful ‘hat stand’ with details of the yoga practices, we have a very comprehensive answer to any question on yoga therapy or prevention.

Conclusion

The above examples of ‘hat stands’ apply to answering questions and forming articles and lectures about yoga. However, the same principles apply to any field of study. It only requires a person to identify the main classifications that apply to their area, and to use those as the predominant ‘hat stands’. Then as time goes on, they will realize other ‘hat stands’ to apply to subsidiary areas of their study, and indeed to their life.