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toys for the mind

3rd May 2007 permanent link

What is yoga asana practice for anyway? Part Three of a sporadic ongoing essay. (Part One, Part Two, Part Four)

I disagree strongly with people who take the view that modern, asana-focused yoga practice is just physical exercise and has nothing to do with the other seven of the eight limbs of real yoga. I also disagree, although less vehemently, with those who say it is “only” a way to prepare the body for sitting meditation – although that’s important too. (I have no strong opinion either way at this point on the all tantra/kundalini stuff, about which more soon, maybe)

Check out this passage from a BBC radio interview of Sri BKS Iyengar by Mark Tully, starting at around 16 minutes (*):

[Tully]: Now Guruji is doing an incredible backbend. His head’s on the ground, it’s between his two bent arms. His back's arched and the other end of his body is only supported by his left foot. His right leg is pointing straight up towards the ceiling. [eka pada viparita dandasana; see also the man himself at 1:10 in this video on youtube] He must be concentrating incredibly hard to prevent him toppling over.
[Iyengar]: Now, you observe how I stretch my intelligence from the head to the foot, and from the foot to the head, so that the physical force and the mental force meet and bring oneness between body, mind and soul.
[Tully]: Now Guruji has literally flipped back onto his feet.
[Iyengar]: So that is my meditation. Because my intelligence did not waver at all. So I was present, my body was in the present, my physical energy was in the present, my mental energy was in the present, my intellectual energy was in the present – so the self is in the present.
[Tully]: So, for you there is no need for the ordinary form of meditation?
[Iyengar]: No. … My brain is relaxed. That is meditation.

Lately I’ve been practicing ardha chandrasana quite often (even though it isn’t in any ashtanga series). It’s a lovely position in many ways, but especially for me at the moment it’s a very challenging balance. Whether and how far I can turn my head to look up at the top hand is a pretty accurate gauge of how focused I happen to be on that particular day, how much or how little extraneous noise I’m allowing into my head. And, while one shouldn’t be judgmental about one’s own yoga practice (or anybody else’s), that is useful information. How many other chances in life do you get to quantify your level of cosmic oneness in degrees of arc?

Maybe when I’ve done ardha chandrasana a thousand times and got used to it, then I’ll need to move on to something harder to achieve the same effect.

The point – one of the points, at any rate – of yoga asana practice, is to give you something to do with your mind that’s difficult enough that you have to learn to control and focus your mental processes in order to be able to do it. It’s easy to get distracted by random thoughts flickering across your mind if you just sit and try to meditate, less so if you put yourself in a position where getting distracted means falling on your head.

If you’re in a position and fully focused on what your body is doing and how you feel in that position – not thinking about what you plan to have for dinner after class or the babe on the next mat – then you’re not just “preparing to” meditate – not thinking about your present practice as a means towards some future end – you are meditating.

You don’t necessarily have to be performing spectacular-looking “advanced” asanas for this to happen. But for some people – me, for example – being at some kind of personal physical limit seems to help with the focus. And if you spend time at your personal physical limits on a regular basis, they tend to move. Which can, as a side effect, result in you developing the ability to perform spectacular-looking “advanced” asanas. Which can be fun (I imagine – it has yet to happen to me), as long as you don’t confuse it for the object of the exercise or think it somehow makes you better than other people.

I don’t need to go to church – I am the church
Paul Chek

Ukrainian yoga master Andrey Lappa has an interesting and slightly different take on all this. He says beginners need a dynamic, vinyasa-style practice with lots of different asanas and controlled movement between them to give them something to focus their thoughts on. If you just ask them to sit still, they have so much random noise in their heads and no experience of how to control their thoughts that they will just be constantly distracted. Only later can more experienced practitioners start to move towards Patanjali’s ideal of a single stable, comfortable position for meditation.

(*) It should be illegal to publish audio on the web without a transcript. You can’t search it, it takes ages to listen to it, quoting from it is a laborious pain in the ass.

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