Join the Revolution / Sivan Goldhirsh

We have in yoga a wonderful classification of asanas (poses) that are twists. These poses, when done mindfully, have a refreshing effect on the body and mind. They feel great on the tired muscles of the back, induce mobility in the spine, and have a wringing effect on the inner organs…squeezing out stagnant blood and then when you return to a neutral position, encouraging a fresh flow of blood to the area. At least that is what we say in yoga science. I’m not looking to back this claim up with scientific proof, just inviting you to give a twist a try and enjoy the effects.

 

However, not all twists are created equal. Each twist targets a different part of the spine, depending upon whether you are standing, seated, reclining or inverted, and requires a different action in the rest of the body to deepen it. Further, introducing a prop of some kind can greatly ease, support or challenge the twist.

 

Looking a bit deeper into the meaning of the twists, beyond just the physical enjoyment we derive from them, beckons us to look at their names. Many of the twists’ Sanksrit names are the names of sages…for example, Bharadvajasana I is a simple seated twist named after the sage Bharadvaja. His name is broken down into the Sanskrit “Bhara(d)” and “Vaja(m)” which together mean, “bringing about nourishment.” Well, that sounds nice! Sign me up. Another seated twist, which is actually a series of increasingly challenging twists is, Marichyasana, named after the sage Marichi. His name translated literally means a ray of light. This could be either moon or sun light. I find that, depending upon which pose of the series I’m practicing, I connect to an inner experience that is either reflective (moonlight) or a more powerful experience (sunlight). Another series of twists are those under the name of Ardha Matseyandrasana. Ardha means half and Matseyandra was yet another sage! Matsya means fish and Indra means Lord. So the full translation is half-Lord of the Fish pose. The half part of the name is referring to the physical posture being the half version and not the full version, just in case you were thinking that the lord of the fish is a half lord. Of particular interest, this sage, Matseyandra, is credited with founding the Hatha Vidya (the study of Hatha Yoga). What a rich history…there are many sages in the Hindu tradition. If you are one that enjoys lore and history, you can find much to research, but that is beyond the scope of this article. From a practical perspective, the first version of this pose challenges the joints of the toes, feet, ankles, knees and hips, yet is extremely therapeutic to those joints. This is just the set-up of the legs and lower body, before we even attempt to move the spine. Because of the slightly raised position of the pelvis on top of one foot, the twisting preparation for this pose allows for a very full twist of the spine, with one upright thigh stabilizing the torso. The final measure is to add in the bind of the arms both around one knee and behind the back. This compresses the diaphragm and chest somewhat, so breathing becomes labored. With time, one adjusts to this, but the effect after the twist is extremely refreshing, and almost euphoric. I’m not sure if this is because of the wonderful circulatory effects or personal sense of accomplishment, but in any case, this is a lovely and intense twist to wake up your spine and internal abdominal organs.

 

The final grouping of twists that I want to talk about are the Parivrttas, the revolving twists. Here’s where it gets really interesting for me. I love Parivrtta. Roll it around in your mouth and get a sense of the word linguistically. There is a churning action in just saying it. Imagine what it can do for the rest of your body! “Pari” translates to “around,” and vrtti” means “movement.” Typically, we translate it to flip or revolve. It doesn’t mean twist or turn in a simple way, but to take you from point A and then move you 180 degrees to point B. A revolution. This revolution takes place naturally in our bodies, but even more so in our minds. Prashant Iyengar, BKS Iyengar’s son and brilliant teacher in his own right, is quoted as saying, “The twisting of the body, untwists the mind.” I wonder if this statement is derived from his experience of an actual neurological phenomenon. A twist, in addition to being a cross-lateral movement (coordinating both sides of the body at the same time, like so many yoga poses), also often crosses the midline of the body, which is definitely the case in a parivrtta pose. Physical exercises that are cross lateral and cross the midline, stimulate both hemispheres of the brain, building a bridge between the two sides that helps us not only in physical coordination, but in cognitive coordination, by reawakening important neural pathways. This is one of the reasons why the crawling stage is so important in the cognitive and physical development of babies. As yoga practitioners, we derive the benefits of these actions to support our mental and physical health throughout our lives. Another excellent reason to practice twists!

 

The great reclining parivrtta, Jathara Parivartanasana, emphasizes the action of the stomach as the stage for this twist. Jathara means stomach, Parivar is the revolving aspect and Tan is the element of stretch, extend or lengthen out. There is no doubt that this requires a level of strength in the abdominal muscles, not to mention in the legs and upper body for stabilizing, but it is not a static contraction in the abdomen. Instead, as you lie on your back, arms stretched out at shoulder height, legs together, firm as one, toes hovering mere centimeters over your right fingertips, the abdomen revolves and revolves, lengthening  and extending in the opposite direction of your legs. It is not a single action that is then held, but a continuous conveyer belt of revolving actions, toning the abdomen and twisting the spine. The waist narrows and the abdominal organs are treated to a deep massage.

