Practicing More Than Asana

Today there are many teachers who excel at teaching wonderful asana classes.

There is more to Yoga than asana. If one explores the Ashtanga Path as defined by Pantanjali in the Yoga Sutras or the Hatha Yoga path as outlined by Svatmarama in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, asana is only one aspect of Yoga. The classical texts include even more techniques.

A basic listing of techniques includes: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, samadhi, shat karma, mudra, bandha, drsti, mantra, multiple forms of meditation and ayurvedic attunement to practice.

You may be familiar with many of the practices. How many techniques do you practice? Practice is the door to real understanding.

How many techniques do you integrate into your classes? Granted, it is difficult to “lead” dharana, dhyana and samadhi in a yoga class, as these are the inner experience of Yoga. Class does create the safety and the space for students to experience these levels of union. The other methodologies listed facilitate the opportunity for students to find and explore the meditative practices fully.

It is important to start with an understanding of yoga and need for practices. Yoga is union. It is the quieting the mind. It is action in inaction. To do this effectively, we must maintain our prana instead of continually allowing ojas (a particular yogic form of reserves) to escape by releasing energy through the nine gates (eyes, ears, mouth, nose, anus and uretha) or by spreading ourselves so thin in a multitude of activities we have no way to sustain inner stamina or ojas.

Many of the techniques are about containing and channeling prana and sustaining ojas. The practices are about opening the channels in our body so the prana can flow in our body fluidly. As you practice your own sadhana, notice if you are doing practices to contain and sustain prana or if your practices allow prana to escape.

In this months’ YTOC newsletter, I will define the practices. If there is interest, I will be glad to continue to contribute articles exploring the techniques in an experiential format. The methods are listed the following in alphabetical order as I feel each is equally important.

Asana practices can be done as a stretch or with an internal awareness. Asana can be done with gross muscles or an inner attention to the intrinsic muscles. Asana can be done with containing energy or throwing energy away. Which factors do you consider when practicing asana?

Ayurveda is not really a practice. It is the sister science of Yoga which addresses our health, balance of life and lifestyle. We can do asana, pranayama and other techniques, which do not support our inner balance. For example, too many fire breaths or warming asanas are not good if you are already a fiery person. Understanding and integrating ayurveda knowledge will allow you to develop a balanced flow to enhance your life.

Bandha means “lock”. The major purpose of bandha is to lock energy into a specific region of the body, stimulating the vayu or prana. There are three major locks that are emphasized in the Hatha Yoga writings. They are the mula bandha ” root lock”, jalandhara bandha “throat lock”, and uddiyana bandha “stomach lock”. The locks are used to contain the prana in the subtle bodies. They can be used in pranayama practice or in asana to hold in or lock energy into a specific area for focus, for healing, creating agni and channeling kundalini to the sushumna if the vayus are balanced and the nadis are open.

Drsti is gazing at various points of the body, which changes the energy flow. The most common gazing areas are the chakras or the lingham. Lower gazes root into the earth. Mid body drsti is normally on the heart and creates a calming cooling effect. Third eye gazes can be warming and invigorating as well as deep penetrating energy. Explore a pose such as Paschimottanasana with your gaze at the root chakra and then the ajna chakra. How does it feel?

Mantra is the use of vibrational sound. In the context of the Vedic tradition, essence comes first and sound represents an essence. We therefore, chant sounds that stimulate or awaken aspects of physical, emotional or spiritual body when we use mantra. Mantras are energy based and often have no “translation.” Mantras are chakra based, representing the petals of the chakras. Mantra energizes prana and can be likened to purifying fire. Mantras quiet the mind Mantra can be chanted externally or internally. Do you do dhun, bhajan or vedic chanting with you practice?

Meditation is more than setting and stopping the mind. It is an unfolding process to quiet the mind, a practice that for some is simple, others very difficult. Therefore, in the yoga world there are many styles of meditation to accommodate different types of persons, whether you are more audio, visual or kinesthetic. (These parallel vata, pitta and kapha.) Examples of meditation include: chanting, mantra, japa, nada, ratak, Sambhavi, jyotir, pranayama, inner visualization, subtle body focus, Vipassana, metta. Are you doing a meditative practice, which supports your dosha and feels effortless?

