by Swami Krishnananda
Generally, asana and pranayama are considered by people as the whole of yoga. When you speak of yoga, you speak of asana and pranayama, and breathing exercises. Mostly this is emphasised, with a little bit of meditation at the end of it. It is very important to know the significance of asana and pranayama in the practice of yoga.
There are things which are known as non-essentials, yet they are necessary things. A non-essential may be a necessary item. In a similar way, asana and pranayama, from the point of view of true yoga, are non-essentials – but they are necessary. Though the hand does not contribute anything to the digestion of food by the stomach, the hand is necessary so that the food may go into the stomach.
There are different types of yoga asanas – those which are directly connected with meditation, and those which are indirectly related to it. The postures which are known as meditational poses are directly connected with yoga practice; but the other ones – sirshasan, sarvangasan, and so many, hundreds and hundreds – do not play an active, direct role in the practice of yoga, though they are essential in order to bring about flexibility of the body.
The body is usually rigid; it maintains one posture only. That it may be enabled to adjust itself to any kind of eventuality calls for such exercises as may keep the body fit and agile. That much credit has to be given to other kinds of asanas; but the meditational posture is the crucial one.
You have to be seated in meditation. You cannot stand and meditate, nor can you lie down and meditate. If you lie down and then start meditating, you are likely to doze off because of the relaxation of the body. If you stand and meditate, you may fall down due to not paying enough attention to the legs. Asinah sambhavat (B.S. 4.1.7) is the prescription of the Brahma Sutra. Sitting is the best position.
When you are seated, it is expected that the spine should be straight, because the spine is the vehicle through which certain nerves pass, affecting the general posture of the whole body. The spinal column has much influence on the health, as well as the satisfaction of even the mind, because of the confluence of varieties of nerves through the column of the spine. It is not very comfortable to sit straight with the head, neck and spine kept in a straight line, because generally nobody sits like that. If there is a difficulty in maintaining this posture as prescribed, the suggestion given is that, in the initial stages, sit leaning against a wall that is perpendicular to the ground. It will enable you to free yourself from unnecessary aches which may be caused by straining in the sitting posture.
When you are well-equipped with this technique of sitting, you may not need to have the wall or anything else to recline or lean against. The purpose of this meditational posture, dhyana asana, is to bring about a balance in the functioning of the nerves and the muscles of the body, so that any kind of agitation, friction or discomfort may be eliminated by a harmonious positioning of the muscles – which are connected with the nervous system also, at the same time. The advice of Sage Patanjali in this connection is that the suitable posture is that posture which is comfortable. The sutra is very generous in its prescription and does not say that you must sit only in this posture. Whichever is comfortable and easy, that may be the posture that you may choose.
The purpose behind this seated posture, practised for a long time, protractedly, is to bring about a rapprochement between nature outside and the physical condition of one's own self. There is, generally, in daily life, an opposition between nature's operation and the physical body's whims and fancies. You are irked by the operations of nature. You do not like it when it rains, or when it is hot, or it is cold, or it is breezy. This type of weather is not pleasing to you, but you cannot give an order to nature to behave only in a particular manner. You have to, somehow or other, adjust yourself to what you may regard as the whim and fancy of nature's behaviour, though it has its own system and method – very scientific indeed. When you are seated in this posture, perfectly poised, the impact of natural forces is not felt as intensely as you generally feel otherwise. You may not feel even hunger and thirst as acutely as you would feel them when you are in a normal condition, if the posture is steady.
The asana is not merely a physical exercise; the mind has direct connection with the posture. To give an example, suppose you are in sirshasana but you are thinking of some problem; perhaps tomorrow you have to book a railway ticket or you have to fly on such and such a date. If these thoughts are in the mind while you are physically doing sirshasana, etc., it is not only useless but it is even dangerous. The mind and body go together. We are not physical beings; we are psychophysical beings. The mind is not somewhere, outside the body, unconnected with it. They are juxtaposed integrally, so that you cannot know where the body is and where the mind is.