 

Another inspiring yogi, teacher and writer who developed the Viniyoga style of yoga, T.K.V. Desikachar is also of a pure yogic dynasty as the son of the Krishnamacharya, who is known as the father of modern yoga. I like to actually think of Krishnamacharya as the grandfather of modern yoga, because in addition to his son, he trained both BKS Iyengar, founder of Iyengar Yoga and my “guru” and K. Pattabhi Jois, the father of Ashtanga Yoga. Desikachar writes in his book The Heart of Yoga,

 

“Imagine you are driving a car and suddenly a tree appears right in front of you. In your mind’s eye you see what would happen if you kept driving in the same direction: you would crash into the tree. To avoid that outcome you immediately turn toward another direction. Parivrrti describes this ability to foresee what is going to happen and to redirect oneself accordingly.”

 

To visualize a Parivrtta pose done well is to be slightly confused at what you are seeing. The legs are going in one direction, but then the torso and face are flipped and moving in the opposite direction. Parivrtta Trikonasana (pictured), revolving triangle pose, is one such pose that we typically begin learning this action in. The legs are positioned more or less in the familiar triangle pose stance. Then you turn your body in the direction of the rotated “front” leg, as you would in such poses like Virabhadrasana I, or Parsvottanasana. Here’s where it gets interesting. Your legs stop revolving and your hips put on the brakes, stopping here and anchoring the pose with a compressive action. But your torso, your heart, your arms and your head keep going! And going. You find anchor with one hand reaching to the floor, but you continue revolving the chest and heart and gaze, up, up, up, using your other arm as leverage to move you further than you ever thought you could go. Lean a little in the back space, with faith and trust in the steady firmness of your legs, your anchor, while flying up with the soul to a new revolutionary height. Then you stop. You don’t go any further. Maybe you can’t physically go any further. But we work to achieve this line of channeling through the arms. They stack, one on top of the other, the lower, grounding you deep into the energy of the earth, while the upper reaches towards the heavens. And there you are, in your own little revolution, suspended in the middle.

 

Typically when our legs stop us, we stop. We are dependent upon them, as organs of action, to get us places. This revolutionary pose teaches us many things, both physically, mentally and spiritually. Sometimes, when some force (inner or outer) tells us to stop, we must stop and listen. Other times, we resist the resistance, moving forward on the path less taken in order to continue (r)evolving. To the point of Desikachar, this revolutionary tool is that it gives us the ability to see clearly the current path and know that we need a change or redirection. But not every revolution has to be a fight or a struggle. In a balanced Parivrrta Trikonasana, you feel the support of the previous path, giving you just the right amount to tension so you can continue your (r)evolution, grounding you, stabilizing you, and yet giving you the freedom and faith to fly.

 

Written by Sivan Goldhirsh

A review on the book: “The Psychophysical Lab” – in YogAbhyasa magazine (German)

Here is an issue of the Abhyasa Magazine (published in Austria in the German language) which contains a review of Ohad’s and Eyal’s book: The Psychophysical Lab – Yoga Practice and the Mind-Body Problem – to read the article click here 

What is so special about the practice of asanas?

Everyone who moves deeply into asana practice feels that there is something special about this practice, something that affects our entire being on all levels and brings tremendous joy and contentment. So why don’t other sports and activities have the same effects?

One of the reasons is that the practice of asanas involves the performance of a large variety of movements and actions which are intricate and not easy to learn. Compare this with activities like jogging, cycling, or swimming. These are  very positive and healthy activities, but the actions one performs are repetitive and mechanical – once you learn to cycle, your body knows how to do that and you don’t need to think about what and how you do  it – you just repeat the same actions, over and over again, developing only a limited number of muscle groups.

Asana practice differs as it involves activation of many muscles in a coordinated manner. You must be attentive and think about what you do, so the effect is bringing the mind and body together. Coordinating many actions requires communication between various capacities, for example, breathing, focusing, observing, and adjusting. One becomes totally absorbed in this process. Coordination leads to communication which in turn leads to communion. There is an orchestration of actions which becomes more and more harmonious as one continues to practice and refine.

