Means for quieting the Fluctuations of Consciousness
in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
By Eyal Shifroni
Translation: Eleanor Schlesinger
What are the pillars of a spiritual path? What characterizes spiritual practice and what should be the attitude of the sadakha(1)? Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras provide answers to these questions. In chapters one and two of the Sutras, Patanjali introduces different ways for quieting consciousness. It is interesting to compare the ways in the first chapter (the chapter on samadhi) with those of the second chapter (the chapter on sadhana). Chapter 1 presents the general principles of abhyasa and vairagya, while chapter 2 presents an expanding list of ways and techniques for realizing these principles.
Chapter two opens with the introduction of kriya yoga, the yoga of the three pillars (work, study and devotion). All three are required in order to progress on a spiritual path. It is interesting to analyze the three components of kriya yoga and compare them with the three main paths of yoga: karma, jnana and bhakti and with Ashtanga yoga, the yoga of eight limbs, which Patanjali presents in chapter two and at the beginning of chapter three.
This article will touch upon these topics.
The yoga sutras begin with the definition of yoga as the cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness (sutra 1.2). Patanjali defines yoga, but does not stop there. Yoga is a practical path, a disciplined practice, not merely a philosophical theory. Therefore, further down the text Patanjali offers different means to approaching the goal of yoga. The first reference Patanjali makes regarding those means is found in sutra 1.12:
Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tan nirodhah.
Practice and detachment are the means to still the movements of consciousness.
Patanjali presents a two-tiered method: abhayassa – practice and vairagya – letting go, or not craving. abhyasa is the active aspect, the effort that must be invested in order to progress. vairagya is an approach.
The definition of abhyasa is presented in Sutras 13 and 14:
Sutra 1.13. Tatra sthi-thau yatnoh ‘bhyaasa ha
Practice is the steadfast effort to still these fluctuations (2).
Sutra 1.14: Sa tu dirgha-kala-nairantarya-satkara-asevito drdha-bhumih
Long, uninterrupted, alert practice is the firm foundation for restraining the fluctuations.
Abhyasa and Vairagya are two sides of the same coin that complete one another: practice is essential as yoga is not purely an academic subject, progress in yoga cannot be achieved through philosophical study of the meaning of yoga, or through speaking about yoga. A comprehensive transformation of the body, mind and consciousness is required here. Only practice: repeated performance of purifying actions on the physical and mental levels can bring about real sustainable transformation. Every complex skill requires repetitive training, you can not learn to play musical instruments, become a sports champion, succeed in juggling, etc’, without spending many hours training.
In all of the above areas training is essential, but there is no mention of vairagya, non-craving. On a spiritual path, practice alone is not enough. Practice, by its very nature involves effort, exertion of will power and discipline. All of these are very important, but without vairagya we may be caught in a loop in which our aspirations nourish the ego, and the more we strive, the further our goal will slip away. Instead of cultivating serenity, we will cultivate competitiveness and ambition. Therefore, Patanjali completes abhyasa with vairagya – letting go, non-craving, introspection.
Practice necessarily presents duality: there is a purpose or a goal – we want to transform, to get elsewhere. In other words, there is a difference between where we are now and where we want to be. We are eager to succeed, to achieve, and therefore are aimed at the future. But the state of liberation required being in the present, being with reality as it is, without wanting to change or achieve anything, without striving to be elsewhere. Vairagya or non-craving is the missing component that settles this duality. Non-craving is the ability to accept things as they are, without striving for more. To see the perfection and beauty of what is, of the present moment, without wanting to change, without aspiring to goals that belong in the future.
In Chapter 1 Patanjali defines abhyasa but does not offer any guidelines or techniques. It’s about effort, attention and perseverance – these are the characteristic of practice, but there are no details of any techniques, we do not exactly know what to do while practicing. What kind of effort is required here?
The answer is that it takes effort to stabilize the mind. Such an effort does not necessarily involve sweating. It is possible that some of us view practice as mechanically repeating the same action over and over again in order to perfect an ability. Yet, even sitting half an hour without moving requires effort. This is a different kind of effort that is both mental and physical.
Following the sutras that deal with the means, Patanjali turns (beginning with Sutra 1.17) to define different types of samadhi. Then, in sutra 1.20 he presents five “vitamins”(3) that help attain ‘high’ samadhi (super-conscious samadhi), namely: shraddha (belief), virya (energy, diligence), smriti (memory), samadhi (meditative absorption) and prajna (spiritual insight).
Faith is required for us to embark on a journey; if we don’t believe the path can lead us to a better place, we will not embark on it. Strength is required to walk the path – determination is needed to overcome the obstacles that will undoubtedly arise on the way; you need strong will to stick to practice and persevere in it. Faith (shraddha) and strength and diligence (virya) complement one another. Faith is metaphorically attributed to the mother who supports and enables the journey, while energy and diligence are attributed to the father who provides the necessary strength.
Smriti (memory) is mentioned here in the sense of remembering, remembering to pay attention – the problem in every practice is distraction or oblivion: we decide to practice, to observe and be attentive, but forget and find ourselves repeatedly captivated by old habits. In order to get out of our habits and conditionings, we need to develop concentration and attention that will allow us to remember to be present – on the yoga mat, or in any activity we may pursue. Maintaining attention and presence without distractions (distraction is a type of forgetfulness).
A combination of faith, strength and focused observation enables deep concentration or samadhi, this is where spiritual insight stems from. We emerge from the delusion that characterizes our ongoing perception of reality. Therefore, faith summons great strength; strength, in turn, enables a powerful memory and those enable meditation through which wisdom and spiritual knowledge (prajna) is attained.
In the continuation of the chapter, Patanjali discusses the obstacles that distract the mind (1.30-31). Of course, Patanjali does not limit himself to detailing the obstacles to be expected by the practitioner and the spiritual aspirant, but suggests different ways to overcome these obstacles and clarify consciousness (chitta prasadanam). In Sutras 1.32-39 Patanjali lists eight different ways of doing so. One can marvel at the breadth of this sage and his ability to contain different ways. The different ways are briefly mentioned but we do not yet have a method, a practice that will help us, ordinary mortals who did not attain samadhi at birth, to achieve ‘citta vritti nirodha‘ – or ‘to quiet the fluctuations of consciousness’. This is the theme of chapter 2.
Chapter 2: From Kriya Yoga to Ashtanga Yoga
Chapter 2 opens with the presentation of the yoga of action, Kriya-yoga: the three pillared yoga,
Sutra 2.1: Tapah svadhyaya ishvara-pranidhana kriya-yogah
Burning zeal in practice, self-study and study of scriptures, and surrender to God are the acts of yoga.
It is interesting to note the transition from the two (abhyasa and vairagya) to the three. This is the beginning of a process disassembling and detailing that will continue throughout the chapter.
What are tapas, svadhyaya and ishvara-pranidhana?
Tapas – a burning desire to Practice, the Purifying Fire
The Sanskrit root of the word tapas, tap means “cook”. Fire (agni, in Sanskrit) is needed for cooking process in order to purify and transform the food. Tapas is sometimes translated into heat, in the Tree of Yoga B.K.S. Iyengar writes: “what is tapas? Tapas is usually translated as austerity, but its meaning is better expressed as burning desire. It is a burning desire to cleanse every cell of the body and every cell of our senses, so that the senses and the body may be made permanently pure and healthy and leave no room for impurities to enter into our system”.
To change habits that we know are unwholesome or even harmful, we need strength, therefore resistance must be created. Such resistance creates friction, which in turn forges heat that purifies, strengthens and changes us – this is tapas. Tapas therefore manifests the quality necessary to adhere to abhyasa.
The great religions include various austerity practices, such as fasting or taking a vow of silence, intended to purify the body and mind, to strengthen the willpower and to create inner change. Fasting allows us to look at the habits of how we feed, and see food as something that is not self-evident. Fasting also allows us to learn what food means for us, socially and emotionally, beyond the basic need to nourish our body. It can help us understand the extent to which we rely on food for a sense of satisfaction and even to reduce boredom and entertain ourselves.
When we avoid unnecessary talk we save energy and do not emit words that might harm others or ourselves. Every spiritual path involves various forms of self-restraint and distancing oneself from the pleasure of the senses.
As noted, tapas can also mean austerity, which is a way of building character and willpower by turning away from the pleasures of the senses and the vanities of this world. But austerities are also dangerous. We may harm ourselves, harm our body or mind. St. Francis of Assisi practiced extreme austerities throughout his life. And at the end of his life he confessed to his students that he had “abused this donkey” (meaning he abused his body). The Buddha, too, after six years of extreme austerities, discovered the middle-way by observing a lauta player. He noticed that when the player stretched the strings too much, they tore, but when they were not tight enough, no sound was produced. The middle-way means that we act without being dragged towards pleasures, and without needing to satisfy every desire, but at the same time, we do not radically avoid anything that is pleasing or joyful.
Yoga practitioners need tapas every morning in order to get out of bed and unroll the mat (many say it’s the most difficult asana …). But a less obvious aspect of tapas is the honesty and truth we need to get out of a wrong practice routine or harmful practice habits. For example, certain asanas or certain forms of exercise that we are attracted to, may be harmful for our psycho-physical system. It may be easy for us to perform certain asanas, but we know that other asanas, which are more difficult for us, are really what we need for our development. In this case tapas is a change in our practice habits, a change that can be difficult. Unfortunately, hyperactive people are attracted to vigorous exercise when they actually need a soothing practice, while slow, heavy, introverted or depressed people may be attracted to quiet practice, but actually need stimulating and alerting practice. It is likely that features such as obsessiveness, achievement, laziness, fixation, etc. that characterize us, will also characterize the form of practice that we develop. Such practice will not only strengthen our tendencies, but may lead to injury and eventually illness at some level (physical, mental or spiritual).
In order to create change it is necessary, in addition to passion, to observe and study oneself. This is where the second component of kriya yoga enters.
Svadhyaya – The Reflecting Mirror
Patanjali defines the effects of svadhyaya practice in Sutra 2.44:
Svadhyayat ishtadevata samprayogah
It means “self-study towards the realization of God”.
The source of the word svadhyaya is in the verb adhi which means ‘towards’. The verb adhyaya means to ‘move towards’. sva is the reflexive pronoun that means ‘self’. The meaning of the word svadhyaya is therefore to “move toward yourself,” to “return to the original,” and so on.
Tapas prepares us for svadhyaya because it purifies us and develops willpower and determination. Svadhyaya means looking into ourselves. To deeply reflect on our actions. It means penetrating the screen of self-image and finding out what lies behind it. To discover the truth about ourselves: what are the real motives of our actions? What drives and propels us? Where do we get stuck? What are we avoiding and why?
Classically, svadhyaya is a technical term that means learning and memorizing mantras or sacred texts. The idea is that the study of sacred texts such as the Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita, Yoga Sutras etc. provides insights into the depth of the human condition, and thus allows us to better know ourselves.
When we practice with this quality of self-reflection or contemplation we can learn about ourselves. To learn about the mindsets and attitudes that underlie our behavior, and change our outlook and approach to life. Svadhyaya means asking ourselves questions like: Am I in the right place at the right time? Where am I now and where am I going to? What are my motivations? Do I deny myself and why? Am I avoiding difficult but unavoidable challenges and thus creating suffering? What are my priorities in life? What are my responsibilities? Observations of this kind can extract us from sinking into an automatic routine of unaware activity.
It is not always easy to deal with these questions because the truth about ourselves is not always pleasant. To attain this, one needs to develop satya a sincere and genuine approach (see below, as part of ashtanga yoga). For example, one of the causes for suffering that Patanjali mentions in chapter 2, is abhinivesha – clinging to our biological existence or our instinctive fear of death. How is the fear of death which is in the background of our consciousness manages us? Could this be the source of our addictions (for power, money, smoking, drinking, food, sex, work, etc.)?
Tapas is needed to develop strength so that we can deal with such questions, but without svadhyaya, tapas itself can become an addiction. Without reflection there will be no real progress in our lives.
One of the best ways to learn about ourselves is through our relationships with close people. It is very difficult to hide aspects of our personality from those who are close to us, such as partners, parents, children, close friends or students. If we look at how people respond to us, we can learn about ourselves and how we act. We can see all of our neuroses, all our pettiness and selfishness, but also, at the same time, we can learn about the spiritual potentials inherent in us – which is too a part of what we are.
