Conference – Asana as the Foundation of a Spiritual Practice – 1st January 2012
By Suzanne El-Safty
Posted 13 Jan 2012
By Suzanne El-Safty
Posted 13 Jan 2012
This conference was being filmed. This was also the day that I started to feel unwell – so I’m probably going to look very miserable and a bit green on film. Oh well! My notes are mostly okay I think but tail off towards the end as I began to feel worse and worse:
In Ashtanga Yoga we always do so many asanas. Not only in Ashtanga Yoga but in Krishnamacharya’s lineage in general. If we are following that lineage then there are lots of asanas. Many people have that question: why do we have to do asanas? Many teachers say that you don’t have to do asanas – you can just sit. But, if you see the yoga shastra - the Hatha Yoga Pradipika or even the Upanishads – they all say why asana is so important – to control our minds.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika says that before we can think about getting enlightened we have to stabilise this body and mind. We have to practise asanas to stabilise our body and mind, to discipline this body and mind.
Now the mind is very chanchala – not in your control. The thought waves are so strong, the mind is like a monkey, a drunken monkey. To control the mind we need to bring some sort of discipline. You need to bring discipline to asana practice. It doesn’t come at once, you need to do for a long time – ‘sa tu dirghakalanairantaryasatkarasevito drdhabhumih’ (Yoga Sutras I:14). Asana is the foundation for the spiritual building; the foundation needs to be strong otherwise the building will fall. That is why asana is very important – it is the foundation to build the spiritual building.
It is only when you practise asana for many years that you realise how spiritual it is. To others it looks only physical. Other people who say that asana is just gymnastics, I call them sailors on the ocean – they don’t know about diving. They can’t see the beauty of the ocean – the colourful fish, the beautiful whatever animals you get in the sea. It is only if you know diving that you can see. Yoga is also like that – if you just sail on top of the ocean you will never get anything.
When you experience through the asana practice you can relish the purity of this practice.
Even in the Upanishads they talk about asanas. They compare consciousness to the sun. When the sun rises the rays of the sun are too harsh, at 12 o’clock they are too powerful; but as the sun sets it withdraws its rays and becomes very calm. This is like when a yogi sits in the third limb – in asana – he doesn’t have any mental disorders. We can feel that when we are practising everyday. We are totally concentrated on our mat – we forget all the nonsense happening around us. When we practise, day by day we get more focused, more concentrated.
1) Which Upanishad was that?
Answer – the Kena Upanishad.
This system that we do, this vinyasa system, is very special. Only Krishnamacharya’s lineage knows this system. No one else knows this system. Three things are very important in this practice:
These are the three pillars which we need in our practice. I have not included bandhas – bandhas are to be done all of the time, not only in asanas.
For example, Surya Namaskara A has 9 vinyasas, this means 9 breathing techniques – 9 times you have to inhale and exhale. Surya Namaskara B has 17 vinyasas. Like this each asana has a certain number of vinyasas. This allows the breath to circulate in the body and activate the jatar agni (digestive fire). There are 72,000 nervous systems in the body – they must get purified – but how? by practising asanas with vinyasa.
The basic asanas – in the primary series – are very good to cure all diseases. Medical problems can be cured by doing the asanas in the primary series.
2) Should students put as much effort into the drishti (gaze point) as into say posture?
Answer – yes, these three things are very important. This develops your focus and concentration. So when you go to the next step – pranayama and dhyana (meditation) – these things will help you, they will help you to concentrate. This is dhyana what you are doing, it becomes like that.
3) Is a seated meditation practice then redundant in this system? or is it something we are striving towards?
Answer – first you have to understand what is meditation. Meditation is not something where you go somewhere, you close your eyes and sit. It looks very nice. But inside the mind is very disturbed – it goes to your country or to your boyfriend. First you have to control your sense organs. Then automatically meditation will happen within you.
First you need to bring the sense organs under control. That is why Patanjali says ‘yogascittavrttinirodhah’ (Yoga Sutras I:2) – yoga is to bring the sense organs under control. Once you still the mind – that is meditation, yoga or union.
For that we need to develop certain qualities within us. For this we have to practise certain asanas. I can go into a meditative mode when practising asanas.
Some people say they go to do a vipassana for 15 days, they go every day and they sit like this. For the first two days they have lots of enthusiasm; after the third day the mind starts wandering.
To reach the higher levels in practice first you have to build the foundation, that is asana, and then think about yama and niyama. It is a process which should happen day by day, year by year. A real yogi does not need a certificate saying he is enlightened. We have seen so many yogis in the past – nobody has a certificate.
4) When we practise, how do we keep a state of dhyana and also some awareness of where our legs and arms are?
Answer – that will automatically come. In practice your mind is thinking about your body – not about the nonsense outside. When I say kurmasana (turtle posture) your body will automatically do that. When we are practising our focus should be on our asana through our drishti and breathing.
When you are out on the street you see lots of street shows, like in Covent Garden. Like that in India we also have, lots of shows on the street – they are called games. In one game, there are two pillars and one rope between. One girl walks from here to there on the rope with 5 or 6 pots on her head and a bamboo stick in her hand. With hundreds of people watching. When she walks her mind is so concentrated on the pot. If she thinks about the people watching her she will fall and the pot will fall. See how beautiful that game is. Like that see the beauty of the asana.
5) If the purpose of the basic postures is to cure diseases then what is the purpose of the more advanced series?
Answer – to show off (laughs).
Primary Series is chikitsa vibhaga - to cure diseases. If yoga is used as a therapy then you do certain asanas to help, so that the body gets purified.
Then it gets more advanced – nadi shodhana (intermediate series is known as nadi shodhana) - to purify the nervous system. But nadi shodhana happens in all of the series.
In the advanced series there are lots of different postures – arm balances, back bends.
They allow you to see your limitations, in body and mind. When you are young it is easy to do all the postures. When I was young I used to practise for 3 hours – from 3.30am to 6.30am. Now I do just 2 hours.
6) Was the system designed by Krishnamacharya? or did Guruji design it?
Answer – Guruji put the asanas into different levels. It is the same thing he learned from Krishnamacharya, just more refined.
7) Can you talk about diet?
Answer – vegetarian food – that’s all. It is very good for the body. Non-vegetarian will give you stiffness, it will give you more muscle, that’s all.
8) What is the difference between doing lots of postures for 5 breaths each and fewer postures but for more breaths?
Answer - you can try both. If you sit in one posture then only certain organs will get exercise. If you do more postures then more organs get exercise. When you do more postures you generate more heat and the blood becomes warm and can circulate properly.
republished with permission