by Swami Krishnananda
In the system of Yoga propounded by Patanjali, there is a gradual inward withdrawal and focussing of force for the purpose of achieving the universality of being, which is the establishment of the Purusha in himself. This system starts with the Yamas and the Niyamas which are disciplines connected, firstly, with the externalised form of consciousness in its movements in terms of social relationships, and secondly, with the externalisation of the very same consciousness in its relationship to the body. Now, a further step in the line of this practice takes the form of the discipline of the body itself. This practice is called the Asana. The Yoga Asanas are so very well known, especially in these days, throughout the world practically, that they have almost tended to replace the purposes of Yoga proper, and many people imagine that the Yoga Asanas are themselves the goal of Yoga. This misconstruing of the significance of the Yoga Asanas is due to the excessive emphasis laid upon their practice, ignoring their more important utility in the internal discipline of the whole system for a nobler purpose. Yoga does not mean Yoga Asanas, though Yoga Asanas constitute a very important limb in the practice of Yoga. The necessity for this item of practice arises, because of our being vitally related to the bodily organism.
There are almost infinite relationships of consciousness in this world of space and time, and the primary form of the externalisation of consciousness is what is called the body-consciousness. In a gradual descent from its universal state, consciousness has come down lower and lower, gravitating towards greater and greater densities of expression, until it has become very heavy, laden with matter, almost getting identified with matter itself. That is body consciousness. We cannot help feeling that we are the body. We are nothing but that, we are only that! This is a very unfortunate state, because it is the worst of the states into which consciousness has descended. In this state, consciousness has lodged itself in matter, identified itself with it, become matter itself; it has sold itself into the form of the body. The subject has become the object in a literal fashion. To make matters worse, it has moved further away from the consciousness of the body into the diverse social relationships. All these diseased conditions of consciousness, we may say, have to be taken into consideration in a hazy movement backwards towards the state universal, which is the primary, pristine Purusha. Inasmuch as the consciousness of the body is one of the levels of experience, one of the stages into which consciousness has descended, and one of the stages through which it has to pass in its ascent, the discipline of the body, of the muscular and the nervous systems, is necessary in a very important manner.
The exercises which go by the name of Yoga Asanas have attracted the attention of the people the world over for a very important reason. The outward games, especially of the western type, and the physical exercises have a marked difference from the aim of the practice of the Asanas. There is a tremendous difference between the intention behind the practice of the Yoga Asanas and the playing of games like cricket and football. There is an externalisation of energy in ordinary games, whereas there is an internalisation of energy in Yoga Asanas. One gets exhausted after playing games but one feels energised after a session of Yoga Asanas. Strenuous physical exercise results in heavy breathing, perspiration and a rapid heart-beat; the breath gallops in external games. Nothing of the kind happens in the practice of Yoga Asanas. On the other hand, after Yoga Asanas, the breath is cooled down, calmed, and there is no violent beating of the heart as happens in the case of games, and there is neither perspiration nor exhaustion. There is a satisfaction, rather than a tiredness. These are some of the outer symptoms and indications which differentiate Yoga Asanas from the games of ordinary type.
Apart from this difference, the Yoga Asanas have spiritual connotation. Interpreted merely as another system of physical exercise, the Yoga Asanas may not appear to have any connection with spirituality. But, in truth, everything connected with Yoga is somehow or the other related to the intention of the spirit finally. This is the peculiarity of the culture of India. Everything has some connection with the spirit, even the least ritual of worship, and the smallest gesture of adoration, or study or practice. Because the culture of India has one great aim before it, namely, to spiritualise every activity; and, in this light, no work in the world should be there bereft of the element of the spirit. So, even the Asana is a spiritual exercise, though one may not be able to easily understand how a physical exercise can be regarded as spiritual. Asana is spiritual, because of the intention behind its practice, the purpose for which it is done, and the effect it produces on the mind particularly. The Hatha Yoga system has an enumeration of many Asanas – eighty four, mainly – all aiming at the bringing about of a flexibility in the various parts of the body, so that there may not be any kind of undue pressure exerted by any part or limb of the body causing pain, ache and discomfort. Instead of the body controlling us, we have to control it. Generally, we are controlled by the body, because it has its own idiosyncrasies and predilections. The body aches when we do not attend to it according to its requirements. But, if we have some sort of a restraint and control over the functions of the body, it yields to our requirements, especially when we want to be seated for a long time for meditation or Japa.
