How Asana Practice Leads to Citta Vritti Nirodha Or: When Do We Become Qualified as Real Iyengar Yoga Teachers?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.
The asana practice (done as a form of inner work – not in the sense of going to the gym) has a hierarchy of three stages:
1. Concentration – focusing on one point – internalizing and pacifying the mind
2. Even Diffusion of the mind
3. Meditation in an asana – shining 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 rare. 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 and internalization.
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. Instead, 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.
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.
Any other action can 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 became built into our nervous system and are performed almost automatically.
Very rarely we actually practice like this, 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 spread the manas and diffuse it 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 number of 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 intellectual 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 – the 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 a condensed lump of awareness but there is no awareness in 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 will power and a lot of stress – and that is not 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 spreading the concentration in an asana becomes 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. When 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. Iyengar describes this in his writings:
“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 one 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 cord 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 page 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 Tadasna 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. Iyengar refers to the breath in the following section:
“Now let me tell you something about the breath. Today pranayama courses are taught anywhere and everywhere. 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 emerged 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 is not dependent on a teacher anymore. 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!

 

Thanks to Eleanor Schlesinger for proofreading the text.

Effortless Effort

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Sutra II.47 of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali says: prayatna shaithilya ananta samapattibhyam

Yogacharya B.K.S. Iyengar in his Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali translates this as follows:

Perfection in an Asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached.

Perfection in Asana is reached only when effort ceases, instilling infinite poise and allowing the finite vehicle, the body, to merge in the seer.

This is very intriguing, since we do experience a lot of effort in the practice of asanas, especially when trying to expand our limits, get out of our comfort zone and challenge ourselves with new demanding asanas. So what does it mean and how does it transpire that the “effort to perform it becomes effortless?”

In sports or gymnastics there is great emphasis on effort; sportsmen never talk about effortless – and that is, in my mind, what is so special and unique about yoga – asanas are not merely physical; yoga is not another form of body culture; it has much farther reaching goals.

It’s not also that we should avoid effort in asana practice. Patanjali does not talk only about shaithilya (relaxation or effortless) – he says: prayatna shaithilya – effort and non-effort, and this is very interesting: How can effort and non-effort co-exist? How does effort turns into effortless? How can we balance effort and letting-go in our practice?

In a talk given in 2007 B.K.S. Iyengar explained so beautifully “What is Sthira Sukham Asanam?” (See Astadala Yoga Mala, Vol. 8 p. 152). He is referring mainly to sutra II.46, but he also addresses II.47 when he says:

“Prayatna means effort and saithilya means laxity… For me it coveys effortless effort. When the effortful effort fades out, effortless effort sets in… Asthira and asukha end only when effortful effort transforms into effortless effort… prayatna shaithilya has to terminate in ananta samapatti. Ananta is the soul. Samapatti is the transformation in which chitta gets transformed to its original form. This sutra is proof enough to know that asana is not limited to the physical level and it should not be looked at on the physical level only.”

Asthira is instability and asukha is discomfort (the prefix ‘a’ in Sanskrit denotes negation).

Toward the end of the talk he explained the correct alignment of the inverted poses, and concluded that “In perfect presentation of an asana there is stability in body, mind, intelligence and consciousness. As such it becomes an auspicious moment. This is the true experience of prayatna shaithilya ananta samapattibhyam.“

In the book Core of the Yoga Sutras Iyengar writes: “When asanas are practiced with effort for years, then the sadhaka (the practitioner) reaches a non-dual state of body, mind, intelligence and consciousness, where effort seems effortless.” (p. 149)

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. The pose is held by the bones – the skeletal structure allows for stability and concentrating on the movements of the skin reduces any tension that may be in the pose. When we reach the correct alignment, there is no extraneous effort. For example in a building, if each block is perfectly placed on top of the other; additional structures are unnecessary to shore up the building; it can stand on its own. In our own bodies we must initially exert a fair amount of effort to address our structural and alignment imperfections, but as we advance and overcome aspects of these structural challenges, finding the right alignment leads to a feeling of balance that is effortless. This frees up our energy, or life force to penetrate within, instead of expending it outwards. At this stage we don’t experience our actions as effort anymore. Instead, we experience joy – the joy of exploring the depths of our own body-mind – we want to stay in the asana because we experience a state of wholeness and surrender. There is no need for will power to hold us there. On the contrary, if somebody (a teacher for example) instructs us to come out of the asanas we feel that we are missing something we could have gotten by staying more. This is what it means that the psychological effort has completely ceased.

Effortless effort is a principle that applies not only to our practice, but to life in general. There is certainly effort in life, but, if this effort is done out of some kind of struggle, then it’s wrong, and we should look into it and find out what are we struggling with. Effort does not inherently imply struggle. We have to apply some effort in order to keep life going, but if in our daily life we constantly experience hardness, then we invest too much energy. If we easily become fatigued and need to tighten our jaws to hold on – then we probably haven’t yet learnt the principle of effortless effort.

By coming back to our daily asana practice and observing effortless effort in our practice, we can gradually learn to live with more ease and with a balanced flow of effortless effort!

 

Iyengar continues his interpretation of this sutra with the following inspirational words:

The sadhaka can be considered firm in his postures when persevering effort is no longer needed. In this stability, he grasps the physiology of each Asana and penetrates within, reaching the minutest parts of the body. Then he gains the art of relaxation, maintaining the firmness and extension of the body and consciousness. In this way he develops a sensitive mind. With this sensitivity, he trains his thinking faculty to read, study and penetrate the infinite. He is immersed in the boundless state of oneness which is indivisible and universal.”

Light on the Yoga Sutras of Ptanjali

 

Intention, Attitude and Application in Asana Practice

People come to yoga for many different reasons. Some because of pain, others in order to “keep fit”, while others embark on yoga to become more peaceful and calm. In the beginning, yoga could be just another activity, done side to side with gym, cycling or other sports activity. At some point, however, from just one more thing one does in life, yoga becomes central and important – it becomes a way of life. The range of practice shifts and expands from mere body maintenance into the entire personality.

