by Swami Krishnananda
The first and the foremost immediate practical step – the striking of the iron while it is hot, as they say – is to be seated in an erect posture for the purpose of the practice of yoga. The sitting posture is regarded as most conducive and necessary, because for the purpose of adjusting the mind and concentrating it on the ideal of our quest, the body also has to be set in order; and the position of the body has to be decided in the beginning. What are the positions of the body? We can be standing, or sitting, or lying down. Experts in yoga have pointed out that the seated posture is the best because, while standing, the mind cannot concentrate wholly on its objective because the standing posture requires the attention of the mind on the body to some extent.
Sometimes we may not be conscious that we are standing. Especially when we are engaged in some talk with a person, or are gazing attentively at some sight, etc., we may not be aware that we are standing. But whether we are aware or not, the mind is partly engaged in keeping the body in position. Holding the body in a consistent way is made possible on account of the cooperation of a part of the mind. We may call it a reflex action or a subconscious action – whatever it be. A part of the mind is given to the work of enabling us to stand erect and, therefore, the whole of the mind cannot be given for meditation, concentration, etc. The standing posture is not good because we will fall down. If we concentrate too much and get absorbed in something by standing, we will fall on account of the mind not being able to keep the body in position.
If we lie down, we may go to sleep. There is a chance of getting into a state of unawareness while we are lying on the bed, etc. So, there is no alternative; we have to be seated. This seated posture should also be a comfortable one, because the purpose of being seated is not merely sitting. The purpose is to make the mind attentive to the ideal of our quest – wholly, or at least in a large measure. If we are seated in a distorted position, or if we feel pain in our sitting posture, then the mind will be thinking of that pain. Suppose a person who is not used to sitting in padmasana forces himself or herself to sit in padmasana; there will be pain in the joints, an awkward feeling in the muscles, and our meditation will be on the muscle pains rather than on the object of our quest. “Sthira sukham asanam,” says Patanjali. Asana is neither padmasana nor sukhasana, nor any asana. It is any posture that is very comfortable; and the comfortable posture should be such that it should not disturb the free flow of our breath.
There are many things connected, one with the other, in our system. The muscles, the nerves and the vital force – these are immediately connected one with the other, and indirectly they are connected with the mind. Sympathetically they exert an influence upon the mental activity; and our main purpose is to train the mind in the art of meditation. So, there should be a strengthening of the position right from the beginning, as building engineers give enough attention to the laying of the foundation, for instance. The laying of the foundation of a building is a very important part of construction work. It is not something unimportant or unnecessary. Hence, from the very beginning, we have to be very cautious. It is no use taking a hundred steps at a time, not knowing the consequences thereof. Take only one step at a time.
First of all, find out whether you are able to sit at all. Do not start meditating or chanting anything. Are you able to sit quietly, comfortably for a few minutes – at least for fifteen minutes? Can you sit quietly for fifteen minutes continuously without shaking your body, without stretching your legs, without feeling pain, without feeling any signs of unnaturalness in your pose? This has to be checked at the very beginning.
And choose an appropriate posture. Do not try to do something impossible. Especially Westerners, people who are not used to sitting on the floor with crossed legs, who are accustomed to sitting on chair, will find it very hard to bend their knees. So for them, the advice is that they sit in such posture as would be nearest to the prescribed postures without causing undue pain, stress on the muscles, or any kind of awkward feeling. In the beginning, we may even use an easy chair with a backrest to keep the spine as erect as possible. Later on, it must be improved gradually, until we are able to fold our knees and sit erect.
Why is it said that you must bend your knees? “Why not stretch our legs?” may be a question. It is related to the operation of energy in the body. The purpose of locking up the legs and the hands in a seated posture is directly connected with the meditative techniques. It is not merely a whim or fancy of people. The reason is that energy is likely to leak out through the extremities of the body, through the fingers and the toes especially. The extremities of the body are the endings of the nerves, and through these endings of nerves, energy goes out because these are the delicate parts of the system; and if they are left open, stretched forward, what would likely happen is that the energy that we conserve in an act of concentration of mind may not be able to circulate within our system – which is our intention, ultimately. The energy may get out on account of the pressure exerted on the body.