The body cannot place itself in one particular posture for a long time. The body also cannot sit in one posture for a long time for a similar reason. Just as the mind is distracted due to its own desires, and therefore, cannot concentrate itself on any particular thing for a protracted period, the body too cannot sit in one posture, because it is fugitive, it is itching, it is restless. This restlessness of the body is caused by the restlessness of the Pranas, which again is due to the restlessness of the mind. The body, the mind and the Pranas are thus internally related, affecting one another in such a way that if anything happens to one, it is felt by the others. Though the physical exercises known as the Yoga Asanas run into a large number, the system of Patanjali pinpoints one particular exercise or Yoga Asana for a particular purpose. Inasmuch as the purpose of Yoga Asanas is the higher reach of Yoga and not the Asana itself – the Asana is not an end in itself, but a means to a higher purpose – many types of physical postures are not prescribed, though they may be admitted and acquiesced in and permitted for some time so that the body may finally accustom itself to being seated in one posture for a long time. There is no objection to the performance of many Asanas. It is quite all right. But, the intention is not to go on doing them endlessly throughout one's life. The purpose is to discipline the body to such an extent that it can then sit in one posture only.
The definition of Asana given by Patanjali is very impersonal and he does not give it any particular name such as Sarvangasana or Sirshasana. His definition of Yogasana is psychological, rather than physical. Whatever posture is capable of yielding fixity of the system and is comfortable can be regarded as a suitable Yoga posture. This is a very generous definition of Yogasana with a broad coverage. But, when Patanjali says, "comfortable posture", it should be understood in its correct perspective. Many may regard the sleeping posture as the most comfortable, because when we are tired, we always lie down. But then, the comfort that is permitted by Patanjali is only in so far as it is in consonance with the requirement of Yoga, and sleep certainly cannot be regarded as one of the requirements. And therefore, while "comfortable posture" is what he mentions, he does not necessarily mean a posture that will tend to loss of consciousness as in sleep. There are various positions which the body can assume. It can assume a standing position, a sitting position, or a lying down position. These are the three ways in which the body can be fixed. Now, inasmuch as Patanjali says that anything that is comfortable and conducive can be regarded as the necessary posture, we have to find out what is the best posture which will meet these requirements. It cannot be said that the standing posture is the comfortable one, because one cannot go on standing for a long time, inasmuch as the legs have to be supporting the whole body, and a part of the mind has to go to the legs in order that they may be able to support the body. If the mind is totally withdrawn from the legs, one may fall down. That is not the purpose of Yoga. So, the standing posture is certainly not suitable for meditation practice. The lying down posture is again not suitable, because one may slowly be induced to sleep. Therefore, neither standing nor lying down is suitable. It goes without saying that the only other thing left out is the seated posture. How to sit? Here, again, no details are given in the Sutra of Patanjali.
We have to read the meaning between the lines. Sthira-sukham asanam is the Sutra – that which is fixed and is comfortable is the posture. Just as we have to bear in mind the final intention of Yoga in anything that we do in this world, we have to bear the very same thing in our mind even in the practice of this posture. Concentration of the mind is the intention. Therefore, any seated posture which will help in the concentration of the mind should be regarded as that which is conducive and comfortable. It is a position comfortable for the practice of concentration, which is permitted in the light of the aim of Yoga, and not just a position of ordinary physical comfort. So, we are told that we have to be cautious in the selection of this physical seated posture, because the body is connected to the muscles, the muscles to the nerves, and the nerves to the mind; and so, whatever be the posture we choose for ourselves for the purpose of Yoga, it has to bear a relationship to the mind's purpose, which is meditation. Any kind of awkward position of the body such as the leaning position, would also have an effect upon the nerves and the muscles, and therefore indirectly upon the mind. A harmonisation or balancing of forces is Yoga finally, and any crookedness of the body, bending down or leaning backward or leaning sideways, would not be helpful in the bringing about of a harmony in the nervous system indirectly permitting the flow of the Pranas in a harmonious manner. If we lean, bend or crouch, there will be a tendency to clogging of the Pranas in the nervous system, and so we will feel the result of it in the form of some sort of a discomfort. Therefore, usually it is said that one should sit straight with the head, neck and spine in a straight line.