This kind of skillful activity has deep effects on mind and body. You need to fine tune the actions you do. This requires observation and sensitivity. Swimming or running – with all the benefits they definitely have – do not require the practitioner to fully engage the depth of their sensitivity and intelligence in the performance of their sport. Whereas asanas – when done mindfully, have the potential to educate you on many levels and to improve your sensitivity, sense of proportion, quality of judgment and so on. This can enhance your intelligence in the deepest sense of the word (not the IQ measure). It will also give you more joy and peace – but this is a topic for another discussion.

Why do we Practice Yoga?

Our intention and attitude toward our yoga practice are very important – it makes all the difference between doing asanas as gymnastics, or as yoga! One can easily practice yoga as a body-culture only. For us, practitioners of (the wonderful system of) Iyengar yoga, that know so many fine instructions about the actions of the body in each asana, it’s especially easy to become obsessed with the body.

It is important to ask ourselves with sincerity: Why do we practice? What are we trying to achieve? What is our real goal? Are we consumed with the technical details of the asanas, trying to perfect physical capabilities like strength and flexibility, or do we have something more in mind? Do we approach our practice space like one may come to a gym? Or, is the approach as a student entering a classroom or a lab?

Yoga practice is not only a body culture; it is not a ‘workout’. Our ultimate aim is to know ourselves. Who am I beyond all the movements and the noise of the business of life? Who am I before I define myself as: a man or a woman, an Indian or Israeli, a student or a teacher, a parent or a child, a lawyer or a driver, and so on? Who am I beneath all these labels? Beyond all these appearances? Who is or what is the one that never comes and never goes?

Yoga holds that at the very core of our existence we are pure awareness. This awareness is like the stage on which the drama of our life takes place. We are actors in this drama. Sometimes we play well and gain, sometimes we play poorly and lose, but the stage (awareness) remains the same.

However, this is not obvious to us; as Patanjali mentions (I.4[1]) we deeply identify with our life’s circumstances and with the role we are playing. We are overly involved with the drama of our life. With our successes and failures, with our gains and losses, with our pains and pleasures. All this drama may be real – our suffering is real, but, at the same time, there is more than only this in us. To realize this, Patanjali says (I.12[2]) we need practice (abhyasa) and detachment or renunciation (vairagya). Practice is a self-study process toward realization of this pure awareness (purusha). Practice is the recognition of oneself as awareness.

Abhyasa – Action and Effort

Abhyasa is the positive path, the path of action and effort. It’s an effort to develop and foster positive qualities, to transform ourselves toward more stability and equanimity.

In Chapter 1 of Yoga Sutras Patanjali defines abhyasa (I.13[3]) as an effort to stabilize (sthitau yatnah) the mental fluctuations (vritts). In I.14[4] he enumerates the three ingredients or qualities that are necessary to achieve that. These are:

  1. Long time (dirgha-kala)
  2. Uninterrupted (nairantarya)
  3. With reverence and care (satkara-asevitah)

If these conditions are met, the practice becomes firm and solid and unshakeable like the earth (dridha-bhumih).

However, the very nature of our mind is to waver, to change and to move outwardly, toward the senses. Hence, consistency and perseverance are a challenge. When the practice is interrupted, previously attained serenity of mind and the commitment we made may be lost. Our commitment to “get on the mat” no matter how we may feel or what is happening in our lives, should be an anchor of stability!

In Chapter 2 Patanjali elaborates and gives more guidance about practice. In II.1[1] he describes kriya yoga – the yoga of action and later he defines the ashtanga yoga – the eight-limbed yoga (II.28-55 and III.1-3).

How Should we Practice?

The practice is a process of learning and developing. We should respect both our process and everyone else’s process! Everyone, according to her or his constitution and aspirations will have a different process. There is no point in comparing or judging. Whatever we meet along the way in the process is good; it is working for us. The practice is an exploration unto ourselves – a study of our body, breath, mind and senses. It should never be mechanical; it should be playful and enjoyable. We have to carry out experimentations and compare the effects of different settings and different variations. Sometimes we may find ourselves on side-roads and sometimes even get lost – this is all right; it’s a part of the exploration process.

One thing we can readily observe is our tendency to impress, to compare and compete. These are very natural impulses, but they are not beneficial to our process of development. There is no point in comparing ourselves with others. It’s also impossible – we can never know the situation, or the life circumstances, of the student next to us.

We should approach our practice with the right attitude, the right mind-set. When we practice, we should be mindful and reflective. Our practice is our psychophysical lab – a lab of self-study (svadhyaya), a lab for working with and on, our entire being. It’s not important how the asana looks from outside, but how you feel it on the inside. The essence of an asana can’t be captured by a photo. Hence, when you do a pose for the camera, you are not doing an asana. The purpose of doing an asana is to feel more. The body is a field (kshetra) of sensations (sparsha). If we are obsessed with performance, we will not experience this field of sensations and will not develop awareness and sensitivity.

