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    Asana And Pranayama

    In Patanjali’s Yoga, Asana does not mean a specific posture, but means sitting. It means, mainly, sitting for meditation. Asana means a meditative seat. The way in which you sit for meditation should be such that the body is motionless and steady, and also, it should not cause any discomfort to the body; otherwise, it cannot be maintained for a long time. It is only when the posture is comfortable that you can maintain it for a long life. Maintaining the Asana for a long time is of paramount importance to facilitate proper meditation. The whole science of Yoga is only to prepare the person for meditation physically, vitally and mentally. So, a comfortable posture is a very important thing. The factor of comfort is very important. This is emphasised by the very terse definition of “Asana” in Patanjali’s Yoga, namely, “Sthira Sukham Asanam”. Therefore, Asana in Raja Yoga does not imply the different postures of the science of Hatha Yoga. They say that there are 84 lakhs of different postures. Researchers have dug up many of them. Each Yoga teacher likes to think that he has discovered many of these forgotten postures and so there are Yoga teachers who have produced books containing 200 postures, 250 postures and so on. This process is going on. However, our Master, beloved and worshipful Gurudev Swami Sivanandaji, has made it clear that out of these 84 lakhs 84 are most important. So, in his basic Yogasana book which was brought out nearly fifty years ago in Madras, titled “Yogasanas Illustrated”, he has mentioned this fact and outlined the 84 important Asanas. They belong to Hatha Yoga and are mentioned in Siva Samhita, Gheranda Samhita, Hatha Yoga Pradipika and such other Hatha Yogic texts. People belonging to the Nath sect also have got some of these Asanas. In the case of Pranayama also, the Pranayama of Raja Yoga lays emphasis mainly upon Kumbhak or retention of the breath, and not upon the different types of Pranayama which are a part of the science of Hatha Yoga. In Raja Yoga, steadiness and comfort are the most essential factors of Asana; and the ability to restrain the breath, the ability to hold the breath or retain the breath, is the most important feature about Pranayama. By thus maintaining a steady unshaken posture for a long time, several things accrue to the Raja Yogi. One is that the mind gradually begins to get into a state of steadiness. This is not however due to the steadiness of the body, because in this Yogic framework, the body and the mind are not directly connected.

    The Body and the Mind in Western Psychology and in Yoga

    In the Western medical and psychological framework, the body and the mind are directly connected—and here by ‘mind’ is indicated only the lower mind, the emotional mind, mind as thought and emotion, as imagination and emotion. Mind reacts upon the body, creates various conditions in the body. Contrariwise, body conditions do affect the mental moods. If you have got a nagging pain somewhere in the body, you are depressed, you cannot keep cheerful. If you have got a toothache or a stomachache, or if you suffer from general indisposition or fever, then you become irritable, you become morose, you become cheerless. Certain types of diseases, especially those where pain is involved, affect the mind. The other way round, the mind being in a state of anxiety, the mind being in a state of stress, the mind being in a state of depression or deep conflict, it also creates tensions in various parts of the body leading to different kinds of conditions. It may lead to over-secretion of certain hormones and juices or it may inhibit the secretion of certain essential juices and bring about spasms of the muscles, causing constipation, causing various conditions. The field of study which deals with the interaction between the body and the lower mind is called by the Westerners “Psychosomatics”. “Somos” is body; “Psycho” is mind. And Psychosomatics deals with the connection between mind and body, deals with the effect of the mind upon the body. Psychosomatics is now being very much studied within the framework of medical science in the West.

    Whereas, in the Yogic framework, the body is not directly connected with the mind. But then, it is indirectly connected, the interim factor that brings about the connection between the body and the mind being Prana. If the body is kept perfectly still and steady, what happens is that gradually the Prana is brought into a state of harmony, the Prana is brought into a state of stability. And when the Prana is thus established in a state of stability and harmony, the mind also is gradually brought into a state of stability and harmony, because of the link or the communication that subsists between Prana and the mind. The condition of the Prana thus influences the condition of the mind. Prana is the vital key to the control of the mind, to the control of all thoughts. Thus, by stilling the body and keeping it steady for longer and longer periods in a progressive way through daily Sadhana, daily Abhyasa, what happens is that ultimately the Prana assumes a state of stability and steadiness. This steadiness is communicated to the mind and this has the salutary effect of gradually quietening the mind. At least during the time when you are seated in the Asana, the mind also tries to become quiet. The mind also becomes a little steady. This is the benefit.

