Interview with Eyal Shifroni for Mantrasurbanos website

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

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.

 

  1. 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 ([4].)

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.” [4]

 

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 [3], 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.” ([3], 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”. ([3], p. 64)

Sources:

  1. “On Power and Nonviolence, Life and Change of Mahatma Gandhi”, Yohanan Grinshpon
  2. “The Yoga Tree” BKS Iyengar, Hebrew translation: Eyal Shifroni
  3. Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali, (philosophy, religion culture, ethos and Practices), Prashant Iyengar
  4. The wisdom of Patajali’s Yoga Sutras, Ravi Ravindra

The Props for Yoga books series – by Eyal Shifroni

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga Asanas Index

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Good luck!

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)
 77-79 Dandasana, Navasana
 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
 297-339 Twists, Malasana
 346-359 Basic balancing poses, Pincha Mayurasana
 366-394 Kurmasana, Eka Pada Sirsasana cycle, Dwi Pada Sirsasana
 395-452 Balancing, Bakasana etc.
 453-471 Advanced sitting
 472-478 Intense leg stretches
 479-591 Backward bending
 592 Savasana

Cut and paste onto the inner book cover

 

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 are attracted to yoga practice for many different reasons. Some because of certain pain they suffer (their doctor told them: try yoga); some in order to “keep fit”; some to enhance their concentration level at work; 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 more central and important – it becomes a way of life. The range of practice shifts and expands from mere body maintenance into the care and development of our entire personality.

 

Teachers can usually see when yoga ceases to be a form of body culture for a specific student, and becomes something 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, it becomes a form of exploration – a psycho-physical laboratory, in which the object of study is the whole person. This study aims to explore the eternal question: “who am I?”

 

At this stage, it becomes important to not only practice, but to also think about the practice and deeply understand the theory at its foundation. We need to observe what happens to us as we practice and understand how the practice can become a live and useful psycho-physical laboratory. This is, of course, the main aim of this book.

 

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What happens in practice depends largely on whether it takes place in a group setting or whether one is practicing individually at home. Although both offer ample space for reflection, there are important differences between the two.

Whether we like it or not, group practice brings about our tendency to compare with the others, this includes tendencies such as competitiveness, desire to impress and excel, envy, pride, and feelings of superiority or inferiority. All of these are products of the self-centered 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 in 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. At final analysis, any comparison is alien to yoga – each person has its own Karma and walks in his own path.

 

Practicing at home arises character dispositions 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. 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 may keep the phone next to us while practicing, and allow it to interrupt our practice flow; we are susceptible to endless distractions and 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 accept periods of difficulty or crisis. 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.

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 position, and needs to make many decisions on how to apply the instructions given by the instructor. 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. Likewise, avoiding injuries in practice is not just the teacher’s responsibility, the student is also responsible as well – and should observe his body and respect its limitations.

 

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 just the beginning. 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.

 

The following three aspects are of particular importance for our practice:

  • Intention
  • Attitude
  • Application

 

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

Patanjali had 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? What propel and motivates me to practice? Maybe I have hidden or implicit goals (like: maintaining physical fitness, be more flexible, healthier, acquire a lucrative profession, impress someone…)

 

Attitude: how do 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?
    Those who visited RIMYI (the Iyengar’s center in Pune) may have heard Prashant Iyengar ask: ‘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 – because he would hold me to a very high standard of performance, this is enough to make my practice very sincere! But this works for me because I studied with him. Everyone much think what works for him or her.

 

  • 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? If I am failing to do a pose, say, I lose my balance in hand stand, should I be upset about it? How could I use it to improve my serenity towards success and failure?

 

  • 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. Every practitioner has to ask herself/himself: do I treat my body as a racehorse and push it to the limit, or do I practice patience, sensitivity and consideration? If I am not considerate to myself while learning, I may not be considerate to others.

 

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: how well do we implement our intention and attitude in our practice? This is of outmost importance because without correct application we will not be able to implement our intentions and achieve our goal. The application includes the techniques that make the practice correct and effective. The yoga teacher typically speaks primarily about the aspect of application. She or he will explain the technique of carrying out an asana.

 

But the real challenge is to know the type of practice that we need. This depends on various factors, some are long-termed, like the physical and mental constitution, the age and the job we do (the practice appropriate for an office worker cannot be the same as that required for a physical laborer, or that of a CEO). The practice should be adapted also according to more transient factors such as: the energy level, whether or not physical injuries are present, the mental state, the level of fatigue, the time of day, the activity prior to the practice, the season, etc. etc. To know how to suit each practice with these circumstances and conditions is an art one acquires with experience and which requires skill and mental flexibility. A beginner may have the right intention and approach but he will not have sufficient knowledge to implement his intentions.

Summary.

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. It is important to reflect from time to time on our own goals and intentions and to check how much they are they consistent with the Yogic goals.

 

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 culture? Do I practice with sincerity and devotion or in a sporadic and whimsical manner? How committed am I 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 asana 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.