Every action taken with attention is an opportunity for learning. The aspects of kriya yoga are interrelated. The energy required to act is tapas, but an action without reflection will lead us nowhere. It is interesting to recall Sutra I.14 in which Patanjali says that practice will take root only when it is done with attention. In other words, action and reflection must be carried out simultaneously – tapas and svadhyaya are intertwined.
Tapas and svadhyaya are also required at every moment. When there is no enthusiasm or motivation (tapas), or when there is no observation or internalization, our practice isn’t balanced. You cannot practice tapas first, and only later get to svadhyaya, because in this way, practice may become harmful. Every moment, you have to find the correct balance of motivation and reflection – this is the true meaning of tapas and svadhyaya.
Yoga Sutra 2.45: Samadhi siddhih ishvarapranidhan – Surrender to God brings perfection in samadhi
The third component of kriya-yoga is ishvara-pranidhana – devotion to God. Patanjali did not propose theology of a particular deity, but an in-depth psychological analysis of the transformative potential inherent in the opening of the mind and the heart to the divine. In the Yoga Sutras ishvara is described as an entity without suffering, as the source of all knowledge and not as the Creator as it is in the Jewish-Christian traditions. Ishvara symbolizes the divinity that lives in the hearts of each of us, regardless of our religious beliefs.
The word pranidhana, (technically translated as devotion) literally means a deep recognition of the one that sustains us and gives meaning to every levels of our lives. It is a kind of inner belief in the sense of where we place our hearts – the recognition that God exists in everyone, in everything and in every situation. It is the recognition of the wondrous mystery of all existence and deep gratitude for the very existence of our lives, for all the great abundance we were born into, for being able to live, breathe and feel. All these are not self-evident.
If tapas can be interpreted as “be determined” and svadhyaya as “be contemplative”, ishvara pranidhana means “be humble” – acknowledge your limitations. This humility means recognizing that we are limited, we can not control everything and therefore the need to relinquish, to absorb ourselves to everything life will bring us. This is contrary to the “Me and nothing else” approach that characterizes many of us, most of the time.
Ishvara-pranidhana means seeing beyond the sense of self-importance and centrality we attach to ourselves, beyond our pettines, desires and worries. It also offers the possibility of recognizing our weaknesses and limitations, allowing us to forgive our mistakes and sins. It is a deep inner belief in our ability to free ourselves from suffering and realize our aim as human beings. The ancient sages said that when this quality is planted in our hearts, all our actions are performed in dedication, we renounce the fruits of our actions without expecting any return or personal gain.
Ishvara-pranidhana is in a deep sense, our relationship to something greater beyond us, the recognition that the ego is not everything. This can be expressed in faith in God or in the recognition of noble values such as generosity, love and compassion. It is the possibility of freeing oneself from the tyranny of self-importance, whether it is expressed as arrogance or pride or object vices and poor self-esteem (which can also be an expression of the ego).
Such an approach allows us to live simply and rejoice in the simple gifts of life, the beauty of nature, and appreciation and respect for our fellow human beings. If we establish this spirit as the foundation of our practice, then we may enter the stream that will lead us to the river that will bring us back to the ocean from which we all came.
In a lecture B.K.S. Iyengar delivered in Gurupurnima (4), he referred to kriya yoga as:
“Tapas is meant to conquer ahmakara (ego) and svadhyaya is meant to conquer avidya (ignorance). A tapas without svadhyaya is fruitless and aimless. Tapas has to be done intensively with full inspiration, and svadhyaya has to be done with full attention. Attention balances inspiration. Over-inspiration is harmful. Tapas without svadhyaya inflates the ego, whereas svadhyaya (self-study) imparts the knowledge to understand the real ‘I’ – the soul within you… The sadhaka moves from the wisdom towards isvara pranidhana. He surrenders his I-ness to the supreme Universal Soul.
Tapas, svadhyaya and ishvara pranidhana open new horizon to lead you towards vairagya (renunciation). Vairagya does not come by wearing saffron robes. Vairagya is a quality. Vairagya is to surrender the ego… Tapas is meant to conquer the tamoguna, svadhyaya to conquer rajoguna, and ishvara pranidhana to conquer the sattvaguna.”
Kriya-Yoga vs. the Three Paths (margas) of Yoga
The three traditional paths of yoga (yoga marga): karma, jnana, and bhakti are known as the paths to reach the goal of yoga, which is a union with the spiritual essence within us.
Karma yoga is a yoga of action, of selfless service, action which is not for profit. It is forgetting the ego by dedicating every action to the benefit of others.
Jnana yoga is the yoga of spiritual study and investigation. A study aimed at answering the fundamental question: “Who am I?”. The sages say that finding an answer to this question reveals deep wisdom about the nature of our existence.
Bhakti yoga is the yoga of love and devotion. The bhakti (the devoted one) forgets himself and his individual needs by merging with the sublime, with the Absolute Existence. The force that drives this merging is universal love.
The similarity between kriya yoga and the three paths is clear. B.K.S. Iyengar writes in his book The Tree of Yoga (5):
Tapas “is karma yoga, the yoga of action, because the burning desire to keep each and every part clean requires us to act.” Svadhyaya “is known as jnana-yoga, the yoga of spiritual discernment. Finally, Ishvara-pranidhana is bhakti-yoga, the yoga of devotion.”
Kriya Yoga and Ashtanga yoga
As noted, later in chapter 2, Patanjali introduces the yoga of eight-limbs, Ashtanga yoga. In Sutra 2.29 he lists the eight limbs:
Yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana dhyana, samadhi, ashtau angani
The eight main limbs of Yoga are yama (basic ethical rules), niyama (additional ethical rules), asana (yoga postures), pranayama (managing Prana through breathing), pratyahara (detachment of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (contemplation and meditation) and samadhi (the highest meditative absorption state).
We will not delve here on an explanation of the eight limbs of yoga, but let us note that the three components of kriya yoga are found within the second limb of Ashtanga yoga, namely, niyama. Sutra 2.33 lists these components as follows:
Shaucha santosha tapah svadhyaya ishvarapranidhana niyamah.
(The five components) of niyama are shaucha – purity, cleanliness of mind, speech and body; santoṣa contentment; tapas, austerity, self-discipline; svādhyāya: study of self, self-reflection; iśvara praṇidhāna: attunement to the supreme consciousness.
You can see that the last three components of niyama are identical to kriya yoga.
Ashtanga yoga is an overall framework that contains the more familiar aspects of yoga, namely asana and pranayama, as well as the deeper, inner fruits of yoga: dhyana and samadhi. But on that topic, some other time.
The lives of human being are made up of: work, study and love – these three elements become yoga, when our work is performed as a service or offering; our study is done for the sake of internal inquiry and our love opens our hearts to all living beings without considering gain or loss.
When our work turns into selfless service, our study is done for the purpose of liberation and our love becomes unconditional, then the Yogi in us is born!
There is a saying: “Yoga helps cure what can be cured, bear what can’t be cured and distinguish between the two”.
Curing what is curable is done through tapas, bearing what is incurable – means to surrender, or Isvara-pranidhana, and the wisdom to distinguish between the two is acquired through svadhyaya.
(1) A person who sticks to a spiritual path.
(2) English translation are from Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, by B.K.S. Iyengar
(3) The use of vitamins as a metaphor is used by B.K.S. Iyengar
(4) Published in Astadala Yagamala Vol. 3, p. 232-233
(5) The Tree of Yoga, p. 50-51
References used in this article:
- The Tree of Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar, Shambhala Classics
- Guru – Beacon of Light and Wisdom, in: Astadala Yagamala, Vol. 3, B.K.S. Iyengar, Allied Publishers, 2002
- Kriya Yoga: Transformation through Practice – A Western Perspective, G. Kraftsow; in Iyengar, The Yoga master, Ed. K. Busia, Shambhala, 2007
Alignment and ‘Iyengar Yoga’ are quite synonyms. Alignment is probably the most characterizing hallmark of Iyengar Yoga. The principle of Alignment is closely related to principles like: balance, symmetry, precision and harmony – all are fundamental principles in yoga practice.
When I wanted to be assessed for my last certificate, Guruji Iyengar requested I send him photos of myself doing the asanas of the corresponding syllabus. Then, when later I came to Pune, I met with him to receive his comments on my asanas. He went over the photos and drew lines over many of them, to indicate how my body was deviating from the correct alignment of the asana. But I noticed that apart from referring to the physical lines according to which the limbs of my body should have been aligned, he was looking for something else. He was looking for grace, beauty and elegance in the performance of the asanas. His penetrating eyes were observing the mental state behind the external stretch of the limbs. He wanted to see harmony in the expression of each asana. It went far behind mere physical expression; he probably wanted to see the expression of the Self in the asana. This was a great lesson for me, a lesson that gave me ‘homework’ for the coming years. I came back to these same asanas over and over again, trying to improve the expression, trying to perform them with greater elegance and integrity.
It was evident that for him, alignment was not just drawing lines, or a concept applied to the arrangement of the body, but something much deeper.
In interview given by Iyengar in 1982, he explained how by watching his own practice, as well as that of other people, he started to realize the importance of alignment:
“It wasn’t until then that the idea struck me that alignment is the most important thing. Yoga is alignment.”
In this interview he extended the concept of alignment beyond the physical body:
“Later, with this alignment of the skeleton-muscular body, I began to align my mind, intelligence and consciousness, which made me look within. This new frame of study and observation made me engulf all the instruments of the self and made the very self occupy the body – its frontiers – as citta prasdana and atma prasdana“.
Citta is translated to consciousness, and Atma to Self (the capital S, indicates the eternal true self, rather than the transient notion of the mundane self). Prasdana means favorable disposition, tranquility and grace.
Citta Prasdana is therefore graceful diffusion of the consciousness, or serene and benevolent consciousness. (See: Yoga Sutras I.33)
Iyengar explained alignment in this way: “When I speak of alignment, it means we have to balance the energy and intelligence evenly throughout the body so that the life force is maintained ever-green and ever-fresh by the practice of asana. We have to develop through alignment to enlighten the intelligence in all asana, as each asana distinctively beams different rays of awareness and attention on intelligence“.
In Yoga Wisdom and Practice he said:
“Equi-distribution of energy and equi-flow of intelligence within the frame of body and the banks of the body in each asana is alignment for me. The awareness has to uniformly spread all over the body through the face or the profile of the asana. Alignment is to bring balance between the flow of energy and intelligence to connect the body to the mind.” (p. 32)
“We adjust not the body, but the awareness. The moment the awareness is brought to function, then the body finds its right alignment and adjusts; as water finds its level, the awareness, too, finds its level.” (p. 185)
When answering how the concept of alignment evolved, Iyengar said: “You all say that the ‘Iyengar-system’ means alignment“. But then he added: “You are talking about the word, ‘body alignment’, but for me, alignment is something different.“
He explained that for him alignment is when the inner mind is spread evenly throughout the body and touches even the remotest parts. “The physical alignment led me to go towards the mental alignment. That mind which was capsulated in the envelope of the body taught me to experience the vastness of the consciousness.”
“Alignment is of several types. It could be physical alignment, muscular alignment, alignment of nerves, alignment of fibers and tendons, besides the alignment of the intelligence consciousness and self“.
Iyengar saw the concept of alignment in the traditional framework of yoga:
“I did not invent the word alignment, it is Lord Krishna, Yogeshavara (The Lord of Yoga) who has used the word alignment in Chapter 6.13 of the Bhagavad Gita, … He has given a plumb line of the body to perform each asana or an asana to sit for dhyana. These are the crown of the head, well of the throat and the perineum as plumb line…
Equanimity cannot happen without the techniques of alignment in body, senses, mind, intelligence and self. One can develop this in the art of adjustment in asana which turns into auspicious action“.
So, when Iyengar said that he “aligned the ingredients of the body from the skin to self” he refers to all the five kosas (the sheaths covering the Self). The term ‘body’ doesn’t refer here to the physical body alone, but rather to the entire layered psychosomatic structure. With the principle of alignment, we can refine our being, starting from the known, the anamayakosa (anatomical body), continuing to the slightly less known, pranamaykosa (organic body), and reaching the most unknown anandamayakosa (internal bliss body). By this process we penetrate deep into ourselves and transform our entire personality. Since finally: “Alignment in body, mind and souls leads to enlightenment“.
In Light on Life, Iyengar wrote “In asana you must align and harmonize the physical body and all the layers of the subtle emotional, mental, and spiritual body. This is integration.” (p. 27)
There are two important terms here: Harmony and Integration. In perfect alignment you find harmony between the outer and the inner; you align yourself with the forces of prakriti (nature).
What could then be the meaning of the principle of alignment in each kosa?