Teachers can usually detect when yoga ceases to be a form of body culture for a specific student, and becomes something much more meaningful and important in her or his life. This happens when, in addition to physical well-being, the student is experiencing something internal – a sort of quietness, coupled with clarity and calmness. Later, when the student is devoted to practice, practice becomes a psycho-physical laboratory, in which the object of study is the whole person. This study aims to explore the mind and answer the eternal question: “who am I?”.

At this stage, it is important to not only practice, but to also think about the practice and deeply understand the theory at the foundation of it. We need to observe what happens to us during practice and understand how practice can become a psycho-physical laboratory.

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What happens in practice depends largely on whether practice takes place in a group setting or while practicing individually at home. There is a difference between the two, although both offer ample space for reflection.

Group practice brings about tendencies such as competitiveness, desire to impress and excel, envy, pride, and feelings of superiority or inferiority. All of these are products of the ego, it does not matter if we feel better and more successful than others, or worse; these are two sides of the same coin – both are manifestations of the ego. Our desire to please and impress, receive positive feedback from the environment or to be loved, is a very basic and fundamental desire. You can observe it clearly in children who have not yet learned to suppress this natural tendency. In yoga class, we can recognize these tendencies and look at them more closely. It is possible, of course, to do so in any type of group setting, not necessarily a yoga class. However, asanas by nature, and because we stay in them for an extended time, enable observation, which is difficult to do when the practice is dynamic or competitive. Many types of sports strengthen the competitive edge and therefore are not appropriate for the study of this tendency of ours.

Practicing at home, 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. Only when we are alone with ourselves these tendencies arise. Practice allows us to observe them 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 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. 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 our body, such as dissatisfaction with the length of our legs or our weight. We also may not be willing to stay within 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.

It is important to make sure that in practice we 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.

Even in a class setting we encounter these tendencies. Although the teacher provides the overall framework, each student has a great deal of freedom and choice over how to perform the instructions, and needs to make many decisions on how to apply the position learned. For example, the teacher may instruct Trikonasana while adding several technical points, but he does not specify the exact actions to be taken; he cannot say exactly how far to bend, at what pace, or how to combine the breath with the movement, etc., All of these considerations are under the student’s responsibility and control. The student can decide to go slowly and carefully or try to stretch to the limits of his capacity. When injuries occur in practice, it is not just the fault of the teacher, the student is also responsible – he should know his body and respect its limitations.

Practicing alone, we need to know what type of practice we require. It depends on various factors and may vary from day to day: what is our energy level, do we have any physical injuries, what is our mental state, level of fatigue, what is the time of day, what activity we have just finished, what is the time of year, etc. etc. To know how to match each practice with these circumstances and conditions is an art one acquires with experience.

Practice allows for an intimate knowledge of our body, mind, breath and the connections between them. We begin observing the body, learning its capabilities and limitations. But that is not enough. We also need to observe and learn our breath and mind as well as the relationship between the two. That is why yoga serves as such a great laboratory.

What arises is our attitude to our body and ourselves: do I treat my body as a racehorse and push it to the maximum, or do I practice patience, sensitivity and consideration? If I am not considerate to myself while learning, I probably won’t be considerate to others.

It is important to be aware of three aspects related to practice:

  • Intention
  • Attitude
  • Application

Intention is our goal in practicing: Why do we practice and what do we want to achieve? Do we ask ourselves these questions?

Patanjali has defined the goal of yoga as quieting the fluctuations of the mind (Sutra 1.2).

It is important to examine: is this really my motive? Is my practice aimed at making my mind quiet and serene? Or maybe I have other explicit or implicit goals (like: maintaining physical fitness, be more flexible, healthier, acquire a lucrative profession, impress someone…)

Attitude is how we approach practice. There is plenty of room for reflection and investigation pertaining to the attitude to practice. I will point out just a few related aspects:

  • Do we have a dogmatic attitude and are reluctant to try new options and experiment new practice sequences?
  • Do we approach practice as a kind of a laboratory in which we observe our actions, or do we practice in a repetitive, heedless and mechanical way?
    Prashant Iyengar talks about learning culture as opposed to doing culture and says that we usually practice in a ‘doing culture’. The approach of a learner is very different from that of a doer. When you want to learn, you need time to explore things and ponder about them, which isn’t the case when you come for a work out.
  • Sincerity: practicing alone sometimes raises a tendency to cut corners and compromise while performing asanas. How sincere are we? For example, how do we behave when different teachers are giving the class?
    Prashant used to raise the question: how do you behave when Pando (RIMYI’s secretary) is teaching (he used to do that from time to time in the old days), in contrast to your behavior when B.K.S. Iyengar (Guruji) teaches the class? What would be the extent of your effort and determination in each case?

I often challenge my sincerity by imagining that Guruji is present in my practice room, sitting there quietly and just observing me while I practice – this is enough to make my practice very sincere!

  • How much Tapas do we have in our practice (tapas: discipline, enthusiasm, energy, strong will)?
  • How committed are we to our chosen path? Are we seriously committed or acting out of whims? Once we decided to follow the path of yoga, are we practicing steadily and persistently or only when it fits in our schedule or we feel like it?
  • What is our attitude towards success and failure and how much are we willing to sacrifice for success? How does failure affect us?
  • What is our capacity to endure shortcomings, limitations and difficulties and exhibit compassion to ourselves?
  • Is our practice abusive? If we keep injuring ourselves in the practice, then something in our approach is probably very wrong.

Here, too, Patanjali gives us guidance in the Yoga Sutras. The right approach was defined by him in Sutra 2.1 as the right blend of Tapas (energy, strength, strong will, and persistence), Svadhyaya (self-study and investigation) and Ishvarah Pranidhana (devotion).

