SPIRITUAL ASPECTS OF ASANAS AS ILLUSTRATED BY VRKASANA
Guided and inspired by Swami Maheshananda
A Journey from Body to Mind
“While man’s body is limited in space and time, his spirit is eternal. Human life is a rare opportunity. It can be utilized for realizing the immortal spirit and for transcending thereby the limitations of space and time”. (Bhagavata, 11.2.29 and Dhammapada, 14.4)
A regular yoga class. An instructor is giving instructions. You are learning one asana after another, stretching and bending, exerting every effort to be better than others, tomorrow, and better than yourself, yesterday. You are in competition with others and with yourself. It is the act of performing. A performer performing to become perfect. There is a You and others, You in the present and You in the past, your desire to succeed, which, in turn, entails aspiration of recognition and acceptance. One learns to never be satisfied, to perfect oneself, be it yoga or anything else. Whilst there is nothing wrong about the ambitions of the ego, it is good to realize that what you are exercising is not yoga.
When practicing asanas (or for that matter anything else in your life), you have to question yourself: what is the purpose of this practice, why am I doing it?
The choices are to go further or deeper, to go outside or inside. Periphery or centre. Doing or being. Energy versus Space. Transformation versus Transcending.
Yoga means ‘union’ in Sanskrit. It is both the discipline leading to – and the experiencing of – the reunion of the embodied Individual Soul (Jivatma) with the Universal Soul (Paramatma) of which it is a partial expression. This is the goal of human life and endeavour.
In the modern world yoga has been stripped of its initial meaning and narrowed down to asanas, which are in turn reduced to physical exercise. This seems to be happening due to the lack of information. Most books on asanas do not cover the spiritual aspect of those, and are mere instructions on how to perform the positions correctly, their physical benefits and contraindications.
According to Patangiali yoga sutras, ‘asanas’ (yogic postures) are merely a part of the 8 step Ashtanga yoga, a third ‘limb’ that precedes and prepares one for meditation to result in Samadhi, the liberation (non-identification oneself with the body, the integration of one with the pure consciousness), the purpose of any yogic practice.
The body is perceived here as a mere tool, a dress to be washed, ironed and spruced up; its development being a mere step on the way to dissolution of the ego and spiritual transcendence.
Each asana, therefore, holds a meaning going way beyond its physical representation, which includes all the various aspects of spiritual growth; or rather, asana is indeed exercising spirituality via one’s body.
There was a reason why Swami Kuvalayananda, the founder of the oldest Institute of Yoga in India, limited the number of the asanas described in his book, to only a few. Those suffice to exercise one’s soul in contrast to the ego. These few asanas are voluminous, they work on many levels: physical, psychological and spiritual; they help to channel your energy and to activate your chakras. As your body goes deeper into each asana, so you travel into the depth of your consciousness to discover your innate divinity.
Going deeper: Confidence and Ego
As we continue our practice, we certainly advance on a physical and psychological level. It is a progress from the known to the unknown, from ‘I can’t’ to ‘I can’, developing, for instance, the ability to keep one’s balance by standing on one leg, keeping the body aligned, with support, letting go of support, with the eyes open, with the eyes closed – a progress on the physical level; overcoming a fear of falling and developing confidence – on a psychological level, as ‘I can’t’ denotes lack of confidence and trust in oneself. The transformation from ‘I can’t’ to ‘I can’ is also gradual, one has to be motivated to arrive at ‘I can’t, but I will give it a try’, to be ready to fall and fail and try again and finally arrive at a tentative and increasingly solid ‘I can’. It is a cycle, ‘can’ts’ are interlaced with ‘can’s’, imbalance with balance, until one becomes more steady and confident. And it is perfectly fine to stop right here, if you feel that your goal is reached. However, on a spiritual level this is merely a start
The first, gross physical level brings to the surface our ego. It is the level of a Doer who is being challenged to do something which he or she could not do before, and now they can. The ego develops side by side with the confidence. Similar to the way cholesterol accumulates in the body with the consumption of certain foods, it does not happen purposefully but as a side effect; the small coronary arteries are gradually becoming increasingly narrow, so does our ego grow within us. When you light a candle, the light is steady, but gradually, as the wax is melting black carbon is being formed on the tip of the burning cotton thread. It gets on the way to the light, and you have to remove it. The same applies to our ego, at a certain point it starts getting on the way to our spiritual development. To free or not to free the path to the light – is one’s choice.