In the anamayakosa it means to align your limbs and joints such that the entire body is aligned with the force of gravity. This allows one to maintain the posture with minimal effort and without wear and tear of the joints, muscles, ligaments and tendons.
In the organic body, the pranamayakosa, it could mean homeostasis. Aligning the physical body keeps the natural shape and placement of the inner organs of the body, and allows the Prana (energy) to spread evenly. This increases the blood and nervous supply to the organs and hence, stimulates them and improves their functioning. Therefore, proper alignment allows the organic body to maintain the homeostasis, i.e., to maintain a fixed, balanced internal environment, in the midst of a changing external environment.
In the mental body, the manomayakosa, it could mean equanimity. When the physical and organic layers are properly aligned, the mind can diffuse evenly throughout the body, from the core to the skin. When the mind spreads evenly, it is not biased and not stuck; it is flowing freely and can better accommodate sorrows and other emotional disturbances. Equanimity is the capacity to keep a balanced mind, in spite of events and vicissitudes of the external world. Equanimous mind function effectively, without being affected by reactions from other people nor by our own negative emotions and ill-feelings.
In the intellectual body, the vijnanamayakosa, it could mean having a right view – opposite to the obstacle of brhanti darshana (living under illusion, mistaken notion. See: Yoga Sutra I.30). An aligned and balanced mind allows for intellectual clarity; the rays of the intelligence can radiate freely. By this we achieve clarity of mind – the capacity to perceive reality as it is, and to be able to respond appropriately in any situation and circumstance.
In the anandamayakosa it may mean to align our own will with the cosmic will, or the will of God. We have many desires and wills, which take us in various directions in our life. But in order to find peace and joy (ananda), we have to align our individual will, with the Universal order of things, with our true Self.
When all the layers of our system are aligned in this way, we can experience total integration, and dwell deeply and harmoniously with our True Self, sheathed in the kosas.
 Astadala Yoga Mala, Vol. 4, p. 84, reprinted in: Yoga Wisdom and Practice, p.28-29)
 1975 – when he established his Institute – RIMYI
 Astadala Yoga Mala, Vol. 6 p. 209-210
 Yoga Rahasya Vol. 24, No. 4; 2017
 Astadala Yoga Mala, Vol. 6, p. 209-210
 Astadala Yoga Mala, Vol. 8, p. 159
 Astadala Yoga Mala, Vol. 6, p. 41
Translated by Nicola Espinosa
¿Qué es Ahimsā?
Ahimsa –el primer yama en el Ashtanga Yoga de Patanjali- a veces es interpretado como ‘no matar’, pero el espectro de Ahimsa es mucho más amplio. Vyasa, el primer y más respetado comentarista de Patanjali, escribe que Ahimsa es la suspensión completa de hostilidad y, al mismo tiempo, la suspensión completa del deseo de herir a cualquier ser viviente. De una u otra manera, ahimsa es la base de todas las tradiciones espirituales. Es la práctica más importante y fundamental de todo aquel que sigue el camino espiritual. Por eso, no es coincidencia que el Ashtanga Yoga de Patanjali empiece con Ahimsa. Prashant Iyengar escribe que si los Yamas son un árbol, Ahimsa sería la raíz; sin Ahimsa los siguientes cuatro Yamas no podrían existir: Satya (verdad), Asteya (no-robar), Brahmacharya (continencia) y Aparigraha (libre de codicia). Así como las ramas y hojas del árbol nutren la raíz, y la raíz nutre al resto del árbol, Ahimsa está conectado con los demás Yamas -la práctica de Ahimsa fortalece los otros Yamas y la práctica de los otros Yamas fortalece Ahimsa-.
La definición de Ahimsa propuesta por Vyasa es muy extensa y, con ello, su alcance es infinito. En ese sentido la totalidad de Ahimsa es imposible porque todo ser viviente consume recursos por su propia existencia: recursos que necesariamente son despojados de otras criaturas. Por ejemplo cuando respiramos, caminamos, bebemos y comemos podemos dañar varias bacterias alrededor nuestro, bacterias que existen en la comida, el agua, el aire, etc. Además, cuando los recursos son limitados su consumo puede perjudicar no sólo a criaturas microscópicas sino también varios seres vivientes. Pero si no consumimos lo que necesitamos para nuestra existencia, nos dañaríamos a nosotros mismos y, nuevamente, romperíamos con Ahimsa. Como nosotros mismos tenemos el derecho a existir, nuestro objetivo debería ser minimizar lo máximo posible el daño realizado a seres vivientes. Este sería un objetivo realista (aunque dificil de alcanzar) por el que podemos esforzarnos.
Prashant Iyengar indica que hay dos niveles de Ahimsa: un camino relativo (Anuvrata) y un camino absoluto (Mahavrata). ( p. 43) Patanjali señala claramente que los Yamas son Mahavrata (votos absolutos) que se aplican todo el tiempo y en todos los lugares sin importar las consecuencias o circunstancias (Yoga Sutra II.31). Estos son votos universales que no dependen de la cultura o época y debieran ser buscados incluso si suponen un impacto negativo material, social, económico o físico hacia nosotros mismos. Sin embargo, dejó una puerta abierta para que la persona promedio busque el nivel relativo de Ahimsa (Anuvrata). Probablemente, era consciente de lo dificil que puede ser practicar Ahimsa a un nivel absoluto.
¿Por qué es dificil practicar Ahimsa?
Cualquiera de nosotros podría ser un epicúreo y preguntar: ¿por qué siquiera practicar Ahimsa? Podríamos argumentar que Ahimsa no es natural, porque en la naturaleza los fuertes sobreviven y los animales atacan a otros para sobrevivir. Bajo la misma lógica, diríamos que el hombre es parte de la naturaleza y la evolución lo ha formado para sobevivir de la misma manera. Entonces nos podemos preguntar: ‘Si soy fuerte, ¿por qué no debería usar más recursos naturales para mejorar mi calidad de vida y la de aquellos que me rodean?’ A fin de cuentas, el hombre se ha comportado de esa manera desde el comienzo de la historia y continúa haciéndolo hasta el día de hoy.
La primera respuesta a este cuestionamiento es que de hecho el hombre es parte de la naturaleza, pero también es diferente al resto de los animales. Si bien el ser humano contiene un ‘componente animal’ motivado por instintos de supervivencia, a diferencia de otros animales, tiene Buddhi (inteligencia) que provee consciencia para discernir y emitir juicios morales. Por lo tanto, el ser humano tiene instintos animales pero también tiene un aspecto espiritual. El ser humano es consciente de sus actos y puede juzgarlos determinando si están bien o mal, puede sentir el sufrimiento de otro ser y actuar acorde a estándares altruísticos.
Desafortunadamente, en los tiempos modernos, las consecuencias de la codicia, violencia y agresión del ser humano amenazan el bienestar e incluso la supervivencia de la especie. Es una gran ironía: los instintos de superviviencia modificados a través de nuestra evolución pueden llevarnos a nuestra propia aniquilación. Por eso es necesario que como seres humanos entremos a una nueva fase evolutiva pronto. Esta fase se llevará a cabo practicando yoga (o cualquier práctica espiritual). No obstante, es importante entender que Himsa (lo opuesto a Ahimsa: la tendencia a la agresión y el daño) está profundamente arraigada en nosotros dado que a través de la historia hemos peleado con otras especies y grupos de personas para sobrevivir y progresar.
Dentro de cada uno de nosotros hay una semilla de Himsa. Afrontémoslo, naturalmente todos nosotros tenemos la tendencia al egoísmo y la avaricia; pensar en el bienestar de los demás no está dentro de nuestras prioridades siempre. Sin embargo, si seguimos el camino del yoga y aceptamos la práctica de Ahimsa nos volvemos conscientes de la existencia de las semillas del egoísmo, avaricia, envidia, etc. y aprendemos a prevenir su manifestación. Debemos entender que evitar el daño no es simple y requiere practicar y estar perceptivos conscientemente todo el tiempo. Mientras la vida no nos rete podemos ser amables, pero cuando alguien nos hiere, roba nuestra propiedad, nos amenaza u otra cosa, nuestra tendencia es a molestarnos y surgen reacciones de ira y violentas que no son fáciles de controlar.
Las múltiples expresiones de Ahimsa
Himsa, o hacer daño, puede realizarse a través de la acción, la palabra o el pensamiento. La palabra puede herir más que la acción física. Cuando difamamos a alguien o lo insultamos, podemos destruirlo y causarle un daño más serio que una lesión física. Incluso los sentimientos de hostilidad y enojo sin una expresión física o verbal pueden dañar a otra persona. Podemos herir a otra persona a través de nuestro comportamiento, expresiones faciales y la manera en que usamos nuestros ojos. A veces, sólo con evitar la acción podemos causar un daño profundo. Ignorar y descuidar puede dañar más que un daño directo. Por ejemplo, los padres que ignoran o descuidan a sus hijos los hieren profundamente.
Himsa puede ser directo o indirecto. A veces no causamos daño personalmente pero ocasionamos que otro cause daño y transmitimos Himsa. Incluso cuando tenemos la intención de causar daño, ya es Himsa. También puede considerarse Himsa cuando demandamos algo o esperamos algo de otra persona especialmente si se hace de forma autoritaria. Si nuestras demandas o expectativas son contrarias a la voluntad de la persona pueden lastimarla potencialmente. Así, los padres que tienen expectativas muy altas para sus hijos pueden herirlos, a pesar de tener las mejores intenciones.
Puede ser dificil identificar Himsa. Una mirada externa o superficial no siempre permite determinar si una acción es Himsa o no. Por ejemplo, imagina a una persona parada cortándole el cuerpo con un cuchillo a otra persona echada a sus pies. Esta persona puede ser un asesino, pero también puede ser un cirujano que intenta salvar la vida de un paciente. Lo que determina la acción es la intención: ¿hay una intención de hacer daño? Incluso una acción extrema como matar a una persona puede, en algunos casos, ser Ahimsa; por ejemplo, cuando es evidente que matando a un asesino cruel podríamos salvar a docenas de personas o tal vez cientos de otros inocentes.
Níveles de Ahimsa
No-daño es el resultado de un comportamiento que puede ser nutrido en diferentes niveles. Podemos diferenciar tres:
- Ahimsa mental
- Ahimsa moral
- Ahimsa espiritual
- Ahimsa a un nivel intelectual-mental es cuando entendemos los límites del poder y sabemos que si continuamos actuando violentamente y dañando nuestro entorno, la violencia regresará y nos dañará. Como decía Mahatma Gandhi, ‘en un mundo que sigue la regla de ojo por ojo, toda la humanidad se volverá ciega pronto’. Este es un nivel que sigue la lógica ‘Si yo estoy bien, tú estás bien’. O, en otras palabras, un nivel en el que comprendemos que para mantener un estilo de vida razonable y lograr un nivel de seguridad razonable, debemos contenernos de dañar a otros. Pero una motivación mental para lograr Ahimsa no siempre es suficiente para cambiar nuestro comportamiento. Un buen ejemplo es el caso de un cardiólogo que continúa haciéndose daño a sí mismo fumando compulsivamente, a pesar de entender intelectualmente, mejor que cualquiera, los daños que causa fumar.
Entonces podemos comprender que un estándar de vida alto acarrea una sobre-explotación de los recursos y, por lo tanto, se dañan plantas, animales y seres humanos de diferentes países (sobretodo de los países mas pobres y vulnerables) y, a pesar de comprenderlo, no logramos bajar nuestro estándar de vida. Es muy dificil cambiar hábitos y comportamientos basándonos únicamente en el conocimiento y comprensión mental. Todos sabemos que en los últimos años el calentamiento global se ha acelerado, que este proceso tiene consecuencias devastadoras y que los científicos calculan que tendrá consecuencias aún más serias en un futuro cercano. Pero la humanidad no hace mucho por frenar este proceso. ¿Por qué? Por la codicia. Entonces se requiere de algo más que la comprensión intelectual para mantener Ahimsa.
- Ahimsa a un nivel moral es cuando nos damos cuenta que nuestras acciones pueden causar sufrimientos a otros y comenzamos a actuar según nuestro grado de consciencia. Escuchando a este sentido de justicia y moralidad podemos frenar nuestra tendencia natural hacia la violencia y la agresión. Sentimos que las acciones hirientes son incorrectas y que ‘no debemos hacerle a los demás lo que no queremos que nos hagan’. Sin embargo, incluso este nivel de Ahimsa no es completamente inmune. Observemos cómo reaccionamos cuando alguien nos hiere, nos insulta, nos desprestigia o roba alguna de nuestras pertenencias. Lo más probable es que respondamos con ira y violencia.
