What it Takes (4)
Swami Ambikananda Saraswati
What Place Āsana?
"Yoga is harmony, 'bringing together.' Body, mind and spirit are one;
and this wholeness is health, and it is also wholeness and holiness
~ Swami Venkatesānanda1
Throughout its very long history, Yoga has always affirmed the body as an essential part of our search for that altered state of consciousness in which we know the whole of what we are. The āsana part of Yoga ~ by far the most extensively practised in the West ~ brings the body into this search for the sacred, rather than dismissing or marginalising it.
There is now a huge effort to promote the health benefits of movement and exercise, and while Yogāsana has well researched health benefits, it is its place as part of our search for that wholeness of being ~ the Being of our becoming ~ which the Yogin cultivates through its practice.
Part of a Whole
The basic philosophical proposal of Yoga is that we are both creation (Prakṛti2), and that which encompasses and transcends creation (Puruṣha3). We do not have to do anything to make ourselves sacred; we are not required to engage in transformative actions that will confer sanctity on us. 'Tat tvam asi' you are already 'That', the Yogins declared. However, most of us do not realise our own sacred depth and therefore fail to act from it in our everyday lives.
Yoga is the pathway to that realisation, and it is a pathway in which the body is as much a means for realisation as the mind ~ both are Prakṛti.
Coming from the Sanatana Dharma (usually referred to as Hinduism), Yoga holds that everything is Brahman5, 'That'. Indeed, one of the great Mahāvākya-s (Great Sayings) of the Upanishads is 'ahaṁ brahmasmi' ~ I am That. There are a number of synonyms for referring to 'That' when differentiating it (in speech only): Ātman6, and Puruṣha, among them. In reality, the ancients said, there is no differentiation; however, they gave us different words to create a working model of ourselves to aid our understanding on the pathway. Thus, they differentiated Puruṣha ~ the witnessing consciousness, from Prakṛti ~ creation, time, space, energy, thought, etc.
In this model the body is Prakṛti, and so is the mind. Even the awareness that is limited and confined to this body/mind complex and known as buddhi7, is Prakṛti.
We work with Prakṛti to realise Puruṣha. In other words, we work with the parts to realise the Whole. In this, āsana is as relevant as meditation (dhyānam) or any other 'part' of Yoga.
What separates āsana from any other exercises is the attitude we bring to it. Āsana could be as much another exercise routine as Pilates or Zumba ~ what makes it Yogāsana is our attitude.
There is a beautiful word in Sanskrit: bhava. Almost impossible to translate, it is 'being'. Bhava is all that 'being' consists of. Our own inner landscape ~ that encompasses our body and thought, our past and our present ~ is our own bhava, or svabhava.
When we are practising Yogāsana we must also engage in that other dynamic limb of Patañjali's eight-limbed Yoga, namely pratyāhāra, the inward gaze. And it turns out, Prakṛti is built to make that inward gaze possible.
For example, let's consider for a moment the phenomenon of proprioception. Scattered throughout our muscles, tendons and joints are proprioceptors ~ part of our nervous system that send feedback to the brain about where a particular part of the body is situated in space.
If we lift our right arm out of the field of our vision, we still 'sense' where it is because the proprioceptors are ensuring that the messages about the arm's movements get to the brain. We don't have to watch our feet while we walk, we 'know' where they are. These signals are obviously essential for our movement and balance ~ and we are asked to bring a more focused awareness of them while practising āsana.
Let's consider the posture Baddha Koṇāsana, the proprioceptors (known as muscle spindles) within the adductor muscles of the inner thigh are being stretched and will detect this stretch. They will immediately send a signal to create a protective contraction in those adductor muscles. Provided the attitude is one of discovery rather than 'force', we are practising Yogāsana ~ and observing changes in svabhava.
Force, however, is when we have some end goal in mind for what the 'perfect' Baddha Koṇāsana should be, and then our awareness (buddhi) is not flowing inward ~ it flows outward towards that goal.
Research has established that people who exercise regularly have better mental health and emotional wellbeing than those who are sedentary. Perhaps it is as the ancient Yogins taught: movement itself changes our svabhava. We, as practitioners of this ancient knowledge, are asked to go into āsana with an awareness of our svabhava as we begin and its changing state as we go through each āsana.
We can take that change another step in the practice of Yogāsana. Along with proprioception, another built-in mechanism of self-awareness is 'interoception'. Interoceptive awareness allows us to understand what's going on in our own body ~ it's what lets us know when we're cold, hungry, thirsty, need the toilet, etc. Again, it's a two-way traffic: the body needs fluid so it instructs the brain, we then 'feel' thirsty and this motivates us to get a drink.
