Yoga - Fall from grace
by Shameem Akthar
Ancient yoga texts and gurus warn us against yoga bhrashta, fall from grace. this can be both physical and mental.
On the physical level this can be gauged from desultory and irregular practice. On the mental level, it refers to the cunning manner in which we allow our ego to resurrect itself again and again, marring our spiritual progress.
Both physical and mental slackness usually co-exist, except in superior Brahmanishta gurus who are forever fixed in their experience of Brahman. And who, therefore, are not required to strengthen themselves through sadhana against these pitfalls like us lesser mortals.
On the physical level, which we appreciate and understand better, this lack of discipline manifests as excuses we throw up against regular practice. This happens even with yoga teachers who believe, wrongly, that since they are forever demonstrating poses in their classes, they can conveniently dispense with their individual sadhana. It happens with excellent students who refuse to let go of the prop of a yoga teacher or the energy of a class to keep their motivation levels high. And who, without the support of such external energies, refuse to practise on their own.
This happens even with the very sick who have found relief through yoga but who, often inexplicably and surprisingly, discontinue their practice despite the fact that this means relapse into their illnesses. This happens, on a mental plane, even with renunciates who forget the yama of ahimsa and can be reactive, intemperate or mixed up about how to extract discipline from sadhakas. Of course, I am not making these observances from the superior position of one who has vaulted these hurdles. But am writing this as one who is constantly faced with these challenges to private sadhana.
Regular sadhana is the crutch we use as we hobble on the spiritual path. The reason that all yogic texts and gurus insist on this is to ensure we never falter in our spiritual growth due to individual weaknesses. Practising true yoga is like being on duty 24/7. It is a rigorous fixation of the mind on the ultimate truth. Some of us can grasp this intellectually, but to experience it is another matter altogether. Only a disciplined sadhana can help with the goal.
Sadguru Swami Sivananda has gauged the potential weaknesses which are likely to trip us. All his words and his books are a constant and urgent exhortation to ensure a disciplined life and regular sadhana. His advice on these matters is extremely practical. He insists that we get up at 4.30 am to finish up with our dhyana (meditation), asana practice and pranayama. In fact, he even warns against dawdling immediately after waking up, suggests we do a few rounds of pranayama to wake up and stabilise the mind, perhaps an ishta asana (like the headstand) to further energise oneself before settling in for dhyana during brahmamuhurta or the hour of creation, when the mind is still and receptive to the idea of God. And if you check back on the lives of most super-achievers from diverse fields, be it a young industrialist like Anil Ambani or a superstar like Amitabh Bachchan, you will find evidence that part of their greatness lies in their ability to wake up much before the rest of humanity.
A yoga sadhaka has even less reason to use sickness as an excuse for being fixed in yoga, since a regular practice protects one against most ailments. Sleepiness also cannot be an excuse, since practices like kapalabhati, bhastrika are invigorating and make one feel awake, fresh and energetic. Fatigue cannot be an excuse since surya namaskar rounds have been designed to rid one of tiredness. Lethargy cannot be an excuse, since doing the asanas dynamically fights this tamasic characteristic. Too many distractions or workload cannot be an excuse, since pranayama practices like nadi shodhana and cooling bhramari calm the mind against such distractions, to power you with undisturbed attention for your practice.
Swami Sivananda, writing on regular sadhana, in his book Samadhi Yoga (published by Divine Life Society) observes: “Let it (kundalini) awaken by itself spontaneously. Premature awakening is not desirable. Do your sadhana and tapas systematically and regularly. Just as the gardener who waters the trees daily gets the fruits only when the time comes, so also you will enjoy the fruits of your sadhana when the time comes. ...If you want to attain self-realisation quickly you must do intense and constant sadhana for a protracted period. Doing it by fits and starts is useless.”
Most teachers and practitioners neglect trataka, or eye-focusing exercises. But for no ordinary reason has it been fixed as the sixth step in the ashtanga yoga or eight-step climb towards samadhi. It powers the nerves superbly, bringing them under control. It can be therapeutic in anger-control. Exercise like the following (eyebrow-centre gazing, also called Shambhavi mudra) is used by schools promoting mind power techniques, to enhance focus towards goals. Trataka’s most superficial or physical impact is in the strengthening of eyesight, a fact that has been exploited by internationally famous eye exercises such as the Bates method. But trataka (part of the dharana or concentration) exercises is more geared towards strengthening and harnessing a vacillating mind. Dispensing with its practice is akin to missing an important aspect of your personal sadhana.
Sit up in a meditative pose. Hands in chin mudra (thumb-index fingers touching), on the knees. Fix both your eyes at a spot between the eyebrows. Initially, this may seem tough and even painful. Never strain. Do it for a few seconds at a time initially, relaxing and shutting the eyes, palming to soothe them. (Contraindicated for those with serious eye defects like glaucoma, retinal detachment.) This practice is prescribed by Lord Krishna himself, for reining in a rampaging mind.