Stability – The physical body (Asana)
The yogi knows that the physical body is not only the temple for our soul but the means by which we embark on the inward journey towards the core. It is the physical body that allows to discover the aspect of ourselves that is the most concrete and accessible to all of us. It is here the Yogasana and Pranayama practice allow us to understand our body with ever greater insight and through the body to understand our mind and reach our soul.
2.1. The true nature of health
Most people ask from their body that it does not trouble them. They feel that they are healthy when they are not suffering from illness or pain, not aware of the imbalances that exist in their bodies and minds which will ultimately lead to diseases.
Yoga has a three fold impact on health. It keeps healthy people healthy, it inhibits or stops the development of diseases and it aids recovery from illness. Diseases are not just on a physical level but are also considered to be anything that disturbs your spiritual life and practice as well.
Health begins with firmness in body, deepens to emotional stability, then leads to intellectual clarity, wisdom and finally the unveiling of the soul. Physical health is not a commodity to be bargained for. Nor can it be swallowed in the form of drugs and pills. It has to be earned through sweat. During the practice of yogasana one experience a three level quest: 1) the external quest which brings firmness of body, 2) the internal quest which brings steadiness of intelligence and 3) the inner most quest which brings benevolence of spirit.
The body will prove to be an obstacle unless we transcend its limitations. The key to unlock our potential are the qualities of purity and sensitivity. Purity or simply cleanliness is not just on a moral level it also allows or permits to become sensitive. Sensitivity on the other hand is not weakness or vulnerability , it is more clarity of perception. Impurity or rigidity of body/mind creates a hard shell around us which cut us off in both ways; nourishment can not enter and toxic waste can not leave the body. The practice of asana will generate strength and flexibility which will allow us to keep our inner balance, control ourself and adopt to the ever changing character of nature.
Patanjali Ch2,46 gives us a basic definition on how we should practice asana in a way that leads to health and purity: “Sthira sukham asanam“. This can be translated as; “Asana is perfect firmness of body, steadiness of intelligence and benevolence of spirit.”
2.2. Awareness: Every pore of the skin has to become an eye
Yoga teaches us how to infuse our movements with intelligence, transforming them into actions. (Action is movement with intelligence). During the asana one starts to develop a sensitivity/awareness where each pore of the skin acts as an inner eye. Our awareness gets diffused throughout the perifery of our body and is able to sense whether in a particular asana our body is in alignment. You start to be able to adjust ans balance the body gently from within with the help of these eyes.
If he brain receives knowledge from the body, it will be able to increase the intelligence of the body later. in this way the brain and the body start to work together to master the asana. It is only when the mind is in a state of silence/emptiness during the practice of asana, that this emptiness can be filled with the awareness/sensations of the body , leading to intelligence
2.3. Dynamic Extension: From the core of your being
The goal of all asana practice is doing them from the core of your being and extending out dynamically through to the periphery of your body. If extension is from the intelligence of the brain, expansion is from the intelligence of the heart. Extension is attention and expansion is awareness.
- intelligence of the brain
- intelligence of the heart
While doing asana, both the intellectual intelligence and the emotional intelligence have to meet and work together. Extension and expansion brings space, and space brings freedom. From freedom of the body, comes freedom of the mind and then the Ultimate freedom.
When you extend to your skin, you are also extending your nerve endings. Extending them opens them so that they can throw out their stored impurities.
2.4. Relaxation: In every pose there should be repose
Inhalation is tension, exhalation is freedom. Begin your asana by releasing the breath till you feel a quiet state of silence in the cells and self. If you want to stretch deeper, exhale and stretch again. Focus on relaxing as you hold the stretch, this will relax the brain as well as the body. When you keep the back skin of the neck passive,the tongue soft, and the throat relax, there will be no tension in the brain. This is silence in action, relaxation in action. Also the eyes should be soft and sunken in. Keep your eyes open and relaxed and at the same time looking backward (within) during your practice.
When we direct our eyes looking forward, the frontal brain is working with analysis (vitarka). But when we spread our ocular awareness from the back corner of the temple, near the ear, the back brain is brought into play and works with synthesis (vicara). The front brain can dismantle because of its powerful penetration, the back brain is holistic and reassembles. While working in asana, if the action is done solely from the front brain, it blocks the reflective action of the back brain and looses the inner sensation.
2.5. Lightness: Think light and feel light
When an asana is done correctly, the body movements are smooth, and there is lightness in the body and freedom in the mind. You must try to generate a feeling of lightness throughout your body. This can be achieved by mentally extending yourself outward from the center of your body. Think of yourself as graceful and expanding, no matter how unlikely it may seem at the time.