    An Experiment with Asana

    And then, by cultivating the practice of sitting continuously in one steady posture, the practitioner develops Titiksha, the power of endurance. And frequently, there is an urge within the mind to move, but in spite of that, you do not move. You overcome that impulse, which means, your will power is developed by habituating yourself, by compelling yourself, to sit steady and unshaken for a long time in a single posture. Thus, Atma-Bal, Mano-Bal, is developed in the practitioner. And gradually, when you are well established in the Asana, the effect of heat and cold do not have the power to affect and disturb the body as much as is generally the case. You may be perspiring, it may be very hot; but once you have got the habit of sitting steadily, you will not care. You will not want to fan yourself. You become impervious to heat and cold, even cold. I have experimented on this personally in my early days. Sometimes we used to go the Ganges bank in mid-December and January, when it is coldest in Rishikesh. In those early years of development of the Sivananda Ashram, there was no Ghat, no steps, no cement, nothing. The Ganges bank was a wild terrain of just rock and shrubs sloping down to the river. One had to step carefully. We would go at night around 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. fully dressed in sweater, flannel shirt, blanket and all that and sit upon a bare rock. We would sit on out favourite Yogic posture or Asan, and then divest ourselves of all clothes one by one, till only the Kaupin was left, and we would just put a folded towel on the rock and sit. As we removed the clothes one by one, we would feel a little chill because of the intense cold outside. But once we sat in the Asana, there was no sensation of cold at all. There was no sensation of cold and soon the body reaction set into motion and the outer skin became sensationless. It became rough like sandpaper. All the pores of the skin stood up like thorns, and in that condition, we sat for half an hour, one hour, till midnight and there was no sensation. We would be feeling hot in the armpits and perspiration would be dripping down, but the outer body would be completely ice-cold. All the same, we would have no sensation. But if we moved or started moving, then we would begin to feel the cold. As long as we sat motionless, the connection between the mind and the body got broken and the mind was away from the body. And until the time of our unlocking the Asana and getting out, there would be absolutely no sensation of cold. I have not experimented this with heat. But with cold it has been proved by personal experimentation that if one goes and sits in a certain steady Asana, especially if it is Padmasana or Siddhasana, there is no sensation outside. And sometimes during this experiment, wind would blow, biting cold wind would come from the Laxmanjhula side, but then the body would not feel it, would not mind it. It would be aware of the cold, but it would not relate itself to the cold; which is why the Yoga Darshana says that one goes beyond heat and cold if one is established in the Asana.

    And I have seen this fact proved in extreme cases also. There used to be a Paramahamsa Yogi called Paramanand, a Punjabi Sadhu, in Badrinath. In Badrinath, even in the midsummer month of June, you cannot sit in the shade, because the altitude is about 10,500 feet and the place is surrounded by perennially snow-capped mountains. But, if you move into the sun, then it is bearable. After taking bath in the hot-water spring, you can go about in a banian or with a single towel thrown across your shoulder. This, only if there is bright sunshine and a blue sky, but even then, if you came under a tree, immediately you would start feeling cold. That is the atmosphere in Badrinath. And all the twelve months this Paramanand used to live barebodied. He had only a Kaupin and long hair. He kept no vessel with himself; so he could not take a bath dipping the vessel and pouring the water over his head. But there are two or three little waterfalls, little streams—they call it Dhara—coming down from the mountainsides. This Yogi’s method of bathing was to go and sit near the stream, hold the water in the cup of his palms, and then put it over his body. His skin used to be dark black and rough like a buffalo’s hide. I have heard of an even greater Titikshu, though I have not seen him. He was called Sri Krishnashram. He used to live in icy Gangotri. So, these are all advanced stages of Titiksha, but even while practising Asana as the third Anga of Raja Yoga, a stage comes when you are able to sit for a long enough time in a single posture without motion. You forget the body. The body becomes impervious to heat and cold and thus you develop the power of endurance as well as the will power of the mind.