Mudra have two forms both which are used to channel energy in the body. The classical mudras are asana practice with the energy contained by bandhas and channeled with drsti. In more recent years we have developed hand mudras. Each finger has a different energy, planet, organ, part of the body etc. which it effects when touched. Various angles of the hand impact a nadi. By aligning the hands in different positions with the fingers touching, energy is channeled. For example, we can change the breath from the right lung to the left lung, upper lobe to lower lobe just be the position of the hands and fingers!

Pranayama practices can heat the body, cool the body, stimulate or balance different doshas, calm us down or excite the body. We can do breathing practices or pranayama. Breathing practices allow us to strengthen our breath. Pranayama increases life force and sustains prana in the body. Pranayama should not deplete our energy. Do you use pranayama in a way to augment your practice and lifestyle?

Pratyahara is commonly defined as the withdrawal of senses. Have you ever been so engrossed in a book you became oblivious to movement around you — pratyahara. As a yogic technique, we do it as an inward focus rather than through external concentration. Bringing our senses inward, or pratyahara, is the first step of meditation; we can practice pratyahara doing asana by attending to the inner sensations rather then the external alignment and detail.

Shat Karmas or Kriyas are the practices of cleansing the body. Energy cannot flow through the body channels if they are clogged physically. The basic shat karma practices are an internal cleansing of the dhatu’s (tissues) and srotas (body channels). The practices include: neti (nasal cleansing), dhauti (cleansing of the body through washing and vomiting), vasti (enema), trataka (candle gazing), nauli (intestinal wash) and kapalabhati (a breath for “skull shining”).

Yama and niyama are, in my humble opinion, the two most important steps in a yoga practice, and the ones most often forgotten. If we are not living right livelihood, containing our energy appropriately, being distracted by our actions in the world, etc., we will be restless. Our mental time will be spent evaluating and examining ours and others actions. Yoga practice really begins with conscious thought to Yama and Niyama. (Note: there was an article on the Yama and Niyama two issues past.) I find students enjoy the inclusion of different aspects and techniques of yoga. More important is for me to enjoy, benefit and understand the practice. Once I “get” the practice, the inclusion in class comes from my personal experience, not a surface or book knowledge of the technique. Try them . . . you may enjoy the results.

This article was first published in 2010 by Hansa Knox and is still relevant today.

Yoga Beyond the Mat: Yamas and Niyamas

Pantajali’s Yoga Sutras start with saying, “Now, the study of yoga. ” Does that just translate as today, in the moment the yoga teachings are relevant? I feel he wrote “Now” for a more auspicious reason.

In the older traditions, a student went to a teacher to study yoga. The teacher had the student do seva (serving in the household), studying and learning the basic practices of right life. As an example, a friend of mine, Indukanta was studying flute in India. Her teacher often has students play one note for a year before he teaches them the next note! Some students of yoga practiced for years, purifying, cleansing and preparing themselves before they were allowed the privilege of, “Now, the study of yoga.,, Today, some begin asana without even a consciousness of the “living everyday life” practices. Yoga has become a tool for the manipulation of the body. Historically, it was a tool to support our gross life into living earthly life as a Spiritual Being. It is never too late to begin integrating the yogic practices into life transforming moments. The practices are summarized by Pantajali in the second Sutra, as Yama and Niyama.

The yama consist of Ahimsa – non-violence, Satya – truthfulness, Asteya – non-stealing, Aparigraha – non-desire and Brahmacharya – moderation. Niyama include the qualities of- Saucha – purification, Santosha – contentment, Tapas – discipline, Svadyaya – self study and Ishvara Pranidhana – surrender to God.

Sounds pretty basic. Let’s look again. Take an inventory of the following questions.

Ahimsa – non -violence. Did you hurt anyone today? Did you possibly say something that hurt someone’s feelings? Did you sit silent instead of responding to a question? Is the subtle violence any less violating than overt violence?

Satya – truthfulness. Did you tell a white lie to protect someone’s feelings? Did you put on a pretense, afraid to let someone know who you really are? Do you know the edge of when speaking is better than silence?