When we lose this lightness, our bodies shrink. And the moment the body shrinks, the brain becomes heavy and dull and you see nothing. The doors of perception are closed.
The corners/sides of the chest are like pillars: They should always be firm. Slouching works like a narcotic on the body, which dims the divine light within you.
As you extend in an asana, you must maintain this softness in the body and lightness in the mind. Only then the asana is done correctly. Wherever there is tightness, the brain is overreacting, and you are trapped and no freedom is experienced. On the other hand tension is not good or bad. You have to find the right amount of tension in your body. Too much tension is like aggression and injuries will follow. But too little tension is weakness.
2.6. Balance: Evenness is harmony
All of us begin with imbalances, favoring one side or the other. When one side is more active than the other, the active side must become the guru of the inactive side to make it equally active. To the weaker side we must apply attention. Seek balance in all positions by observing the differences on the right and left as well as the intensity of stretch from plane to plane, limb to limb, muscle to muscle, joint to joint and from bottom to top, side to side and back to front.
In each asana, if the contact between the body and the floor –the foundation– is good, the asana will be performed well. Always watch your base: be attentive to the portion nearest to the ground. Correct first from the root. The standing poses are meant to begin providing this foundation for life. The feet are like the roots of a tree. And if the roots of the tree are weak, a big storm can just disrupt the whole tree. That is why balance poses help one to maintain stability in times of difficulty and even when catastrophes occur. When stability becomes a habit, maturity and clarity follow. Stability requires balance.
Balance is the state of the present –the here and now. The mind takes you constantly to the future, as it plans, worries and wonders. Memory takes you to the past, as it ruminates (re-chews the stuff) and regrets. The past, present and future are held together in each asana. And one has to find the median line of each asana so that the energy is properly distributed. When one weavers from the median line, then one goes either to the past or the future. Vertical ascending is the future, vertical descending is the past. The horizontal is the present. The present is the perfect asana. When you open up horizontally, future and past meet in the present. That is how dynamic extension and expansion allow you to find the balance and live more fully in the present.
The ancient sages said that the key to life was balance, balance in every layer of our being. But what are we supposed to balance? The answer lies in the tree qualities of nature, which are called the GUNAS. These tree qualities must be balanced in your asana practice and in your body, mind and soul. The tree gunas are: tamas (mass or inertia), rajas (vibrancy or dynamism) and sattva (luminosity). In our body tamas predominates. It has to . The body needs mass, bones need density and muscles need solidity and firmness. Density in bones is virtue, but in your brain it is a vice. In our brain and nervous system rajas predominates. With regard to asana this means that initially we need to exert ourselves more as resistance is greater. But once there is movement and then momentum, penetration of the mind can start. We want a quick mind but not an agitated one. In the end we want a calm , clear mind which brings us to sattva. In a world of objects and sensory excitement, tamas and rajas reign. But if you come to yoga with a wish to learn how truly to relax and yet remain alert, you are expressing a wish that sattva will play a more dominant role in your life. The interplay of these three guna forces is of crucial importance in your yoga practice. You have to learn to identify and observe them in order to be able to adjust and balance their proportions and as you penetrate inward, bring the beauty of sattva to the surface. You are like an artist with three basic pigments on his palette, forever remixing and blending them in order to express the right combination of color, form and light on your canvas.
2.7. Pain: Find comfort even in discomfort
In yoga class, many students think that they must simply grit their teeth and bear it until the teacher tells them they can come out of the asana. This way of looking at asana is the wrong attitude. The pain is there as a teacher. As we experience pleasures happily, we must also learn not to lose our happiness when pain comes. Learn to find comfort even in discomfort. We must not try to run away from the pain but to move through and beyond it. This is the cultivation of tenacity and perseverance which is a spiritual attitude towards yoga and towards life. Since pain is inevitable, asana is a laboratory in which we discover how to tolerate the pain that cannot be avoided and how to transform the pain. The asana helps us to develop greater tolerance in body and mind so that we can bear the stress and strain more easily.
Backbends will learn us courage and tenacity, balancing asanas cultivate tolerance. If you can adapt to and balance in a world that is always moving and unstable , you learn how to become tolerant to the permanent change and difference.
So how does one learn how to make pain bearable? It is not by making faces that the pain becomes more bearable. On must create relaxation even when there is the right amount of tension. This relaxation can start by releasing the stress residing in the temples and in the cells of the brain. This in turn takes the stress of the nerves and muscle fiber. This is how you can convert an unbearable pain into a bearable one.