The object of study is our whole being and the asanas and other yogic tools or limbs are the language through which we carry out this study. The process is for the development of our whole being. We need to develop capabilities and attitudes like sensitivity, stability, (bodily and mental) flexibility, persistence, self-discipline, balance, and equanimity. These capabilities are psychophysical – they pertain both to body and mind.

Let your needs, rather than your will to dictate what you do in your practice; use and enhance your capacities and respect your limitations.

Vairagya – Total Acceptance

The second component of the yogic discipline is vairagya. Vairagya is desire-lessness, dispassion, letting go and renunciation. How can we live without desires and cravings? Is this really possible for in our modern society which tempts us to always want more and more.

Vairagya is to agree to accept reality just as it is. Usually we are not ready to accept things as they are. We want more pleasure and less pain, more gain and fame, and less loss and blame. To accept reality as it is, we must acknowledge that:

  • We can’t do everything; we are innately limited,
  • We can’t have everything, be it material or social. I can’t have the nice apartment, car… and I can’t always make someone else love me.
  • We can’t control everything – and least of all the flow of time and the inevitable change of everything. We’ll get old, we’ll have to give up all our possessions and our relationships, and one day, we’ll die.

Vairagya doesn’t mean lack of will; it doesn’t mean that we don’t want to learn, to develop, or to experience joy and love. It does mean that we have to fully accept all these inevitabilities.

 

[1] tapah svadhyaya ishvara-pranidhana kriya-yogah

Burning zeal in practice, self –study of scriptures, and surrender to God are the acts of yoga

[1] At other times, the seer identifies itself with the fluctuating consciousness

(Translations taken from Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, by B.K.S. Iyengar)

[2] Practice and detachment are the means to still the movements of consciousness

[3] Practice is the steadfast effort to still these fluctuations

[4] sa tu dirgha kala nairantairya satkara asevitah dridha bhumih

Long, uninterrupted, alert practice is the firm foundation for restraining the fluctuations

The passive state felt with soft and steady exhalation and retention

After listing the 9 obstacles for the yogic path (in YS I.30), Patanjali mentions a few means for tackling these obstacles. One of them (YS I.34) is to be aware to the breath, which is core of Pranayama practice:

prachchhardana vidharanabhyam va pranayama

This is translated by B.K.S. Iyengar as:

Or, by maintaining the pensive state felt at the time of soft and steady exhalation and during passive retention after exhalation

It is indeed remarkable that Patanjali recommends awareness to the flow of the breath as a mean to overcome the impediments.

The Buddha in the discourse on the establishments of the foundation of mindfulness (The Satipatthana Sutta) also recommends awareness to the breath as a mean for sati or mindfulness.

The breath is indeed a marvel! On the surface, it is just another physiological process to ensure the continuation of our lives. However, a closer inspection reveals the uniqueness of this process. The breath is both voluntary and involuntary. It happens on its own and doesn’t need our conscious intervention. But, unlike the other involuntary physiological processes of our body, we can become aware of the breath and also modify it! We don’t really feel the secretion of insulin by our pancreas, or the digestive juices secreted by our stomach, but, we can know that we are inhaling as we do so, and can be aware of our exhalation as we breathe out.

This unique accessibility of the breath to our conscious awareness opens a gate for deep introspection and reflection.

Try this now:

Exhale softly and steadily and then pause for a passive retention – just observe this state. What happens? How does the next inhalation occur? What force directs the respiratory muscles to contract for the next inhalation? Observe this with the utmost curiosity; as if this is your first breath, as if you have never breathed before. Just wait there without making any willful effort to inhale nor to resist the inhalation when it comes, and ask yourself, what brings about this next inhalation? How does it happen? If I don’t do it myself, then who does?

This is indeed a wonder! A mystery! Don’t take for granted that the inhalation will occur, maybe it won’t; definitely one day it won’t. However, so long as you live, this miracle happens again and again, a dozen times every minute, whether we are aware of it or not.

The answer of yoga to this mystery is that there is a cosmic energy, called Prana – the cosmic life force, the source of all vitality – and this energy makes us breathe. What really is Prana? You can get a glimpse of it by careful observation of the “passive retention after exhalation.” Such observation and exploration can bring deep insights, which may help to overcome obstacles, difficulties, confusion and doubt that we may encounter on our way.