Asteya – non-stealing. Do you feel jealous of the belongings of others? Do you show up for appointments on time? Do you honor time boundaries in your life? Do you want more than you have? Do you desire … ?

Aparigraha – non-possessiveness. Aparigraha is not about owning possessions it is about the attitude towards belongings. Is there an area in your life you experience greed? Are you willing to let go possessions — physical, emotional, spiritual? Can you expand to the point of witnessing ownership?

Brahmacharya – moderation. Do you moderate all sense pleasures — eating, drinking, sleeping, dress, connection with others? Have you dropped your compulsion to seek pleasures? Can you find pleasure in the simplicity of Spirit?

Saucha – purification. Are you physically clean, neat and eat a pure diet? Are you in the process of purifying your emotions? Do you associate with company that supports a healthy mental diet? Do you include practices allowing you to be established in your “bliss” body?

Santosha – contentment. Santosha is not about being apathetic, it is living life with a passion, content and full each moment. Do you have gratitude for all you have? Do you learn and appreciate even the unpleasant experiences? Can you let go of preferences and receive life as it presents itself?

Tapas – discipline, being in the transformational fire. Do you keep your commitments, to yourself and to others? Can you disciple yourself to honor a healthy lifestyle, physically, mentally, emotionally and Spiritually? Does your breathing slow down, allowing you to breathe life, moment by moment? Have you found your self- creative consciousness?

Svadyaya – self study . Do you study the scriptures and apply them as analogy for living? Do you use your asana practice as insights for how you live your daily life? Can you be in objective self observation? Do you live in a balance with life energy?

Ishvara Pranidhana – surrender to God. Do you love God/Self? Are you willing to allow daily activities to be love manifest? Are you willing to dwell on the Beloved? Do ever feel absorbed in the Beloved?

These precepts are not unknown in other traditions. The Ten Commandments and the Ten Virtues from the Buddhist tradition represent the same concepts. We all must learn that more important than flexibility of the body, flexibility of Spirit reigns. Do you live a life of loving kindness? Do you practice living Yama and Niyama?

Consider exploring the yama and niyama. Choose one a week for the next ten weeks. Daily focus, practice and reflect on the yama or niyama. See how the practice and awareness will make a difference — first within yourself and then watch it overflow into your relationship with others.

Namasté

This article was first published in 2009 by Hansa Knox and is still relevant today.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali Samadhi Pada Portion on Contemplation

I.1. ATHA YOGANUSASANAM

ATHA – now
YOGA – yoga
ANUSASANAM – instruction

Now begins the instruction of Yoga.

 

I.2. YOGAS CITTA VRTTI NIRODHAH

YOGAS – yoga
CITTA – sum total of the mind, consciousness
VRTTY – fluctuations
NIRODHAH – control

Yoga is the control of the fluctuations of the mind.

 

For many of us, when we think of Yoga, we think of the physical postures. While the physical practice of Yoga will bring you many benefits, it can also be viewed as a means toward a better capability to control the mind, moving toward a feeling of oneness with the universe.

I.3. TADA DRASTUH SVARUPE AVASTHANAM

TADA – then
DRASTUH – the Seer
SVARUPE – in its true nature
AVASTHANAM – abides

Then the Seer abides in His true nature.

 

As the fluctuations of the mind are quieted, one can then begin to experience her true nature. If you have a jar filled with water with a little mud in it, it is only when the jar remains still for a period of time that you can see clearly through the water. Likewise, we use breath, awareness and receptivity in our physical practice of Yoga to clear our minds, letting some of the “mud” settle. Then, our true nature can be experienced.

I.4. VRTTI SARUPYAM ITARATRA

 

VRTTI – fluctuations
SARUPYAM – identifies
ITARATRA – otherwise

Otherwise we identify with the fluctuations of the mind.

 

Once we identify with these fluctuations, then we lose our true Self and become blind to the one unchanging consciousness.

I.5. VRTTAYAH PANCATAYYAH KLISTA AKLISTAH

 

VRTTAYAH – fluctuations
PANCATAYYAH – five kinds
KLISTA – painful, distressing
AKLISTAH – not painful, not distressing

There are five kinds of mental fluctuations, which are either painful, distressing or not painful, distressing.