“According to one of the leading Indian schools of philosophy – Sankhya philosophy, such is the influence of avidya or ignorance, that the self confuses itself with the body, the senses and the mind (manas). It is the want of discrimination (aviveka) between the self and the not-self that is responsible for all our sorrows and sufferings. We feel injured and unhappy when our body is injured or indisposed, because we fail to realize the distinction between the self and the body. Once we realize the distinction between the self and the not-self, our self ceases to be affected by the joys and sorrows, the ups and downs of life. It rests in itself as the dispassionate observer of the show of events in the world without being implicated in them. This is the state of liberation or freedom from suffering. But mere knowledge or intellectual understanding of the truth will not help one to realize one’s self. The nature and methods of the spiritual training necessary for self-realization have been elaborated in the Yoga philosophy”.
Continued practicing, repeated effort – abhyasa – to go deeper into the asana will allow us to move onto the spiritual level and address our subtle body, to bypass our ego and work on a whole different level. To move from the Doer to the Seer. To go from outer balance to a deeper balance within.
Balance and Equlibrium
“At least believe that the devil exists! I no longer ask you for anything more. Mind you, there exists a seventh proof of it, the surest of all! And it is going to be presented to you right now!” Voland. Master and Margarita. M.Bulgakov
The vast Moscow sky snowflakes. It’s the 24th of March. Two days ago I returned from India, Hairakhan, with its tender sun and relatively warm sacred waters of Gautam Ganga.
Hot seems to be necessarily balanced by cold. Light is discovered through darkness. Creation is necessarily followed by destruction (srsti and pralaya). Duality is the nature of existence. So how does one get away from its traumatizing effect? Can one feel unchangeably happy? Of course, it depends on the definition of happiness, but if we perceive happiness as the opposite of misery, then it is obvious that any state which has an opposite is subject to change. And it is only when both opposites coexist equally, are counterpoised internally, that one can avoid the switch from one state to another, in a word, to be balanced. The core of the ancient science of yoga is targeted at overcoming the duality within one, of realizing one’s divine nature, the unity between Jivatma (the individual soul) and Paramatma (the source of existence). Balanced state liberates one from the sense of separateness that one has felt ever since the times of Adam and Eve, when a man felt separated from nature, which has become the cause of existential misery.
“Man can only go forward by developing his reason, by finding a new harmony, a human one, instead of the prehuman harmony which is irretrievably lost… Man is gifted with reason; he is life being aware of itself. This awareness of himself as a separate entity, the awareness of his own short life span, of the fact that he will die before those whom he loves, or they before him, the awareness of his aloneness and separateness, of his helplessness before the forces of nature and of society, all this makes his separate, disunited existence an unbearable prison. He would become insane could he not liberate himself from the prison and reach out, unite himself in some form or other with others, with the world outside,” – writes Erick Fromm (The Art of Loving), or “…with the world Inside,” – says Yoga.
Within the paradigm of duality, balance can be described in terms of falling. However, staying away from falling does not mean that your weight is distributed equally, which defines the state of equilibrium. Balance then can also be defined as the first step towards equilibrium, without balance, with a propensity to fall, one cannot be in a position where one’s weight is equally distributed. Equilibrium, in its turn, means health as there are no distortions in the body/mind, the energy flows freely, unimpeded, therefore one is happy. Thus, we arrive at a paradigm of balance-equilibrium-health-happiness.
If you take a sphere, any point on the sphere can be perceived as its centre, it takes the same distance to reach the centre from any point on the outside of the sphere with the radius being the same length. Therefore, each point is indeed the centre. For instance, by practicing Vrkasana (the tree pose), assuming an unusual position, straining our ability of maintaining balance and reaching equilibrium, we are developing the spectrum of angles at which we can stay away from falling, and, essentially, we are developing the ability to find a centre wherever we are, regardless of our ‘position’. Whether it is a Vrkasana or another balancing asana, this is merely a tool for developing the ability to be comfortably centred, whether steady or in motion (when practicing Vrkasana the balance we attain is steady; when cycling, we are balancing in motion), whether alone or communicating with someone.
