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The Study and Practice of Yoga

An Exposition of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali


Chapter 76: Asana is Fixity of Position

The proper practice of yoga commences with a continuous attempt at a suitable position of the body, which is known as asana. This is really the beginning of the practice proper. Here, the first step is taken to set oneself right in the requisite manner so that the seed is sown for the development of a harmony of one’s system with the universal atmosphere. There is a characteristic agitation of the body and everything that is inside the body, due to the restlessness caused by the kleshas, or the afflictions of the mind filled with countless desires – fulfilled desires which have left some impression, or unfulfilled ones which have kept the mind in a state of anxiety. In either case – whether the desires have been fulfilled or not – there is restlessness. All these desires blow like winds inside one’s system, tossing the mind hither and thither. The intimate connection of the mind with the body is enough to keep both the body and mind restless, in a fidgety mood, so that there is no fixity, either of the body or of the mind. Yoga is nothing but fixity, attention and an emphasis on a given direction of thought, mood, and position of the whole system.

This position of the system we are referring to is not necessarily the physical position, but a position of everything that we are made of. What we are aiming at is a fixity of the entire system, which we may call the human personality – the total mood which has to be focused in the direction of the ideal of yoga. Everything that we are made of is to be taken into consideration. Every bit of our personality has a part to play in this practice. Even the least within us and the lowest element that is present in us has a role of sufficient importance, so that it is not only the body that is to be seated in a fixed posture. The bodily posture, or the physical asana, is one of the necessities which call for other necessities of a similar nature – namely, the position of the emotions, thoughts, volitions, memories, and all such other functions of the psychological organ.

There is no use in merely fixing in position a part or aspect of what we are and allowing other aspects to take their own course. It would be something like supporting a building on pillars, some of which are shaking, while some are fixed. If we have eight pillars which support the roof of a building, and we fix only one pillar in position and allow the others to shake, then the fixity of one pillar will not be of much avail – though it is fixed – because that which is fixed also will collapse due to the shaky position of the other pillars.

Thus, while it is true that concession has to be given to the weaknesses of human nature and, therefore, practice has to be done gradually, step by step, from one aspect to another aspect, we should not be completely oblivious to the necessity of bringing into harmony the other aspects also. They have to be kept in mind. This difficulty is, to a large extent, obviated by a sufficient advance in the practice of the yamas and the niyamas. We cannot practise all the eight limbs at one stroke, though it is true that they have to be borne in mind at all times. A considerable strength is gained by an appreciable mastery over the canons which are enunciated in the stages of the yamas and the niyamas. Even though it would be humanly impracticable to set oneself earnestly to the practise of all the eight limbs suddenly, the first step – namely, the asana – will put the other aspects in a mood of coming into harmony with the ideal that is in the mind on account of the announcement that we have already made through the yamas and the niyamas.

Though a law may not be actually implemented yet, it is announced first; a mood is created, an atmosphere is prepared, and intimation is given as to what is going to come by the proclamation of a particular enactment. Likewise, these yamas and niyamas are a kind of enactment of what is going to happen, what is intended, and what we should be prepared for. This atmosphere that is created will be a kind of guard, or protection, against the unnecessary intrusions of those aspects which we may not be able to consider with sufficient emphasis at the time that we are engaged in one step, or one stage, of the practice – such as the asanas.

With these guarded cautions borne in mind, one should resort to a place of non-disturbance, in every sense of the term – non-disturbance, both to the senses and to the emotions, so that there is a tendency of the body to yield to the demand of a fixity of a position. One should be seated, is the instruction: sthira sukham āsanam (II.46). This requisition of yoga – that one should be seated – is the outcome of a practical convenience that follows from this position. We have to be in some position, and that position has to be chosen. It has to be fixed, once and for all.

In what position are we going to sit when we focus our attention on a given subject? There is no other conducive, helpful or suitable position except a fixed, seated position. We cannot be lying down; we cannot be standing; we cannot be walking – what else are we going to do? The only alternative is to be seated because every other position, other than the seated one, will lay too much emphasis either on the rajasic aspect or the tamasic aspect. If we lie down, we may like to go to sleep; if we stand, we may fall down; if we walk, there is rajas. So, there is no other way left than to strike a via media where there is a little bit of effort in keeping the body in position, and yet not as much of an effort as required in walking, for instance.

Āsinah sambhavāt (B.S. IV.1.7) is the relevant sutra in the Brahma Sutras. Quick success is supposed to follow from a steadiness of the body, which sympathetically affects the nervous system in a manner which is also fixed. There is complete chaotic movement of the whole body-mind complex on account of the reasons I mentioned, so that due to the vehemence of the subconscious, the unconscious, as well as conscious movements of desires, there is complete anarchy, as it were, prevailing in the whole body. Anything can happen at any time, and anyone can do anything. Any thought can occur at any time. It is not possible for one to determine what one will think after one minute, and this is due to a lack of a governmental system in the body. There is no rule at all. It is all complete absence of regulation due to having given a long rope to the whims and fancies born of desires in the mind. The whole body-mind is made up of desires only, and nothing else is there. These desires are of various degrees, and so, according to the intensity of their expression, they bring about a chaotic condition. There is helplessness felt by the individual at every step, and in every condition, due to an absence of regulated living.

Thus, it becomes practically an impossible task to fulfil the requisition that is made to bring about order in the system. One is not accustomed to such things. We are used to living a life of moods and fancies, which is the contrary of what is expected in yoga. It is not possible for a person to sit in one position for a long time due to this difficulty – let alone have the concentration or the focusing of the mind. Even sitting is difficult, because the moment we make a decision to sit – even before sitting – the agony is felt. We have not started sitting; we have only decided that we have to sit. That decision itself is enough to cause sufficient sorrow in the mind that some trouble is coming. It is like an order of execution. Though we have not executed the person, the order is already there. That has caused sorrow.