Hence, it is the mind-body action that is taking place in asana, not merely the body. It is very important to remember that the mind has to be calm at that time. If the mind is agitated, the body cannot be calm. This is the reason why, in the Yoga Shastra, the stage of asana comes after the stages of yama and niyama. No yoga scripture says that first of all you must do asana only. Yama and niyama are the first and second stages, and asana the third, with pranayama afterwards. The reason is that when the emotions are not still, the body cannot be stilled. A torn feeling in the mind cannot get on with the attempt at positioning the body in a perfect way. We generally do not believe that the mind and body go together. There is no 'mind and body', really speaking; there is no 'and' between them. The mind is the body and the body is the mind, in one way. They are organically related, so to say. They are one and the same thing appearing as two phases of performance.
Therefore, do not imagine that you can think anything in your mind and go to the yoga class. You will be harming yourself. The conflict between the harmonising of the body in asana and the mental disturbance will be harmful in the long run. The mind and the body should not be in a state of conflict. If you position the body, in the asana, to keep it in a state of balance, but your mind is disturbed at the time, the yoga asana will not bring you any benefit; it may even harm you afterwards.
Yoga is a spiritual exercise, finally. It is not a mechanical behaviour of the body. Inasmuch as it is spiritual, it is integral. It is all things put together. You cannot say, "I will do only yoga asana, and later on I can do other things." There is no 'later on'; they are all interconnected in a successively advancing evolutionary process of yoga, and you cannot disconnect one bit of process from another bit. To the casual observer, an organic movement in the process of evolution is made up of bits of process, no doubt, but they are vitally connected. There is life permeating through every bit of the process of evolution, and all the eight stages of yoga mentioned are organically related. You cannot say, "I will do only asana for two years, then I will do pranayama for three years." You should not think like that, because you are a whole being and your prana, your physical body and sense organs, and your mind and reason do not stand apart from one another. So, even the first attempt at yoga asana is a crucial and important process.
When you are seated in a meditational pose, the jerk that the body feels on the impact of natural forces gets gradually diminished. You can do it yourself and see what happens to you. Sit leaning against a wall, because you should not strain yourself even in the posture. Do not move at all, and slowly, imperceptibly, carry on the breathing process without thinking about the breath. Let the breath go on as it is accustomed to do. You should not think of the breath at that time. Breathe as you are normally accustomed to. Be seated, and breathe normally. Do not think that you are doing yoga and then interfere with the breathing process. You are just sitting comfortably. If you sit like this for a half an hour, the biting cold will be felt less intensely. Even hunger and thirst will not be felt at that time, because the metabolic process is also, to some extent, controlled when you are seated so calmly. The feeling of pain of any kind is due to the action of metabolism taking place inside. That is subdued by positioning the body in a meditational pose. The sutra of Patanjali is sthira sukham asanam (Y.S. 2.46): Comfortable posture is the suitable asana. Then what happens? Tato dvandvah anabhighatah (Y.S. 2.48): The dualities of the forces of nature will not attack you as they do generally. In this positioning of the body, you are trying to be in harmony with the natural forces and not set yourself in opposition to them. This is the reason why you feel subdued, calm and quiet, even by merely sitting quietly. But again it has to be repeated: what is your mind thinking? Your desires will tell what kind of person you are. As yoga is a total approach of yourself to the total reality of the universe, your mind also should be in a total position, together with the total posture that is maintained by the body. Otherwise, there would be a jarring note created by certain aspects of your personality not going hand in hand with the other attempts that you are attending to. This much regarding the asana in meditation is quite enough information for you.
There are a lot of things told about the breathing process. Rightly or wrongly, people go on interfering with the breathing process, thinking that it is a kind of yoga by itself; and most people, in one kind of technique that they are initiated into, think that breathing itself is all-in-all. There is a great truth in saying that the breathing process, carried on harmoniously, has a very important role to play in the positioning of your personality. But, you have to be properly initiated into this technique. There are varieties of ways of breathing, called pranayamas, and at least eight of them are mentioned in the Yoga Shastras. These are not necessary, even as many of the asanas are not essential in meditation.