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.

In a reflective asana practice (done as a form of inner work – not as a body culture) there is 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 – radiating the light of the buddhi

Concentration – Focusing On One Point

As noted, the manas functions both externally and internally. For the most part, because of the external noise surrounding us and the attraction of our senses to external stimuli, the external functioning of the manas (the interaction with the world) is dominant while inner reflection is less frequent or present. Yoga is an inward journey, and hence it has to commence with the internalization of the manas. The manas is by nature vibrant and unstable and a sadhana (practice discipline) is needed in order to still it:

“See how many times the brain jumps from one thing to the other in your sadhana. This flickering in the brain creates thought waves in the heart… Thought takes the mind to the past and thinking process takes one toward the future and you lose the present. If citta-vritti is from the head, prasanta (tranquil) citta is from the heart”.

Astadala Yogamala: Collected Works, Vol. 8, Page 132.

In order to effectively direct the manas inward in asana practice, one should use the guideline given by Patanjali in sutra I.32: eka tattva abhyasah: adherence to a single-minded effort. In asana practice, this means that one selects a single action and pays full attention to it continuously – while entering, staying in and coming out of the pose. Without this intention, the manas is prone to wander from one action to another; from one region of the body to another, or even worse, to partake in affairs that have no connection whatsoever to the performance of the asana. Such a practice will not help to develop concentration, inwardness and clarity.

Usually, in Iyengar yoga classes, the teacher gives a lot of instructions and the students follow and move their attention from one part of the body to another. For beginners, this is inevitable, since a beginner needs to learn the actions that are involved in preforming the asana; and hence needs detailed guidance. However, once the asana had been learnt and the student achieved some mastery of it, one can begin to develop concentration by practicing asanas with adherence to a single principle. An advanced practitioner doesn’t need to think about too many things since the cells of the body and the nervous system have already acquired a memory of the pose and the body can perform it without having to recall the instructions and perform them consciously. Once this level is attained, one can focus on a single action and limit the attention to this action exclusively. When one finds that the attention has wandered somewhere else, he or she has to immediately bring it back to the chosen action. The entire pose is then done with reference to that single action or with this action in mind.

For example, in lateral standing asanas like Utthita Trikonasana one can concentrate on the middle finger of the back hand. When spreading the legs (to Utthita Hasta Padasana) the arms are stretched sideways and the attention is brought to the middle finger of both hands. One has to extend the fingers without hardening them, in order to allow for the awareness to spread in them. When turning the right leg out, one needs to make sure that the awareness in the middle finger of the left doesn’t shrink and doesn’t fade. This awareness must be kept constant throughout the performance of the pose.

It is important to note that there is nothing of particular importance about this action and other actions may be selected.  Two examples are (1) Moving the right shoulder blade in (Prashant Iyengar sometimes calls it: ‘shoulder-bladize the pose’); and (2) Spreading the back of the left knee. Whatever action or point one chooses, she or he has to stick solely to it during the practice session.

For a mature practitioner who knows the pose well, focusing on a single point doesn’t disrupt the quality of the pose, because the selected point becomes the ‘brain’ that governs the pose and organizes it. The intelligence of the body cells knows the pose and can perform it on its own. Once we learn how to walk or drive we don’t need to think about all the actions that are done while walking or driving; these functions are wired into our nervous system and are performed almost automatically. This is a result of habituation, which yoga practice can mimic; and we should try to take advantage of this way of learning to enhance our practice.

It is rare as it is difficult to practice in such level of concentration and focus. But if you practice like that, you’ll find out that the consciousness becomes quite; that unnecessary and redundant movements lessen; that the breath becomes smooth and circular, and that the eyes recede and become stable.

Diffusion of the Manas

The next stage is to diffuse the manas to the entire body. Often while doing an asana, awareness becomes sharp in certain regions of the body (often in the parts that are being stretched or activated) while dull and dormant in the other regions. The flow of awareness in the body is a movement of the manas. B.K.S. Iyengar said countless times that in a well-performed asana the awareness is spreading evenly and uniformly in the entire body from the core to the periphery, or from the inner Self to the skin.

