By Shameem Akhtar
Why asanas are essential for the jnana yogi also
In India, it is easy to say you are an adherent of bhakti yoga or jnana yoga, thus gaining an excuse to bypass the practice of asana practice. Such diehard adherents also tend to look askance at those who do yoga, with a hidden but palpable spiritual snobbishness. Unsaid but felt is their opinion that a person ‘indulging’ in asana practice is low down on the spiritual ladder, while they, having chosen the yoga of the mind, are all above this. They will cite the example of their sadgurus as shining cases of those who did not need such ‘physical practices’.
The reason why yogic asanas were placed upfront in the eight steps yoga advises for enlightenment, was to build on the mental and physical stamina needed for jnana and bhakti yoga. I have seen very serious, ‘senior’ meditators at ashrams lose their temper at the slightest provocation, including the saffron-robed sanyasis. I find that this is incompatible with the very jnana yoga they propound. I believe strongly that if they had continued with a simple but regular asana practice, they would not lose control over their emotions, clearly exhibiting a regression rather than any self-claimed evolution. Asana practice in yoga provides immense psychosomatic control and stamina. More than anything, a seeker needs this.
Similarly, I have seen even meditation leaders eating uncontrollably at ashrams, so much so that some of them will burp throughout the meditation sessions they are actually leading! I have had some of these people ask me, hoping to lead me into an argument, about whether I did not personally think asana practice was irrelevant as one grew in sadhana. While earlier I may have engaged enthusiastically in such debates, these days I desist because I realise they are just stomping ground for the ego. I don’t tell them that I believe an asana practice is much more than about the body. It is a daily call for discipline to control several things, including appetite where there is no actual hunger.
Similarly, I have attended retreats where meditation leaders will fall ill immediately the temperature shifts, or when there is no hot water geysers, or where the quality of water is suspect, or where mattresses have ancient fungus still stuck to them. They will sneeze and sniffle throughout the sessions, performing at half their usual capacity. This brings home to me even more clearly why an asana practice is essential: it was designed for a wandering mendicant who had nothing but himself for support in his lonely quest. He could not afford to fall ill, or become emotionally overwrought. The asana practice was therefore a powerful weapon in the hands of a true seeker who could not let such external disturbances shake him from his focus on the Divine.
I also find ridiculous the excuse sadaks give of great saints who stopped doing asana practice. If they did not do asanas, why should we, they ask. They must first ask themselves this: Are we anywhere close to being a saint? I think of the discipline of asana practice as an absolute essential to the mental and physical stamina needed for your spiritual growth. Anything else offered in excuse is merely a high falutin excuse for laziness.
Virabhadrasana (warrior pose)
Virabhadrasana is a stamina-builder. This particular pose is the first in a series of extremely challenging ones. If a beginner, do this at the start of practice. Advanced practitioners should try this pose towards the end of their practice.
How to do it: Stand up straight. Spread legs three feet apart. Inhale. Spread out arms, holding them out. Turn right foot fully out, so it is directly underneath the right arm, and is parallel to it. Now exhale, lunging to right. Lower hips, so the right leg bends at knee, while the left leg remains straight. Left foot should be slightly fanned out. Look at the right hand, holding the pose as long as is comfortable. Breathe evenly throughout. Release, return to starting position. Repeat for left side.
Benefits: Tones leg muscles. Wears out fat inside thighs, hip region. Hands get toned since the upper body is simultaneously challenged. Works out the abdominal muscles, preventing sagging. Releases joint stiffness. Spine is given a powerful workout. Boosts physical and mental stamina. Is therapeutic in arthritis if learnt in phased manner.
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