In our discussion of the different limbs of yoga, we have now covered the yama, niyama, and also the preparatory stage of the vyayama, the physical preparatory techniques. I would like to discuss next the main format of the physical practices, including of course within this discussion the practice of asana, the traditional third limb of yoga. Today this limb has become all encompassing, sometimes without deeper understanding as to its proper relationship with the whole of the practice. We will examine this limb and also the format of physical practice.
Asana means seat. It traditionally meant the place one sat to do practice. This term is still used with this meaning today. There are some other interesting meanings of the word given which may be discussed at a later date. Asana is the 3rd traditional limb of yoga. In this particular limb, asana takes on the meaning of the seated position itself used to perform the yoga practice. In the Hatha Yoga tradition, over the centuries, many different types of bodily positions came to be associated with the word asana. In this particular article I will focus more on the hatha yogic mode of asana as any number of various positions. Later I will discuss its meaning more in terms of seat.
It is interesting to look at the postures given in the various Hatha Yoga texts that come down to us through the centuries. The Vasistha Samhita and Yajnavalkya Samhita, probably from 10th, 11th century (my approximate guess) both give 7 seats with the addition of Mayurasana, the peacock pose. Later on the Hathapradipika, one of the more famous of Hatha Yoga manuals from about the 14th century, gives quite a number of different postures, including backward and forward bends, the classical twist, savasana, and of course a number of different seats. The Gherandha Samhita from about the 16th or 17th century gives 32 classical postures, all of varying types. Later texts like the Hathatatvakaumudi and especially the Hatharatnavali give quite a number of different poses.
You hear varying accounts of asana numbers in the Hatha manuals. One will say "Siva created 84 postures" or another will say "Siva created 840,000 postures" or other varying numbers. What does it mean? Ultimately this means that the numbers of different possible yoga asanas are truly infinite in number. Really there are so many of possible combinations of positions that the human body can take.
Why do we take the body into so many different positions? Many reasons. A good quote from Gheranda Samhita 1.8-1.9 is relevant here that will explain :
"The body invariably wears away like an unbaked earthen jar immersed in water. Therefore the body should be conditioned by tempering it with the fire of yoga. The seven aids for conditioning the body are Sodhana (purification), Drdhata (strength), Sthairyam (steadiness), Dhairyam (composure/calmness), Laghavam (lightness), Pratyaksam (realization), and Nirliptam (isolation). The Satkarmas purify the body, the Asanas strengthen it, Mudra brings about steadiness, Pratyahara results in calmness, Pranayama leads to lightness, Dhyana gives realization of the Self, and Samadhi leads to isolation which is verily liberation."
It is interesting to note that in this quote from GS on the conditioning of the body, all of the traditional limbs of yoga are given above (minus the yama/niyama, which of course would also be relevant) and not just the practice of asana. Gheranda tells us basically that time is short and the body, being the vehicle of consciousness should be taken care of through the practice of yoga in order that one can discover and deepen the knowledge of Self.
If one applies all of the above to the physical practices, one comes up with a form that involves many of the limbs of yoga, including asana, mudra, pranayama, the senses and the mind aspects of meditation/dhyana. Shatkarma we have not talked about yet in the blog. I'll save that for a later date. But we can also include its function here of purification. So our practice should involve purifying, strengthening, steadying, composure, lightness, realization, and the isolation of consciousness.
When we really sit with all of these aspects that are discussed in the function of bodily conditioning we realize that all parts of the mind/body system are included. The body is not just some vehicle or beast that is worked in isolation. Body is utilized with breath, utilized with correct sensory application, utilized with mind and the highest aspects of consciousness. To really come to this deeper understanding of the physical practice we have to truly start seeing that to have success here, we have to approach the practice not just in terms of physicality but realize that our mind is inseparable from our body. Our breath is inseparable from our mind. Our senses are inseparable from consciousness. That consciousness is inseparable from body. All of these aspects are one energy, one field of potential and movement.
Where do we begin to discover this one field? It may be difficult to discern this in the beginning as our thoughts tend to separate ourselves from our bodies and also separate the different parts of the body from each other. This mode gets reinforced when we work with styles that break things down and separate elements in a reductionist sort of manner. One of the main points that I try to bring to the table in the practice of Nadi Yoga is the developing of a deep sense of one connection between all fields of awareness. This is equivalent to the instrumental layer of consciousness that Patanjali discusses in the Yoga Sutra. In this work it is vital to learn to work in the instrumental level of awareness, right from the start. Otherwise, we stay trapped in the objective mode of the mind and we actually experience a disconnect between mind and body or at best we only get blips of that connection. Please see the other blogs on the instrumental layer for further information on the instrumental layer definition.
Mudra, which is employed in the deepest possible sense here, relates to many of the limbs of yoga as described in previous blogs. Pratyahara and the deeper meditative limbs start to come alive. The technique of breathing discussed in the Vyayama blog, the pranic/apanic tantric breath method, is a powerful technique of pranayama that will start to bring the lightness suggested in the GS. With proper attention to mudra and the breath field we will be brought more consciously into the instrumental mode of working and already be fulfilling the condition of yoga required by Patanjali.
Students in the beginning, and even students that have been working for some time get frustrated that they are unable to "accomplish" the activity of the different postures and physical exercises. This is the mode of objective thinking that acts as the very wall between the student and the fulfillment of the activity. Since thought is mind and mind is in an obstructive mode ("I can't do this"), the barrier acts through the mind and body to create an effective barrier to completion. This is a simple idea but it acts on some level through even the most advanced practitioner. Injuries are another barrier that are often placed in our own way of practice. I'm not saying one should push on through their injuries mindlessly here. But we oftentimes miss the deeper significance of what injuries actually are on the deeper levels of our beings and we usually fail to address them on these deeper levels, instead resigning ourselves to look at them as mere physical phenomena, entirely separate from our minds and emotions and life. To truly "accomplish" then the physical acts of yoga, we must be willing to take in the entirety of our life wholistically, acknowledging that everything in our life affects our ability to bend our head to our knee. My main yoga teacher was a true master of this understanding. His "remedies" for students most oftentimes involved looking at areas of life that the student was neglecting.
In the light of wholistic understanding necessary for the successful execution of asana and physical practice it is vital to remember the importance of yama and niyama in the practice of yoga. Yama and Niyama will help to sort out the various life energies that may be tangled and distorted and affecting our abilities to work on a physical level.
Yoga is union. One major aspect of this union is the union of all of the various elements that make up our energetic configuration. If these various aspects of our being come together, the physical practice of yoga will be seen to be much greater than it actually is.