    Theory of Health and Disease in Ayurveda and Yoga

    And then, by sitting in a meditative pose, you obtain a great deal of internal health benefits. Even though Asana is not a physical exercise—it is not any movement of the body—the meditative pose is such a balanced pose that by sitting in it, the Prana becomes equally distributed to all parts of the body.

    According to Ayurveda, any disease, any discomfort, or anything wrong in any part of the body, is due to an upsetting of the balance between the three humours. In Ayurveda, they believe in the theory of the Tridoshas—Vata, Pitta and Kapha—wind, bile and phlegm. These three are common constituents of the human body, and if they are in a certain proportion and balance, the body is in normal health. But if this balance, this ratio, is disturbed due to any reason, then there comes about an abnormal condition of the body. It may manifest in different ways with different symptoms. And each set of symptoms is given a label and is called by the name of a particular disease. But they say that disease is due to the imbalance of the Tridoshas—Vata, Pitta and Kapha. And most of the approach of the Ayurvedic physicians is to give some medication which will restore the balance between the Tridoshas. When this balance is restored, the person is back to normal. Whereas, in the Yogic interpretation of health and disease, they say that disease is due to the upsetting of the balance in the distribution of Prana. If the Prana becomes unevenly distributed, if it does not go to a particular place, a diseased condition can manifest in that place. Or, if the Prana accumulates too much in some place, then also a certain abnormal condition can arise. Equal distribution of Prana all over the body, throughout the body, in a balanced way, diffused—that is the condition desired. And this equal distribution means the presence of as much Prana as is required in each part. Equal distribution does not mean that Prana should be equally distributed all over the body. No. Prana is required in different proportions, in different degrees, in different parts of your body. And, if it is present in that natural state, then it is called equal distribution of the Prana. Little variations do occur in this distribution during the course of the day. When you eat food, the Prana is more concentrated over the region of the stomach. When you do intellectual work, the Prana is more active in the area of the brain. And Yogasanas bring about equal distribution of the Prana throughout the body in the desired proportion for the normal state. It is interesting to note that the Yogic interpretation of disease and the Ayurvedic theory of disease do not contradict each other. It is only one statement from two angles of vision, from two approaches. When the three humours are thrown into an imbalance, the predominance of any one of them in a particular place may draw Prana there in an abnormal quantity or may inhibit Prana from entering that particular place. From the Ayurvedic point of view, it is imbalance of the Tridoshas; and from the Yogic point of view, this imbalance of the Tridoshas brings about a disharmony in the distribution of the Prana. So, the two viewpoints are not contradictory. They are expressions of a condition from two different angles.

    Take the case of a husband and a wife with one child. The husband has a certain income and he is able to look after the family with that income. As years go by, a second child comes, and the mother becomes widowed too. She now comes to live with her son and so the family grows and now they are in great financial difficulty. They are not able to look after the family. Now, why has this condition come about, this difficulty, this economic problem? We may say that it is because of the growth of the family beyond its capacity to look after itself. Or, we may say that the income is not enough, that it is not proportioned to the expenditure. From the point of view of monetary resources, the problem has arisen because the income is not sufficient. From the point of view of the family, the problem has cropped up because the members have become too many, the number of people have become too many. It is stating the same problem from two different angles. Likewise, in the case of health and ill health. When you are healthy, the Tridoshas are in balance; or you may say that the Prana is equally distributed. And when you are ill, the balance of the Tridoshas is upset; or you may say that the Prana’s even distribution is upset. So, inner health ensues out of the practice of the Asana. Due to the practice of the Asana for a long time, the Prana tends to become equally distributed throughout the body, and gradually, the normal health condition is restored to the body. This is important. And here, it is the inner health which is more vital, more important. Asana brings about inner health. It makes you impervious to heat and cold. Power of endurance is increased. Will power of the mind becomes increased. These are the benefits of the practice of Asana. And, indirectly, through the medium of the Prana, the steadiness of the body gradually brings about a certain stability of the mind, a certain steadiness of the mental activity, a certain harmony of the mental activity.