- Ahimsa a un nivel espiritual es cuando nos vemos reflejados en otros y a los demás en nosotros mismos. Este es un nivel en el que sentimos, en cada fibra de nuestro ser, la comunidad que compartimos todos los seres vivos y dejamos de estar motivados por un interés egoísta para actuar para el beneficio de todos los seres sintientes, de manera altruista. Este es el nivel absoluto de Ahimsa basado en ‘querer al prójimo’, que viene a ser lo mismo que ‘quiere a tu prójimo como a ti mismo’. Solo con amor incondicional podemos desarraigar completamente las raíces del odio y el daño.
Ravi Ravindra escribe:
“Ahimsa debe ser entendido no en términos de apariencias ni formas externas de conducta sino en relación a la intención interna y al orden involucrado. Una intención y motivación egoísta, a pesar de lo plácido, pacífico y no-violento que pueda ser el comportamiento, siempre carga semillas de violencia en su núcleo. Krishnamurti dijo: ‘Mientras yo soy, el amor no es’. Mientras el ego lidere, que es lo mismo que mientras haya egoísmo, todas nuestras acciones son sin amor. Si actuamos sin amor, hay una violación del espíritu. Ahimsa, en plenitud, no es posible para una persona mientras sea ego-centrada.” 
[“Ahimsa needs to be understood not in terms of appearances and external forms of conduct, but in relation to the internal intention and order involved. Egotistic intent and motivation, however placid, peaceful, and non-harming the external behavior may be, always carry seeds of violence in their very core. Krishnamurti said:, ‘As long as I am, love is not.’ As long as the ego is in charge, which is to say as long as there is selfishness, all our actions are without love. If we act without love, there is a violation of the spirit. Ahimsa in full measure is not possible for a person as long as the person is ego-centered.”]
En el Sutra II.35, Patanjali escribe que cuando un yogui se establece completamente en Ahimsa, se desvanece toda la hostilidad alrededor suyo. Para lograrlo el yogui tiene que haber desarraigado todos los rastros de hostilidad e irradiar amor incondicional y compasión hacia todos los seres vivientes. Esto sería Ahimsa a un nivel espritual.
La profundidad en la práctica de Ahimsa
Ahora podemos comprender la profundidad de la práctica de Ahimsa: abarca todo el Ashtanga Yoga (los ocho miembros del Yoga). Para mantener Ahimsa a plenitud, debemos estar en Samadhi (y por supuesto no podemos alcanzar Samadhi sin Ahimsa). Todos los miembros del Yoga están relacionados y se alimentan entre si.
La consolidación absoluta de Ahimsa solo es posible como el resultado del amor fraternal e incondicional hacia todos los seres vivientes. (Maitri – revisar Sutra I.33). Solo este tipo de amor asegura la no-violencia bajo cualquier condición. Solo con Ahimsa a un nivel espiritual logramos entender completamente que herir a otro ser viviente es una ofensa a nosotros mismos; como cuando los padres sienten que herir a sus hijos es una ofensa hacia ellos también.
Por lo tanto, para poder actuar basados en Ahimsa es necesario desarrollar este sentimiento, natural de los padres hacia sus hijos, hacia todos los seres vivientes. Entonces, debemos ver en Ahimsa no solo una directiva de ‘no hacer’, sino un mandato positivo. Este es el aspecto positivo de Ahimsa. Para cultivar Ahimsa, uno debe cultivar una actitud de aceptación y amor universal. Mahatma Gandhi dijo que Ahimsa no es solo un estado pasivo de no-dañar, sino un estado positivo y activo de amar y hacer el bien.
Pero incluso el amor por sí mismo puede no ser suficiente, ya que también se necesita un conocimiento o sabiduría perspicaz. Nuestras intenciones pueden ser buenas y nuestro corazón estar puro, pero nuestra capacidad de discernir se ve afectada. Podemos herir sin tener la intención de hacerlo o sin siquiera saber que lo hicimos. Por ejemplo, cuando el daño se inflige a alguien que está lejos, como cuando consumimos energía (no sostenible) en exceso y estamos perjudicando indirectamente poblaciones vulnerables de África. Si no nos volvemos conscientes de las consecuencias del consumo excesivo, no sabremos el daño que estamos generando. En nuestra vida social también podemos insultar y herir a otro sin intenciones de hacerlo. Por lo tanto, para poder establecernos plenamente en Ahimsa necesitamos desarrollar sensibilidad y perspicacia. Esto se llama Viveka-Khyāteḥ. En el Sutra II.28, Patanjali dice que la práctica de todos los miembros del yoga conduce a la esencia de la sabiduría y visión perspicaz –Viveka-Khyāteḥ. Volviendo al cardiólogo obsesivo-compulsivo del ejemplo anterior, podemos decir que tiene conocimiento intelectual –Viveka-Jñana- pero eso no es suficiente. Necesitamos desarrollar perspicacia a un nivel tal que no permita herirnos a nosotros mismos o a otros. En ese sentido, Viveka-Khyāteḥ es un tipo de comprensión que cambia el comportamiento.
Para cumplir plenamente con Ahimsa, la mente debe permanecer inafectada por sus seis enemigos: Kama (lujuria), Krodha (ira, odio), Lobha (codicia), Moha (pensamiento ilusorio o enamoramiento), Mada (orgullo) y Matsarya (envidia). Si alguno de estos seis enemigos (Sad Ripu) está presente en la consciencia causará Himsa en algún momento.
Entonces para practicar Ahimsa necesitamos dejar ir y renunciar a ciertas cosas (Vairagya, uno de los dos hitos de la práctica yóguica), porque mientras anhelemos objetos vamos a buscar conseguirlos y esto puede llevarnos a Himsa. Prashant Iyengar señala que, según la psicología del yoga, la base de Ahimsa es Vairagya, alegría y simpleza:
“La psicología del yoga ubica la base de Ahimsa en Vairagya… Cuando hay un anhelo intenso por cumplir los deseos, se agita y evoca el pecado en potencia, la crueldad y brutalidad… es por ello que la búsqueda de deseos debe ser moderada a través del desarrollo de la des-pasión y el anhelo.”
[ “Yoga psychology traces the basis of Ahimsa in Vairagya… When there is intense craving for the fulfillment of desires, it only stirs up, it evokes the sin potential, cruelty and brutality… That is why the pursuit of desires should be moderated by cultivating dispassion and thirstlessness”.]
A simple vista puede ser dificil notar una relación directa entre la ‘des-pasión’ y Ahimsa, pero después de analizarlo podemos ver que las ansias por satisfacer nuestros deseos causarán daño tarde o temprano.
Cómo practicar Ahimsa
El primer paso en la práctica de Ahimsa es reconocer nuestras tendencias a Himsa e identificar cuándo, cómo y por qué surgen estas tendencias. Sin esta consciencia, no seremos capaces de avanzar. En teoría, podemos estar de acuerdo con el principio de Ahimsa y creer que vivimos acorde a ello. Pero, ¿qué sucede cuando alguien nos pisa? ¿Cómo surge la ira y cómo puede causar agresión? Debemos analizar nuestras acciones y reacciones a los eventos que nos suceden y examinar nuestras motivaciones a profundidad.
¡La práctica de Ahimsa debe ser parte de cada acción que realicemos en nuestras vidas!
Podemos empezar a practicar Ahimsa durante la práctica de āsana si observamos y nos preguntamos: ¿estoy dispuesto a sacrificar mi salud por ganar mayor competitividad? ¿estoy dispuesto a causarme daño para impresionar al profesor o a otros practicantes? ¿para sobresalir? Estas motivaciones también pueden existir en nuestra práctica personal en casa, porque cuando practicamos solos podemos estar haciéndolo con el objetivo de sobresalir e impresionar al resto en el futuro.
En El árbol del Yoga (en el capítulo Esfuerzo, percepción consciente y gozo), B.K.S. Iyengar explica la diferencia entre Ahimsa deliberada y Ahimsa no-deliberada durante la práctica de āsanas con un ejemplo muy interesante:
“En un lado hay violencia deliberada porque las células están trabajando en exceso. Y en la parte que llamamos no violenta hay violencia no deliberada, pues las células se están muriendo, como esos niños que nacen muertos.” (, p. 64)
La práctica de Ahimsa debe acompañarnos en todo momento. Como profesores debemos practicar Ahimsa cuando enseñamos; animar y fortalecer a los estudiantes, en vez de herirlos y debilitarlos. Debemos practicar Ahimsa con la palabra y examinar si nuestro discurso es ofensivo o insultante. Asimismo, debemos abstenernos de difamar a otros y evitar la propagación de chismes y rumores. Debemos practicar Ahimsa mientras manejamos pensando en todos los demás con que compartimos la calle.
Prashant indica que practicar Ahimsa directamente puede ser muy dificil para nosotros: ‘No debemos practicar Ahimsa por el bien de Ahimsa. Lo encontrarán dificil en diferentes aspectos de la vida. No será practicable.’. En cambio, sugiere desarrollar una infrastructura para Ahimsa practicando otros aspectos del yoga: ‘Yoga es un asunto psicológico. El yoga le enseña al alumno a desarrollar todas las cualidades que dan tranquilidad en la mente, alegría y sosiego, y aportan al estado sublime de la mente. Entonces continúa observando atentamente el significado y sentido de la práctica de Āsanas y Pranayamas, cuida de tus hábitos alimenticios, cuida de tu estilo de vida y sigue Satsanga’ (, p. 65]
[“We do not need to practice Ahimsa for the sake of Ahimsa. You will find it difficult in the business of life. It will not be practicable”. (…) “Yoga is a psychological subject. Yoga teaches the student to develop all the qualities that give you tranquility in the mind, contentment and sedate, sublime state of mind. So keep striking that import and purport of Asanas and Pranayamas in practices, take care of your food habits, take care of your lifestyle and follow Satsanga.” (, p. 65]
El ejercicio de yoga: asana, pranayama, nutrición correcta, un estilo de vida simple y estar cerca de personas elevadas o sagradas (Satsanga) creará dentro nuestro la infraestructura necesaria para Ahimsa, la transformación de la consciencia que hará posible practicar Ahimsa a plenitud:
‘Recuerden, aquellos que han practicado Yoga, si han realizado Sarvangasana, medio Halasana, Viparitakarani por 45 minutos o una buena hora, o si han practicado Pranayama exitosamente, ¿hay alguna huella de pecado en potencia en ustedes? Así es como la infraestructura debe desarrollarse.’ (, p. 64)
[“Recollect, those who have practiced Yoga, if you have done a long Sarvangasana half Halasana, Viparitakarani for about 45 minutes or for a good hour, or if you have practiced Pranayama successfully, is there a trace of sin-potential in you? That is how infrastructure is to be developed”.]
- “On Power and Nonviolence, Life and Change of Mahatma Gandhi”, Yohanan Grinshpon
- “El árbol del Yoga” BKS Iyengar, Traducción al español: José Manuel Abeleira
- Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali, (philosophy, religion culture, ethos and Practices), Prashant Iyengar
- The wisdom of Patajali’s Yoga Sutras, Ravi Ravindra
As a preview to Eyal’s visit the Peru, he was asked for an interview on the site mantrasurbanos. The interview was published in Spanish and the following is the English version.
How did I arrive to the path of Yoga
- Place and date of birth
- Current place of residence and main activity
- Higher education
- How, when and where did you came in contact with yoga. What effects did it generate in you?
- In what circumstances did you start practicing Iyengar? (Only in case that your first encounter with yoga was with another method or school)
- How can you summarize the experience of having practiced under the guidance of B.K.S. Iyengar and Prashant Iyengar. How did you mark it?
I have always been fascinated with the stories about the yogis and in the fourth grade when we were studying the subject of “India” I attempted yoga asana-s and I even stood on my head with my legs crossed in lotus (Padmasana).
I grew up in a remote Kibbutz (agriculture commune) in Israel, and in the 60’s there was hardly any information available about yoga; however, during my military service, in 1976, I happened to come across the book Yoga and Health by Selvarajan Yesudian & Elizabeth Haich – this was probably the first yoga book translated to Hebrew. This book includes many photos of asanas. So I began practicing according to those photos.
When I was dismissed from my military service (1978) I moved to Jerusalem to study mathematics and computer science at the “Hebrew University”; in parallel with my academic studies I immediately began to look for yoga classes.