However, interoception is also more subtle and dynamic than just basic needs ~ it acts even in our relations with others. It covers moods and the changing landscape of our moods as we engage in social interactions. That easy response we make, 'I'm fine' when we are not; the stoic smile when we have been hurt or belittled, costs us. We must know the cost is of closing off to our reality, our truth. Āsana is an ideal opportunity for this awareness to come into focus.
To Go into Flow
As we engage this inner gaze, more and more of ourselves is revealed to it. And still we are asked to hold it, steadying our breathing, releasing our muscle tensions, etc., and continuing that inner gaze. We do not make judgements about what is being revealed, but we do allow ourselves to be informed by it.
For example, we may have had a burst of anger earlier in the week that we suddenly remember as we release muscles in a posture. The mind will want to leap to justification and then remorse. We hold our gaze and do not allow buddhi to drop into that stream of thought. We are able to 'see' what even the memory of that anger does to our body, to our breath; to see without judgement of 'good' or 'bad' ~ just reality. That instruction of Patañjali's which we looked at in the first of this year's blogs becomes relevant, even in āsana:
yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ || 2 ||
Yoga is the stilling of the movement of thought in the mind. (2)
tadā draṣṭuḥ sva rūpe-avasthānam || 3 ||
Then the seer becomes established in its true identity. (3)
That search for the truer, deeper self ~ the being of our becoming ~ is Yoga. Prakṛti is set up for this kind of gaze through mechanisms like proprioception and interoception.
In this way pratyāhāra allows us to move through the layers of ourselves and come close to what Patañjali referred to as samāpattiḥ, meaning 'coming together' with that deeper self. Modern psychology has, in the last few decades, also noticed this state of consciousness and calls it 'flow' or, as Mihaly Csikszentmihaly8 who first documented this state of consciousness called it, 'the primary experience'. (We will be looking at this more closely in the next blog.)
A young friend beautifully described the experience of samāpattiḥ: Not so popular now, we used to record our music on cassette tapes: small plastic cases that had within them, the magnetic tape on which music was recorded.
My young friend said of the samāpattiḥ experience: 'If you think of a cassette tape, in a way it's an ungainly, easily discarded bit of plastic. But you put it into the machine and press play and this beautiful music emerges. You can discard the tape, it can be recycled and become something else, but because you have heard it, the music still exists ~ as it is, beautiful, perfect.'
That's one of the best descriptions of Prakṛti / Puruṣha and the flow (samāpattiḥ) experience I have ever heard: a state in which Prakṛti / Puruṣha emerge as one and we realise we are the disposable tape and the music, the wave and the ocean.
We know ourselves as the molecules that are recycled to produce ever-new material, a body that constantly changes and exchanges molecules in an unending process of re-creation and transformation. Yoga invites us, through all its practices ~ including āsana ~ to hear the music; to know that 'we are That'.
When we practise āsana in this way, the experience of samāpattiḥ transforms us. Our svabhava is changed by our movement of the parts of ourselves coming into wholeness ~ the holiness that Swami Venktesānanda spoke of.
1. Insights and Inspirations ~ Venkatesa Daily Readings Vol II; published by Chiltern Yoga Trust (Australia).
2. Prakṛti is derived from the Sanskrit verbal root kr ~ meaning 'to do'. Thus Prakṛti can be considered the original creative, active aspect of reality inseparable from the three guna-s. It would be incorrect, however, to define Prakṛti as 'nature' ~ it is also beyond that. The most complete description can be found in their book, Sanskrit Non-Translatables by Rajiv Malhotra and Satyanarayana Dasa Babji.
3. Puruṣa = the witnessing consciousness.
In its most literal sense the word purusha means man. However, the word may be translated in other ways. It can be split: pura + usha. Here, usha is the dawn light in the city which is the body, pura. Or, it can be pu + rusha : one whose passions are refined. It can even be puru + sha, filled with wisdom and happiness. In Yoga, it is the witnessing consciousness.
4. Brahman is defined in the Brahma Sutra as that which is the origin and sustainer of all that we know, of our cosmos. It is the Ultimate Reality beyond time, space and measurement.
5. Chāndogya Upaniṣad, Ch. 6.
6. Ātman, often mistakenly translated as 'soul' or 'spirit', is the foundational aspect of reality; it is the 'consciousness' within the inert body/mind and therefore synonymous with Puruṣha.
7. Buddhi, in the individual, is the awareness ~ that part of ourselves which is aware. It is the reflection of Puruṣa in Prakṛti. In ordinary consciousness buddhi is aware only of the feedback coming through the senses. In the altered state of consciousness of Yoga, buddhi becomes Buddha ~ awakened to its total reality.
8. Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi published by Rider, 2002.
©Swami Ambikananda, April 2022