By Shameem Akthar
Asana practice is the hub of inner yoga. It holds together the rest of the limbs. To sniff at its importance is to question the logic behind its ancient wisdom
Strangely, some yoga schools scorn an individual`s interest in his practice of asanas. They feel this signals the individual`s egoism through an excessive obsession with the physical aspect. They in fact indict interest in asana practice as exhibitionism, a contortionist act. I have encountered several yoga teachers who feel it is beneath their dignity to progress in asana sadhana and stick to a few simple postures, which are easy to perform as well as to teach.
While this column does not intend to cross swords with such an attitude, it presents this columnist`s belief that each of the eight limbs of yoga is interdependent, never exclusive of the other. If Rishi Patanjali`s Yoga Sutras confine only a few verses to asanas, it is only because the yoga of yore was more dynamic. The sage was addressing an already enlightened group exposed to the physical as well as mental aspects of yoga. The Yoga Sutras were intended to resonate with the student`s individual awareness. The rishi was therefore fine-tuning this awareness, as it were, lending a hand to the practitioner to make that final leap from practice to experience.
Asana practice is third among the eight-limbed yoga-starting with yamas or cleanliness in one`s attitude towards society; then individual purity through the observance of niyamas. Third comes the physical culture of asana and fourth, management of life force through pranayama. Then comes pratyahara, where the individual, able to exert some influence over physical and psychic selves through the first four steps, can withstand and block out the flood of sensory data assaulting him or her. Only after this can one focus on the sixth step of dharana or concentration. As concentration improves, the practitioner can move towards the practice of dhyana or meditation. Each yogic limb improves one`s ability to meditate. Therefore, dhyana is the most important rung in the ladder of personal growth, edging one towards the ultimate destination of merger with the divine or samadhi.
Today, unfortunately, there seems to be a wishy-washy attitude towards asana practice with only a few schools dedicating themselves seriously towards it. The others only tend to make an offering of the final three steps of yoga-dharana, dhyana, and samadhi-on a platter of religiosity, without actually preparing the individual for the divine encounter!
Asana practice exerts a powerful influence on our body-mind complex. If this gifts you with youthful look, clear skin, better hair, boundless energy, abundant health, accept them as bonuses. The most important fall-out, the wage, of any asana practice is that it crafts an individual`s will towards concentration. As your yearning for samadhi balloons, your ability to concentrate will be most challenged.
As Swami Sivananda says, this yoga is difficult to reach. Worse, it is difficult to sustain. Asana practice strengthens your mental muscle. Also, as your yearning to be in dhyana grows, how will you be able to sit still for half-an-hour without moving a muscle if you have not strengthened your meditative pose? Practitioners in meditation give up early because they jump into dhyana without having perfected their physical aspect. If the vessel continues to shake, how can the water in it become still enough to allow the impurities to settle down? Each posture is designed to be a meditation in motion.
Each asana is also a symphony of breath. Your pranayama will fail if you cannot synchronise your breath with the physical movements of each asana. Similarly, your dharana, dhyana will be meaningless if you have no control over your breath. Asana practice goes even deeper into your psyche. Each pose exerts a powerful influence on your endocrine glands. The adrenals, the walnut-sized pair of glands perched on top of your kidneys, actually rule your moods-your temper, depression, fears, fatigue. Practices like paschimottanasana massage these powerfully enough to help control them, and in the process gifting you with a sense of well-being and self-control. A perfect asana practice integrates all the poses that workout different glands, impacting your different emotional selves.
Even to practise the first two steps of yamas (brahmacharya, ahimsa, asteya or non-stealing, aparigraha or non-covetousness, satya) or niyamas (tapas, ishwarpranidhana or belief in god`s will, saucha or cleanliness, swadhyayay or self-study, santosha or contentment) you need to enjoy physical and mental well-being that only a dedicated asana practice can provide.
A person suffering from hypertension is also prone to short-tempered flare-ups. Is there any point in insisting that the hypersensitive person should not feel anger or to practise ahimsa instead of empowering him with asanas that can help him control this trait? A low-blood pressure person is prone to depression, so how can we insist he or she should feel santosha? It is clear that asana practice is the hub of inner yoga. It holds together the rest of the limbs. To sniff at its importance is to question the logic behind its ancient wisdom.
Adi Shankaracharya, in his evocative Atmashatakam (Song of the soul), sings: “I breathe no vital air,/… no bodily sheath is my lair:/I have no speech, no hands and feet,/…Consciousness and joy am I…“ In a paradox that only a dedicated practitioner will appreciate, pure yoga is that which uses the body to forget itself, to reach the soul.
An asana for will power (Half-locust or ardha salabhasana): Lie on your stomach. Hands beside the body. Press chin on ground. Inhale, raising your right leg. Exhale, to lower it. You can increase the time in the pose slowly, breathing normally. Repeat with other leg.
Challenge yourself further: Repeat the steps, raising both legs. Mistakes you need to watch out involve bending the knees (instead try to keep the legs straight) and holding the breath (breathe normally, focusing specially on exhaling to keep the body relaxed). You can also try the more advanced hand position by interlocking your fingers placing hands beneath the thighs for extra leverage.
Salabhasana strengthens the back, particularly lower back, stokes the digestive fire, is therapeutic in respiratory problems, works on the nervous system having a tremendous impact on concentration and stamina.
Contraindications: Not for those with severe digestive problems, heart and blood pressure patients and pregnant women.
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