The breath is indeed a great object to look at and explore, since in a sense, it resembles and reflects our life situation. Most of what happens in our life is beyond our control, however, we do have some control. We cannot control the way in which we came into this life, or the family we were born into, nor the body we got. We cannot control the aging process, the passing of time or the decay of our body. Yet, to a certain extent, we can choose our path in life; we can choose to foster some qualities and to subdue others. And to a certain extent, we can control our reactions to life’s eventualities.

A careful examination of the natural flow of our breath, as well as gentle manipulation of it, as done in the practice of Pranayama, can teach us a great lesson about Life itself. We get a glimpse into a process, which on one hand, is beyond our control, while on the other, can be affected and modified. We can retain the breath for a minute or two, but at some point, the natural impulse to breathe will take over; or, in yogic terms, the force of Prana will take over and make us breathe (it’s said that it’s impossible to commit suicide by holding the breath because of this reflex). Essentially, it’s a force beyond our control, much as Life is. This is a very liberating realization. We can’t control everything; we can let go and just go with the flow of life…

The breath can also soften our strong identification with the idea of ‘self’. We all have a concept of self that is running the show of our life. It is a very solid concept that we are very attached to and identified with. We have an idea of a solid, independent and constant ‘I’ or ‘me’. Whether we like or dislike our body, we are very much identified with it. We feel that we own it. If we like it, we are proud of it, but when it betrays us, we are miserable. We also have aversions and clinging to our mind; we are totally identified with it and tend to believe every thought that passes in our mind. However, we don’t have such ownership feeling about our breath, we don’t feel we own it. It comes and goes, and only stays with us for a few seconds; still it’s very essential and liked by all (even those who have breathing difficulties cherish and relish the breath). Or, as Prashant Iyengar puts it: “All that is ours remains ours, because of the breath which is not ours but for us… It can be described as virgin nature, sublime, noble, divine, magnanimous, glorious, Godly, infinite, metaphysical, ageless, endless, boundless, immutable, indescribable”. (Yoga Rahasya, Vol 26 No. 2, 2019).

In reality, we are just like a river which is constantly flowing and changing. The cells of our body are constantly changing. Not much of the molecules that constitute our body remain there after a few months. Our thoughts, emotions, sensations and feelings change all the time. We are like a collection of streams in constant motion. However, this reality is not always apparent for us. Observing our breathe deeply and closely, we can see our inter-dependence with the universe and the impermanence nature of ourselves. At every breath some air molecules penetrate our body and become part of us; a second ago they were external, dead matter, and now they become a part of me, a part of the organic matter that constitutes my cells. At the same time, some CO2 molecules, that were part of me, are exhaled and returned to the environment. Observing closely this flowing, ever changing nature of the breath can teach us a great lesson about anitya (impermanence), which is one of the essential characteristic of the Reality.

Would you see this as an invitation to dedicate some time to just observe your breath?

Read What Students from Novosibirisk (Russia) had Written after Eyal’s June’s workshop

hanna

He is a Guru, and everything is balanced and harmonic about him. And despite the translations everything was clear. Physical body understood everything.

And It was incredible to open your body, chest.

It made such an impression!

We liked kumbhaka a lot.

We hope to see him in Novosibirsk again and probably there will be another workshop on kumbhaka.

Thanks a lot, Guru! 

Elena 

Three days of the Eyal Shifroni’s workshop have passed so fast.

It was absolutely new experience for me.

Thanks Eyal for the new knowledge. My body and conscious transformed into a research laboratory for those three days.

Oksana 

Workshop of Eyal has come to an end.

With huge thanks to Guru for knowledge, for special atmosphere, that brings light of yoga, possibilities to explore yourself, to be in “a laboratory” here and now!

I have these amazing feelings from yoga that brings everyone together. We sing mantra Patanjali and it happens also around the world-we are one international family.

Irina 😊🤗❤

I am still under a deep impression by Eyal, by his practising and his teaching!

Eyal always practices yoga very thoughtfully, deeply, without hurrying, I felt like the place where we are it is Pune, institute, Guruji.

When a man is proffesional and when you observe his work this is magic.

I get an impression that the sequence for personal practice is updated constantly and is also modified by him.

Poses such as standing, back forward, twistings, inversion are completed easily and consciously.

Every day we practiced in a certain sequence and every time it was a new practice. Every time there was something new – this is amazing!

It is surprising how he can build very particular poses, very artfully, without extra instructions, how he can use props for yoga and eventually the pose is light, and it calms you.

I was amazed how simply Eyal can use props for any poses and at the end of the day the pose began to open, to improve.

My best wishes to the Eyal Shifroni and we are looking forward to seeing the teacher again here. 