Application is how we carry out our intention and attitude in our practice. This is very important, because without correct application we will not be able to implement our intentions and achieve our goal. The application is also affected by the Gunas. We tend to be affected at different times by the Rajasic and Tamasic gunas and this will be reflected in our practice and affect our ability to apply our goals. The application also includes the techniques that make the practice correct and effective. The yoga teacher speaks primarily about the aspect of application. She or he will explain the technique of carrying out an asana. The proper technique is important because it determines our ability to implement our intention and the quality of our practice.

A beginner may have the right intention and approach but he will not have sufficient knowledge to implement his intentions.

Application also includes the adjustment of techniques to our state during practice, circumstances and conditions. It requires experience, skill and mental flexibility.

Finally,

When yoga practice becomes an important component in our lives, we must inspect our Intention, Attitude and Application.

Intention: Why do I practice yoga? What is it I want to achieve?

Patanjali defined the goal of yoga as restraining or quieting the mental vibrations and disturbances.

Attitude: What is my attitude toward practice? Do I practice in order to learn and understand myself, or is it only for fitness and physical wellbeing? Do I practice with sincerity and devotion or in a sporadic and whimsical manner? How much did I commit to the practice?

Our attitude is determined to a large extent by the dominant guna (Sattva, Rajas or Tamas).

Application: How do I implement my intention and attitude in my day-to-day practice? Do I have enough mastery of the techniques of the asanas? Can I select an asanas sequence that will answer my goals and circumstances in any given time?

 

 

The Diaphragm – an exceptional muscle

The diaphragm is an amazing muscle; it is a marvel that this muscle operates ceaselessly, from our first inhalation when we come into this world, to our last exhalation when we leave the world! It pumps air continuously 24/7, when we awake and when we sleep and never gets tired. The skeletal muscles that move our body cannot work non-stop, and when they get tired, they need quite a lot of time to recover. If the diaphragm gets tired (in aerobic exercises), it is enough to resume normal breathing for a few cycles in order for the diaphragm to recover. It is always ready to serve us!

Many people are unaware of the importance of the diaphragm and its anatomy and action. This short article explains the mechanics of both normal and Pranayamic breathing and suggests an exploration that helps to visualize the structure and operation of the diaphragm.

The diaphragm is both voluntary and non-voluntary muscle

The only other muscle in our body that works non-stop is the other pump we have – the heart muscle. But we cannot really control this muscle; it is a non-voluntary muscle (it is said that some distinguished Yogis, like Krishnamacharia, can stop the heart beats for a few minutes, but this is a very very special ability). What is very unique and special about the diaphragm is that it operates both voluntarily and involuntarily. The skeletal muscles do not contract without our conscious, deliberate will. The internal smooth muscles, like the muscles of the digestive system, and the heart muscle operate involuntarily. We cannot directly instruct them to work, and we cannot stop them from working – they function automatically. In contrast, the diaphragm functions most of the time involuntarily (even when we sleep or unconscious), but we can control it and modulate its action, and even stop it for a few minutes.

A short anatomy of the diaphragm

The diaphragm is a very massive muscle situated in the center of the body. It completely separates the body into upper and lower parts. It is the floor of the thoracic cavity and the roof of the abdominal cavity. It is a large domed shape muscle – you can imagine it as a mushroom, a jellyfish or a bell. There are three holes in this otherwise impenetrable tissue, two for the main blood vessels (artery and vein) and another one for the esophagus.


The-Diaphragm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 1 The diaphragm is a domed shape muscle with the central tendon on the top

In fact the diaphragm has an asymmetrical double-dome shape. The right dome, which is pushed up from below by the liver, rises higher than the left dome (which is pushed down by the heart). Each half is innervated separately, so we can contract each half of the diaphragm independently from the other half and thus direct the breath to the left or to the right lung.

Try it now:

Place your fingers on the ribs and direct your breath only to the right side of the chest. Feel the movement of the ribs. Breathe slowly until the right lung is full.

Then exhale and breathe to the left lung. Repeat several times.

Now breathe in a zigzag fashion: breathe for a few seconds to the right, then to the left, again to the right and so on, until both lungs are full.

 

Origin and Insertion

The lower edges of the diaphragm’s circumference originate from three distinct regions: the xiphoid process (bottom of the sternum), the base of the rib cage and the front of the lumbar vertebrae. The muscular fibers of the diaphragm rise vertically upward in the body from their origin and arrive at a flat horizontal top – the central tendon – to which they insert. This central tendon is non-contractile and can move only in response to the action of the vertical muscle fibers which insert into it (see figure 1).

This structure is unique: skeletal muscles always connect two bones (origin and insertion), while the domed-shape diaphragm inserts into itself. Generally, a muscle can only contract, and in a non-isometric contraction, this reduces the distance between its origin and insertion. If the origin is fixed and the insertion is free, then the insertion is drawn closer to the origin; if however the insertion is fixed and the origin is free, then the origin is moved toward the insertion. For example, when the biceps muscle of the upper arm contracts, it draws the forearm closer to the upper arm (if the forearm is free). But if the forearm is fixed (as in Pull ups) it will move the upper arm toward the forearm.

The Breathing Mechanism

The diaphragm is the main breathing muscle, without it, independent breathing is impossible. We know this because people that, from some reason, cannot use the diaphragm cannot breathe on their own and need an artificial ventilator. The other respiratory muscles are only auxiliary and are not sufficient for efficient breathing. They are just not strong enough to be able to increase sufficiently the volume of the chest cavity.

As in any other muscle, the contracting fibers of the diaphragm pull its insertion (the central tendon) and origin (the base of the rib cage) toward each other. The movement that actually takes place depends on which side is fixed and which is free to move.