    Then we come to the fourth Anga of Raja Yoga, namely, Pranayama. Pranayama is a way of controlling the Sukshma Prana within to which you have no direct access. Prana is a subtle invisible force. It is the life-force that pervades the body. It is the factor that connects the body and the mind, because it is connected on one side with the body and on the other side with the mind. It is the connecting link between the body and the mind. The body and the mind have no direct connection. They are connected through Prana only and this Prana is different from the breathing you have in your physical body. Prana is not Svasa. The respiratory breath that moves within your nostrils is not Prana. It is called Svasa Vayu. Svasa-Prasvasa, inhalation and exhalation, is of air. But then, why is the regulation of the inner breath and the outer breath of the nostrils given the name of Pranayama, when they do not constitute Prana, when they constitute only Svasa Vayu? The process of regulation of breath is given the name Pranayama, because this is the way to ultimately gain control over the subtle life-force that is present within as Prana.

    How Pranayama Controls Prana

    Having no direct access to Prana, the ancient Rishis evolved this method, because the outer manifestation of the inner Prana is present in the human system in the form of breath. Breath is the outcome of the movement of Prana. Breath is the outcome of the most vital and important movement of Prana. It is the Prana that moves the lungs and makes the lungs expand and contract, expand and contract, expand and contract, from the moment you are born until the moment you give up your body in death. It is Prana, the great life-principle, which keeps on this movement. It is that which pumps the heart. It does various other functions as well, pervading the whole body and being present in different ways. In performing different functions, the same Prana assumes distinct names—Prana, Apana, Vyana, Udana, Samana. Besides these, there are five Upa-Pranas or subsidiary Pranas also. In this way, this life-principle is working all the time; and whether you are awake or asleep, whether you are conscious or unconscious, automatically this Prana keeps up all the indispensable essential life-movements within you. If these life-movements are not kept going, life will not last. You will not be able to live; the body will not be kept alive. So, the Prana functions involuntarily. You do not exert to make the lungs move. It is not you who are keeping up the pumping motion of the heart. It is not you who are keeping up the bellow-like contracting and expanding movement of the lungs. You are not even aware of the movement of the lungs, not even conscious of it. It is only when something happens to you that you are aware; otherwise, you are not even conscious of it. It is this Prana, this great manifestation of Divinity, this great manifestation of the Cosmic Energy, that keeps going all these essential, vital movements in your body. The expansion and contraction of the lungs manifests in the body as the ingoing and outcoming breath. And the ingoing and outcoming breath is the symptom of the movement of the Prana, which keeps the lungs in a constant state of indispensable vital activity. So, this breath in the nostrils is due to the movement of the subtle Prana within your body, just as the movement of the second-hand, the minute-hand and the hour-hand are due to the hidden or undiscerned inner movement of the hairspring within the mechanism of the timepiece or the watch. It is because there is the constant unbroken movement of the hairspring inside that on the surface of the visible dial, the hour-hand and the minute-hand are able to move round and do their work. Now, if you want to bring about a slowing down or a cessation of the movement of the hairspring within the timepiece, you have no means of doing it, because you have no access to it. It is somewhere inside covered over by the structure of the watch or the timepiece. You cannot get at it. The only way of trying to get at it is through its outer symptom or outer manifestation. So, if you place your finger on the second-hand of the timepiece moving round in one little corner of the dial and stop it, if you arrest the second hand, gradually the movement of the hairspring also becomes arrested. Similarly, if you stop the minute-hand of the timepiece, then also, the movement of the minute-hand being the ultimate result and outcome of the movement of the inner hairspring, the movement of the hairspring gradually slows down and then comes to a stop. It is in this reverse fashion, this remote and indirect fashion, that the regulation and stoppage of the outer breath of the nostrils achieves the ultimate result of controlling and even bringing to a stop certain aspects of the movement of the subtle Prana, because the Prana is connected with the outer breath. The outer breath is connected with the subtle Prana as the latter’s ultimate outer effect. Thus, Pranayama takes you within.