Iyengar was not an academic scholar but a practical philosopher – his knowledge stemmed from his practice and his thorough exploration of the asanas. For him, ‘manas’ was not an abstract term but something concrete that could be felt and even seen externally. The manas has a liquid quality, so just like liquid, it can expand and fill its container touching its walls in an even manner. If the manas is compressed in one part of the body it can be felt in the asana. A competent teacher can visually observe whether the manas is spreading evenly in the body of the student.

The starting point of the standing asanas is Tadasana. In a well performed Tadasana one can feel how the awareness (the manas) is spreading until it touches the entire trunk. This makes Tadasana – the mountain pose become Samasthiti – an even and balanced pose. When the manas is diffused it fills a rectangle-like shape which encompasses the entire trunk (in fact, it is a three dimensional box, but for simplicity’s sake I use the word rectangle). Moving on to other standing asana, this rectangular shape has a tendency to misalign: broaden on one side while narrow the other, or over-stretch one side and under-stretch the other.

When painful over-stretching occurs, the manas is focused on the part in which the pain expresses itself. Therefore, awareness to all other parts of the body is minimal or non-existent. In the painful region, there is, as it were, a condensed lump of awareness but awareness is lacking from all other parts. The pain attracts our attention and creates imbalance and discomfort, which causes us to come out of the pose, or to hold it with sheer will power that produces a lot of stress – and that is not a good practice of yoga!

To keep the balance and evenness of the pose one has to make a cognitive effort, an effort to observe and concentrate, as B.K.S. Iyengar writes in Light on Life:

“Consider the challenge of the body and mind in an asana. The outer leg over-stretches, but the inner leg drops. We can choose to let the situation be, or we can challenge the imbalance by the application of cognitive comparison supported by the force of will. Maintaining the equilibrium so that there is no back-sliding…”

Light on Life, page 13.

In The Tree of Yoga Iyengar explains how diffusing our concentration evenly in an asana can become meditation:

“When you are over-stretching somewhere to get the optimum movement, have you ever noticed that you are also giving too little attention to other parts of the body? That disturbs the body and makes it shake… You can lose the benefits of what you are doing because of focusing too much partial attention on trying to perfect the pose…  But if you spread the concentration from the extended part to all the other parts of the body, without losing the concentration on the extended part, then you will not lose the inner action or the outer expression of the pose, and that will teach you what meditation is.”

The Tree of Yoga, from the chapter: Effort, awareness and joy.

Buddhi is ever present and its source is in the chest cavity, the heart center. If the manas is not diffused evenly, it creates a sort of a lump, or a cloud, obstructing the light of the buddhi from reaching the peripheries of the body. You can liken it to light emitted by the sun – if light is obstructed by clouds, it does not reach the earth.

In order for awareness to diffuse evenly, one must keep the anatomical shape of the body undistorted. This is how Iyengar describes this:

“Whatever asana one performs, it should not distort the normal or original structure of the anatomical body. Each and every part of the joints and muscles must be kept in their natural shape and form (svarupa). Each one of us must study the distortions that take place while performing the asanas, and at once correct them. For this, the mind and intelligence must be made to involve and to observe by remaining in contact with each and every joint, bone, muscle, fiber, tendon and cell so that the attentive consciousness not only radiates focused awareness but also tastes its flavor. This focused awareness must be felt in every particle of the body, from the skin to the core from the core to the skin. This is the true meaning of sthirata and sukhata in the asanas”. Core of the Yoga Sutras, page 148.

“In performing the asanas some parts remain dull while other parts remain contracted or distracted.  Some parts are scattered without a sense of direction while others remain with a single focused grip. Observing and feeling this single-focused grip, one must learn to adjust it on other parts of the body. Then the elements of the body are evenly balanced, making the practitioner experience the feel of ease in the asanas. In short, while practicing the asanas, if one part moves, the whole of the body must coordinate and move. Similarly, if the whole body moves, all parts must concur. This is sukham”.

Core of the Yoga Sutras, 11 pages 148-149.

“This way of practice diffuses the flame of the seer so that it radiates throughout the body. The sadhakas then experience stability in the physical, physiological, psychological, mental and intellectual bodies. In short, the Seer abides and feels each and every cell with unbiased attention”.

