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) 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) 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) as an effort to stabilize (sthitau yatnah) the mental fluctuations (vritts). In I.14 he enumerates the three ingredients or qualities that are necessary to achieve that. These are:
- Long time (dirgha-kala)
- Uninterrupted (nairantarya)
- 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 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.
 tapah svadhyaya ishvara-pranidhana kriya-yogah
Burning zeal in practice, self –study of scriptures, and surrender to God are the acts of yoga
 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)
 Practice and detachment are the means to still the movements of consciousness
 Practice is the steadfast effort to still these fluctuations
 sa tu dirgha kala nairantairya satkara asevitah dridha bhumih
Long, uninterrupted, alert practice is the firm foundation for restraining the fluctuations
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- We may find ourselves practicing ambitiously, to achieve and show-off, then we will be strongly affected by success and failure.
- 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.
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.
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.
Means for quieting the Fluctuations of Consciousness
in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
By Eyal Shifroni
Translation: Eleanor Schlesinger
What are the pillars of a spiritual path? What characterizes spiritual practice and what should be the attitude of the sadakha(1)? Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras provide answers to these questions. In chapters one and two of the Sutras, Patanjali introduces different ways for quieting consciousness. It is interesting to compare the ways in the first chapter (the chapter on samadhi) with those of the second chapter (the chapter on sadhana). Chapter 1 presents the general principles of abhyasa and vairagya, while chapter 2 presents an expanding list of ways and techniques for realizing these principles.
Chapter two opens with the introduction of kriya yoga, the yoga of the three pillars (work, study and devotion). All three are required in order to progress on a spiritual path. It is interesting to analyze the three components of kriya yoga and compare them with the three main paths of yoga: karma, jnana and bhakti and with Ashtanga yoga, the yoga of eight limbs, which Patanjali presents in chapter two and at the beginning of chapter three.
This article will touch upon these topics.
The yoga sutras begin with the definition of yoga as the cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness (sutra 1.2). Patanjali defines yoga, but does not stop there. Yoga is a practical path, a disciplined practice, not merely a philosophical theory. Therefore, further down the text Patanjali offers different means to approaching the goal of yoga. The first reference Patanjali makes regarding those means is found in sutra 1.12:
Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tan nirodhah.
Practice and detachment are the means to still the movements of consciousness.
Patanjali presents a two-tiered method: abhayassa – practice and vairagya – letting go, or not craving. abhyasa is the active aspect, the effort that must be invested in order to progress. vairagya is an approach.
The definition of abhyasa is presented in Sutras 13 and 14:
Sutra 1.13. Tatra sthi-thau yatnoh ‘bhyaasa ha
Practice is the steadfast effort to still these fluctuations (2).
Sutra 1.14: Sa tu dirgha-kala-nairantarya-satkara-asevito drdha-bhumih
Long, uninterrupted, alert practice is the firm foundation for restraining the fluctuations.
Abhyasa and Vairagya are two sides of the same coin that complete one another: practice is essential as yoga is not purely an academic subject, progress in yoga cannot be achieved through philosophical study of the meaning of yoga, or through speaking about yoga. A comprehensive transformation of the body, mind and consciousness is required here. Only practice: repeated performance of purifying actions on the physical and mental levels can bring about real sustainable transformation. Every complex skill requires repetitive training, you can not learn to play musical instruments, become a sports champion, succeed in juggling, etc’, without spending many hours training.
In all of the above areas training is essential, but there is no mention of vairagya, non-craving. On a spiritual path, practice alone is not enough. Practice, by its very nature involves effort, exertion of will power and discipline. All of these are very important, but without vairagya we may be caught in a loop in which our aspirations nourish the ego, and the more we strive, the further our goal will slip away. Instead of cultivating serenity, we will cultivate competitiveness and ambition. Therefore, Patanjali completes abhyasa with vairagya – letting go, non-craving, introspection.
Practice necessarily presents duality: there is a purpose or a goal – we want to transform, to get elsewhere. In other words, there is a difference between where we are now and where we want to be. We are eager to succeed, to achieve, and therefore are aimed at the future. But the state of liberation required being in the present, being with reality as it is, without wanting to change or achieve anything, without striving to be elsewhere. Vairagya or non-craving is the missing component that settles this duality. Non-craving is the ability to accept things as they are, without striving for more. To see the perfection and beauty of what is, of the present moment, without wanting to change, without aspiring to goals that belong in the future.
