Health - Challenge your mind
by Shameem Akthar
Controlling the mercurial, untamed manas (mind) will make it listen to you
Practitioners of various yoga schools often love to discuss and debate the merits (or demerits) of the different strands of yoga. If something does not suit their definition, they vigorously reject and denounce it.
For me, the definition of yoga is very simple. When your mind is at rest in a point of focus, it is yoga, even when I am sweeping the floor. In an asana, keeping a point of focus is even more relevant. More so, in pranayama. Anything else, as Adi Shankaracharya says in his several treatises on abhyasa (practice), is only pretence.
When doing an exciting, tough and challenging pose like leg lifts in the wheel pose, you realise that your focus must deliberately shift from the body parts engaged in the pose and locate some other innocuous, possibly unconnected (to the pose) point where the mind can rest. This is very difficult to do when the mind is fearful, as happens in challenging asanas. Yet, the deliberate control you exercise when you shift your focus to a spot on your mat / or the tip of your nose powerfully shows that you are indeed exercising control over your mind. Which is why I am distressed by timid schools of yoga which keep chirping about not attempting tough poses or reject them as gymnastics or circus yoga: because it is only here – in challenging hatha yoga – that your mind is challenged to its maximum. It is also here that you really find out if you can indeed control this mercurial, untamed wild thing called manas (mind) and if it will listen to you, even when it is skidding about in fear, and obey your command to shift its focus where you will it.
Contrast this with an easy pose: You can lie back safely in a fish pose and focus on your nose, and nothing is challenged. Often you are not even aware of the rambling in your mind behind that fake focus. Remember, the mind is very sly. It has several layers of foci. Even while one part of it is involved with focus, the rest of it continues to loop itself within its subterraneous layers. That is why getting out of your comfort zone in asana practice is relevant if you wish to do raja yoga of the mind. Otherwise, your ego continues not only to reign supreme, but also shadow-leaps in its characteristic simian fashion while hiding its activities behind the pretence of practice.
Every pose needs a point of focus. One level of focus is entirely physical, as in the effort required. Here too, it has to be the right focus. For instance, in the half-spinal twist, the focus of your effort has to be entirely from your spine. Most practitioners struggle by having the wrong effort of focus. The second level of focus engages the mind: the asana’s main dharana or focus is the ajna chakra (since this pose has tremendous spiritual benefits if the effort is right.) Beyond this, there must be nothing in your mind as you involve yourself in an asana. If the effort is right, the sense of struggle recedes. The mind becomes self-seated.
You come closest to what Rishi Patanjali described in his marvellous Yoga Sutras: “Sthiram sukham asana.”
Chakrasana (wheel pose): Lie on the back. Bend arms at elbows, placing palms flat on the ground near the shoulder. Fingers should be pointing towards the body. Bend legs at the knees, placing feet flat on the ground near hips. While inhaling, push with the feet and palms against the ground, hoisting hip off the ground. Hold for a few seconds. Gently return to starting position by first placing crown on ground, then the shoulder before placing the back on the ground. Lie back, by stretching out legs in front and keeping hands away from the body, to relax and get back your breath.
Avoid: If you are not used to physical activity. This is an intermediate level practice and best learnt under expert guidance.
Benefits: All backbends, like this, expand the chest, boosting lung capacity. The spinal bend also removes postural defects, again aiding breath. Chest-openers also boost mood, removing depression and tension.