Sometimes I feel sorry for the humble caterpillar. It’s the butterfly that gets all the glory, right? The radiant image of it emerging from the chrysalis: spreading its shimmering wings, rising to the skies. The butterfly, the archetype of transformation, is the bit we like to focus on. But there’s this idea within yogic philosophy, that the effect - the transformation - is always inherent in the cause. The potential for the butterfly was always part of the caterpillar’s DNA, even when it was an egg. This idea is expressed as pariṇāma-vāda, the theory of transformation.
In vinyasa yoga, this theory is rich. Vinyasa yoga is characterised by fluid sequencing, one posture prepares the body for, and then melds into, the next. Indeed, astute teachers sequence classes kramically; krama (not to be confused with karma) broadly means ‘wise succession’. The practice of vinyasa yoga teaches us that the pose we are in is a result of all the postures that led up to it. Likewise, the posture we are in now has the endless potential of all other poses and forms held within it.
The notion of transformation (pariṇāmah) is explored beautifully within the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, therefore even predating the Hatha yoga system which contemporary practice has developed from. The Sūtras affirm, ‘The change in the sequence [of characteristics] is the cause of the change in transformations [of objects]’. Edwin Bryant likens this skilfully to the raw material of clay and the making of a clay pot. Clay itself as a substance has within it the latent potential to become a clay pot, when shaped, when transformed. Similarly the clay pot has within it the ongoing potential to be something else, broken shards, dust, reformed into a cup or a saucer. Perhaps one of the reasons we keep coming back to yoga is that a deeper part of us understands our enormous power to transform. I’ve experienced this myself quite profoundly; I came to yoga as a burned out city professional with a deeply entrenched drug addiction. I wasn’t aware yoga was reshaping me at the time, but eventually after years of practice, self study, and community, I got clean. But transformation is constant, and like the clay pot I too have the potential to crack and crumble, or to be reshaped into something better. That’s why I keep practicing.
In our humble caterpillar then, we see nature express the irrefutable truth of pariṇāma-vāda. The tides, the breath, the seasons; all are in constant flux. It’s only because our perspective is so limited that we see things as static, distinct things. We see only a clay pot. We do not see the rock, the rain, or the mountains that formed it. Nor do we see the future of shattered pieces, the dust, the soil or the trees someday rooting down into it. Pariṇāma-vāda teaches us that at macro scale everything is just the same root cause, unfolding in a myriad ways as an endless chain. When we start to awaken this idea in our practice, it can invite with it a deeper appreciation for the flux of life and a joy in both our ongoing process and in our deepest potential.
Yoga teacher & writer
Sources • Bryant, F, Edwin, The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, (North Point Press, 2009). • Feuerstein, Georg, The Yoga Tradition: It’s History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice, (Hohm Press, 2008) • Connolly, Peter, A Student’s Guide to the History and Philosophy of Yoga, (Equinox Publishing, 2007). • Rea, Shiva, Consciousness in Motion: Vinyasa, (yogajournal.com, 2012)