Attentive Practice and the Psychophysical Lab

Our intention and attitude toward the practice is very important – it makes all the difference between doing asanas as gymnastics, or as Yoga! One can easily practice yoga as a body-culture only.

It is important to ask ourselves: why do we practice? What are we trying to achieve? Is it only bodily capabilities like strength and flexibility, or do we have something more in mind? Do we approach our practice space like one may come to a gym? Or, as a student entering a classroom or a lab?

We must know that our practice is not only a body culture; it is not a ‘workout’. Our aim is to develop our whole being, to develop capabilities and attitudes like sensitivity, stability, (mental) flexibility, persistence, self-discipline, balance, and equanimity. These capabilities are psychophysical – they pertain both to body and mind.

The practice has the potential to make out life better; to make us better human beings. To do be more wholesome for us, for the people around us and for the environment. We should develop positive qualities such as: tranquility, concentration, consideration, generosity, compassion, joy and happiness with the wellbeing and success of others.

This will only come if we approach the practice with the right attitude, the right mind-set. Our practice should be reflective and mindful. Then it will be a psychophysical lab! A lab for self-study (svadhyaya), a lab for working with and on our entire being.

When doing an asana we should reflect on what happens in our body-mind-breath and senses. Many things are happening!

What we feel is more important than what we do, since the purpose of doing, is to feel more, to develop our awareness and sensitivity.

There are many correlations between the body and the mind which are revealed in the practice. Here are a few intermutual psychophysical effects we can observe:

  • Our level of confidence affects our ability to perform certain Low self-esteem (‘I’ll never be able to do that pose’, ‘I can’t jump up to full-arm balance’) affects what we can do. If in the practice, we are able to let go of such fixed and limiting notions and self-images, and be open to what each moment brings, then we will gain more freedom in our life.
  • Our ability to perform balancing asanas is intimately connected with our concentration and focus.
  • Our ability to let go, relax mentally, release stress helps to progress physically.
  • Our breath can be used to release bodily tensions, to soften, to expand, to energize, to uplift, and so on.

In our new book The Psychophysical Lab we examine these effects and the two-way relations between the body and the mind. We discuss whether and how our practice can develop psychophysical capabilities, such as flexibility, balance, stability, non-injury, self-discipline, patience, truthfulness. We examine whether and how, developing such capabilities on the practice mat, affects our life outside of the mat.

We also show how the practice can become a lab, for observing, exploring and studying our mental tendencies. For example:

  1. In a class situation, there will be tendencies to impress, excel and compete. If we are flexible, we may overuse our flexibility in a way that may wear and tear our joints and ligaments.
  2. In self-practice, we often struggle with weak determination, lack of perseverance and self-discipline, with our scattered and absent-mindedness. Sometimes we experience irritation, impatience and agitation (rajas). At other times, low-energy, dullness, sadness, laziness, or heedlessness (tamas). We may find it hard to bring ourselves to practice and to kindle our motivation due to emotions such as sorrow, remorse, anger or cravings.
  3. We may find ourselves practicing ambitiously, to achieve and show-off, then we will be strongly affected by success and failure.
  4. Sometimes we tend to practice mechanically and habitually. We just repeat the things we already know without a real motivation to explore and learn and with no interest, curiosity and creativity. We prefer to repeat the poses we know and are easy for us, avoiding what we really need, even if it’s harder and there are no immediate benefits or satisfaction.

In order to maintain our practice on the right track we should develop and apply the five qualities that Patanjali mentions in sutra I.20, and that B.K.S. Iyengar calls: ‘The five vitamins of the yogi’ (see: The Tree of Yoga in the chapter: The depth of Asana). These are:

  • Shrada – faith; trust that the path of yoga is the path we need to undertake in order to improve and progress.
  • Virya – prowess, energy and determination that are needed to overcome obstacles and difficulties that we will surely encounter sooner or later on our path.
  • Smriti – strong and keen memory to remember, moment after moment, to come back to ourselves, to the present moment, to remember what we are trying to achieve.
  • Samadhi –concentration and absorption.
  • Pragnia – spiritual wisdom.

Shrada is akin to a mother; since the mother’s love, confidence and trust in her child develops his or her faith. Virya is the energy and willpower given typically by the father. Smriti, the third quality is very central, and it appears at the center of the five. It is the gate for the following two. It is difficult for our mind to concentrate and be quiet. We want to concentrate, but soon forget. We are carried away by the business and worries of our life and forget to breathe, we rarely stop to return to our senses and to be mindful to what is happening in the present moment. We live in our memories or in our plans and worries and miss the joy of being in the present moment – the only moment where life really happens!

