ASHTANGA YOGA SERIES
What if someone told you there was a simple set of practices that could help you manage every aspect of your daily life, and at the same time take you to a level of human potential beyond your wildest imagination? Would you be interested? Most people would at least be curious.
That is in fact an accurate explanation of the practices of Yoga, but most people don’t realize it. Yoga includes a holistic set of practices for overall self-development and the well-being of the body, mind and soul. A few thousand years back, the great sage Patanjali compiled the current yogic practices of that time into a simple framework consisting of eight parts or limbs, and that framework is still used today. It is known as Ashtanga Yoga.
But the practices of Yoga have evolved since Patanjali was alive, in response to the needs of the time and especially during the last 150 years. So in this series DAAJI explores each limb of Yoga in the light of the modern day yogic practices of Heartfulness. He shows us how to integrate inner spiritual practices with living in the world and refining our personality, so as to create that true state of Yoga – skill in action and integration of the spiritual and worldly as aspects of life.
Asana is the third of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yogic practice. DAAJI explains the role of Asana in Yoga, how the physical steadiness of Asana helps us to create inner steadiness, and how the yogic science of Asana is also helping people worldwide to maintain health and well-being.
This third limb of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga is probably the most popular and also the least well understood today. When we think of Asanas, many of us will visualize Hatha Yoga exercises at the local gym or yoga studio, but there is much more to understand about Asanas than this.
The word Asana comes from the Sanskrit root as, which means ‘to sit’: the original Asana was the sitting pose for meditation. The purpose of Yoga has always been union or oneness with the infinite, so the main focus in yogic practice is meditation, and through meditation union. It is in this context that Patanjali defined and described Asana in the following three Sutras:
2.46: Sthira sukham āsanam.
Sthira means steady, stable; sukham means comfortable, relaxed;
asanam means posture or sitting position.
So that sitting position which is steady and comfortable is Asana.
2.47: Prayatna shaithilya ananta samapattibhyam.
Prayatna means tension or effort; shaithilya means relaxing or loosening;
ananta means infinite, endless;
samapattibhyam means bringing the attention to and merging with.
So Asana comes through relaxing efforts
and allowing consciousness to merge with the infinite.
2.48: Tatah dwandwa anabhighata.
Tatah means thus;
dwandwa means the dualities or pairs of opposites,
such as light and dark, right and wrong;
anabhighata means without impact or freedom from suffering.
So through Asana we become free from the impact
of the dualities of heat and cold, pleasure and pain, etc.
When we summarize what Patanjali said about Asana, it is this: find a steady and comfortable sitting posture, so that you can relax your efforts and allow your consciousness to merge with the infinite, and you will become free from the impact of the dualities of existence. This is the purpose of Asana.
Swami Vivekananda explained the role of Asana further: in order to meditate every day, find a posture in which you can remain for a long time. It should be an easy posture, and it need not be the same for everyone. What matters is that it should allow the flow of energies through the system.
In his book, Raja Yoga, Swamiji described how a good deal of activity goes on in the body when we meditate. “Nerve currents will have to be displaced and given a new channel. New sorts of vibrations will begin, and the whole constitution will be remodeled, as it were. But the main part of the activity will lie along the spinal column, so that the one thing necessary for the posture is to hold the spinal column free, sitting erect, holding the three parts – the chest, neck and head – in a straight line. Let the whole weight of the body be supported by the ribs, and then you have an easy natural posture with the spine straight.”
This may be the first ever description of neuroplasticity arising out of meditation. Swamiji described the process of neuroplasticity not only in the brain, but in the central nervous system, and especially the spinal cord from the chest up to the head and brain, the regions encompassing the chakras of the Heart and Mind.
Swamiji also guided us on how to maintain this alignment of the spinal column and the brain: “Say to yourself that you are firmly seated, and that nothing can move you. Then mention the perfection of the body, bit by bit, from head to foot. Think of it as being clear as crystal, and as a perfect vessel to sail over the sea of life.” The main thing is to leave the body free, holding the chest, shoulders and head straight, so that you do not feel the body at all. When you go beyond the physical, you will lose all sense of the body, pleasure and pain. Afterwards you will feel so rested. It is the most perfect rest you can give the body.
The best postures for meditation are thought to be the cross-legged postures, such as Siddha-asana, with both hands resting on the thighs, and Padmasana, the lotus position. Ram Chandra of Shahjahanpur explained the philosophy behind the cross-legged position: if we are to return to our origin through meditation, contracting our existence into nothingness, then it is helpful to adopt a similar physical position of contraction or withdrawal.
The best postures for meditation
are thought to be the cross-legged postures,
such as Siddha-asana,
with both hands resting on the thighs,
and Padmasana, the lotus position.