I found a couple of gifted teachers that taught according to the Sivananda School of yoga. Right from the first class I knew yoga was my path – I did not have any hesitations nor any doubts! (Perhaps this is something from a past life…).
I continued to study with these teachers, and four years later, in 1982, I attended a teacher’s training course in the Sivananda method and that was where I first heard the name ‘Iyengar’.
So in 1982 I started to study Iyengar Yoga in Jerusalem with Dina Boger, the first Iyengar yoga teacher in Israel. Right away I realized the depth of this method and was impressed by the technical precision and intricacy. I started studying with Dina and in 1988 I went for the first time to study at RIMYI – the Institute of the Iyengars in Pune. At that time, I studied directly under Guruji, B.K.S. Iyengar.
I was totally unprepared to this experience. He demanded so much from us, and when the class was over I could hardly walk, I used to ‘crawl’ to my bed and fall asleep for a few hours, before I could continue my activity. I couldn’t really understand all that Guruji was saying, but I kept coming to Pune whenever I could and studied also with Guruji’s son, Prashant and his daughter Geeta.
Step by step I came to appreciate the depth of Iyengar yoga and understand the genius of this man. That practice has changed my life for the good, at all levels: physical, mental, intellectual and spiritual.
I went to RIMYI in Pune more than a dozen times and had participated in many workshops with international teachers like Faeq Biria, Birjoo Mehta, Jawahar Bangera and many others, who visited Israel to give workshops and seminars. In every visit to Pune and every workshop I learned new things.
8) Did you ever feel the Iyengar path as too demanding, hard or long? There are people that decide to separate from it because they consider it too physical or too mental…
No, Yoga is a practice in which we use the body as a tool to work on our mind. It is not physical, but it aims at cultivating our mind and psyche to enable a transformation in our perception of reality. I feel that Guruji has found a path in which you can walk your entire life and adjust it according to your age, needs and conditions. Any path of realization is not simple or trivial. It requires tapas (persistent effort and dedication), but the rewards are enormous. It becomes too demanding, too hard or long, only if your approach is fanatic and you haven’t learnt to enjoy walking in the path. For me the daily practice is never too demanding, on the contrary, it’s a great joy, it’s the best part of the day. It gives me energy and strength to tackle the difficulties and challenges of life.
True in asana practice we tackle the stiffness, hardness and resistance of the body, but this is just another object for observation: how do I react to that resistance? Do I respect the needs of my body or does my ambition to achieve, prove and excel drive me to scarify my health and wellbeing?
Actually, the mind is harder to tame than the body. The mind is more stiff and stubborn, and it’s also unstable and whimsy.
This is the concern of Arjuna when he complains to his Yoga Guru, krishna:
“This yoga declared by you to be of the nature of equality (evenness of mind), O Madusudana (krsna), I see no stable foundation for, on account of restlessness. For the mind is verily fickle, O Krsna, it is impetuous, strong and obstinate. I think that it is as difficult to control as the wind”. Bhagvad-Gita Ch. VI, verses 33-34
And the response of the teacher is:
“Without doubt, O Mighty-armed (Arjuna), the mind is difficult to curb and restless but it can be controlled, O son of Kunti (Arjuna), by constant practice and non-attachment. Yoga is hard to attain, I agree, by one who is not self-controlled; but by the self-controlled it is attainable by striving through proper means”. Bhagvad-Gita Ch. VI, verses 35-36
9) What advice can you give us to understand and transcend the pains that arise in practice? Should one get accustomed to living with pain? If so, how to achieve/overcome it?
This question is an interesting because yoga postures introduce us to discomfort and pain and we need to know how to deal with those sensations.
Pain is a general, overarching term, and like many other terms it covers a major spectrum of unpleasant sensations in different shades and intensities. Pain invites us to do some introspection. Iyengar has two sayings related to pain:
“The philosophy of pain is to conquer it”
“Pain comes to guide you. Pain is your Guru!”
Behind these sayings unfolds a vast philosophy. They suggest that pain is a part of yoga and that yoga is not concerned with only avoiding pain, although yoga is about non-violence (Ahimsa – it is the first and the foremost principle of yoga). Therefore, pain itself is not necessarily negative, but pain that causes injury is negative. The following statement can be added:
“Yoga is not about avoiding pain, but about preventing injury”
This, of course, raises the question: how can we discern between the kind of pain that causes injury and the kind of pain that doesn’t?
When pain appears in a pose we tend to panic and want to get out of the pose. Instead, yoga invites us to stay and observe further into what we sense. There are many kinds of feelings and sensations that are defined as pain: there is the ‘good pain’ that emerges from a healthy stretch of the muscles, there is pressure related discomfort stemming from a stay in an unfamiliar pose, there is a “stabbing” sensation, a sharp pain and a dull pain; There is a kind of pain that disappears as soon as you come out of the pose and a pain that stays for days after practice. There is also the kind of pain that you don’t feel while in the pose, but arrives once you emerge out of the pose.
Instead of running away from the pain, we have the opportunity to look into its essence and discern exactly what is it that we feel.
Yoga is a practice intended to develop equanimity, that is, the ability to maintain internal mental homeostasis in the face of external turmoil. Therefore, staying with the discomfort is an important practice of yoga: what happens to us when we feel discomfort in a pose? What is our reaction? What if, contrary to our inclination, we could remain with the inconvenience keep breathing and observe it?
These are important questions because in life we often encounter discomfort, difficulty, and pain, and these are not always removable. The question is, can we maintain our inner peace and stability and act correctly and wisely in such situations? This is the practice of developing tolerance and resilience.
However, of course, we do not want to injure ourselves (and the practice of yoga postures has plenty of opportunities to do that). Practice related injuries could result from two reasons: lack of sensitivity and ambition.
Perhaps we want to practice a certain pose, but our desire to be in the pose is in our head while our body is not yet ready, in which case we must show care and consideration for our body, listen to its real ability and not force it to do what the mind whims. This is the practice of ahimsa (non-violence), which is one of the central principles of yoga.
As a result, it is very important to diagnose the type of pain. One of the important criteria is whether the pain persists when coming out of the pose. Such a pain is usually not a good pain, i.e. – a pain that may cause harm. However, if the pain disappears immediately after emerging out of the pose, it is usually harmless. When the pain is not of the ‘good’ kind, it might be indicative of an unbalanced or wrong pose. There is also a pain which appears only after practice, sometimes not until the next day, or several days later. During the practice we did not feel any problem, but still, we hurt something. Such a pain is indicative of a lack of sensitivity.
Pain can be our spiritual teacher which inspires us to learn. The conquest of pain, therefore, requires patience, accurate observation, tolerance and discretion. All these qualities are very important. A true practice of yoga is one in which we do not injure ourselves, and yet, do not run away from pain.
10) How do you advise us to handle one or more physical (and mental) limitations? How do we manage this limitations from stopping us? Is it possible to prevent this limitations from stopping our development in the Iyengar path?
17) Practice is like a struggle between body and mind, between pain and discomfort, between the limitations and the desire to move forward … At what point does the struggle stop?
I don’t think the term ‘struggle’ adequately describes the experience of a good and balance practice. Definitely there is an effort in yoga practice, effort at the physical, mental, emotional and intellectual levels; but this effort has to be balanced by relaxation and letting go.
Christian Pisano writes in his book: The Hero’s Contemplation:
“Hence, all effort has its source in and disappears into non-effort. If tension is observed passively, we are not the tension but the space from which it appears, spreads and disappears… Ultimately, effort as psychological intention must die away, devoured by intuition of the infinite.” (p. 201)
In an asana there are actions that we must perform; the muscles are working, we hold the pose – but, as we mature in our practice and become more skilled, we learn how to balance this effort with relaxation. Instead of over using the muscles we work on the level of the skin. This changes our perspective – the muscles are still working but in a much more subtle way.
When you reach this level in your practice there is no struggle but joy and peace!
11) What do you think are the most important contributions of teacher B.K.S. Iyengar to yoga?
B.K.S. Iyengar completely revolutionized the way people practice yoga and even think about yoga. When he was a kid in the twentieth century 30s, yoga was largely a disrespected subject. The old Yogic heritage was almost completely destroyed by hundreds of years of British regime.
Iyengar revived yoga and gave it a new meaning by his emphasis on correct alignment and precision in the performance of asana-s. He had spread yoga all over the world and showed that the asana-s are not merely body culture but can be practiced as a spiritual path.
19) What is the importance and significance of personal yoga practice?
Practicing alone at home develops our self-discipline and persistence. In our busy society it is so hard to maintain a sound, constant, daily self-practice – but this is where the real education happens!
In our self-practice our hidden tendencies raise their head. Character dispositions arise, as related to the three Gunas: Tamas (laziness, heaviness, resistance to change), Rajas, (activeness, dynamism, restlessness) and Sattva (purity, serenity, clarity). For this reason, personal practice is so important. When we are alone these tendencies tend to manifest and this gives us a chance for Svadhayaya (self-study) – we can observe these tendencies and deal with them. Some days the Rajas guna is dominant, so we feel restless, impatient, and are not satisfied with our progress. On these days, we may leave the phone next to us while practicing, and allow it to interrupt our practice flow; we are susceptible to endless distractions and will find it difficult to concentrate on practice. So, we can study our restlessness and agitation. On other days, the Tamas guna is dominant and we feel heavy and lazy. It is hard to bring ourselves to even begin practicing. We may also find ourselves holding a negative attitude towards ourselves, our body, or our progress. We also may not be willing to accept periods of difficulty or crisis, etc. Finally, there are days when the Sattva guna is dominant – and we feel bright and focused; practice advances without difficulties, allowing us to dive deep within.
In our practice we should seek to strengthen the Sattva on account of the Rajas and Tamas. If at the end of the practice (or class), we are left feeling Rajasic or Tamasic as we were when we started, Then the goal of practice was not achieved in that session.
20) Tell us what your latest book is.
How did I start writing books?
At a certain point, I started feeling the need to document the many ways props can be used. It was a necessity that stemmed out of my practice and teaching, because I found it hard to remember the ample different variations I had learnt in all those many workshops throughout the decades of years I have been studying yoga.
At first I documented these variations and props uses for my own purposes; I started writing down the various ways a chair can be used in asana practice. At some point, I realized this documentation can be invaluable to other teachers and students, and I made it into a booklet in Hebrew.
I printed several hundred copies which were instantly ‘snatched’ by the yoga followers in Israel and many people urged me to publish it in English so that more students and teachers will be able to benefit from it. That’s how my first book ‘A Chair for Yoga’ was born! And indeed, the book became a success and I received a lot of enthusiastic feedbacks. The great interest the book received propelled me to continue this endeavor. I decided to expand this work and write more on the use of additional props (like block, wall and bolster).
I have already published three volumes in a series titled Props for Yoga and I am currently writing a new edition of A Chair for Yoga. I am planning to write two additional volumes of Props for Yoga (a 4th and a 5th) and a book that will focus on practice with ropes – Ropes for Yoga.
My last book Props for Yoga Volume III is about inverted asana-s – the family of asana-s that I cherish most. Inversions are so very important, they are the gift of yoga to mankind! I hope my love to inversions shines through the pages of this volume!
I am happy I can contribute to many yoga students around the world, publish books, travel and teach in different countries!
I am grateful to all the teachers I have studied with, first and foremost to B.K.S. Iyengar who developed the use of props for benefit of all mankind.
On the practice of Ahimsa
What is Ahimsa?
Ahimsa – the first yama in Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga, is sometimes interpreted as not killing – but the spectrum of Ahimsa is much wider. Vyasa, Patanjali’s first and most authoritative commentator writes that Ahimsa is the complete cessation of all hostility as well as the cessation of the desire to harm any living creature. Ahimsa, in one way or another, is the basis and the foundation of all spiritual traditions. It is the most fundamental and important practice of all who walk the spiritual path. It is not a coincidence then, that Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga opens with Ahimsa. Prashant Iyengar writes that if the Yamas are a tree, then Ahimsa is the root – without Ahimsa the four subsequent Yamas cannot exist: Satya (truth), Asteya (not stealing), Brahmacharya (restraint) and Aparigraha (non-possessiveness). Just as the branches and leaves nourish the root and the root nourishes the rest of the tree, Ahimsa is connected to the other Yamas – the practice of Ahimsa strengthens the other Yamas and the practice of the other Yamas strengthens Ahimsa.