Now, this prescription of the straight line position of the body should not make one feel discomfort again, because it is clearly mentioned that the posture should be a comfortable one. One should not be conscious that one is sitting with some effort. Effortless should be the practice of the Asana. Prayatna-saithilya is a very important phrase or word that Patanjali uses in this connection. Effortless should be the Asana. It should not be done with effort because then it does not serve the purpose. The Yoga student should not strain his nerves and get intensely conscious that he is sitting. The purpose of the meditation posture is to get rid of the consciousness of the body to the extent possible, not to intensify the body consciousness. The intention is not to be fixed in the idea of the body itself, but to be free from the idea of the body so that the balancing of the body will liberate, in some measure, the connection of the mind and the Pranas and the body. It is common knowledge that whenever we are balanced, either physically or nervously or mentally, we are less conscious of the body. When there is a balancing of thought, we do not think that we have a body at all; this is especially so when we are perfectly healthy. Even children do not know that they have a body. They play, run about buoyantly, as if they are light spirits rather than heavy bodies. We become too much conscious of our body when we are ill and when there is something wrong somewhere in our system. If everything is perfectly all right and we are fully healthy, we may not be even aware that we are existing physically. But we are not always so healthy. We have some difficulty or the other, and therefore, we are aware that we have a body. The idea that we are the body has to be removed by the introduction of a system of balance gradually. It begins with the Asana.
So, while it is said that it has to be a seated posture with the spine straight, it does not mean that we should be conscious that the spine is straight. Usually, we never sit with the spine straight. We bend or kneel. Now, when we are told that we have to sit with the spine straight, and we try to sit straight, we become automatically conscious of our effort to sit straight. In the beginning, this consciousness cannot be avoided. But, there is a way in order that we may slowly get freed from this consciousness of our being in a posture. One may lean against a perpendicular wall. In the beginning this can be done and there is no objection. Because, when one leans against a perpendicular wall, one is to some extent seated straight, and there is no necessity to think that one is sitting like that. There is no conscious effort to sit straight while one sits leaning against a perpendicular wall. So, this can be continued for a long time, until one is able to be free from this need for a support like the wall; and it may take some months. Then one will feel relaxed and happy the moment one sits.
It is surprising how, even by sitting effortlessly in a comfortable posture, we feel a satisfaction from inside – from where it comes we cannot know. This satisfaction, this happiness, has come merely because of the balance. The balance that we speak of has some reference to the Sattva Guna. Wherever there is a balance of anything, there is some sort of a reflection of Sattva in some modicum. Because of the effortless seatedness of the body in a perfectly balanced way, there is a joy felt within on account of a sympathetic reaction of this balance, communicated to the nervous system and to the mind finally. The mind feels happy in an instant. Generally, when we sit like this for Yoga, we are told that we may choose one or two or three or four of the usually prescribed postures of Yoga, or the meditation poses, known as Padmasana, Siddhasana, Sukhasana and so on. Here again, we have to remember that the posture should be effortless. It does not mean that we have to strain ourselves to sit in Padmasana with ache in the joints and in the knees. We can have other Asanas which may be more comfortable. The point to be borne in mind always is that we are not going to practise Yoga for the sake of the Asana, but we are going to practise the Asana for the sake of Yoga.
Padma, Siddha, Sukha and Svastika are generally the four types of seated posture suggested in the Yoga system, together with the other prescription that the spine, the neck and the head should be straight. Also, the practitioner should not have any kind of difficulty in maintaining the balance. Gradually the effort that is necessary to be seated should be relaxed. In the beginning, some sort of an effort is necessary. We know it very well. At the very outset we cannot be effortless, but later on, we have to be effortless. When the acrobat climbs on a wire in a circus, a certain amount of effort is necessary to place oneself in that balance. But, later on, it becomes effortless. When one sits on a bicycle, a little bit of effort is necessary to place oneself in balance. Afterwards the cycle carries the rider effortlessly. Prayatnasaithilyata is effortlessness of practice in the Asana. There should not be the slightest effort. The practice should be spontaneous. One should not feel pain. One should not be eager to change the position or get up. That should not be the case. At least for an hour one should sit, and one can begin with a lesser duration, say, half an hour or fifteen minutes.