In normal, natural breathing, inhalation is an active contraction of the diaphragm, and exhalation is a passive release of this muscle. If the abdomen is soft, the central tendon is pretty much free to move and the contraction of the diaphragm during inhalation shortens its  fibers which pulls the central tendon down. The abdomen then slightly bulges out. This increases the volume of the chest cavity and decreases the pressure in the chest cavity, which causes air to flow in. When we release the diaphragm, the central tendon moves back up and the air is pushed out of the lungs (see figure 2).

Thoracic-shape

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 2 Three-dimensional thoracic shape changes of (a) inhalation and (b) exhalation

Note that the this downward movement of the central tendon, which occurs during inhalation, increases  the pressure in the abdominal cavity. When we breathe deeper, the resistance of the organs of the upper abdomen makes the downward movement of the tendon more difficult and this causes the ribs to lift slightly. So actually, even in a normal deeper breath, the downward movement of the central tendon is combined with a lift of the lower ribs.

In Pranayamic breathing (as done according to the Iyengar method) we attempt to lift and open the rib cage and to do it in a slow, soft and subtle manner, without creating any tension in the eyes, ears or brain cells. In order to achieve this, we have to use the diaphragm in a different mode of operandi. This is done by gently sucking the abdomen in at the end of exhalation, and keep it pulled in, when we inhale. This action of the abdominal muscles (mainly the transversus abdominus) does not allow the central tendon to move down. This is called Uddiyana Kriya (in contrast with Uddiyana Bandha which is a strong contraction and locking of the abdominal region which is done at the end of a complete exhalation).

By keeping this action of Uddiyana Kriya while inhaling, we prevent the central tendon from moving down, and this results causes the rib cage to lift and expand. As we get more proficient in controlling the action of the diaphragm, we learn to do this action in a slow and rhythmical way. This makes the inhalation long and smooth, and the brain soft and receptive. As we lower the head in Jaladhara Bandha, the mind is drawn in, and gets totally absorbed in the process of the breathing. In that stage, there is no more ‘I’ that breathes, and only the breath remains.

To Sum Up

Understanding the uniqueness of the structure and action of the diaphragm, enables us to apprehend B.K.S. Iyengar’s saying that ‘the diaphragm is the meeting point of the material world with the spiritual world’. Our life depends on the efficient functioning of this muscle and our the quality of life depends largely on our skillful usage of it. By observing its operation we can come closer to realizing the marvel and wonder of Life, that we tend to take for granted, and get some glimpse into the operation of the universal energy which the yogis call: Prana – the energy of Life. Developing intimate relationships with our breath, makes us humble – since we realize that the breath is not in our hands, it is created and sustained not by our ego, but by a power which is far greater than us, to which we can call divinity. This experience changes our attitude: instead of feeling great, you feel grateful.

 

Yoga and the Mind-Body Complex – On the Psychophysical Effects of Yoga Practice

For a yogi, the body is his laboratory for perpetual experimentation and experience.” B.K.S. Iyengar

Practicing asanas, we put our body in different and unusual postures, such that are not performed by the average person in his daily routine. What is the value of those unconventional postures? Are asanas purely physical postures? Do asanas have a role beyond that?

Prashant Iyengar noted that for a posture to be an asana, there should be a certain body-set, a certain breath-set and a certain mind-set (See his book: The alpha and the omega of Trikonasana). Placing the body in the posture creates a unique and unusual state of consciousness. Asana practice is intended primarily to experience these states of consciousness or body-mind modes, and explore the deep connections that exist between body postures, breathing and circulation and the mental state that accompanies them. It is this very exploration that makes practicing yoga always fascinating, fresh and surprising. If we consider our practice as a merely exercise, (i.e., refer only to the physical aspect), it becomes mechanical, automatic – and therefore boring. Although the practice will still have a positive effect on the body, the real purpose of yoga will not be accomplished.

In advanced levels of practice, all asanas have a similar effect, which is transcending the fluctuations of consciousness (or in the words of Patanjali: Citta Vritti Nirodha). Our consciousness, which typically throws us around between plans, thoughts, concerns, judgments, hassles, memories, etc., relaxes. From this mode of serenity a new composure arises, one of clarity and harmony, of balance and joy. This allows for a neutral, clear observation of ourselves and the nature of reality. This is the effect of each asana when the practitioner is advanced and skilled. But for us, who are still on the yogic path, the mental effects of asanas are influenced by several factors:

  • The type of asanas that we practice: forward bends, backbends, inversions, standing positions, etc.
  • The specific asana we practice: for example, there is a difference between the effects of Virabhadrasana I to those of Prasarita Padottanasana; even though both are standing poses.
  • The variations and the way we use props: all asanas have countless variations and can be performed focusing on different actions with props (all these variations have different mental effects the asana brings about).
  • The use of breathing: breathing can be used in different ways, we can direct breathing to various areas of the body and this also affects our asana.

The effects of asanas are inner individual experiences and feelings that are difficult to articulate. One can only understand these effects in depth through personal practice. It is a journey in which each one is for himself: an in-depth exploration of the body, breath and mind. Despite this difficulty, I will try to shed some light on the subject and give several ideas to reflect on and explore. This overview does not aim to be exhaustive, but merely touch upon several asanas and describe their main effects. The description is based (of course) on my own experiences that are clearly derived from my personality and practice, and is limited by my (poor) capacity to describe what I experience while practicing. So – please refer to the following descriptions as suggestions only and primarily as incentives for you to discover for yourself the effects of the asanas on your body-mind system.

“My words should not be listened to, but reflected upon.” BKS Iyengar

As I mentioned above, each family of postures share in common the same central psycho-physical effects. However, there are differences between the postures. To demonstrate this point, we will discuss briefly two postures from each of the three families: standing postures, forward bends, and inversions.