Vyasa’s definition of Ahimsa is very broad and, in fact, its range is infinite. Absolute Ahimsa is impossible because every living creature consumes resources by its very existence; resources that are necessarily taken away from other creatures. When we breathe, walk, drink and eat, we might harm various bacteria around us, bacteria that exists in food, water, air, etc. Moreover, when resources are limited, their consumption may damage not only microscopic creatures but many other living creatures. But if we do not consume what we need for our existence, we will hurt ourselves and thus again – will break Ahimsa. We ourselves have the right to exist. Therefore, our goal should be to minimize the damage done to living creatures as much as possible – a realistic goal (though difficult to achieve) that we can strive for.
In his book (see p. 45 [3 in the sources list]), Prashant Iyengar notes that there are two levels of Ahimsa: an atomic or relative path (Anuvrata), and a complete, absolute path (Mahavrata). Patanjali clearly notes that the Yamas are Mahavrata – absolute vows that applies at all times and places regardless of consequences and circumstances (yoga sutra II.31). These are universal vows that do not depend on culture or era and should be pursued even when we are likely to be negatively affected by it, materially, socially, economically or physically. However, he had left an open door for the average person to strive for the relative level of the Ahmisa (Anuvrata), probably because he was aware of the immense difficulty of practicing Ahimsa on an absolute level.
Why is Ahimsa difficult?
The average person might be an epicurean and ask: why Ahimsa at all? He may argue that Ahimsa is not natural, because in nature the strong ones survive and animals strike other creatures to survive. Man is a part of nature and evolution has shaped him to survive in that same manner. If I am strong, why shouldn’t I use more natural resources to improve the quality of my life as well as of those close to me? Man has behaved so since the dawn of history and continues to behave so today.
The first answer to this argument, is that man is indeed a part of nature – but is also different than other animals. Although man contains an “animal component” that is motivated by survival instincts, man, unlike other animals, has Buddhi (intelligence) which is the part of consciousness that allows for discretion and moral judgement. Man, therefore, has an animal-like lower instincts but has also a spiritual aspect. Man is aware of his actions and can judge them and determine whether they are right or wrong, she or he can feel the suffering of other beings and act according to altruistic standards.
In the modern era, unfortunately, the sad consequences of human greed, violence and aggression are threatening the wellbeing and even the survival of all mankind; Absurdly, the survival instincts shaped by our evolution may lead to our annihilation. A new evolutionary phase is required for us humans, and this phase will take place by practicing yoga (or any other spiritual practice). It is important, however, to understand that Himsa (the opposite of Ahimsa – the tendency towards aggression and harm) is deeply embedded within us as throughout history we fought other species and other groups of people in order to survive and develop.
Within each of us lie seeds of Himsa. Let us face it – naturally all of us have the tendency towards selfishness and greed; thoughts of the well-being and welfare of the other is not always at the top of our priorities. However, if we follow the path of yoga and accept the practice of Ahimsa we become aware of the existence of these seeds of selfishness, greed, jealousy, etc., and learn how to prevent them from expressing themselves. It must be understood that avoiding harm is not simple and requires constant awareness and practice. As long as life does not challenge us we can be nice, but when someone hurts us, steals our property, threaten us and so on, our tendency to become angry, hateful and violent arises and it is not easily restrained.
- K. Gandhi wrote:
“Ahimsa…is like balancing oneself on the edge of a sword. By concentration an acrobat can walk on a rope. But the concentration required to tread the path of Truth and ahimsa is far greater. The slightest inattention brings one tumbling to the ground. One can realize Truth and ahimsa only by ceaseless striving.”
From Yeravda Mandir (Ashram Observances). Translated from Gujarati by : Valji Govindji Desai. First Published: December, 1932.
We must, therefore, understand that the range of Ahimsa is infinite and not despair that absolute Ahimsa is impossible: “Ahimsa is not accomplished once forever, and we need to continually search for its dynamic source. Only at the highest level of being can someone naturally manifest ahimsa; below that we can only approach it.” Ravi Ravindra (.)
These commandments or great vows (in Sanskrit: Maha Vrata) that Patanjali presents are like the North Star – they show us the direction in which we must walk, even if we can never really get there.
The Various Expressions of Himsa
Himsa, or harming, can take place via action, speech or thought. Speech can hurt more than physical action. When we slander someone, insult them, etc. we can destroy them and cause more serious harm than other types of physical injury. Even feelings of hostility and anger without physical or verbal expression can harm. We can harm through our behavior, facial expressions and how we use our eyes. Sometimes even avoiding action can cause serious harm. Ignoring or neglecting may harm more than direct harm. For example, parents who ignore their children and neglect them hurt them profoundly.
Himsa can be direct or indirect: when we do not personally cause any harm, but cause another person inflict harm, we convey Himsa. Even when we only have the intention to harm it is already Himsa. In fact, whenever we demand something or even expect something from someone, it may be considered Himsa, especially if we are in an authoritative position. If our demands or expectations are contrary to the will of that person, then they can potentially hurt him or her. Parents that have high expectations of their children may harm them, even with the best of intentions.
A superficial and external observation does not always make it possible to determine whether a certain action is Himsa or not. For example, imagine a man standing over another person that lying at their feet, and cutting his body with a knife. This person may be a murderer, but may also be a surgeon who tries to save a patient’s life. What determines is the intention: is there an intention to harm?
Even an extreme action such as killing a man can, in some cases, be Ahimsa; for example, when it is clear to us that killing one cruel murderer will save dozens or perhaps hundreds of innocent others.
Levels of Ahimsa
Non-harm is the result of behavior that can be nurtured on several levels. Three levels can be discerned:
- Mental Ahimsa
- Moral Ahimsa
- Spiritual Ahimsa
Ahimsa on an intellectual-mental level is when I understand the limitations of power and know that if I continue to act violently and hurt, violence will come back to me and hurt me. Or as Mahatma Gandhi said “in a world that follows the rule of an eye for an eye all humanity will soon be blind”. This is a level of “I’m OK, you’re OK” – meaning I understand that to maintain a reasonable lifestyle and achieve reasonable security, I have to restrain from harming others. But mental motivation for Ahimsa is not always enough to change behavior. An example is the cardiologist who continues to hurt himself by smoking compulsively, despite intellectually understanding better than most the damages caused by smoking. Intellectual comprehension is not enough to eradicate the harmful habit of smoking. I might comprehend that the high standard of living leads to over-exploitation of resources and therefore damage plants, animals and humans in many countries (and usually the poorest, most vulnerable countries) and despite this comprehension, I still can’t bring myself to lower my standard of living. It is very difficult to change habits and behavior on the basis of mental knowledge solely. We all know that in recent years global warming has accelerated; this process already has devastating consequences and scientists expect it to have far more serious consequences in the not too distant future. Yet humanity does not do much to stop this process. Why? because of greed. In other words, it takes more than intellectual understanding to sustain Ahimsa.
Ahimsa on a moral level when we realize that our actions can cause suffering to others we start acting according to our conscience decree. Listening to this feeling of justice and morality can somewhat restrain our natural tendency towards violence and aggression. We feel that harmful actions are incorrect and that “we must not do onto others what we do not want done to us.” However, even this level of Ahimsa is not completely immune, because the question is how we react when someone harms us, insults us, vilifies us or robs us of what belongs to us. It is likely that we will still respond with anger and violence.
Ahimsa on a spiritual level is when I see myself in others and the others in me. This is a level in which I feel in every fiber of my being the commonality that all living creatures share and cease to be motivated by selfish interest but rather act altruistically for the benefit of all sentient beings. This is the absolute level of Ahimsa, of “love thy neighbor”, which basically means “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Only by unconditional love can one completely uproot the roots of hatred and harm.
Ravi Ravindra writes:
“Ahimsa needs to be understood not in terms of appearances and external forms of conduct, but in relation to the internal intention and order involved. Egotistic intent and motivation, however placid, peaceful, and non-harming the external behavior may be, always carry seeds of violence in their very core. Krishnamurti said:, ‘As long as I am, love is not.’ As long as the ego is in charge, which is to say as long as there is selfishness, all our actions are without love. If we act without love, there is a violation of the spirit. Ahimsa in full measure is not possible for a person as long as the person is ego-centered.” 
Patanjali wrote (Sutra II.35) that when a yogi is fully established in Ahimsa all hostility around him dissipates. This can only happen when the yogi has uprooted all traces of hostility and radiates unconditional love and compassion to all living things. This is Ahimsa on the spiritual level!
The Depth of the Practice of Ahimsa
Now we can grasp the depth of Ahimsa practice. It embraces within it all of Ashtanga Yoga. In order to fully maintain Ahimsa, we have to be in Samadhi (and of course we can not reach Samadhi without Ahimsa). All the limbs are related and feed off of each other.
Absolute consolidation in Ahimsa is possible only as a result of friendly and unconditional love for all living things (Maitri – see Sutra I.33), because only such love will ensure no harm in done under any condition. It is Ahimsa on the spiritual level, in which we deeply understand that harming another creature is an affront to us, just as a parent feels that harming his children is an affront to himself. In order to be based in Ahimsa we must develop this feeling – which is natural in parents towards their children – towards all creatures. Therefore, we should see in Ahimsa not only a directive of “do not do precept,” but rather a positive commandment. This is the positive aspect of Ahimsa. In order to cultivate Ahimsa, one must cultivate an attitude of universal and embracing love. Mahatma Gandhi said that Ahimsa is not only the passive state of non-hurting, but the positive, active state of love and doing good.
But even love itself may not be enough, since there is also need for discerning knowledge or wisdom. Our intentions may be good and our heart pure, but our ability to discern is impaired. We might hurt without meaning to and without knowing we did. For example, when the harm is inflicted on someone far away. When we consume excessive (non-green) energy we indirectly harm Africa’s poor population – if we do not become aware of the consequences of excessive consumption, we will not know at all that we are harming. Even in our social life, we may insult and hurt without intending to. Therefore, in order to be fully established in Ahimsa we need to develop sensitivity and discernment. It’s called Viveka-Khyāteḥ. In Sutra II.28, Patanjali says that the practice of the limbs of yoga will lead to discerning vision – Viveka-khyāteḥ. The obsessive-compulsive cardiologist from the example above has intellectual knowledge – this is called Viveka-Jñana, but that is not enough. It is necessary to develop a discernment at such a level that it will not allow any harm to ourselves or others. Viveka-Khyāteḥ is a type of understanding that changes behavior.
In order to fully fulfill Ahimsa, the mind must not be affected by its six enemies: Kama (lust), Krodha (anger, hate), Lobha (greed), Moha (delusion or infatuation), Mada (pride) and Matsarya (envy, jealousy). Each of these six enemies (the Sad Ripus), if present in consciousness, will at some point cause Himsa.
To be in Ahimsa there needs to be renunciation, a letting go (Vairagya – one of the two milestones of the yogic practice), because as long as we crave objects, we will want to achieve them and this could lead to harm. Prashant Iyengar notes , p. 63) that according to the psychology of yoga, the basis of Ahimsa is Vairagya, contentment and simplicity:
“Yoga psychology traces the basis of Ahimsa in Vairagya… When there is intense craving for the fulfillment of desires, it only stirs up, it evokes the sin potential, cruelty and brutality… That is why the pursuit of desires should be moderated by cultivating dispassion and thirstlessness”.
Although we may not see a direct connection between non-craving and Ahimsa, analysis shows that a strong desire to satisfy desires sooner or later causes harm.
How to Practice Ahimsa
The first step in the practice of Ahimsa is to recognize our tendencies to Himsa and to identify when, how and why they arise. Without this awareness, we will not be able to move forward. Theoretically, we may agree with Ahimsa and believe we live by it. But what happens when someone steps on our toe? How does anger arise and how can it cause aggression? We must analyze our actions and reactions to the events that happen to us and examine our motives in depth.
The practice of Ahimsa must therefore be part of every action we make in our lives!
We can practice Ahimsa during asana practice if we observe and ask ourselves: am I willing to sacrifice my health for accomplishments and competitiveness? Am I willing to hurt myself to impress the teacher or the other practitioners? To succeed and excel? Such motives may also exist in your personal practice at home, because even when we are alone we can practice in order to excel or impress in the future.
In the book The Tree of Yoga B.K.S. Iyengar brings an interesting example of deliberate and unintentional Ahimsa in the practice of asanas (from the chapter Effort, Awareness and Joy):
“On one hand is a deliberate violence because the cells are overworking. And on the so-called non-violent side there is non-deliberate violence, because there the cells dying, like still-born children”.