Every form of energy tries to escape the centre of concentration – as we have, for example, with a soda bottle. The soda will try to come out, but the bottle is so thick, it cannot break it easily. So the moment we open the top, it bursts out with a hissing noise. Likewise is any kind of energy. Why do children jump and dance and run about here and there, while adults do not? We do not see sixty-year-old men running about; they go very slowly, whereas a small child jumps – jumps for no purpose whatsoever. If we ask the child to go out and see somebody, it will run and jump and skip because it has bottled-up energy, whereas an adult has not so much energy. This bottled-up energy wants to escape. Energy cannot get concentrated. It must find an avenue of escape, in some way or the other.
Much worse and much more does this fact become valid in a deliberate attempt at the conservation of energy in concentration and meditation. The moment we begin to concentrate on anything deeply, to fix our attention wholly on anything, for the matter of that, all the energy of the body gets focused at that point on which we are concentrating. There is a withdrawal of all the energy of the body. The sense function also ceases, to some extent. When we are deeply concentrating on something, the eyes will not see, the ears will not hear, and so on. Even loud noises will not be heard. We may be gazing without seeing anything, on account of the withdrawal of the mind. There is a focusing of all the energy at a particular point. But this is something quite unnatural for the distracted mind of the work-a-day world. The mind never knows what concentration is. It has never been taught the value of it, the purpose of it, or even the method of doing it. Now, suddenly, we are starting this technique, to which the mind is unaccustomed. So, it wriggles out of this condition; it wants to get out of the clutches of this act of concentration, and somehow finds some way or the other of stopping this method. So, we feel some sort of fatigue or awkwardness or unhappiness or tension inside, on account of which we may stop this concentration. Or, the energy will come out.
Now, the way in which the energy leaks out of the system is multifarious, about which we shall see a little later on in some detail – how energy can leak out through the system. It has many ways of leaking out. But the simplest and perhaps the grossest way in which this can happen is by the extremeties of the body coming into contact with the atmosphere. We know that in the winter, the wind blows very strongly – especially in these areas. That is, from a place of intense pressure, the wind blows in the direction of that centre where the pressure is less. That is why we have wind in the cold season. It moves towards hot places from cold places. Likewise, the energy may leak out of our system on account of the pressure it feels inside, and it may move in the direction of that area where the pressure is less. The pressure in the system is more; the pressure outside is less. So, naturally, it will go out, and it will go out through the extremities – through the fingers, through the toes. So, what the student of yoga does is he locks up the fingers and the toes. The toes touch the body, and are not allowed to expose themselves to the wind or the atmosphere outside. This is why we are advised to sit with our legs in a locked up posture.
Of course, the best asana is supposed to be padmasana. It is supposed to be the king of meditative postures, if it is practicable. But if it is not practicable, we can have easier postures – as the one in which we are all seated now, for example. We are all sitting in one posture. Now, when we sit in this posture, our toes are touching the ground. We are all allowing the toes to touch the ground. If we are sitting on the bare ground, of course, this is what will happen. So, we are asked to be seated on a non-conductor of electricity.
In ancient days when the system of yoga was propounded, they used to sit on dry grass, a special form of holy grass in India called darbha – kusa, as they say. Asanas or seats made of this grass were used. And sometimes we can also use other types of seats, such as dry wood. But it would be very hard, so we put a cloth, a cushion. The idea behind this is that we are seated on something which will not drive our energy down to the earth, because the earth is a conductor of electricity. We will get a shock if we stand on the ground and touch an electric wire. So, we should not sit directly on the earth. Have a seat – a cotton seat is all right – and sit in this posture with locked-up legs, not allowing the toes to touch the ground. Sit in padmasana if possible, and lock up the hands – like we see in the pictures or portraits of Buddha, for example, seated in meditation. Some people lock their fingers. There are various postures.