Smriti is mindfulness, which develops concentration (samadhi), from which wisdom (pragnia) follows.

If we approach our practice seriously, we have to develop and foster these ‘vitamins’ and combine them in our daily practice. Then our practice will progress and if we preserve in it, we will develop the yogi’s capabilities and qualities we mentioned at the outset of this article.

 

The Potential of Yoga Practice

By Dr. Eyal Shifroni

Translated by Eleanor Schlesinger

 

It is important for us to keep in mind and affirm that yoga practice has an immense potential for improving our lives, as well as the lives of those around us. In the hustle and bustle of life and the pressures we are all in, we often forget that.

There is a tendency to focus on the physical aspect of the practice, to practice in order to become more flexible, stronger, to look better, to be healthier. If, for instance, because of life’s overload we can’t practice for a few days, we say, “ugh, I didn’t practice for a few days, my body is really stiff!” but how often do we say: “ugh, I did not practice for a few days, my mind is really stiff!”? And when would we feel more successful? When we grind our teeth to accomplish a difficult asana, even though mentally we experience stress, struggle and ambition, or when we are in a simple asana and experience concentration and serenity?

The body is a component of the human system and is of utmost importance, but we must view the entire human system holistically and remember that yoga practice is intended to transform the entire human system. It is essential to remember this especially in moments of difficulty and crisis, when dealing with physical or mental difficulties. There and then, particularly, it is important for us to remember that  practice is not intended only to obtain more flexible shoulders, or to succeed in performing Urhdva  Dhanurasana, but to bring a greater sense of peace and joy to our lives. But how can yoga practice lead to more peace and joy?

The yoga sages have established certain principles that, if acted upon, will enhance our lives and create more peace. Patanjali wrote of yama and niyama and that: cultivating a caring attitude (maitri) compassion (karuna), encouragement (mudita) and emotional stability (upeksha) (Sutra I.33) will lead to a quiet, enlightened consciousness.

Yet, it isn’t easy applying these principles. It is not enough for us to hear about ahimsa or satya so that the inherent violence in us will dissolve and we will dwell in truth. It isn’t easy to be Mahatma Gandhi. We must acknowledge that we have aggressive and violent tendencies. We may think that nonviolence is an important value, but how do we actually behave when confronted with aggression or a threat to what we perceive as our legitimate right?

It’s not enough to want to be inoffensive. Prashant Iyengar said that our natural inclinations are: himsa (aggression and violence), a-satia (non-truth), steya (tendency to take or use what does not belong to us and was not given to us), a-brahmacharya (non restraint) and parigraha (possessiveness and accumulation) – that is, the direct opposites of the five yamas of Patanjali. In order to overcome these tendencies, a transformation is required, and this, in turn,  requires practice. Practice at all levels, physical practice (disciplining the body), mental practice (disciplining the mind) and practice of the heart. Patanjali does not stop with describing the yogic values; he outlines an entire roadmap for the yogi. In Chapter 1, he depicts the high states of consciousness and in chapter 3 he describes transformations of consciousness. He points to the means for quieting the fluctuations of consciousness (I.12); lists the five vitamins a practitioner needs (I.20); reviews the difficulties and obstacles we will encounter along the way (I.30-31) and the ways to overcome them (I.32-I.39) and most importantly, in chapter 2, he provides us with a framework for practice: the Ashtanga Yoga, the eight limbed yoga whose practice will purify consciousness leading to the dawn of the light of wisdom (II.28).

The potential of practice is a radical transformation of the body matter as well as the our mind-stuff, a transformation that includes the entire personality and manifests itself in our behavior, not only in our thinking. Modern neuroscience has discovered that our brain is flexible and that continuous behavioral change, such as physical or mental practice brings about, can alter the brain’s neural circuits – it is a scientific proof that the body matter changes. The Yogis did not need scientific evidence and knew that practice could change the body and mind substances, creating a transformation that would reduce suffering and help us find more joy in our lives.

As the body and mind stuff transform and consciousness becomes refined, pure and noble, we can spontaneously respond in accord with these yogic values. There would be no need to preach to ahimsa; it will flow spontaneously from within us. Our responses will become more balanced and compassionate. We will behave naturally according to the yogic principles, as an enlightened or a sage would behave.

This is the potential of yoga practice and it is this potential we should remember and reflect on. It is also important to remind ourselves that the fruits of our practice are not only for us, but also for all those around us, because when we benefit ourselves, we will also benefit those around us. The internal transformation that takes place within us will be reflected outside. When we act in a pure, balanced manner and become more considerate and caring, more compassionate, generous and happy with the success of others – the ecology of our lives improves and those around us respond to that change. So the potential of yoga practice is not only for us, but it is also for others. It is important to remember this because it extends greater meaning and value to our practice and can help us overcome crises and periods of difficulty in our own practice.