In Chapter 1 Patanjali defines abhyasa but does not offer any guidelines or techniques. It’s about effort, attention and perseverance – these are the characteristic of practice, but there are no details of any techniques, we do not exactly know what to do while practicing. What kind of effort is required here?
The answer is that it takes effort to stabilize the mind. Such an effort does not necessarily involve sweating. It is possible that some of us view practice as mechanically repeating the same action over and over again in order to perfect an ability. Yet, even sitting half an hour without moving requires effort. This is a different kind of effort that is both mental and physical.
Following the sutras that deal with the means, Patanjali turns (beginning with Sutra 1.17) to define different types of samadhi. Then, in sutra 1.20 he presents five “vitamins”(3) that help attain ‘high’ samadhi (super-conscious samadhi), namely: shraddha (belief), virya (energy, diligence), smriti (memory), samadhi (meditative absorption) and prajna (spiritual insight).
Faith is required for us to embark on a journey; if we don’t believe the path can lead us to a better place, we will not embark on it. Strength is required to walk the path – determination is needed to overcome the obstacles that will undoubtedly arise on the way; you need strong will to stick to practice and persevere in it. Faith (shraddha) and strength and diligence (virya) complement one another. Faith is metaphorically attributed to the mother who supports and enables the journey, while energy and diligence are attributed to the father who provides the necessary strength.
Smriti (memory) is mentioned here in the sense of remembering, remembering to pay attention – the problem in every practice is distraction or oblivion: we decide to practice, to observe and be attentive, but forget and find ourselves repeatedly captivated by old habits. In order to get out of our habits and conditionings, we need to develop concentration and attention that will allow us to remember to be present – on the yoga mat, or in any activity we may pursue. Maintaining attention and presence without distractions (distraction is a type of forgetfulness).
A combination of faith, strength and focused observation enables deep concentration or samadhi, this is where spiritual insight stems from. We emerge from the delusion that characterizes our ongoing perception of reality. Therefore, faith summons great strength; strength, in turn, enables a powerful memory and those enable meditation through which wisdom and spiritual knowledge (prajna) is attained.
In the continuation of the chapter, Patanjali discusses the obstacles that distract the mind (1.30-31). Of course, Patanjali does not limit himself to detailing the obstacles to be expected by the practitioner and the spiritual aspirant, but suggests different ways to overcome these obstacles and clarify consciousness (chitta prasadanam). In Sutras 1.32-39 Patanjali lists eight different ways of doing so. One can marvel at the breadth of this sage and his ability to contain different ways. The different ways are briefly mentioned but we do not yet have a method, a practice that will help us, ordinary mortals who did not attain samadhi at birth, to achieve ‘citta vritti nirodha‘ – or ‘to quiet the fluctuations of consciousness’. This is the theme of chapter 2.
Chapter 2: From Kriya Yoga to Ashtanga Yoga
Chapter 2 opens with the presentation of the yoga of action, Kriya-yoga: the three pillared yoga,
Sutra 2.1: Tapah svadhyaya ishvara-pranidhana kriya-yogah
Burning zeal in practice, self-study and study of scriptures, and surrender to God are the acts of yoga.
It is interesting to note the transition from the two (abhyasa and vairagya) to the three. This is the beginning of a process disassembling and detailing that will continue throughout the chapter.
What are tapas, svadhyaya and ishvara-pranidhana?
Tapas – a burning desire to Practice, the Purifying Fire
The Sanskrit root of the word tapas, tap means “cook”. Fire (agni, in Sanskrit) is needed for cooking process in order to purify and transform the food. Tapas is sometimes translated into heat, in the Tree of Yoga B.K.S. Iyengar writes: “what is tapas? Tapas is usually translated as austerity, but its meaning is better expressed as burning desire. It is a burning desire to cleanse every cell of the body and every cell of our senses, so that the senses and the body may be made permanently pure and healthy and leave no room for impurities to enter into our system”.
To change habits that we know are unwholesome or even harmful, we need strength, therefore resistance must be created. Such resistance creates friction, which in turn forges heat that purifies, strengthens and changes us – this is tapas. Tapas therefore manifests the quality necessary to adhere to abhyasa.