 

Each of the five fluctuations can fall within these two broad categories and they can change with time. On the whole, selfish thoughts bring pain, while selfless thoughts bring peace.

I.6. PRAMANA VIPARYAYA VIKALPA NIDRA SMRTAYAH

 

PRAMANA – correct knowledge
VIPARYAYA – misconception
VIKALPA – delusion
NIDRA – sleep
SMRTAYAH – memory

These are correct knowledge, misconception, delusion, sleep and memory.

 

These are the five types of “vrittis” or fluctuations and they will be explained in the next five sutras.

Namasté

 

This article first appeared in 2009.

The Inner Process of Asana by Mukanda Tom Stiles

Yoga training is accomplished largely through repetition of poses. By going into and out of the same pose or motions within a single pose repeatedly, the spectrum of feelings that range from comfort to discomfort becomes sharper, clearer. Through developing discrimination to the subjective signs of comfort and steadiness, ones inner experience begins to reflect this during asana practice.

A deeper meaning of asana is through the contemplation of the root of the word. It can be broken down into three component parts — as “to breath”, sa “to put it together with” and na “eternal cosmic vibration”. Rama Jyoti Vernon, co-founder with Nancy Ford-Kohne and myself of American Yoga College, interprets this to mean “breathing and becoming one with the eternal cosmic vibration”. When directed in this manner, through the process of yoga posture with breathing a path to put yourself together with the Eternal becomes available.

At the same time the student trains herself to become aware of the external space the wave breath (Ujjaye Pranayama) is occupying. At this point we’re aiming for a breathing pattern that is becoming even between the upper torso and the abdomen. When true comfort and steadiness of the body posture is maintained, the breath will also be fully smooth and “comfortable and steady”. When the awareness can be held constantly during asana practice then the Classical Yoga training is beginning to unfold. It unfolds more easily provided the student and teacher spent time reflecting upon Patanjali’s chapter II sutra 46-47 which define yogasana. Each of Patanjali’s phrases is a practice which deepens what went before. My interpretation, recently published in India, is as follows :

46. Yoga pose is a steady and comfortable position.

47, Yoga pose is mastered by relaxation of effort, to create a lessening of the natural tendency for restlessness, and identification of oneself as living within the infinite stream of Life.

Out of this process, naturally the next phases begin. Provided the student is aware that this is the transition point to the inner yoga, that is. Often students make the mistake of being distracted into coming out of the poses too soon. What is the end of the asana training is the beginning of the next stage or limb (anga) of Classical Yoga. The next phase marks the transition to what is called the inner yoga or raja yoga. Provided the student has read thoroughly and understood the chapter on Classical Yoga, this instantly becomes a training of the senses (pratyahara) and mindfulness (dhyana). This point is the doorway to the inner yoga (called Raja Yoga), in that the senses are being focused to a point which in turn reins in the wandering nature of the mind.

At the second level of training the student is becoming steady at holding a posture and learning cues of how they become stressed uncomfortable or unstable. Success is not about ending this cycle but rather to lessen the natural tendency for instability and restlessness. Using the steady rhythmic motions of a vinyasa sequence can modify this training. At the same time the breath is being trained to maintain an even rhythm (sama vritti pranayama). In this phase of training, the force and duration of the inhale is equal to that of the exhale. The sensory and mental training can be steadied through focus on one sense, such as in the method of fixing the eye gaze (see the chapter on purification exercises) upon an attractive external object such as an attractive tree, picture, or yogic art (yantra).

On the third level the theme is “relaxation of effort”. The student is asked to discriminate between overexertion and lethargy to discover the sense of “right effort”. This is in keeping with the philosophy of the sister science of yoga, Ayurveda.

“Ayurveda’s rule is that you should never exert more than half your capacity.” Robert Svoboda, Prakruti, pg. 107)

At the same time in breath training the student is learning to define her capacity, the quantity of deep breathing sustainable without stress to the heart, so that heart rate and blood pressure remain fairly constant. Through this process the senses and mind is brought to a point sharp attention so that their duality can be perceived. They are indeed separate and distinct functions, though for the untrained they appear to be simultaneous. Through this training the mind is beginning to be held by the attraction to the object of focus while the sensory input is re-directed, withdrawn from outer objects.

