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