    Kumbhak and Its Benefits

    Pranayama in Raja Yoga is retention of the inhaled breath. Later on, it assumes the form of the retention of breath—retention of the inhaled breath as well as retention of the exhaled breath or outer breath. The latter is called Bahya Kumbhak. You stop breathing when the breath is out, when the lungs are empty. This is Bahya Kumbhak. And as you advance in the practice of Kumbhak, you go into the stage of Dhyana. When you are practising Pranayama, all the emphasis is upon the practice of Pranayama. When, after having successfully practised that stage, you start taking up Pratyahara and Dharana, what happens? The stress or emphasis upon this Abhyasa, namely, your practice of Pranayama, becomes lessened, and more emphasis begins to be laid upon Dharana. Then Pranayama is done automatically and it becomes a secondary or an auxiliary process in relation to Dharana. And in this condition, the Kumbhak comes about spontaneously. It is called spontaneous Kumbhak or Kevala Kumbhak. You are not bothered, you are not considering whether it is breath in the state of exhalation or breath in the state of inhalation; you are not thinking about it at all. When the mind is in a state of good concentration, you take hold of the opportunity—you make hay while the sun shines and immediately stop the breath, because the moment you stop the breath, immediately the mind becomes steady. Whenever a steady condition of the mind is perceived, immediately you stop the breath, no matter in what condition the breath is in. It is called the Kevala Kumbhak or spontaneous Kumbhak. Spontaneous Kumbhak is a very valuable aid to Dharana. And sometimes, when there is a great deal of Vikshepa, when you are not able to carry on your Dharana properly, when the mind is very, very unsteady and jumping, then also Kumbhak helps. But then, it is Kumbhak done in a deliberate way. Spontaneous Kumbhak, on the other hand, comes about when there is good concentration. When concentration is being successfully carried on, spontaneous Kumbhak becomes invaluable as a secondary aid in that state.

    And the benefits of Pranayama are various. Internal health benefits also accrue due to the practice of Pranayama. It imparts a certain strength to the body, and due to the doing of Pranayama, the body is able to ward off fatigue. Even if you sit and do Abhyasa for many hours, fatigue does not approach the body. The body is able to undergo exertion for a long time without fatigue. And successful, sustained practice of Pranayama increases the energy of the body. You become energetic, mentally as well as physically. There is always a freshness in the mind. And Pranayama is a great destroyer of Tamas as well as Rajas. And it is a positive help in increasing Sattva within your nature, within your body and mind. Thus it has a dual effect, namely, one of destroying Tamas and Rajas, and the other of increasing Sattva. And when freshness increases in the mind, the object of meditation becomes very vivid and clear-cut. When there is vagueness of the focal point of concentration or Dhyana Lakshya, proper Dharana does not manifest; but, due to Pranayama, there is a great deal of clarity brought about into the mind and the focal point becomes vivid and clear. Then, to such a mind, it becomes easy to concentrate. So, Pranayama brings about the unique benefit of clarifying the mind, making the Dhyana Lakshya vivid, and thus precipitating Dharana. This much about Pranayama.

