by Swami Krishnananda
The practice of yoga proper commences with what is known as asana or a posture. Students of yoga have been engaging their attention on this subject in manifold ways. Often the essential point involved in this limb of yoga has been missed because of certain erroneous notions. It is true that asana is one of the limbs of yoga, and when I say it is a limb, that means that it is an essential part of yoga. A limb of the body, whatever be the limb, is essential to the body. To state the purpose of the practice of asana is also sufficient explanation as to how the asana has to be practised, to what extent it has to be done, and the manner in which it has to be practised.
We know very well that all yoga is an endeavour to introduce balance into life. Every limb of yoga, therefore, is an aid in the achievement of this end. Whether it is yama or niyama, whether it is asana or any other organ of yoga, its purpose is single—the introducing of a system of harmony or balance into life. Anything that is contributory to the working out of this process is regarded as a limb of yoga. As a matter of fact, the limbs of yoga are not merely seven, eight, nine or ten as we might have heard—they can be many more. Any factor in life that can contribute to the maintenance of balance may be regarded as a limb of yoga. It may be a social factor, a personal factor or a remote factor—even if it be remote from the point of outward observation. If the factor has any kind of relationship, even remotely, with maintaining a balance in life, it can be regarded as a limb of yoga. Social conduct at certain times can also become a limb of yoga. Anything that concerns us and anything that affects us has to be taken as a necessary limb of yoga.
Among the many limbs of yoga, asana is an essential and integral part of the practice. It is supposed to be practised because of the balance that it can ensure in our systems. All the asanas are supposed to bring about a system of harmony in the physical level and later in the other levels that are vitally connected with the physical. All the asanas have this single purpose. Whatever be the position that we occupy, these positions should be helpful in maintaining the balance of the nerves. Ultimately, the aim of all this effort is to bring about a balance in thinking. The thinking process is in an imbalanced state on account of its having to confront objects of sense every day. The mind, when it is thinking of an object, is not in a state of balance. Anything that is thinking of something else is out of balance. All states of consciousness that are centred in another object are an imbalanced condition of consciousness.
Many may know very well the aphorism of Patanjali where he says, “Yoga is the establishment of consciousness in itself.” Normally, consciousness is never in itself—it is always in another. It is in some other person, some other object, and something that is longed for by the mind. This is called samsara, earthly existence, mortal life, etc. The imbalance of consciousness, brought about by its movement towards an object outside, is what is contrary to yoga. The attempt in all the limbs of practice is to bring the consciousness back to its original state.
This cannot be done immediately, or at one stroke, because there are various stages or layers of the entanglement of consciousness. Our consciousness is tied to objects outside by various strings which are internally manipulated by thoughts. It is not that consciousness has taken a sudden jump towards the objects. There is a gradual condensation, as it were, of consciousness into material levels, and then it is that consciousness is lodged in objects of sense. There is a descent, to speak metaphorically at least, because consciousness cannot descend or ascend. But to make it clear for the purpose of explanation, I may say that there is apparently a kind of descent of consciousness into the mental level, and an identification of consciousness with the processes of thought. When thought gets identified with consciousness and vice versa, we take thought for ourselves and ourselves for the way of thinking.
There is a further descent of the consciousness through the mind to the sense organs and the powers of sense, then a descent to the pranas, and after that a downward descent to the nervous system and further down to the body and its related objects. This is a kind of involuntary avatara or incarnation of consciousness, we may say, where it has in some way or other come down from its universal, ethereal and transparent level of Self-existence to the lowest, bifurcated and isolated world of objects, which do not seem to have any relation among themselves. This is the highest imbalance possible that we can conceive of—where the consciousness has come down to such a level of physicality, earthliness and difference that it is no more in its own original state. We cannot even imagine that it could fall into that condition. It is somewhere far removed from where it ought to be and where it really is.
The consciousness has come to the physical level; that is what is very important to remember. Therefore we have to start the tuning up of the consciousness, back to its true state starting from the physical level itself. We cannot suddenly jump to the highest level when consciousness has already sunk into the material realm—so much sunk that consciousness does not seem to be there at all. Today we have behavioural psychologists who think that consciousness is only an offshoot of matter. We have fallen to such a level where matter has become the mother and consciousness only its child, while the truth is quite different. Matter has become the lodgement of consciousness, and the identification of thought with the material vesture has been so intense that we have forgotten the very possibility of the existence of an independent consciousness. We take matter itself as the original state of things and the reality, and consciousness as only a kind of offshoot.