The great religions include various austerity practices, such as fasting or taking a vow of silence, intended to purify the body and mind, to strengthen the willpower and to create inner change. Fasting allows us to look at the habits of how we feed, and see food as something that is not self-evident. Fasting also allows us to learn what food means for us, socially and emotionally, beyond the basic need to nourish our body. It can help us understand the extent to which we rely on food for a sense of satisfaction and even to reduce boredom and entertain ourselves.
When we avoid unnecessary talk we save energy and do not emit words that might harm others or ourselves. Every spiritual path involves various forms of self-restraint and distancing oneself from the pleasure of the senses.
As noted, tapas can also mean austerity, which is a way of building character and willpower by turning away from the pleasures of the senses and the vanities of this world. But austerities are also dangerous. We may harm ourselves, harm our body or mind. St. Francis of Assisi practiced extreme austerities throughout his life. And at the end of his life he confessed to his students that he had “abused this donkey” (meaning he abused his body). The Buddha, too, after six years of extreme austerities, discovered the middle-way by observing a lauta player. He noticed that when the player stretched the strings too much, they tore, but when they were not tight enough, no sound was produced. The middle-way means that we act without being dragged towards pleasures, and without needing to satisfy every desire, but at the same time, we do not radically avoid anything that is pleasing or joyful.
Yoga practitioners need tapas every morning in order to get out of bed and unroll the mat (many say it’s the most difficult asana …). But a less obvious aspect of tapas is the honesty and truth we need to get out of a wrong practice routine or harmful practice habits. For example, certain asanas or certain forms of exercise that we are attracted to, may be harmful for our psycho-physical system. It may be easy for us to perform certain asanas, but we know that other asanas, which are more difficult for us, are really what we need for our development. In this case tapas is a change in our practice habits, a change that can be difficult. Unfortunately, hyperactive people are attracted to vigorous exercise when they actually need a soothing practice, while slow, heavy, introverted or depressed people may be attracted to quiet practice, but actually need stimulating and alerting practice. It is likely that features such as obsessiveness, achievement, laziness, fixation, etc. that characterize us, will also characterize the form of practice that we develop. Such practice will not only strengthen our tendencies, but may lead to injury and eventually illness at some level (physical, mental or spiritual).
In order to create change it is necessary, in addition to passion, to observe and study oneself. This is where the second component of kriya yoga enters.
Svadhyaya – The Reflecting Mirror
Patanjali defines the effects of svadhyaya practice in Sutra 2.44:
Svadhyayat ishtadevata samprayogah
It means “self-study towards the realization of God”.
The source of the word svadhyaya is in the verb adhi which means ‘towards’. The verb adhyaya means to ‘move towards’. sva is the reflexive pronoun that means ‘self’. The meaning of the word svadhyaya is therefore to “move toward yourself,” to “return to the original,” and so on.
Tapas prepares us for svadhyaya because it purifies us and develops willpower and determination. Svadhyaya means looking into ourselves. To deeply reflect on our actions. It means penetrating the screen of self-image and finding out what lies behind it. To discover the truth about ourselves: what are the real motives of our actions? What drives and propels us? Where do we get stuck? What are we avoiding and why?
Classically, svadhyaya is a technical term that means learning and memorizing mantras or sacred texts. The idea is that the study of sacred texts such as the Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita, Yoga Sutras etc. provides insights into the depth of the human condition, and thus allows us to better know ourselves.
When we practice with this quality of self-reflection or contemplation we can learn about ourselves. To learn about the mindsets and attitudes that underlie our behavior, and change our outlook and approach to life. Svadhyaya means asking ourselves questions like: Am I in the right place at the right time? Where am I now and where am I going to? What are my motivations? Do I deny myself and why? Am I avoiding difficult but unavoidable challenges and thus creating suffering? What are my priorities in life? What are my responsibilities? Observations of this kind can extract us from sinking into an automatic routine of unaware activity.
It is not always easy to deal with these questions because the truth about ourselves is not always pleasant. To attain this, one needs to develop satya a sincere and genuine approach (see below, as part of ashtanga yoga). For example, one of the causes for suffering that Patanjali mentions in chapter 2, is abhinivesha – clinging to our biological existence or our instinctive fear of death. How is the fear of death which is in the background of our consciousness manages us? Could this be the source of our addictions (for power, money, smoking, drinking, food, sex, work, etc.)?