The fourth level is characterized by contemplating the stream of inner bodily sensations. Through this process what begins as isolated places of feelings, such as the contrast between warm hands and cool feet, begins to move into a sense of the body as having tides or streams. Through practice the sense of the body as a series of streamlets becoming ponds becoming streams becoming lakes becoming rivers becoming a sea becoming an ocean until there is a continuum. The result is an awareness of no distinctions within or without, a state of serenity yet detachment. In this stage, the breath spontaneously becomes still. No effort is made to quiet the breath nor is there anxiety about it becoming still. The senses melt into the inner sensations of connectedness that may be flowing outward to the perceptions of the world. The inner world’s connectedness may also be seen in the external world. The microcosm reflects the macrocosm.

In my practice of yoga I direct my awareness to either the specific naturally arising place of feeling or if I’m working with the Structural Yoga process of correcting my imbalances then I hold my body in such a manner that stretches a specific muscle. Either method acts to take me through the sequence of inner events described by Patanjali.

When I hold a pose too long I will tend toward experiencing a trance and may become “spaced out”. Holding the pose for the subjective feeling of a “right” amount of time, it produces a state of mindfulness, characterized by alertness and insight. I find that if I go too much to either extreme of stretching a clearly defined muscle too long or not enough then I loose the “relaxation reflex” . The same is true if I’m focused upon strengthening a muscle.

By contemplating the ideals of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, I find that disciplining for a specific point of concentration leads naturally to a doorway into whole body awareness. A sense of feeling myself evenly in all places simultaneously. This process creates a harmony that lingers for sometime even if only one pose is practiced. It is of much greater duration with regular practice and continuous contemplation of the Sutras with asana practice. This leads to a natural spontaneous mindfulness meditation. By encouraging this process in myself and in other yoga students, I’ve found a clarification of formerly puzzling sections of Patanjali’s Classical Yoga guidelines. Through regular practice of this process I’ve experienced abundant insights into myself. I find that this has been the key for my daily learning from my practice. I keep a journal beside me as I practice to save the insights that arise.

Experiences of this depth remind me that the body-mind is meant to be trained as a vehicle for experiencing the connection between not only the separate parts of myself and also provides a way to open insight into the connectedness of all life.

Namaste
Mukunda

 

This article was first published in 2009 and is still relevant today.

Excerpts from Yoga Sutras of Patanjali interpreted by Mukunda Stiles

II, 28
By sustained practice
of all the component parts of yoga,
the impurities dwindle away
and wisdom’s radiant light
shines forth
with discriminative knowledge.

II, 29
Yoga’s eight component parts
are self-control
for social harmony,
precepts
for personal discipline,
yoga pose,

regulation of prana,
withdrawal of the senses from their objects,
contemplation of our True Nature,
meditation on the True Self,
and being absorbed in Spirit.

II, 46
Yoga pose
is a steady
and comfortable position.

II, 47
Yoga pose is mastered
by relaxation of effort,
lessening
the natural tendency
for restlessness,
and promoting an identification
of oneself as living
within
the infinite stream of life.

II, 48
From that
perfection of yoga posture,
duality,
such as reacting to praise and criticism,
ceases
to be a disturbance.

II, 49
When this is acquired
then pranayama naturally follows
with a cessation
of the movements
of inspiration and expiration.

II, 50
The vacillations of breath
are either external,
internal, or stationary,
they may be regulated
three ways:
by location, time, or number;
then they will become
prolonged and subtle.

II, 51
In a fourth method
of regulating one’s breath,
it is extended
into the Divine Life Force
and prana
is felt permeating everywhere,
transcending the attention
given to either
external or internal objects
.

II, 52
As a result
of this pran-ayama,
the veil obscuring the radiant
Supreme light of the inner Self
dissolves.

II, 53
And as a result,
the mind becomes fit
for the process of contemplation
of the True Self.

 

This article was originally published in 2010.

Yoga Sutra Series with Rama

Rama Jyoti Vernon shares insights gained through years of study and practice related to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras – on and off the mat. She introduces tools that blend the Sutras into our yoga teaching.
$50 Friday only, $275 whole weekend