As teachers, we must practice Ahimsa when we teach: encourage, and strengthen students rather than hurt and weaken them. We must practice Ahimsa in speech, and examine whether our speech is offensive or insulting. Refrain from defaming others and avoid spreading gossiping and unchecked rumors. We must practice Ahimsa when we drive, keeping in mind all those on the road. The practice of Ahimsa should accompany us at every moment.
Prashant notes that to practice Ahimsa directly may be i too difficult for us: “We do not need to practice Ahimsa for the sake of Ahimsa. You will find it difficult in the business of life. It will not be practicable”.
Instead, he suggests developing an Ahimsa infrastructure by practicing other yoga practices: “Yoga is a psychological subject. Yoga teaches the student to develop all the qualities that give you tranquility in the mind, contentment and sedate, sublime state of mind. So keep striking that import and purport of Asanas and Pranayamas in practices, take care of your food habits, take care of your lifestyle and follow Satsanga.” (, p. 65]
The exercise of yoga: asana, pranayama, proper nutrition, simple lifestyle and being around elevated or holy people (Satsanga) will create within us the necessary infrastructure for Ahimsa, the transformation of consciousness that will make the Ahimsa possible:
“Recollect, those who have practiced Yoga, if you have done a long Sarvangasana half Halasana, Viparitakarani for about 45 minutes or for a good hour, or if you have practiced Pranayama successfully, is there a trace of sin-potential in you? That is how infrastructure is to be developed”. (, p. 64)
- “On Power and Nonviolence, Life and Change of Mahatma Gandhi”, Yohanan Grinshpon
- “The Yoga Tree” BKS Iyengar, Hebrew translation: Eyal Shifroni
- Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali, (philosophy, religion culture, ethos and Practices), Prashant Iyengar
- The wisdom of Patajali’s Yoga Sutras, Ravi Ravindra
The Props for Yoga series of guides document standard and innovative usages of props. Props are accessories used to enhance and improve the practice of yoga. The simple, standard props like yoga mats, blankets, belts, blocks, chairs and bolsters are used extensively by yoga practitioners.
There are also unique props designed specifically for yoga practice.
The usage of props has to be understood in the framework of the yogic path outlined by sage Patanjali more than 2000 years ago, and within the framework of Iyengar Yoga – a yoga style developed by Yogacharya (Yoga Guru) B.K.S. Iyengar in the 20th century.
Asana-s (postures) are an important part in the yogic path and are included as the third anga (limb or element) in Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga (the eightfold or eight-limbed yoga path). Yogacharya Iyengar developed the practice of asana-s to the level of art and science. He strongly believed that “Yoga is for all,” and that through asana practice one can realize the higher aspects of yoga.
This belief had motivated him to develop a wide range of props that has a variety of usages. Props enable every person to enhance his/her Sādhanā (study and discipline of yoga), regardless of physical limitations. By using props adequately one can:
- Perform āsana-s which are difficult to perform independently
- Achieve and maintain correct alignment during the practice
- Stay longer and relax in challenging āsana-s, thus attaining their full benefit
- Study and investigate āsana-s on a deeper level
- Continue practicing and improve her/his health condition even while suffering from chronic or temporary limitations and injuries.
The Props for Yoga series of guides document standard and innovative usages of props, many of which are documented for the first time. These guides are handy manuals for yoga teachers and practitioners alike. Practitioners can use them to enrich and deepen their practice, and teachers may use them to prepare interesting and enjoyable classes and workshops. The guides cover the “classic” Iyengar Yoga props, such as blocks, chairs, walls, bolsters and ropes. They emphasize prop usages that direct awareness to different aspects of the āsana-s and to different parts of the body, in order to deepen and enhance the understanding of the āsana-s.
They are practical guides that contain detailed step-by-step instructions explaining the ways to use the props in different variations. Each guide contains hundreds of photos which accompany these instructions. In addition, these guides are enriched by:
- An introduction to each family of āsana-s, accompanied with excerpts from B.K.S. Iyengar and other important teachers as well as with Eyal’s own personal perspectives
- Comments on the physiological effects of the presented variations
- Tips for improving the practice.
The book “Light on Yoga” contains 602 photos, it’s a treasure trove because Guruji’s photos are inspirational.
However, because the book covers so many asanas it’s difficult to find a photo of a specific asana. In order to help with quickly finding a photo I prepared a short index according to the asanas families.
The index refers to the photo numbers and not the page numbers and therefore suitable to any edition of the book (in any language).
I recommend printing the index and pasting it onto the inner book cover. I find it very helpful with finding the necessary photo.
|Photo#||Asanas in “Light on Yoga”|
|1-59||Standing asanas, Ustrasana|
|66-76||Simple back bending including downward facing dog (74) and upward facing dog (75)|
|86-124||Sitting, Supta Virasana, Paryankasana, Bhekasana, Padmasana + variations, Supta Vajrasana|
|125-176||Basic forward bending|
|171-175||Purvottanasana, Akarna Dhanurasana|
|176-218||Sirsasana + variations|
|219-271||Sarvangasana + variations|
|272-296||Abdominals, Supta Padangusthasana, Setu Bandha Sarvangasana|
|346-359||Basic balancing poses, Pincha Mayurasana|
|366-394||Kurmasana, Eka Pada Sirsasana cycle, Dwi Pada Sirsasana|
|395-452||Balancing, Bakasana etc.|
|472-478||Intense leg stretches|
Cut and paste onto the inner book cover
According to yoga, human consciousness (Citta) is comprised of three components:
- Ahaṃkāra – sense of self – or ego
- Manas – mind (in a limited sense)
- Buddhi – intelligence
The ahaṃkāra is the self-identified component. This is the component that creates the distinction between me and the other, it is the sense of our individuality. In order for us to renounce our ego and to feel the oneness of all things, we first have to establish a strong ‘I’ that will enable us to experience our separateness. This is the role of the ahaṃkāra.
The manas is the component that is responsible for our survival. According to B.K.S. Iyengar, the manas plays a double role: external and internal. As part of its external functioning it collects, sorts, processes and stores input it receives from the sense organs and operates the organs of actions. However, the manas can also turn inward and act as a bridge between the external world and the buddhi. This function of the manas is called awareness and it is based on an internal sense which in the modern jargon is termed proprioception, which Patanjali termed asmita svarupa. The proprioception is an internal sense that provides us with information regarding the action of the muscles and the tendons, the position of the joints and of our body in space. In his book Core of the Yoga Sutras, B.K.S. Iyengar describes the manas as follows: (Purusa or the ‘Seer’ is the pure consciousness):
“The mind connects and coordinates the five senses of perception and five organs of action. At the same time it acts as the innermost sense (antarendriya), the agent connecting the buddhi and ahamkara with the purusa. The mind plays a double (dvandva) role. Its role is to connect the 10 organs (indriyas) on the one hand, and on the other, to connect the intelligence, consciousness and the core. This dual role of the mind affects the citta so that it plays a double game. The mind being the gross part of consciousness needs to distinguish between subject and object.”
Core of the Yoga Sutras, Page 56.
“Note that the mind plays a dual role since it is placed between the senses of perception and the organs of action on one side and the intelligence, ego, consciousness and conscience, on the other. The mind wants to satisfy the organs of perception, and on the same time, please its Lord – the Seer. A simple example is that it acts like a public relations officer, trying to please the customers and at the same time, the boss.
Here the mind plays the same role. It wants to satisfy the customers, namely the mind, the senses of perception and the organs of action on one side and at the same time it wants to satisfy its master – the Seer. Hence, the main effect of the practice of asanas is the extinction of the dual function of the mind. I consider this non-dual state of mind to be antaratman (the interior most) sadhana of the asanas (see sutra II.48).”
Core of the Yoga Sutras, Page 153.
The manas is in charge of our functioning, but it can’t make ethical decisions based on values. Moral-ethical discernment is the role of the buddhi. The buddhi is the component that allows one to differentiate right from wrong and just from unjust. The sense which we call conscience – the organ of righteousness (in Sanskrit: dharmendria) is a part of the buddhi. The buddhi is the most subtle and refined component of the citta, and it allows for discernment and discrimination.
B.K.S. Iyengar describes the buddhi as follows:
“Buddhi is another component of citta. It is an instrument that acts as the true assessor. It helps to acquire the reliable and untainted knowledge that comes from experience. Its power of discernment is the lustre of wisdom. Buddhi is the axial constituent of citta. It acts as a gravitational force to draw the citta towards the Seer. It is the mediator. It is the judging faculty that orientates the other instruments on the inner path. This is intelligence serves the sadhaka in orientating the inevitable sorrows that are coated in pleasant experiences. It positions itself as the pole star, guiding the journey of the citta towards the source. Like consciousness, intelligence too is tied on the threshold between worldly pleasures and liberation from them. This is why it is essential to study and reflect to discern the differences between intelligence and consciousness”.
Core of the Yoga Sutras, Page 53-54.
In our yoga practice we must explore and get acquainted with the citta and its components in order to be able to purify – or in Patanjli’s words – to restrain the (vrttis) (Yoga Sutras I.2). In this article I describe how can one get to know the citta through the practice of asanas. Specifically, I explain how one can decrease the fluctuations of the manas in order to diffuse uniformly into the body while kindling the light of the buddhi.
In a reflective asana practice (done as a form of inner work – not as a body culture) there is a hierarchy of three stages:
- Concentration – focusing on one point – internalizing and pacifying the mind
- Even Diffusion of the mind
- Meditation in an asana – radiating the light of the buddhi
Concentration – Focusing On One Point
As noted, the manas functions both externally and internally. For the most part, because of the external noise surrounding us and the attraction of our senses to external stimuli, the external functioning of the manas (the interaction with the world) is dominant while inner reflection is less frequent or present. Yoga is an inward journey, and hence it has to commence with the internalization of the manas. The manas is by nature vibrant and unstable and a sadhana (practice discipline) is needed in order to still it:
“See how many times the brain jumps from one thing to the other in your sadhana. This flickering in the brain creates thought waves in the heart… Thought takes the mind to the past and thinking process takes one toward the future and you lose the present. If citta-vritti is from the head, prasanta (tranquil) citta is from the heart”.
Astadala Yogamala: Collected Works, Vol. 8, Page 132.
In order to effectively direct the manas inward in asana practice, one should use the guideline given by Patanjali in sutra I.32: eka tattva abhyasah: adherence to a single-minded effort. In asana practice, this means that one selects a single action and pays full attention to it continuously – while entering, staying in and coming out of the pose. Without this intention, the manas is prone to wander from one action to another; from one region of the body to another, or even worse, to partake in affairs that have no connection whatsoever to the performance of the asana. Such a practice will not help to develop concentration, inwardness and clarity.
Usually, in Iyengar yoga classes, the teacher gives a lot of instructions and the students follow and move their attention from one part of the body to another. For beginners, this is inevitable, since a beginner needs to learn the actions that are involved in preforming the asana; and hence needs detailed guidance. However, once the asana had been learnt and the student achieved some mastery of it, one can begin to develop concentration by practicing asanas with adherence to a single principle. An advanced practitioner doesn’t need to think about too many things since the cells of the body and the nervous system have already acquired a memory of the pose and the body can perform it without having to recall the instructions and perform them consciously. Once this level is attained, one can focus on a single action and limit the attention to this action exclusively. When one finds that the attention has wandered somewhere else, he or she has to immediately bring it back to the chosen action. The entire pose is then done with reference to that single action or with this action in mind.
For example, in lateral standing asanas like Utthita Trikonasana one can concentrate on the middle finger of the back hand. When spreading the legs (to Utthita Hasta Padasana) the arms are stretched sideways and the attention is brought to the middle finger of both hands. One has to extend the fingers without hardening them, in order to allow for the awareness to spread in them. When turning the right leg out, one needs to make sure that the awareness in the middle finger of the left doesn’t shrink and doesn’t fade. This awareness must be kept constant throughout the performance of the pose.
It is important to note that there is nothing of particular importance about this action and other actions may be selected. Two examples are (1) Moving the right shoulder blade in (Prashant Iyengar sometimes calls it: ‘shoulder-bladize the pose’); and (2) Spreading the back of the left knee. Whatever action or point one chooses, she or he has to stick solely to it during the practice session.
For a mature practitioner who knows the pose well, focusing on a single point doesn’t disrupt the quality of the pose, because the selected point becomes the ‘brain’ that governs the pose and organizes it. The intelligence of the body cells knows the pose and can perform it on its own. Once we learn how to walk or drive we don’t need to think about all the actions that are done while walking or driving; these functions are wired into our nervous system and are performed almost automatically. This is a result of habituation, which yoga practice can mimic; and we should try to take advantage of this way of learning to enhance our practice.