    How Asana and Pranayama Help to Combat Rajo-Guna

    Now, to recapitulate the rationale behind the third and the fourth Angas—Asana and Pranayama—in Patanjali’s system of Raja Yoga. In Raja Yoga, Asana does not mean a posture; it means a seat. You should be seated. And how? Steadily. Patanjali Maharshi adds one interesting further adjective. He says that the Asana should be comfortable. It should give the Sadhaka a feeling of comfort. When you are comfortable, you are happy; when you are uncomfortable, you are unhappy. So, Patanjali uses the word “Sukha”. His definition of Asana is “Sthira Sukham Asanam”. You should be seated steadily in a comfortable posture. This is the broad definition of Asana in the Yoga Darshana of Patanjali Maharshi. The body is seated steadily and is in comfort. Why should it be in comfort? Because, if it is not comfortable, you will not be able to maintain the position continuously for a long period. Because, if it is not comfortable, it will give you discomfort and pains and after a little time, you will want to change it. But when it is comfortable, well, then you do not mind keeping it for a long time; and the longer you keep the position the longer your body is steady. The longer you keep the position steady, the longer you are able to curb the Rajo-Guna, the longer you are able to overcome Rajo-Guna. Therefore, the comfortable nature of the Asana is indispensable; it is imperative. The essence of Asana according to Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga is therefore steadiness combined with comfort, unshaken postural comfort. And Patanjali says that you must go on increasing the time period of your sitting upon one Asana. So, you do your Pranayama sitting on one Asana; you do your Japa sitting on the same Asana; you do your Svadhyaya sitting on the same Asana. What happens then? The mind is diverted and taken out from the body when it is thus absorbed in study, absorbed in Japa, absorbed in Puja... and you are not even aware that you are sitting in one Asana. By thus keeping yourself occupied in various aspects of actual spiritual practice, the Asana becomes prolonged. And as a sort of guide or standard, Patanjali suggests that you should be able to sit steadily in one Asana for a period of at least three hours continuously; during the period you may engage yourself in different spiritual practices and divert your mind away from the body so as to go on sitting in one absolute steady pose for the duration of those three hours. Thus becoming established in Asana, you get into a state of conflict with the Rajo-Guna in the body. And this automatically helps the next Anga of the Ashtanga Yoga, namely, Pranayama.

    Now, how does Asana help to proceed with Pranayama? Because, just as Chitta or the mind-stuff and Prana are very closely interconnected, just as mental activity and Prana are interlinked, even so, on the other side, the body and the Prana also are interconnected. This is because Prana pervades the whole body; Prana is almost co-existing with the Annamaya Kosha. And therefore, if the Annamaya Kosha is agitated, then naturally, the Prana also gets into a state of agitation. But, if you have managed to gradually discipline the body and practise sitting steadily for a long period of time, then the Prana also automatically assumes a relative state of steadiness, a comparative state of steadiness. It gets less agitated then before. So, with your success and progress in Asana practice, the Prana also assumes a corresponding state of steadiness. Thus, success in Asana practice becomes very conducive to the practice of Pranayama or the disciplining of the Prana, the regularising of the Prana. And just as steadiness is the very essence of Asana in Ashtanga Yoga, even so, Kumbhaka is the very essence of Pranayama in Ashtanga Yoga. The most important object of the entire Pranayama process in Raja Yoga is to arrest the Prana, is to restrain the breath; because, right at the very beginning of Patanjali’s Yoga Darshana, we have a Sutra which gives the definition of Yoga: “Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodhah”. Yoga is curbing the constant thought-activity of the mind-lake, the Vrittis of the mind-lake. And Prana is always in a state of agitation, in a state of Vritti. The mind also is always agitated by Vritti. And if you want to have Nirodha of the activity of the mind, you must make Nirodha of the activity of the Prana. Nirodha of the activity of the Prana means restraint of the breath. It is Kumbhak. So, the various other Pranayama practices that you find in Hatha Yoga—Bhastrika, Suryabedha, Kapalabhati, Ujjayi, Brahmari, Murcha—have no relevance here. In Raja Yoga, Pranayama means inhale-restrain-exhale, inhale-restrain-exhale, inhale-restrain-exhale, inhale-restrain-exhale. It means that and only that. In this way, the crest of the Pranayama, the main essence of the Pranayama, lies in the restraining of the breath. By the restraining of the breath, the activity of your mind, of your mental plane, is restrained. Thus, Asana helps Pranayama, and Pranayama helps ultimately the actual Antaranga Yoga process of slowing down the activity of the mind, the motion of the mind, until it is brought to a state of complete cessation—cessation of all Vrittis. This is the rationale behind the third and the fourth Angas—Asana and Pranayama—in our effort to completely overcome the Raja-Guna mode of the Trigunatmika Prakriti. Prakriti is Trigunatmika, and to overpower the Rajo-Guna mode, Asana helps Pranayama. And Pranayama helps to restrain the mental activity. In this way, it acts as a Sahayogi Prakriya—a helpful process—in the fifth and the sixth Angas of Raja Yoga, namely, Pratyahara and Dharana, withdrawal of the mind and concentration.

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