This is where we are standing today in the material realm. Therefore, the tuning up which is yoga has to start with the physical body at the objective level. From this comes the necessity for the practice of asana. There are eighty-four asanas, although some people say there are eighty-four lakhs (8,400,000). But whatever be the number of asanas, it makes no difference how many we practise, just as it does not matter how many medicines we take—the purpose is all one. We may take a tablet, we may take a mixture, we may take an injection, we may put a plaster, or we may do anything—all these have the single purpose of healing the wounds of our system and to make us healthy.
So are the asanas. They may be eighty-four or eighty-four lakhs, whatever be the number, the purpose is single—to bring about a physical balance. We know that when a physical balance is introduced into the body, there is a sympathetic influence exerted on the internal layers. There is a tendency towards further internalised harmony by the practice of the external, bodily asana. This influence may not be felt immediately, because the consciousness is so far inside the inner make-up of the person. There are at least five bodily sheaths or vestures, as we were told: internal to the physical there is the vital and the sensory, behind that is the mental, then the intellectual, and then the causal. Beyond all these is the true state of consciousness.
We cannot immediately exert an influence on consciousness by the practice of asanas, though we may be able to exert an influence sympathetically and by a remote process. So it is that asana is essential. Yet asana practice is not all, because it cannot do all things that are necessary for us, though without it we find it hard to go deeper. It is the first step that we take in tuning up the bodily system. In every asana, the purpose is to set up a balance in the cellular or the organic make-up of the body, and this is why the practice of asanas even helps the digestive process, the circulatory process and the breathing process. All the metabolic functions begin to go in a very smooth and cooperative spirit because of the harmony which is introduced.
Health is harmony, and therefore asanas ensure health. But it does something more—it tones up the nerves. Toning up the nerves is also a kind of introduction of balance into the system. Wherever there is balance, there is a toning up of the system. We feel a kind of strength. Wherever there is balance, there is strength, and wherever there is imbalance, there is a feeling of dissipation of energy. So it is that the yoga teachers insist on the practice of asana. If we place our body in an awkward position, this awkwardness sympathetically gets conveyed to the inner levels of the body, which becomes an awkwardness of the nerves, of the sensory powers, of the mind and so on. Though the body is not directly connected with the spirit, as I mentioned, it is indirectly connected. One thing is connected with another; one link is connected with a second link, the second with the third, the third with the fourth, and so on up to the hundredth link. We may say that the first is connected with the hundredth, though it is far separated.
The body is connected with the spirit through the linkage of the various vestures of the body. We may call them koshas—the five koshas or panchakosha. There are five kinds of vestures, of which the physical is the outermost. This manipulation of the physical system, therefore, does not immediately tell upon the mind or the spirit, but it tells upon the nerves and the bodily vibration. The asanas help in producing a system of vibration in the body. The asanas are not merely bending or twisting—they are aids in creating a force in the body. We help ourselves in creating a vibration.
This is the more important aspect of the practice of asana. The vibration, which may be said to be an expression of the energy of the system, is not usually felt on account of the distractions of the mind and the tortuous postures we generally assume in our physical system. For example, when we are seated in a balanced pose, we allow the energy of the prana within to flow rhythmically through the channels of the nerves, just as one may allow a rhythmic, free flow of water through different channels which are placed on level ground in a field. If the fields are low, the water will rush down like a torrent, and if the fields are elevated, the water will find it difficult to reach that level. If the fields are all at one level, there is a free and noiseless movement of the waters through the channels which connect them.
Asana practice is therefore a noiseless practice. We do not allow or do not wish the energy to rush through the nerves like a torrent, as if water were poured down from a higher level. Jerks and sudden twists of the body are avoided in the asanas. Thus, asanas are different from ordinary physical exercises, where sudden movements are made by the body. We are poised in the beginning and poised during the period of practice, and we come out with poise after the conclusion of the practice. There is a tremendous difference, as if poles apart, between the practice of asanas and physical exercises. We should not combine extremely strenuous physical exercises with the practice of asanas—one day we would play sports and the next day we would do sirshasana or savasana. This is not recommended, because we are giving an unnatural exertion to the body when it is not prepared.