Tapas is needed to develop strength so that we can deal with such questions, but without svadhyaya, tapas itself can become an addiction. Without reflection there will be no real progress in our lives.
One of the best ways to learn about ourselves is through our relationships with close people. It is very difficult to hide aspects of our personality from those who are close to us, such as partners, parents, children, close friends or students. If we look at how people respond to us, we can learn about ourselves and how we act. We can see all of our neuroses, all our pettiness and selfishness, but also, at the same time, we can learn about the spiritual potentials inherent in us – which is too a part of what we are.
Every action taken with attention is an opportunity for learning. The aspects of kriya yoga are interrelated. The energy required to act is tapas, but an action without reflection will lead us nowhere. It is interesting to recall Sutra I.14 in which Patanjali says that practice will take root only when it is done with attention. In other words, action and reflection must be carried out simultaneously – tapas and svadhyaya are intertwined.
Tapas and svadhyaya are also required at every moment. When there is no enthusiasm or motivation (tapas), or when there is no observation or internalization, our practice isn’t balanced. You cannot practice tapas first, and only later get to svadhyaya, because in this way, practice may become harmful. Every moment, you have to find the correct balance of motivation and reflection – this is the true meaning of tapas and svadhyaya.
Yoga Sutra 2.45: Samadhi siddhih ishvarapranidhan – Surrender to God brings perfection in samadhi
The third component of kriya-yoga is ishvara-pranidhana – devotion to God. Patanjali did not propose theology of a particular deity, but an in-depth psychological analysis of the transformative potential inherent in the opening of the mind and the heart to the divine. In the Yoga Sutras ishvara is described as an entity without suffering, as the source of all knowledge and not as the Creator as it is in the Jewish-Christian traditions. Ishvara symbolizes the divinity that lives in the hearts of each of us, regardless of our religious beliefs.
The word pranidhana, (technically translated as devotion) literally means a deep recognition of the one that sustains us and gives meaning to every levels of our lives. It is a kind of inner belief in the sense of where we place our hearts – the recognition that God exists in everyone, in everything and in every situation. It is the recognition of the wondrous mystery of all existence and deep gratitude for the very existence of our lives, for all the great abundance we were born into, for being able to live, breathe and feel. All these are not self-evident.
If tapas can be interpreted as “be determined” and svadhyaya as “be contemplative”, ishvara pranidhana means “be humble” – acknowledge your limitations. This humility means recognizing that we are limited, we can not control everything and therefore the need to relinquish, to absorb ourselves to everything life will bring us. This is contrary to the “Me and nothing else” approach that characterizes many of us, most of the time.
Ishvara-pranidhana means seeing beyond the sense of self-importance and centrality we attach to ourselves, beyond our pettines, desires and worries. It also offers the possibility of recognizing our weaknesses and limitations, allowing us to forgive our mistakes and sins. It is a deep inner belief in our ability to free ourselves from suffering and realize our aim as human beings. The ancient sages said that when this quality is planted in our hearts, all our actions are performed in dedication, we renounce the fruits of our actions without expecting any return or personal gain.
Ishvara-pranidhana is in a deep sense, our relationship to something greater beyond us, the recognition that the ego is not everything. This can be expressed in faith in God or in the recognition of noble values such as generosity, love and compassion. It is the possibility of freeing oneself from the tyranny of self-importance, whether it is expressed as arrogance or pride or object vices and poor self-esteem (which can also be an expression of the ego).
Such an approach allows us to live simply and rejoice in the simple gifts of life, the beauty of nature, and appreciation and respect for our fellow human beings. If we establish this spirit as the foundation of our practice, then we may enter the stream that will lead us to the river that will bring us back to the ocean from which we all came.
In a lecture B.K.S. Iyengar delivered in Gurupurnima (4), he referred to kriya yoga as:
“Tapas is meant to conquer ahmakara (ego) and svadhyaya is meant to conquer avidya (ignorance). A tapas without svadhyaya is fruitless and aimless. Tapas has to be done intensively with full inspiration, and svadhyaya has to be done with full attention. Attention balances inspiration. Over-inspiration is harmful. Tapas without svadhyaya inflates the ego, whereas svadhyaya (self-study) imparts the knowledge to understand the real ‘I’ – the soul within you… The sadhaka moves from the wisdom towards isvara pranidhana. He surrenders his I-ness to the supreme Universal Soul.