Core of the Yoga Sutras, page 151.

“The first thing to learn is, ‘can I maintain the asana without disturbing the anatomical structure?’ The length of the inner and outer muscles, the space between the ankle and the knee, knee and hip, side ribs, front ribs and skin have to be adjusted by balancing them evenly. While doing the asana there should be a thorough communication between the organs of action and the senses of perception. Performance of the asana is like the mother understanding you and you understanding the mother, which helps one to maintain lovely and lively feeling between you and the mother. I am making you to understand to maintain such connections while performing the asana. The skin which is the sense of knowledge must be studied and understood while doing the asana. You have to see how the sensory nerves react with the actions of the motor nerves without jamming and jarring each other”.

Astadala Yogamala: Collected Works, Vol. 8, Page 118.

In many of the standing poses one has to keep the rectangular shape of Tadasana. While moving from Tadasana to the pose, you should take note that the shape of the awareness in your body doesn’t get distorted, that the distribution remains even throughout and that the breath reaches everywhere. The breath is a very helpful tool in this respect, as pointer out by Iyengar:

“If you carefully observe contact of the breath in different asana you observe that the breath touches different parts in different asana. Even if you take a deep in-breath or a deep out-breath, the touch of each breath in the torso differs each time and will not be the same. Each breath touches sometimes the inner parts and at other times the outer parts or the middle parts. When a deep inhalation or a deep exhalation is taken, you like to be in touch only with that part where the breath touches and neglect the other parts allowing these areas to remain dry and senseless. If the land is dry, it cracks. The same thing happens here: wherever the breath touches, that part gets nourished and the non- attached parts remain undernourished. It means there is progression on one side and regression on the other. While doing the asana learn to observe that the breath taken in or out touches the torso evenly”.

Astadala Yogamala: Collected Works, Vol. 8, Page 119.

Even diffusion of awareness creates clear, cloudless skies. Then, the light of the buddhi can shine, radiating from the heart center – permeating the entire body and beyond.

If the manas has a liquid quality then buddhi (or intelligence) has the quality of light. While liquid takes time to flow and fill its container, light, on the other hand, travels fast and reaches instantly everywhere, if there are no obstructions.

If an asana is done while keeping the balance between both sides of the body and in a manner that allows for even diffusion of awareness, then the third stage is reached, in which we can observe the radiation of the light of the buddhi.

The Radiation of the intelligence

The center of the chest, or the seat of the spiritual heart is the seat of the buddhi. Iyengar said that in order to awaken the sheathes of the body, one has to start from the seat of the heart:

“Consciousness usually remains in a state of dormancy. It’s the mind that dominates. As the mind dominates, intelligence and consciousness get compressed and take back-seats and remain in latent and dormant states. In order to awaken the sheaths of the body you have to start from the seat of the spiritual heart hrdaye cittasamvit (Y.S. III.35). The seat of the consciousness is hrdaye (the seat of the soul). Measure or learn to feel the expansiveness of the body and mind in Trikonasana, Parsvakonasana or any other asana from the center of the heart and not from the brain, as yoga is a stabilizing subject of head and heart. While doing asana do not feed the intellect of the brain but to make it descend to the seat of the consciousness at the heart so that the consciousness with its intelligence guides the brain to use its brilliance for even balance and firmness from end to end in the body״.

Astadala Yogamala: Collected Works, Vol. 8, Page 121.

He described the difference between the intelligence of the brain and that of the heart:

“The brain may create confusion and doubt while the intelligence of the consciousness removes confusion and replaces it with the light of knowledge. As the seat of consciousness is the heart (hrdaye cittasamvit), awaken the consciousness and make it flow through the entire body so that the hidden light of wisdom surfaces.”

Astadala Yogamala: Collected Works, Vol. 8, Page 123.

Referring to sutras II.47 and II.48 (that describe asana-s) he said:

“The Self that covers the entire body like the sun in each asana from any point to any point without deviation is prayatna shaithilya ananta samapattibhyam (Y.S. II.47)[1]. Here the core starts guiding directly and you forget your bahiranga and antaranga bodies. This is tatah dvandva anabhighata (Y.S., II.48)[2]“.