There is no meddling with the inner system in the practice of asanas. The practice is also a kind of education that we give to the muscles and to the nerves. Education is not given by a whip or a rod; it is rather a very smooth growing process. We do not grow suddenly from one foot in height to six feet. Slowly, nature evolves in the form of growth of the body. For example, we cannot know that we are growing up every day, as the growth is so smooth and harmonious. Likewise is the educational system of the asana practice. We do not put any overexertion in the asana, and there is no fatigue of any kind. We should not say, “Oh, I am tired.” That is then not so much asana as it is exercise. We do not feel fatigue in the practice, because it is a system of education. In true education we cannot be tired, because it is only when we stuff our minds with facts beyond their limits that we get bored with learning. But in a very carefully thought-out process of education, we will find that learning is a joyous process. So is asana, so is yoga, and thus the limb of yoga which is asana gradually brings about a system of harmony.
I would like to confine myself to the specific postures necessary for the practice of meditation alone. These postures are supposed to be few, and ultimately the posture is one. The definition of a posture for meditation is, “that one which is easy and comfortable; not tortuous, difficult or monotonous”. One should not feel the need to constantly release oneself from the asana while sitting in meditation. It is up to us to choose a posture. Whatever is convenient for us may be taken as our posture, and by “convenient” I mean in the sense that we can remain in that posture for a protracted period. The purpose of the meditative pose therefore is to ensure maintaining a position of the body for a long period—as long as possible. When the pose is convenient and to our satisfaction, naturally we will not have to change the pose constantly. We change the pose only when it is not convenient.
However, the lying pose is not considered to be one recommended for meditation, although it is a very convenient pose and one which one could maintain for a long period. The lying pose is not supposed to be a suitable pose for meditation, because of the possibility of the mind entering sleep. The mind may go to sleep if the body is allowed to be lying down in the position of savasana, for example. Though savasana gives rest to the whole system, it may give so much rest that it may even bring about sleep, but rest should not lead to sleep in this case. It should be a conscious resting which does not result in sleep.
Hence, the teachers of yoga thought out a position of the body which may be midway between standing and lying. Standing is not convenient, because a part of the mind will go to the maintenance of balance of the body while standing. If we should not think of the legs, even unconsciously; we might fall down, and this is why we cannot stand and sleep. Though a person may not be actually thinking of the legs while standing, a part of the mind is concerned with the legs, so the whole of the mind would not be engaged in the object of meditation. Nor is it convenient to lie down. If we lie down, we may sleep, and if we stand, we may fall. Therefore, the seated posture is supposed to be most convenient, as it is midway between the two extremes of standing and lying down.
While the sitting posture is regarded as convenient, still certain restrictions are imposed—restrictions in the sense that the sitting pose should ensure harmony of the limbs. When we sit, we typically do not know what to do with the hands. For example, while standing the two hands are hanging on both sides. What do we do with them when we sit? It is very difficult to know what to do with the hands. People go on touching this, touching that, and scratching and playing with the nails and so on, because they do not know what to do with these two hands. Therefore, the limbs also should be harmonised in the sitting posture. While the pose should be one of harmony, the limbs also should be held in a harmonious manner.
The extremities, such as the toes and the soles of the feet along with the arms and legs, ought to be properly held in meditation. The extremities should not be exposed in the sitting posture, because the posture is meant for meditation, and when the extremities are exposed—for example if we stretch our legs or leave our hands open in two directions to the right and to the left—what will happen afterwards is that the energy that we may be able to generate in meditation may leak out through the extremities. We would then feel a kind of awkward sensation through the extremities, a kind of creeping sensation like ants crawling, and we will not know what is happening to us. The advice is that while we are seated, we also lock up the limbs. The legs and the hands are both locked, and the locking of the legs is done in certain postures like the padmasana, the siddhasana, the sukhasana or the swastikasana, as they are called. These are four of the important sitting postures for meditation. In these postures we lock up the extremities of the legs, so that the extremities touch our main body, and at the same time we lock the hands. We might have seen pictures of Buddha sitting for meditation—one palm on the other, or fingers locked so that the hands and the feet are both locked. In this manner we ensure the circulation of energy within our own system. Whatever energy is generated in our system will not leak out in concentration.
Whenever there is a concentration of mind, an energy is released in the body, and this energy should not leak out through the extremities. The leaking out of the energy may take place not merely by the opened extremities, but also by our being seated on a conductor of electricity. It is advised that we should not sit on anything metallic or on bare ground, because the earth is a conductor of electricity. It acts as one of the poles of electric conduction, and so we are not to sit on bare ground. Originally, in ancient India, people used to purposely sit on poor conductors of electricity such as deerskin, tiger skin or a mat made of kusa grass. In the Bhagavadgita there is a statement that we can sit on an asana with a grass mat or a deerskin with a cloth spread over it, which means to say that we should not sit on a good conductor of electricity. Our concentration is helped if the earth and our body are not in close contact.