Whilst an ego strives to achieve a certain body position, our deeper self does not strive for anything, in the course of practicing asanas, the centre is being developed, a centre, similar to that of a sphere, ever present, and independent of any external factors, physical or otherwise; it manifests itself in our body’s condition, in our way of thinking and interacting with other people.
Developing inner balance requires time and effort, it is a slow and horizontal growth – for the spirit; as opposed to a vertical, hierarchal development from the ego’s perspective, from the point of view of ambition and achievement. A lotus takes time and care to blossom. Each stage of its growth is equally important, the seed is no less alluring than a flower. The baby is as beautiful as an adult – the vertical growth is only visual, but the true development happens horizontally. It can’t be forced, it happens on its own accord.
I used to paraglide. It’s been my dream ever since I was a child –to fly. Like many soviet children I wanted to be an astronaut, as time went by with ‘reality’ rudely barging in and my parents telling me I wasn’t fit enough to conquer space, I resolved to ‘conquer’ the nearby skies and reaching the eligible age to take responsibility for my own life, I took up paragliding. I dreamt of soaring like an eagle, feeling the wind on my face and air running through my feathers. That was my repeated dream – of utmost happiness, utmost freedom. The first experience was a tandem flight in the beautiful mountains of Andalusia, yet it left me puzzled –as I felt no happiness, and most obviously – no freedom hanging up there, like a puppet with the pilot pulling the strings and leading us into a thermal, which left me feeling slightly nauseous and secretly longing for the pilot to get lost and leave me to manage the strings and the glider by myself.
The decision was made: upon return to Moscow I enrolled in a paragliding school. Shortly after the start of the course and a few attempts of raising up the chute against the wind, my enthusiastic teacher Alexey sent me into a “free-dive”. The wind was right, the chute was blown up and my feet left the ground. It was a short flight ending in a safe landing onto an ant hill and planting the seed of fear within me.
My flying story was short-lived…and most importantly, the aspiration to that all-embracing freedom turned into a tug-of-war with fear. I was flying alone, physically, but never alone mentally. I flew with a radio, my instructor was giving me instructions over the radio – most probably, I did not need those instructions, I developed enough skill to manage without it; yet it was my safety net. And as soon as the radio stopped working – I fell. Taking off from the surface of the plane, with the tow equipment, at the level of about ten metres, one wing folded and the radio frequency was lost – it was easy to correct the wing position. But overwhelmed with panic, I pulled the wrong strings.
I never let go of fear, nor developed confidence, belief in myself. It was the outside support which I needed.
I was needy when flying and when living.
Since then It took a number of falls, both physical and otherwise, more damaging, to arrive at a realization that all external support is ephemeral and is the product of one’s speculations; as long as your search is directed outwards – you are bound to fail.
Vrkasana: a Journey from Outside to Inside
Once upon a time there lived a princess. Her father decided that it was time for her to get married. A lot of distinguished princes arrived to the castle to propose to her, one offering a lot of gold and wealth, another – a prosperous kingdom, yet another – the entire world… yet, there was one person who sat quietly saying nothing. So, the king asked him: what do You have to offer to my daughter? – I will offer her faith in herself. «Believe in yourself», he told the princess and she followed him.
Based on the fable by Nicholas Roerikh
Our ego is always there, alert, ready to step in and demonstrate what we are capable of, testing and stretching our abilities – by mastering one asana after another. Yet, if our pursuit is balance, one asana is sufficient to develop a foundation. You can cook a lot of dishes using many ingredients and call yourself a great cook; yet, you can also use only one ingredient – for example, an apple – and prepare a wealth of dishes with it and explore its properties far and wide, rediscovering it again and again: an apple pie, apple vinegar, apple juice and a piece of apple – the main ingredient remains the same. Certainly, there is no harm in using many different ingredients, yet we have to be conscious and honest with ourselves – what we are guided by in that endeavour – do we really develop our cooking skills by using increasingly exquisite ingredients and a larger variety of those? It’s a well-known fact that the expertise of a chef is tested by preparing an omelette – which anyone can do, yet, very few excel at.