Astadala Yogamala: Collected Works, Vol. 8, Page 129.

This is why in Iyengar yoga there is so much emphasis on opening the chest. It is a central concept in the Iyengar method. When the awareness in the chest broadens, one feels the source of light, and once the light is turned on, you have to ensure that it will radiate to the remotest parts of the body. When we are in an asana while awareness is diffused, we can feel this radiation from the core to the periphery. For example, in Utthita Trikonasana, you can create a connection between the center of the chest and the fingertips and feel the light shining from your center, spreading outwards, through the fingertips. While staying in the pose, this radiation should remain constant and stable. If we remain alert and observant, we can feel this radiation in a concrete way. If the radiation stops or fades then it means that an obstruction was created somewhere, so you have to find out where it is and remove it. As light travels in straight lines, it should be somewhere in between the center of the chest and the periphery. Maybe one shoulder blade is not sufficiently in, and in that region there is a thickness, or compression that doesn’t allow the light of the buddhi to pass through. In this case we have to concentrate on the action of the shoulder blade, and move it to its correct position in order to remove the blockage and allow the radiation to resume. In Sirsasana (head stand) being an inverted pose, it is helpful to focus on the light that spreads from the center of the chest upward, traveling up all the way to the toes.

This is a holistic principle that organizes the entire pose, enabling one to observe and correct the alignment of the pose, because if the body is misaligned the radiation will not reach the periphery. So instead of focusing on specific actions in each part of the body, observe the general, internal feeling; the main outlines of the pose and the flow of the energy in the body. The actions required to ensure a proper alignment are now stemming from the inner feeling and not from recalling instructions heard in the past. Then we are totally immersed in the present and maintain full attention to whatever happening moment after moment in the asana.

In the words of Iyengar (underlines added by me):

“When each new point has been studied, adjusted, and sustained, one’s awareness and concentration will necessarily be simultaneously directed to myriad points so that the in effect consciousness itself is diffused evenly throughout the body. Here consciousness is penetrating and enveloping, illuminated by a direct flow of intelligence and serving as a transformative witness to body and mind. This is a sustained flow of concentration (dharana) leading to an exalted awareness. The ever-alert Will adjusts and refines, creating a totally self-correcting mechanism.”

Light on Life, page 13-14.

“In an asana our consciousness spreads throughout the body, eventually diffusing in every cell, creating a complete awareness.”

Light on Life, page 15

And these are questions worth asking every time we practice:

“Maybe you have read the Bhagvad Gita, where we are asked to keep the body in a rhythmic, harmonious state without any variations between the right and the left, the front and the back… Can I adjust the various parts of my body, as well as my mind and intelligence, to be parallel to that central line? … Do my intelligence and consciousness run parallel in my body without disturbing the banks of my river, the skin? Can I extend my awareness of my self and bring it to each and every part of my body without any variations?”

The Tree of Yoga p. 67

And he continues in the following chapter of The Tree of Yoga (The Fruit):

“In Samadhi you are fully aware. Consciousness diffuses everywhere, through all the sheaths of the body and all its parts… Diffusing the soul into each and every part of the body is Samadhi”.

The Tree of Yoga p. 69

When our practice reaches this level of maturity and the inner feeling that stems from the Core is clear enough, we need not remember any instructions. At this level, one no longer depends on a teacher. There is no need to remember countless instructions since one creates new instructions whenever she or he practices. It is only at this level that one fits to be a real Iyengar yoga teacher!

[1] “Perfection in asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached”. See: Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by B.K.S. Iyengar

[2] “From then on, the sadhaka is undisturbed by dualities”

  • Thanks to Eleanor Schlesinger for proofreading the text.
  • Special Thanks to my teacher Birjoo Mehta from Mumbai – this article is based on inspirations I got in his workshops in Israel
2 replies
  1. Ann Clark
    Ann Clark says:

    New book looks fabulous. ICYA will be buying in volume. CHAIR YOGA is the basis of our curriculum and required reading for credential. I’m so in awe of your knowledge, asanas, and commitment. I am so looking to meeting you in the future. Namaste 🙏

    Reply

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