One must also to learn the difference between right pain and wrong pain. Right pain is not only constructive but also exhilarating and involves challenge, while wrong pain is destructive and causes excruciating suffering. Right pain is for our growth and for our physical and spiritual transformation. It is felt as a gradual lengthening and strengthening feeling and must be differentiated from wrong pain, which is often a sharp and sudden feeling. In addition, if you get a pain that is persistent, and intensifying as you work , it is likely a wrong pain too. And always remember that if the practice of today damages the practice of tomorrow it is the wrong practice. Asana practice gives us opportunities to look at obstacles in the practice but also in life, and discover how we can cope with them.
2.8. Perfecting: Always be happy with the smallest improvement
Let the goal be to reach perfection, but be content with a little progress towards perfection every day. Over-ambition can be destructive of sustainable progress. We are creatures that can dream of perfection, and it is this dream that inspires one to improve. It is this dream that ignites the effort needed to transform.
Sometimes our body is willing, but our mind is weak and says, “We don’t have time,” or “Forget it it is not worth all the effort.” Sometimes it is our mind that is willing, but our body is weak and says, “I am really too tired for all this trouble.” A practitioner must focus between the mind and the body, listening to the counsel of each, but letting the intelligence and the soul make the true decision, for this is where real will power and real dedication are found.
Success will come to the person who practices. Long uninterrupted practice of asana and pranayama, done with awareness, makes the foundation firm and brings success. Water your asana and pranayama practice with love and joy seeing the small progress. Like a gardener plants and apple seed, waters the seed, watches each day, and feels happy seeing the growth. Patience allied with disciplined practice brings the required willpower to continue.
Light comes to a person who extends his awareness a little more than seems possible. You therefor have to ask yourself, using your intelligence and your willpower, can I do a little better than I am doing? The moment one goes a little more than the body wants to take, one is nearer to the Self. The moment one says, “I am satisfied,” the light of awareness and attention is fading out. That means stagnation has come, and the end of your learning is reached. The window of the intelligence has been closed.
Do not allow past experiences to be imprinted in your mind. Perform asanas each time with a fresh mind and with a fresh approach. If you are repeating what you did before, you are living in the past. Meaning you don’t want to proceed beyond the experience of the past. Therefor, ask yourself, “Is there anything new from what I did yesterday?” or “What more can i do than what I was doing yesterday?”, then room is created for progress.
Over time the intensity with which one can practice develops. Yoga identifies four levels of intensity of practice which relates to the twin aspects of exertion (effort, tapas) and penetration. Exertion, or our effort through practice, generates the energy, which we need to penetrate to the core of our being.
The first level of intensity is one where we exert ourselves only a little, perhaps do one class a week and find reasons not to practice at home. Mild practice is not bad practice, but one has to realize that it does not pay big dividends, and in terms of penetration our awareness remains rudimentary and peripheral.
The second level of intensity can be obtained, if we increase our level of practice slightly compared to the first level. We can consider ourselves then as average practitioners, not always consistent, but nevertheless the inner structure of our body and organs will begin to reveal themselves.
The next stage of practice (or third level of intensity) is a determined and intense level of practice. Our inward gaze becomes refined, insightful, judicious and discerning. We will become aware of our thoughts flickering and how the movement of breath ruffles or calms the consciousness. Our intelligence will awaken to the point where it can see things in their true light ans make a myriad of meaningful choices both in life and in practice.
The highest level (or fourth level of intensity) is characterized as a total investment of oneself in practice. It is almost unknown for anyone to be able to plunge into this level from the beginning. Probably the circumstances of life would not allow it initially, but over time the level can be reached. Our insight can now finally penetrate through all the tortuous subtleties of cunning ego, our wisdom matures and we touch the core of our being.
This scale or ladder of intensity is just here for reference purposes only, so that we can truly and honestly see where we are and how we are doing.
2.9. Divine Yoga: Do the asana with your soul
Use your body to discipline the mind and to reach the soul. Asana, when done with the right intention, will help to transform an individual by taking the person away from an awareness of just the body towards the consciousness of the soul. Indeed, the body is the bow, asana the arrow, and soul is the target. The asana must be righteous and virtuous.
By righteous one means that the asana need to be true. You must not cheat or pretend. You must fill every mm of your body with the asana so that the asana radiates from the core of your body and fills the entire diameter and circumference of your limbs.
By virtuous one means that it must be done with the right intention, not for the ego or to impress but for the Self. In this way the asana is a sacred offering. A virtuous asana is done from the heart and not from the head or the body. So while you are sweating and aching, let your heart be light and let it fill your body with gladness. The pain is temporary but freedom is permanent.