Standing postures

Standing postures form the basis of Iyengar-yoga practice. They develop strength, flexibility, stability, lightness, a sense of direction and balance. They strengthen the legs; teach us how to build on the feet and how to extend the body from the base. They also flex two critical areas of the body: the pelvic and the shoulder girdles.

Freedom of movement in the pelvic area creates light movement that prevents strain on the spine and lower back. Freedom of movement in the shoulders expands the ribcage and improves the respiratory function. The standing postures form the basis for learning alignment and precision – two fundamental principles of the Iyengar method. All standing poses are challenging but are also rewarding. They develop will power, mental strength and durability and because of that our exploration begins with these postures.

Rooting the feet into the floor provides a solid foundation not only physically – when we stand firmly on strong legs, it also strengthens our confidence and our negotiations with the world. It is not as easy to shake or toss us. Physical stability and mental stability develop in tandem. The sense of ease and comfort of movement that develops with practicing postures creates a mental lightness that helps us leap over crises and pitfalls that can potentially create heaviness and low spirits.

All of these effects are true for all standing postures. However, as noted, there are differences between the effects of various positions in this family, and these differences become more subtle as we become familiar with the different variations and various options for using props.

To illustrate, I will compare two of the hero (or warrior) postures: Virabhadrasana I and Virabhadrasana II.

vira1-2Both postures are challenging; both strengthen the legs, create flexibility in the pelvic region, extend the spine from its base (the tailbone) and energize the heart-lung system. The mental quality of the warrior is to view each difficulty not as an obstacle, but rather as a challenge and opportunity to develop and strengthen. This quality is shared by all warrior postures (I, II and III). Another quality of a warrior is the ability to maintain a balanced and stable attitude in stressful situations. This quality also develops with the practice of these postures. Along with the effort and physical challenge that stimulates breathing and challenges the muscles, the practitioner must keep the breath flowing and his face relaxed.

The main difference between Virabhadrasana I and Virabhadrasana II is that the latter is a lateral posture while the first is a lengthening posture. In Virabhadrasana II the thigh of the back leg should be pressed back while rolling the hip and knee of the front leg from the inside out.

vira2_outward-turning_I

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These actions bring about an opening in the groin and width in the hip. In contrast, in Virabhadrasana I, the pelvis completely turns aside and the body is stretched upward. The line that connects the back leg with the hands extends and concaves.

Iyengar said that elongation creates mental sharpness and alertness while expansion improves our ability to contain emotionally. A balanced development strengthens both the intellect and the emotional intelligence. One should develop both the intelligence of the mind (intellect) and the intelligence of the heart (emotion). Virabhadrasana II creates the expansion of the chest and abdominal cavities and therefore develops the emotional aspect. The main area the pose is working on is the pelvic area. Therefore, this position works on the apana energy and helps stimulate and invigorate it.

According to yoga, Prāṇa (with capital P) is the cosmic vital energy that permeates all levels of the universe. In humans, bodily functions are performed by five kinds of vital energy (prana-vayus). These are: prana (of the thorax), apāna, samāna, udāna and vyāna. These are the five aspects of the essential cosmic force.

In contrast, Virabhadrasana I works intensely on the spine and ribcage and therefore raises the

prana & udāna. The spine bends over backwards and stretches all the way as the thorax rises and expands. This position develops strength, sharpness and the confidence of a warrior together with deep devotion that stems from the bending of the front leg and rolling the head back and looking up while the eyes roll back towards the back of the skull. The Yogi surrenders to God in this position, not out of weakness, but from a position of strength and confidence. The power that develops is not used to glorify the ego, but everything is given as an offering to the Lord.

Forward Bends

In forward bends, the torso (or trunk) moves forward and rests on the legs (or leg). The head bows down, and our visibility is limited. Therefore our senses turn inward and the front brain (the active brain) is supported by the legs (or by a folded blanket on our legs) and relaxes.

This has physiological effects that include a decrease in blood pressure and heart rate, calming of the nervous system and the brain, stimulation of the digestive system and the adrenal glands, and increased supply of blood to the pelvis, legs and gonad glands – which improves the functioning of the reproductive organs.

These physiological effects are closely related to, and accompanied by mental effects. Forward bends bring about an experience of tranquility, relaxation, surrender, devotion, renunciation, humility, and internalization. The breath becomes calm and steady, and our constantly shifting mental chatter slows. Forward bends, more than any other family of postures, demonstrates Iyengar’s saying: “The aim of yoga is to calm the chaos of conflicting impulses.” (BKS Iyengar). These asanas call for prolonged stays that bring about relaxation and tranquility.

Often while practicing forward bends, I stretch to a point where I can stay comfortably and then just linger there without trying to advance beyond that point. This type of stay in the asana brings about a kind of pleasure and sweetness that accompanies the abandonment of motivation to stand out or to impress. Many times, this inner relief is manifested into a real vocal sigh of relief that clears the pressures and worries of the business of life. I can actually feel my brain’s functioning shifts from performing and planning to passively observing.

The above are general comments about the forward bends family of asanas. However, there are significant differences between the effects of the various asanas in this family. Here I compare Paschimottanasana and Janu Sirsasana.

 

paschimottanasana_I

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

janu-sirsasana_I

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paschimottanasana, being a symmetric asana, stretches both legs and both sides of the body evenly. This equal action of both sides of the body creates harmony and alignment. The forward bend action of this asana may be physically more challenging, as we need to overcome the resistance of both legs, but the asana does not create a sense of struggle, because the movement flows in the one direction. The entire torso, from the buttocks to the shoulders and the back of the head are moving forward. There is no need to reconcile opposing forces; all muscle fibers and awareness are flowing uniformly, like a car driving on a highway.