It is rare as it is difficult to practice in such level of concentration and focus. But if you practice like that, you’ll find out that the consciousness becomes quite; that unnecessary and redundant movements lessen; that the breath becomes smooth and circular, and that the eyes recede and become stable.
Diffusion of the Manas
The next stage is to diffuse the manas to the entire body. Often while doing an asana, awareness becomes sharp in certain regions of the body (often in the parts that are being stretched or activated) while dull and dormant in the other regions. The flow of awareness in the body is a movement of the manas. B.K.S. Iyengar said countless times that in a well-performed asana the awareness is spreading evenly and uniformly in the entire body from the core to the periphery, or from the inner Self to the skin.
Iyengar was not an academic scholar but a practical philosopher – his knowledge stemmed from his practice and his thorough exploration of the asanas. For him, ‘manas’ was not an abstract term but something concrete that could be felt and even seen externally. The manas has a liquid quality, so just like liquid, it can expand and fill its container touching its walls in an even manner. If the manas is compressed in one part of the body it can be felt in the asana. A competent teacher can visually observe whether the manas is spreading evenly in the body of the student.
The starting point of the standing asanas is Tadasana. In a well performed Tadasana one can feel how the awareness (the manas) is spreading until it touches the entire trunk. This makes Tadasana – the mountain pose become Samasthiti – an even and balanced pose. When the manas is diffused it fills a rectangle-like shape which encompasses the entire trunk (in fact, it is a three dimensional box, but for simplicity’s sake I use the word rectangle). Moving on to other standing asana, this rectangular shape has a tendency to misalign: broaden on one side while narrow the other, or over-stretch one side and under-stretch the other.
When painful over-stretching occurs, the manas is focused on the part in which the pain expresses itself. Therefore, awareness to all other parts of the body is minimal or non-existent. In the painful region, there is, as it were, a condensed lump of awareness but awareness is lacking from all other parts. The pain attracts our attention and creates imbalance and discomfort, which causes us to come out of the pose, or to hold it with sheer will power that produces a lot of stress – and that is not a good practice of yoga!
To keep the balance and evenness of the pose one has to make a cognitive effort, an effort to observe and concentrate, as B.K.S. Iyengar writes in Light on Life:
“Consider the challenge of the body and mind in an asana. The outer leg over-stretches, but the inner leg drops. We can choose to let the situation be, or we can challenge the imbalance by the application of cognitive comparison supported by the force of will. Maintaining the equilibrium so that there is no back-sliding…”
Light on Life, page 13.
In The Tree of Yoga Iyengar explains how diffusing our concentration evenly in an asana can become meditation:
“When you are over-stretching somewhere to get the optimum movement, have you ever noticed that you are also giving too little attention to other parts of the body? That disturbs the body and makes it shake… You can lose the benefits of what you are doing because of focusing too much partial attention on trying to perfect the pose… But if you spread the concentration from the extended part to all the other parts of the body, without losing the concentration on the extended part, then you will not lose the inner action or the outer expression of the pose, and that will teach you what meditation is.”
The Tree of Yoga, from the chapter: Effort, awareness and joy.
Buddhi is ever present and its source is in the chest cavity, the heart center. If the manas is not diffused evenly, it creates a sort of a lump, or a cloud, obstructing the light of the buddhi from reaching the peripheries of the body. You can liken it to light emitted by the sun – if light is obstructed by clouds, it does not reach the earth.
In order for awareness to diffuse evenly, one must keep the anatomical shape of the body undistorted. This is how Iyengar describes this:
“Whatever asana one performs, it should not distort the normal or original structure of the anatomical body. Each and every part of the joints and muscles must be kept in their natural shape and form (svarupa). Each one of us must study the distortions that take place while performing the asanas, and at once correct them. For this, the mind and intelligence must be made to involve and to observe by remaining in contact with each and every joint, bone, muscle, fiber, tendon and cell so that the attentive consciousness not only radiates focused awareness but also tastes its flavor. This focused awareness must be felt in every particle of the body, from the skin to the core from the core to the skin. This is the true meaning of sthirata and sukhata in the asanas”. Core of the Yoga Sutras, page 148.
“In performing the asanas some parts remain dull while other parts remain contracted or distracted. Some parts are scattered without a sense of direction while others remain with a single focused grip. Observing and feeling this single-focused grip, one must learn to adjust it on other parts of the body. Then the elements of the body are evenly balanced, making the practitioner experience the feel of ease in the asanas. In short, while practicing the asanas, if one part moves, the whole of the body must coordinate and move. Similarly, if the whole body moves, all parts must concur. This is sukham”.
Core of the Yoga Sutras, 11 pages 148-149.
“This way of practice diffuses the flame of the seer so that it radiates throughout the body. The sadhakas then experience stability in the physical, physiological, psychological, mental and intellectual bodies. In short, the Seer abides and feels each and every cell with unbiased attention”.
Core of the Yoga Sutras, page 151.
“The first thing to learn is, ‘can I maintain the asana without disturbing the anatomical structure?’ The length of the inner and outer muscles, the space between the ankle and the knee, knee and hip, side ribs, front ribs and skin have to be adjusted by balancing them evenly. While doing the asana there should be a thorough communication between the organs of action and the senses of perception. Performance of the asana is like the mother understanding you and you understanding the mother, which helps one to maintain lovely and lively feeling between you and the mother. I am making you to understand to maintain such connections while performing the asana. The skin which is the sense of knowledge must be studied and understood while doing the asana. You have to see how the sensory nerves react with the actions of the motor nerves without jamming and jarring each other”.
Astadala Yogamala: Collected Works, Vol. 8, Page 118.
In many of the standing poses one has to keep the rectangular shape of Tadasana. While moving from Tadasana to the pose, you should take note that the shape of the awareness in your body doesn’t get distorted, that the distribution remains even throughout and that the breath reaches everywhere. The breath is a very helpful tool in this respect, as pointer out by Iyengar:
“If you carefully observe contact of the breath in different asana you observe that the breath touches different parts in different asana. Even if you take a deep in-breath or a deep out-breath, the touch of each breath in the torso differs each time and will not be the same. Each breath touches sometimes the inner parts and at other times the outer parts or the middle parts. When a deep inhalation or a deep exhalation is taken, you like to be in touch only with that part where the breath touches and neglect the other parts allowing these areas to remain dry and senseless. If the land is dry, it cracks. The same thing happens here: wherever the breath touches, that part gets nourished and the non- attached parts remain undernourished. It means there is progression on one side and regression on the other. While doing the asana learn to observe that the breath taken in or out touches the torso evenly”.
Astadala Yogamala: Collected Works, Vol. 8, Page 119.
Even diffusion of awareness creates clear, cloudless skies. Then, the light of the buddhi can shine, radiating from the heart center – permeating the entire body and beyond.
If the manas has a liquid quality then buddhi (or intelligence) has the quality of light. While liquid takes time to flow and fill its container, light, on the other hand, travels fast and reaches instantly everywhere, if there are no obstructions.
If an asana is done while keeping the balance between both sides of the body and in a manner that allows for even diffusion of awareness, then the third stage is reached, in which we can observe the radiation of the light of the buddhi.
The Radiation of the intelligence
The center of the chest, or the seat of the spiritual heart is the seat of the buddhi. Iyengar said that in order to awaken the sheathes of the body, one has to start from the seat of the heart:
“Consciousness usually remains in a state of dormancy. It’s the mind that dominates. As the mind dominates, intelligence and consciousness get compressed and take back-seats and remain in latent and dormant states. In order to awaken the sheaths of the body you have to start from the seat of the spiritual heart hrdaye cittasamvit (Y.S. III.35). The seat of the consciousness is hrdaye (the seat of the soul). Measure or learn to feel the expansiveness of the body and mind in Trikonasana, Parsvakonasana or any other asana from the center of the heart and not from the brain, as yoga is a stabilizing subject of head and heart. While doing asana do not feed the intellect of the brain but to make it descend to the seat of the consciousness at the heart so that the consciousness with its intelligence guides the brain to use its brilliance for even balance and firmness from end to end in the body״.
Astadala Yogamala: Collected Works, Vol. 8, Page 121.
He described the difference between the intelligence of the brain and that of the heart:
“The brain may create confusion and doubt while the intelligence of the consciousness removes confusion and replaces it with the light of knowledge. As the seat of consciousness is the heart (hrdaye cittasamvit), awaken the consciousness and make it flow through the entire body so that the hidden light of wisdom surfaces.”
Astadala Yogamala: Collected Works, Vol. 8, Page 123.
Referring to sutras II.47 and II.48 (that describe asana-s) he said:
“The Self that covers the entire body like the sun in each asana from any point to any point without deviation is prayatna shaithilya ananta samapattibhyam (Y.S. II.47). Here the core starts guiding directly and you forget your bahiranga and antaranga bodies. This is tatah dvandva anabhighata (Y.S., II.48)“.
Astadala Yogamala: Collected Works, Vol. 8, Page 129.
This is why in Iyengar yoga there is so much emphasis on opening the chest. It is a central concept in the Iyengar method. When the awareness in the chest broadens, one feels the source of light, and once the light is turned on, you have to ensure that it will radiate to the remotest parts of the body. When we are in an asana while awareness is diffused, we can feel this radiation from the core to the periphery. For example, in Utthita Trikonasana, you can create a connection between the center of the chest and the fingertips and feel the light shining from your center, spreading outwards, through the fingertips. While staying in the pose, this radiation should remain constant and stable. If we remain alert and observant, we can feel this radiation in a concrete way. If the radiation stops or fades then it means that an obstruction was created somewhere, so you have to find out where it is and remove it. As light travels in straight lines, it should be somewhere in between the center of the chest and the periphery. Maybe one shoulder blade is not sufficiently in, and in that region there is a thickness, or compression that doesn’t allow the light of the buddhi to pass through. In this case we have to concentrate on the action of the shoulder blade, and move it to its correct position in order to remove the blockage and allow the radiation to resume. In Sirsasana (head stand) being an inverted pose, it is helpful to focus on the light that spreads from the center of the chest upward, traveling up all the way to the toes.
This is a holistic principle that organizes the entire pose, enabling one to observe and correct the alignment of the pose, because if the body is misaligned the radiation will not reach the periphery. So instead of focusing on specific actions in each part of the body, observe the general, internal feeling; the main outlines of the pose and the flow of the energy in the body. The actions required to ensure a proper alignment are now stemming from the inner feeling and not from recalling instructions heard in the past. Then we are totally immersed in the present and maintain full attention to whatever happening moment after moment in the asana.
In the words of Iyengar (underlines added by me):
“When each new point has been studied, adjusted, and sustained, one’s awareness and concentration will necessarily be simultaneously directed to myriad points so that the in effect consciousness itself is diffused evenly throughout the body. Here consciousness is penetrating and enveloping, illuminated by a direct flow of intelligence and serving as a transformative witness to body and mind. This is a sustained flow of concentration (dharana) leading to an exalted awareness. The ever-alert Will adjusts and refines, creating a totally self-correcting mechanism.”
Light on Life, page 13-14.
“In an asana our consciousness spreads throughout the body, eventually diffusing in every cell, creating a complete awareness.”
Light on Life, page 15
And these are questions worth asking every time we practice:
“Maybe you have read the Bhagvad Gita, where we are asked to keep the body in a rhythmic, harmonious state without any variations between the right and the left, the front and the back… Can I adjust the various parts of my body, as well as my mind and intelligence, to be parallel to that central line? … Do my intelligence and consciousness run parallel in my body without disturbing the banks of my river, the skin? Can I extend my awareness of my self and bring it to each and every part of my body without any variations?”
The Tree of Yoga p. 67
And he continues in the following chapter of The Tree of Yoga (The Fruit):
“In Samadhi you are fully aware. Consciousness diffuses everywhere, through all the sheaths of the body and all its parts… Diffusing the soul into each and every part of the body is Samadhi”.
The Tree of Yoga p. 69
When our practice reaches this level of maturity and the inner feeling that stems from the Core is clear enough, we need not remember any instructions. At this level, one no longer depends on a teacher. There is no need to remember countless instructions since one creates new instructions whenever she or he practices. It is only at this level that one fits to be a real Iyengar yoga teacher!
 “Perfection in asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached”. See: Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by B.K.S. Iyengar
 “From then on, the sadhaka is undisturbed by dualities”
- Thanks to Eleanor Schlesinger for proofreading the text.
- Special Thanks to my teacher Birjoo Mehta from Mumbai – this article is based on inspirations I got in his workshops in Israel