He said: “The contraction always starts from below and proceeds gradually upwards because of its upward tendency. Therefore, in order to go upwards he must start contracting from below. The form would only be to bring his legs and the allied parts to one pose and to keep them steady. In whatever way it might be done, the form would finally be that of Asana. It is essential because it paves our way to the Ultimate. The posture must always be the same. The reason is that in this way he gets associated with the great Power, the very thing he takes up in the beginning for the attainment of his particular objective. Thus the form which is associated with Reality helps him a good deal in his primary initiation.
“Performing meditation in an upright sitting pose has been thought to be most advantageous from very ancient times, because in that position the flow of divine grace descends straight upon the seeker. If seeker sits crookedly or in an unsteady pose, the flow of effulgence will necessarily be impeded or disturbed. The seeker will thus be deprived of the full benefit of the descent. Therefore, in order to get the greatest spiritual benefit, one must sit in a proper steady pose.”
But this aligned sitting position is not just so that we receive the flow of divine grace. This steady comfortable pose is also important for physical well-being. Our heads are heavy – even when they are balanced lightly on top of our necks they weigh around 5 kilograms. Now, what happens when we become deeply absorbed in meditation with Transmission and we lose consciousness? Sometimes our head will fall so far forward that it lands on our chest, and in that position it can put up to 27 kilograms of strain on the neck and shoulders. Imagine what that does over time to the back, neck and central nervous system! So it is important to stay upright, steady and balanced in a relaxed way during meditation.
To keep the head balanced lightly on the neck and shoulders during meditation requires a strong consciousness. For that we need to meditate. So everything is interlinked – the physical, mental and spiritual. Even to sit in a comfortable, steady Asana during meditation, we have to sharpen our consciousness.
When the ancient Rishis meditated to attain a state of oneness with God, they soon learnt that the body also needed to be cared for and exercised. Sitting in meditation all day would not allow them to stay healthy, so they developed other postures that could be done throughout the day while they remained meditative. That way they could continue to meditate while also improving immunity, respiration, blood circulation, muscle tone and joint flexibility. And so the physical practices of Hatha Yoga evolved.
But are they just physical exercises? The legendary Yogacharya, B.K.S. Iyengar once said, “You must do the Asana with your soul. How can you do an Asana with your soul? We can only do it with the organ of the body that is closest to the soul – the heart. So a virtuous Asana is done from the heart and not from the head. Then you are not just doing it, but you are in it. Many people try to think their way into an Asana, but you must instead feel your way into it through love and devotion.”
When the ancient Rishis meditated
to attain a state of oneness with God,
they soon learnt that the body
also needed to be cared for and exercised.
Sitting in meditation all day
would not allow them to stay healthy,
so they developed other postures
that could be done throughout the day
while they remained meditative.
Asanas are effective when the heart, mind and body work in unison. Each movement is performed slowly with a heightened consciousness of what is happening. If Asanas are practiced with a meditative mind, there will be many advantages, not just physical ones.
Asanas maintain the flexibility of the spinal vertebrae, and this is important for healthy movement and is the key to the body’s overall plasticity. In yogic terminology, this leads to the free flow of energy along the spinal column. And what do we do with that free flowing energy? It is drawn inwards in Pratyahara, the fifth limb of Patanjali. Asanas also stretch and tone the fasciae, the connective tissue that is found throughout the body. The fasciae hold the muscles together in the correct place, separate them so they work independently of each other and provide a lubricated surface so that the muscles move smoothly.
As the field of Hatha Yoga continues to expand and develop, there are so many Asanas being taught today. Here are seven common ones, along with some of the health benefits they offer, just to give you a taste of how the yogic science of Asanas has evolved:
Tadasana is for general stretching and for blood circulation in the body.
It also helps with knee pain, calcium deposits such as spurs, and cramps.
It increases balance, both physical and mental.
It is also good for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
Veerabhadrasana is for the neck, shoulders and backaches.
It also helps with chest expansion, asthma, and cancer (as oxygen levels go up).
It improves confidence.
Parsva Uthanasana aids digestion and improves the flexibility of the back
and of the hamstring muscles. It brings calm and a purpose.
Dvipada Pitham is for blood pressure management,
both low BP and high BP (but with some variation).
It also helps relieve headache, as well as toning the back, knees, shoulders and calf muscles.
It supports balance and confidence.
Jataraparivritti works on the digestive system and cleanses the body of impurities.
Mahamudra opens the pelvic region, and is good for reproductive health.
It supports concentration and calms the mind. Is excellent for pregnant women.
The most important thing to remember is that Ashtanga Yoga is a complete package. It was not designed for us to pick and choose any of the eight limbs at whim. To really benefit from Asana, the soul, heart and mind must be very much involved. You can start anywhere, but if you are serious in your wish to grow, the rest will eventually follow.
Article by Kamlesh Patel (Daaji)
Kamlesh Patel is known to many as Daaji. He is the Heartfulness Guide in a tradition of Yoga meditation that is over 100 years old, overseeing 14,000 certified Heartfulness trainers and many volunteers in over 130 countries. He is an innovator and researcher, equally at home in the fields of spirituality and science, blending the... Read more