 

On Karma, Samskara, Vasna, Samsara and Moksha

The literal meaning of the word Karma in Sanskrit is “work,” “action,” or “deed”, in the sense of an action carried out externally in the world, as opposed to the Sanskrit word Kriya, which implies “an action carried out intrinsically”. Good intention or action creates good karma, while bad intention or action creates bad karma. The premise is that every action has implications, whether in this lifetime or in the next incarnation. Additionally, not only actions influence the reality of their doer, but also his/her intention, approach and desire. In that sense, the concept of karma differs from the principle of pure causality found in the natural sciences. The concept of karma is therefore used as the ethical basis in various schools of Eastern philosophy.

As a man himself sows, so he himself reaps; no man inherits the good or evil act of another man. The fruit is of the same quality as the action.

— Mahabharata, xii.291.22

 

The connection between karma and causality is a central motif in various schools of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. According to those, both the individual’s actions as well as his intentions affect the course of his life. Actions carried out with intention (or an outcome in mind) result in an accumulation of karma, as opposed to actions carried out without such intention, which leave karma intact. Good karma has a positive effect on the life of the doer and leads to happiness, while bad karma negatively influences the doer and leads to unhappiness. The effect of karma is not limited to the individual’s current life and may also influence his next incarnation.

 

There are two types of impressions through which karma is applied in our reality:

  • Phala – karma has an immediate impact. It is the result of an action that is expressed immediately, or sometime during the life of the doer, whether overtly or covertly.
  • Samskara – karma has a hidden influence. It is expressed internally in the life of the doer, influencing his behavior and his degree of happiness (in the current life and in certain schools even in future incarnations). Samskara is often the focus of discussion in Eastern philosophy. Karma sows tendencies (vasna) in the individual’s life, which affect their behavior as well as their vision of themselves and the world, thus dictating their experience of life.
  • Reincarnation – the principle of rebirth (samsara) appears in various schools of Eastern religions. All forms of life undergo a process of reincarnation – that is, a series of births and deaths, whereby each birth can manifest in a different life form than the one that preceded it (for example, what was a pig in a previous life can be born again as a human being). The karmic accumulation – which the creature accumulates during its lifetime – continues with it even after death – in the next incarnation and determines the shape and nature of life to which it will be born. This process of death and rebirth continues indefinitely and the only way to stop it is by consciously reaching a release (Moksha).

 

Chapter two of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali conveys that negative thoughts have infinite consequences. Thoughts create karma that the individual carries with him onto future incarnations:

34 vitarkah himsadayah krita karita anumoditah lobha krodha moha purvakah mridu madhya adhimatrah dukha ajnana ananta phala iti pratipaksha bhavanam Uncertain knowledge giving rise to violence, whether done directly or indirectly or condoned, is caused by greed, anger or delusion in mild, moderate or intense degree. It results in endless pain and ignorance. Through introspection comes the end of pain and ignorance.

 

The end of chapter 1 of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali describes the process of clearing the samaskara, to reach the utmost Samadhi – Samadhi without a nucleus:

47 nirvichara vaisharadye adhyatma prasadah From proficiency in nirvicara samapatti

comes purity. Sattva or luminosity flows undisturbed, kindling the spiritual light of self.

 

48 ritambhara tatra prajna When consciousness dwells in wisdom, a truth-bearing state of direct spiritual perception dawns.
49 shruta anumana prajnabhyam anya-vishaya vishesha-arthatvat Thus truth-bearing knowledge and wisdom is distinct from and beyond the knowledge gleaned from books, testimony or inference.
50 tajjah samskarah anya samskara paribandhi  A new life begins with this truth-bearing light. Previous impressions are left behind, and new ones are prevented.
51 tasya api nirodhe sarva nirodhat nirbijah samadhih When that new light of wisdom is also relinquished, seedless Samadhi dawns.

 

 

Chapter four describes the action of the Yogi, who acts without leaving karmic residue or traces and is therefore transparent:

7 karma ashukla akrisnam yoginah trividham itaresam A Yogi’s actions are neither white nor black. The actions of others are of three kinds, white, black or grey.

 

The lotus blossom symbolizes karma in many religions, as the lotus contains its seed while blooming. The seed traditionally symbolizes the cause, while the blossom symbolizes the result. In addition, the lotus grows in murky water, while its flower floats above the surface of the water; it is a metaphor that one can transcend difficult circumstances without being influenced by them.