The Self (Atman), when in reference to Yoga, is usually written with a large ‘S’, as it is a reference to the soul, in its pure intrinsic nature. We do not have a soul, as we are a soul that is a solo zone of Absolute Sentient Power, or the life-force without which we would have no form and no individuation. In general, mankind can be described as fallen, that is fallen into identification with the limitations of his life and the situation within which he finds himself, it is then appropriate to refer to this level of self, written with a small ‘s’.
The Yogi is in essence a visionary and works to discover his true nature and transcend the limitations of his lower ego self, and then restructure himself, guided by his own inner voice of light and wisdom. This means discovering your Guru which is on the inside and not outside.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga are a bit like a tree with its branches reaching up toward the light and ever increasing levels of refinement and detachment; this means a genuine interest in the freedom afforded by spirit, which is a bit like getting out of jail after being held in by the limitations of the world of time. How often have you met people who have told you that they have had a hell of a time, or used words of a similar import when describing their life situation?
That famous line in the Star Wars films, ‘May the Force be with you’ is a reference to that ubiquitous power that flows through life, giving the edge and support to all who are prepared and able to work with it. The refinement and transformation needed is the work of the Yogi, who must remain continually watchful, clearing away the fog of delusion from his own mind and awakening to the spirit within.
To quote: There are two birds, two sweet friends, who dwell on the self-same tree. The one eats the fruits thereof, and the other looks on in silence, (Mundaka Upanishad). The first is the human soul who, resting on that tree, though active, feels sad in his unwisdom. But on beholding the power and glory of the higher spirit, he becomes free from sorrow.
The lower bird tempted by the fruit on the tree is reminiscent of the story of Adam and Eve who tempted by the fruit, were drawn out into worldliness and prodigality, seeking knowledge of good and evil. This drew them away from the clear light of spirit, and their vision became clouded, and their body, a body of untruth, and death a necessity, which in a sense is an act of mercy as it provides the opportunity for the descendents of Adam to return back to the clear light of spirit.
The Self in the highest sense of the word, refers to the clarity that lays within, untrammelled and free of the distortions of the world of time, and Yoga the means by which we are able to re-unite with our spiritual origins.
Patanjali’s advice and definition was simple and direct with his sutra, “Yoga is controlling the activities of the mind”. More recent Philosophy teachers had other ways of promoting Self awareness in their students. For example G.T.Gurdjieff at his retreat in Fontenbleau would shout ‘Stop’, at which command, his followers would freeze, stop what they were doing and observe what their thinking, feeling and intention was in that moment…this is a useful exercise that we could all learn to practise, as it is surprising how often the lower self is in control at any given moment.