Janu Sirsasana, however, is a more complex asana. When you perform it with the right leg bent, the right thigh is left behind and doesn’t participate in the move forward; On the contrary, it must roll back. It Pulls the right side of the body back and to the right and the challenge is to balance both sides of the torso. The right side tends to arch and curve, moving the stomach to the right. In addition to the movement forward, there are twisting and lateral movements of the spine and trunk. We often encounter in life such a challenge of having to reconcile two opposing forces and the practice of Janu Sirsasana allows us to examine the way we deal with these challenges. It is very easy to let the right knee slip forward, but the requirement of the pose is to maintain an obtuse angle between the thighs. If we keep this requirement, the asana poses a real challenge and therefore a fertile ground for practice and exploration.

Inversions

Inversions are a precious gift given to humanity by yoga! These asanas are priceless. They have profound effects at the anatomical, physiological and mental levels. In fact, in an inverted position, the border between the physiological and the mental becomes blurred. The effect on the control systems of the body: the brain, and nervous and the hormonal system, is so deep, that it is difficult to separate the mental experience of staying in the asana from the mental experience of focus, relaxation and exhilaration. You can read more about the experience of inversions here

 Staying in an inverted pose changes the flowing direction of our bodily fluids (blood and lymph fluids) since gravity pulls towards the head rather than the legs. The head organs, especially the brain and the senses, receive an increased supply of arterial blood, which is accompanied by a marked shift in our internal sensation. Space orientation turns around because we see the world from a new and unfamiliar perspective. This effect is particularly noticeable when practicing Sirsasana outdoors.

I often practice on the beach; seeing the sea, and especially the sunset, while standing in Sirsasana is a unique experience. I highly recommend it to everyone! Changing our viewing angle brings about flexibility of thought and the ability to examine everyday issues and challenges from different perspectives.

Inversions also touch upon deep seated fears and insecurities hidden in the depths of our consciousness. Often, students experience psychological barriers getting into Sirsasana or Adho Mukha Vrksasana (handstand). These barriers make it difficult for them to get into the asana, and it is only when they succeed to overcome them, that they are able to enter and stay in the asana comfortably, reducing the effort required. Crossing these mental barriers require that we release and overcome these deep rooted fears, which in turn brings about a sense of security, confidence and balance that develops our personality.

Advanced practitioners stay in inversions a relatively long time (15-30 minutes in each asana). Such a long stay also develops patience, stamina, concentration and focus. We have to learn to maintain the action of the asana while in the asana without letting our consciousness vibrate. This develops concentration and mental stability. After such a long stay in the asanas both the body and the mind are refreshed, and problems, annoyances and other worries we are engaged in in our everyday life disappear (at least for a while…).

Even in instances where I don’t have ample time to practice, I try not to give up practicing inversions, because I know a half an hour of inversions is sufficient in order to bring about peace of mind, change the course of my day and the way in which I feel present. Also, it is quite difficult for me to get out of inversions – more than once I had to end the practice to catch a train, but I preferred to stay in Sirsasana and consequently miss the train…

Two major inversions are Sirsasana and Sarvangasana. These two asanas are contradictory and complementary like Yang and Yin, or in a Yogic terminology, the sun and moon. I encourage you to take a break from reading and practice these two asanas in order to experience them for yourself and maybe even articulate on your own the differences you feel practicing these two asanas.

Sirsasana stimulates, awakens and focuses, while Sarvangasana quiets and internalizes. The way I experience it, in Sirsasana, the dominant sense is the vision while in Sarvangasana it is audition. In Sirsasana, the field of vision is wide and we gaze forward at eye level. This stimulates the eyes and clarifies the vision. However, in Sarvangasana our field of vision is limited, yet the inner ear and auditory canal are opening. This asana increases blood flow to the ears and improves their performance. In Sarvangasana and its variations there is a great deal of internalization and reflection as well as a tendency to close the eyes. Our sense of sight provides targeted information while hearing opens a wide non-targeted space. In Yoga, the space element (ether) is related to sound. Perhaps this effect on our auditory system opens an internal space that creates a soothing and calming effect.

In Sirsasana (when practiced correctly) the head is held vertically and aligned, receiving equal amounts of blood flow, and hence the head organs are equally stimulated. In particular a full balance is achieved between the hindbrain and forebrain. Sarvangasana on the contrary, develops the hindbrain.

In Yoga, the forebrain is considered the logical, analytical, and calculating brain (Vitarka), while the hindbrain is considered the creative and intuitive brain (Vichara) (See sutra 1.17 and also Table 5 in Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Iyengar). Therefore, the two asanas differ so greatly in their psycho-physical effects and yet complement each other.

Sirsasana is also different from Sarvangasana in term of the breathing patterns and the diaphragms that are activated. In Sirsasana, moving the tailbone in and tightening the buttocks activates the pelvic diaphragm (the pelvic floor muscles). This creates a Mula kriya (suction and elation of the pelvic floor). In addition, when we learn to relax the abdominal area, the abdominal organs are automatically drawn towards the lower back and the respiratory diaphragm (the base of the thorax). This creates Uddiyana kriya (suction of the abdomen and the respiratory diaphragm). In Sarvangasana, when we learn to relax the throat in, the vocal diaphragm is stimulated (at the base of the throat), creating a Jalandhara bandha (the throat lock) – this has the effect of internalization and convergence. In Sirsasana the respiratory diaphragm has a greater freedom of movement and breathing is mainly Samanic (breathing into and through the upper abdomen and lower ribs). In Sarvangasana, however there is an opening of the upper chest and breathing is Pranic and Udanic (to and through the upper part of the thorax and shoulder girdle).

Conclusion

Geeta Iyengar writes in Yoga in Action – Preliminary course (p. 24-5):

… there are other particular ‘effects’ derived from the asanas practice. These are to be observed in the practice of the asanas. This ‘observation’ needs to be learnt and cultivated like any other skill. It does not require any special talent in the execution of the asanas so it is available for all. As correction and precision in the performance develop, the asanas become effective on the body and mind.

The keen perception and observation that comes from this practice brings to the yoga practitioner stability in the body and clarity of awareness that enriches the whole person.