The tree pose – Vrkasana – is a popular asana practiced by all and at all levels. It is known as a balance pose, which is admittedly true. Yet, this is the tip of the iceberg. On a deeper level Vrkasana helps develop confidence and trust in oneself.
‘Vriksha’ means a ‘tree’ in Sanskrit.
The pose reminds one of a tree with one foot firmly planted on the ground and the body erect and stretching up towards the sky.
Benefits listed in traditional asana books.
Textbook of Yoga by Yogeswar
1.The joints of the legs, knees and ankles become flexible.
2. It tones the leg muscles and strengthens the feet and ankles.
3. Numbness and rheumatic pain in the legs will be alleviated.
4. Neuro-muscular co-ordination can be gained by regular practice.
5. Develop a balanced mind and aids concentration.
Light on Yoga, BKS Iyengar
1. The pose tones the leg muscles and gives one a sense of balance and pose.
Asana: Why and how? O.P. Tiwari
1. Improves body-mind coordination.
2. Thigh and calf muscles become strong.
The stages of the asana are as follows:
1. Holding the posture with the external support.
2. Holding the posture with intermittent external support.
3. Holding the posture without external material support.
4. Maintaining the posture for a longer period of time fixing the gaze on a certain point.
5. Maintaining the posture and closing your eyes for a second/few seconds.
6. Maintaining the posture with your eyes closed, comfortably.
As you become less dependent on holding onto external props, you can start trying to hold the position with your eyes closed. As soon as you close your eyes – the ankle of the leg planted onto the ground will start shaking and you will be losing balance which can be regained by opening your eyes. Your mind tricks you. There is no longer physical support, yet it tells you that you still have it –as long as your focus is outside, using eyes as a tool of that focus, hence, shifting from the tactile perception of support to visual. Slowly, as if learning to walk, you’ll be learning to look for support from within, as you’ll be learning to maintain the posture with your eyes closed for a longer time and feeling increasingly stable, comfortable and effortless in it. Realization of the ever existing support within yourself turns into conviction.
It brings independence from any external source of support, which is, by contrast, ever changing, thus self-confidence and trust in oneself develops, fear goes and one evolves into a more solid, integrate and centered personality.
With realization and understanding coming from the inside, conviction arrives, and that type of conviction which is not dependent on any external source, is wisdom.
One does not need the ‘instructions’ of a teacher anymore, one becomes a teacher and a student at the same time.
You are your own support, solid and ever present.
Whilst studying at Kaivalyadhama, I was practicing yoga twice a day as part of the CCY program, it was the most intense practice I’ve ever done, even though we only practiced a limited number of seemingly simple asanas. On one of those days I found myself maintaining Vrkasana with my eyes closed. It took me by surprise as I’d never been able to do it before; I had found it challenging to stand still on one leg without physical support, let alone letting go of the visual support. I simply noticed that my eyes were shut. Yet, as soon as I did so, my foot started shaking and shortly thereafter I lost my balance.
The doer stepped in, someone who Wants to stand still, who desires to maintain a perfect posture, interfered and the naturally budding balance shied away.
“Subtle. It is lost, overlooked if there is positive movement, direct searching, active thinking, anything but profound stillness. Focus on it, and it is gone. All of the talking, all of the asking questions, reading books, meditating, thinking, focusing, seeking, is all counterproductive because it is pushing in the wrong direction, creating activity and turbulence and noise. Just as there is wei wu wei, the action which is not action, action which is not willed, is not volitional but witnessed as spontaneously happening: so too there is a seeing which is not seeing, a seeing which happens without trying, without looking” (Perfect Brilliant Stillness, David Carse)
I have experienced it. And I know you can, too. You will feel those seconds of letting yourself be. These moments will be the ones when your body will not need any props, nor will your spirit. The seconds will increase in number, if you allow the doer to simply be and finally, let him/her go – as no one will be interested in his/her presence.
Yoga is not an effort, ‘it simply happens’
Professor Bhogal, Kaivalyadhama
Om Shanti Shanti Shanti