Tapas, svadhyaya and ishvara pranidhana open new horizon to lead you towards vairagya (renunciation). Vairagya does not come by wearing saffron robes. Vairagya is a quality. Vairagya is to surrender the ego… Tapas is meant to conquer the tamoguna, svadhyaya to conquer rajoguna, and ishvara pranidhana to conquer the sattvaguna.”
Kriya-Yoga vs. the Three Paths (margas) of Yoga
The three traditional paths of yoga (yoga marga): karma, jnana, and bhakti are known as the paths to reach the goal of yoga, which is a union with the spiritual essence within us.
Karma yoga is a yoga of action, of selfless service, action which is not for profit. It is forgetting the ego by dedicating every action to the benefit of others.
Jnana yoga is the yoga of spiritual study and investigation. A study aimed at answering the fundamental question: “Who am I?”. The sages say that finding an answer to this question reveals deep wisdom about the nature of our existence.
Bhakti yoga is the yoga of love and devotion. The bhakti (the devoted one) forgets himself and his individual needs by merging with the sublime, with the Absolute Existence. The force that drives this merging is universal love.
The similarity between kriya yoga and the three paths is clear. B.K.S. Iyengar writes in his book The Tree of Yoga (5):
Tapas “is karma yoga, the yoga of action, because the burning desire to keep each and every part clean requires us to act.” Svadhyaya “is known as jnana-yoga, the yoga of spiritual discernment. Finally, Ishvara-pranidhana is bhakti-yoga, the yoga of devotion.”
Kriya Yoga and Ashtanga yoga
As noted, later in chapter 2, Patanjali introduces the yoga of eight-limbs, Ashtanga yoga. In Sutra 2.29 he lists the eight limbs:
Yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana dhyana, samadhi, ashtau angani
The eight main limbs of Yoga are yama (basic ethical rules), niyama (additional ethical rules), asana (yoga postures), pranayama (managing Prana through breathing), pratyahara (detachment of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (contemplation and meditation) and samadhi (the highest meditative absorption state).
We will not delve here on an explanation of the eight limbs of yoga, but let us note that the three components of kriya yoga are found within the second limb of Ashtanga yoga, namely, niyama. Sutra 2.33 lists these components as follows:
Shaucha santosha tapah svadhyaya ishvarapranidhana niyamah.
(The five components) of niyama are shaucha – purity, cleanliness of mind, speech and body; santoṣa contentment; tapas, austerity, self-discipline; svādhyāya: study of self, self-reflection; iśvara praṇidhāna: attunement to the supreme consciousness.
You can see that the last three components of niyama are identical to kriya yoga.
Ashtanga yoga is an overall framework that contains the more familiar aspects of yoga, namely asana and pranayama, as well as the deeper, inner fruits of yoga: dhyana and samadhi. But on that topic, some other time.
The lives of human being are made up of: work, study and love – these three elements become yoga, when our work is performed as a service or offering; our study is done for the sake of internal inquiry and our love opens our hearts to all living beings without considering gain or loss.
When our work turns into selfless service, our study is done for the purpose of liberation and our love becomes unconditional, then the Yogi in us is born!
There is a saying: “Yoga helps cure what can be cured, bear what can’t be cured and distinguish between the two”.
Curing what is curable is done through tapas, bearing what is incurable – means to surrender, or Isvara-pranidhana, and the wisdom to distinguish between the two is acquired through svadhyaya.
(1) A person who sticks to a spiritual path.
(2) English translation are from Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, by B.K.S. Iyengar
(3) The use of vitamins as a metaphor is used by B.K.S. Iyengar
(4) Published in Astadala Yagamala Vol. 3, p. 232-233
(5) The Tree of Yoga, p. 50-51
References used in this article:
- The Tree of Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar, Shambhala Classics
- Guru – Beacon of Light and Wisdom, in: Astadala Yagamala, Vol. 3, B.K.S. Iyengar, Allied Publishers, 2002
- Kriya Yoga: Transformation through Practice – A Western Perspective, G. Kraftsow; in Iyengar, The Yoga master, Ed. K. Busia, Shambhala, 2007