BKS Iyengar writes in the Introduction of Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali:

In the beginning, effort is required to master the asanas. Effort involves hours, days, months, years and even several lifetimes of work. When effortful effort in an asana becomes effortless effort, one has mastered that asana. In this way, each asana has to become effortless. While performing the asanas, one has to relax the cells of the brain, and activate the cells of vital organs and of the structural and skeletal body. Then intelligence and consciousness may spread to each and every cell.

The conjunction of effort, concentration and balance in asana forces us to live intensely in the present moment, a rare experience in modern life. This actuality, or being in the present, has both a strengthening and a cleansing effect: physically in the rejection of disease, mentally by ridding our mind of stagnated thoughts or prejudices; and on a very high level where perception and action become one, by teaching us instantaneous correct action: that is to say action which does not produce reaction. On that level we may also expunge the residual effects of past actions.

Please remember that the external representation of the asana does not reflect its true essence. When the demonstrator is a master – (like BKS Iyengar, in the book “Light on Yoga“) the demonstration expresses some of the true energetic-mental qualities of the asana. But even in this case, the image does not reveal everything that goes on behind the scenes. The actual effects are always internal.  The statement that Prashant Iyengar made about this issue comes to mind, as he said that “an asana should never be photographed”, because the image always misses the true essence of the asana and does not convey the mental experience which is an essential part of practicing an asana.

Asanas require that we place the body in some challenging postures, that may even seem at first, unnatural. Asanas often require the practitioner to deal with difficulties and pressures. The practitioner often experiences strain and stress. This strain causes contraction, tension, locking the jaws or grinding the teeth and holding the breath. Even skilled practitioners, when first attempting to perform more advanced asanas, experience muscular tension and strain on the respiratory and nervous systems. The field of asanas is so vast; even a glimpse in photos of Light on Yoga shows us that even after thirty years of practice we still can still face new challenges… We are always beginners. But maturity in our practice is not necessarily reflected in our ability to perform advanced asanas, but rather in our attitude while staying in an asana. When, despite the tension and effort, we learn to maintain a relaxed face, a soft throat and flowing breath, the experience of the asana changes and internal space is created. The physical strain does not create psychological stress anymore. The ability to direct the breath and relax the sense organs and the brain, allows us to stay in the asana with observation and reflection. We learn not to react to stress by closing and contracting, but rather are able to remain calm, even when faced with a challenging and possibly stressful situations.

In everyday life we ​​are continuously confronted with tensions, difficulties and challenges. But if we do not react automatically and are able to maintain our composure, we will select the appropriate response for each situation. As a result, our actions will have a different quality, one of greater equanimity and balance. Yoga frees us from automated habits and conditioned behaviors that stem from lack of awareness, which are not beneficial to us and those around us.

When we learn to maintain an inner peace we have the freedom of choice. We stop responding automatically and instinctively; we become capable of being in situations that life summons us with peace, balance and equanimity. Then our actions become skilled. A skillful action does not create negative karma. Acting in this way brings about a radical change in the quality of our lives and those around us, and increases the joy and serenity we experience in this life!

 

 

 

Why do we practice Yoga?

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That is a very important question because for most of us, practice is done through the body and externally it may look very much like gymnastics. Hence, many people think that yoga practice is done for fitness: to get a better body, to be stronger or to become more flexible. Yoga, however, is not at all about this! Asana practice will definitely do well for your body, but this is just a byproduct and not the aim (See the chapter “The aim and the by-product” in Tree of Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar).

When we practice we do things; but, what we feel is much more important than what we do! We perform actions in the poses in order to feel more, to penetrate further, and to explore ourselves more deeply. The object of this exploration is our entire embodiment: our body, senses, breathe, mind, intellect and self.

This kind of penetration is not available to us when we are not active physically. We will never be able to carry out this exploration when sitting on a sofa in a slouch and loose posture.

Iyengar writes: “Of the two aspects of asana, exertion of our body and penetration of our mind, the latter is eventually more important. Penetration of our mind is our goal“. (Light on Life, p. 45). We shouldn’t be carried away by the external movements, but focus on the actions we do, the sensations we get and the reactions of our body-mind-breath to these actions.

What is action?

Iyengar defines it thus:

Action is movement with intelligence. The world is filled with movement. What the world needs is more conscious movement, more action.” (ibid. p.28)

And indeed, in asana there is a lot of action, but very little movement. But asana practice is not just any action; it’s a very special kind of activity that helps us to explore our internal world, to be more observant, quieter, and more reflective – to penetrate deeper inside. In a good asana there should be a fine balance between action and relaxation (sthirata & sukata or prayatna shitilya).

In chapter 2 of Light on Life Iyengar sheds light on many deep aspects of asana practice: “Balance of activity and passivity transforms the active brain into a witness…” (ibid. 36-7)

When there is strain, the practice of yoga is purely physical and leads toward imbalances and misjudgment.” (ibid. p. 35)

The ultimate goal of our practice is to know ourselves better, to become more aware; more sensitive. In order to live better we need to become more intelligent. By ‘intelligence’ I mean here the skill to act better in the world and to lead a more joyful and peaceful life.

By observing our reactions, our tendencies, our patterns of behavior (or samskaras) during the practice we explore ourselves to a deeper extent and we get intimate connection with ourselves. This can be applied in our daily activity; we learn to reflect on our actions and to analyze them.

It’s like sculpting where a piece of stone is constantly shaped and refined; but here the sculpture, the sculptor, and the act of sculpting is one and the same – our own selves. Moreover, the sculpture is not a static entity, but a dynamic one that changes over time; it tends to deteriorate if we don’t take a good care of it. Iyengar says: “If you have a knife which you do not use, what happens to it? It get rusted, does it not? … With regular sharpening, you can keep it sharp forever.” (Tree of Yoga p. 28) If we don’t sharpen our embodiment regularly and persistently, the body may lose its flexibility and sensitivity, and the mind may become dull, rudimentary and rude. So we constantly have to refine ourselves, to become subtler, nobler, and sharper.

This is why we need to return to our practice-mat every day, determined to continue the internal quest, to penetrate deeper into ourselves, to transform ourselves.

You should go on analyzing and by analysis you will come to understand. You have to see what messages come from the fibers, the muscles and the skin… while you are doing the pose. It is not good enough to experience today and analyze tomorrow… Analysis in action is the only guide.” (Tree of Yoga p. 42)

There should be constant analysis throughout the action, not just afterwards.” (Light on Life, p. 31)

Charging Yourself  in Savasana

Savasana-Eyal

Never give up Savasana; even if you are in a great hurry to run to your daily business, spare at least five minutes for this important pose! These minutes are very precious, you are totally detached from your daily activities, worries and obligations; your mental modality changes and you sort of float in a different realm, embraced by Mother Earth and Nature, enjoying the grace of tranquility. This is where you reap the seeds you sow in your practice –take time to savor them!

In Light on Pranayama B.K.S. Iyengar writes: “Sava in Sanskrit means a corpse and asana a posture. Thus Savasana is a posture that simulates a dead body, and evokes the experience of remaining in a state as in death and of ending the heart-aches and the shocks that the flesh is heir to. It means relaxation, and therefore recuperation. It is not simply lying on one’s back with a vacant mind and gazing, nor does it end in snoring. It is the most difficult of yogic asanas to perfect, but it is also the most refreshing and rewarding.” (Chapter 30, Para. 1. The emphasis on the last sentence is mine). I strongly recommend you to read thoroughly the detailed instruction for Savasana Iyengar gives in this chapter – what a penetration and insight!

Savasana is the gate for the more internal limbs of Yoga: Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana (concentration) and Dhyana (meditation). Only when your Savasana practice is sound and regular can you go deep into Pranayama; otherwise it will be just breathing exercises. Savasana teaches you how to draw your senses inward and concentrate – this is the basis for Pratyahara and Dharana. When these are established, Dhyana follows naturally.

Savasana is the art of non-doing, not-acting, just being in the present moment. In our hectic way of life it is so important to learn to stop and relax. Deep relaxation is probably the healthiest thing and the best service you can provide for yourself. Our body is wonderful machinery – the internal organs that are responsible for our health do their job orderly without our conscious intervention. But stress is harmful for their proper function. Stress disturbs the digestion, limits circulation, raises blood pressure and disturbs the proper function of all the systems of the body in so many other ways. Relaxation is the key to healthy functioning of the body and mind. In Yoga – the Path to Holistic Health, B.K.S. Iyengar writes: “If you suffer from stress, you may experience indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome, headaches, migraine, a feeling of constriction in the diaphragm, breathlessness, or insomnia… Yogic methods of deep relaxation have a profound effect on all the body systems. When a part of the body is tense, blood flow to that area decreases, reducing immunity. Yoga works on that area to relieve tension and improve blood flow to the entire body, stabilizing the heart rate and blood pressure. Rapid, shallow breathing becomes deep and slow, allowing a higher intake of oxygen, and removing stress from the body and the mind.” (Page 179)

In the first phase of Savasana use your breath; connect to the rhythm of your breath. Inhalation is the realization of the ‘I AM’, when exhaling dissolve that I AM to Mother Earth. Inhale – let be; Exhale – let go. Inhale – let be; Exhale – let go. Follow that rhythm while giving more emphasis to the letting go of the exhalation.

Then, at some moment stop all conditioning. Do not condition your breath any more. Do not condition your mind anymore – just let go. Stay there, floating, very light and very heavy at the same time. Let the river carry you – do not resist or try to control. When your Savasana becomes deep, you may feel a natural, spontaneous suspension of the breath at the end of exhalation; this suspension brings about a total surrender.

When we connect our smart-phone to a source of electricity, it shows us the energy level of the battery. In the same way, when you lie down in Savasana measure your level of energy. How much is it? 60%? 75%?

Stay in Savasana until you are fully charged – up to 100%.

Today scientists are developing sophisticated chargers that can charge a battery in a few minutes. Can you be totally still and quiet in Savasana to charge and refresh yourself in a few minutes?

The energy source in Savasana is Mother Earth – it is a huge source of energy, of Prana; but we need to connect to it. The charger is powerful, but the connection is not always that good. What disrupts this connection is tension. Only by total surrender, a complete letting go, can we connect to that energy and charge ourselves. Let go of everything: muscular tension, holding, contraction, thoughts, emotions – everything! Just surrender and come close as possible to Mother Earth. Imagine the big Earth under you pulling and hugging your small body and surrender to that pull of gravity.

In Savasana we let go of everything – it is a total renunciation. We surrender our roles, our sense of importance, our sense of self, our ego, our entire personality. We reach our ‘ground zero’. Physiologically, our internal activities – the breathing, heartbeat and metabolism, all become infinitesimal; our mental activity slows down, the consciousness becomes void. So in a sense we experience ‘a little death’, which is not a bad thing, since once we completely give ourselves, we allow something new to be created inside us.

“.. When fluctuations take place internally or externally, mental and intellectual energies are wasted. In Savasana the internal or emotional upheavals in the mind are stilled…” (Light on Pranayama, Ch. 30 Para. 27)

Practice Savasana for some ten to fifteen minutes to experience a sense of timelessness. The slightest thought or movement will break the spell and you are once more in the world of time, with a beginning and an end.” (Light on Pranayama, Ch. 30 Para. 30)

 

Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream

It is not dying, it is not dying

Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void
It is shining, it is shining

Yet you may see the meaning of within
It is being, it is being

Love is all and love is everyone
It is knowing, it is knowing

Tomorrow Never Knows, John Lennon