The mind and the body do not want any kind of discipline, because every discipline is a kind of restriction of movement of their ways and usual requirements to which they are accustomed. So there is, in the beginning, a great sorrow; it is a painful thing. We will have aches of body and mind at once – even in a single day. But, we are not expecting milk and honey at the very first step in the practice of yoga; it is all very intense.

Yat tad agre viṣam iva pariṇamemṛtopanam (B.G. XVIII.37), says the Bhagavadgita. It is all like poison coming in front of us, as it were – a very bitter thing indeed, because every discipline is painful, whatever be the nature of that discipline. Every regulation is unwanted. Every rule, every system, every law is anathema to the human system because of one’s being used to a life of abandon and loose activities. This is to be checked, says yoga, and so we are taking up a task which is most unexpected by the physical system. But, later on, one gets used to it – like breathing. We do not feel pain in breathing, though every second we are breathing up and down. We do not feel any agony on account of the body getting used to this activity right from birth. Due to the habituation of oneself to a particular way of living, that way of living becomes natural and ceases to cause pain of any kind.

Every great thing has been achieved by some pain only; it is not a joy right from the beginning. It follows that a daily habit of sitting has to be formed. Even if we are thinking nothing, let there be merely sitting. That itself is an achievement. The usual opinion of teachers of yoga is that if we are able to sit in a posture for about three hours at least, continuously, whether or not we are thinking anything in the mind – that is a sufficient achievement, because one usually cannot sit for three hours in one position; there will be great suffering. So if this could be done, it is really a praiseworthy achievement. Then the body will open up the gates for the possibility of a higher harmony in the muscles, the nerves, the pranas, etc., which are going to follow.

The restlessness which is obstructive in this practice is the intensity of the urge of the senses to move towards objects. The senses are very particular about it, and they do not want that their movement towards objects should be put an end to by any kind of counter-activity, even if it be a yoga activity. So, they start putting obstacles in the beginning itself: “What do you achieve by sitting like this? You have freed yourself from all possible joys of the world; you are sitting in an isolated place where you can see nothing, hear nothing, contact nothing, enjoy nothing.” This inward grief causes an anguish which disturbs the body. Here viveka, or discrimination, has to be utilised. The viveka, or the power of understanding, will tell us that this pain that we inflict upon ourselves is a voluntary law that we have imposed upon ourselves for a great satisfaction that is going to come.

Every achievement is preceded by some kind of sorrowful discipline – whether it is study, education, training, or whatever it is. But later on there is freedom as the outcome of this discipline. Everyone knows this, even in ordinary life. Hence, it is very important to put oneself to this hard task of sitting. If one carefully investigates into one’s own personal life, one would realise that no one can sit like this. Very few will be able to sit like this; and no one has even tried it, because even before trying, we always tell ourselves, “That is not possible for me.” Therefore, it is not possible. When we have already told ourselves that it is not possible – naturally, it is not possible. So, it is necessary now to tell oneself that it is a requirement, and not merely a choice. We are not asked whether we can or cannot. We must, if we are going to be free from the trammels of the human mind.

In the beginning, one may be seated for a few minutes – not necessarily for three hours, which is an achievement of months. If the knees ache, stretch the legs, stretch the arms, open the eyes, rub the face, breathe deeply and so on, so that the pain is lessened. Then, again sit in a crossed-leg position. The remedy for the pain that is caused in sitting for a long time is to relax oneself periodically, now and then, even after a few minutes; it does not matter. If we can sit only for five minutes, we sit for five minutes. After the sixth minute, we stretch our legs or even walk about, and then again sit – which means to say, we have to spend a long time in this practice. Many hours may have to be spent even in this discipline of sitting, in order that we may become used to it. Then we will find that this sitting posture becomes natural, and we will not be able to sit in any other posture. We will be only in that posture, always.

Prayatna śaithilya ananta samāpattibhyām (II.47). It is also said that this sitting posture should not be a forced one; it should be natural. ‘Prayatna saithilya’ is the term used in the sutra. We should not trouble the body by pressing the limbs hard into a position for a long time. From the very beginning it should be a relaxed attempt, gradually brought about by infusing the limbs of the body to come to the position required – gradually, without causing agony to the body. This is the meaning of prayatna saithilya, or the relaxation of the system. The effort should be relaxed so that we do not feel the effort in sitting. If we force the limbs to be seated in a posture which is very hard for us to achieve, then there will be pain. So, in the beginning, bend the knee only a little bit, at a small angle – not completely at a right angle or more. Then go on bending it, a little more and more, into the position required. Do not try impossible postures; try only those which are helpful and not too unpleasant. Gradual release of the consciousness of effort in respect of the practice of asana is advised.

Prayatna śaithilya ananta samāpattibhyām (II.47). Here itself, Patanjali brings into play the role of the mind in the practice of asana. Even in the seated position of the body, which is known as asana, the mind is active; it is cooperating and it is doing something. What is the mind doing when the body is made to be seated in a posture? This is hinted at in the phrase ‘ananta samapatti’. 

It is very difficult to explain what is actually in the mind of Patanjali, and exponents give various ideas about it. The most reasonable meaning of it seems to be that there should be a gradual attempt on the part of the mind to cooperate with the ideal of the practice of the asana. Inasmuch as position of the body is possible only after achieving some amount of freedom from distraction, and as long as the distraction is present this position would be difficult to maintain, it is necessary that the mind also should cooperate, as far as possible, in this attempt at bringing about a cessation of distraction.

What is the cause of a distraction? As it was said, the restlessness of the senses in respect of their objects – the running of the senses towards externality – is the cause of the distraction; that itself is the essence of distraction. A consciousness of externality is the essence of distraction, and this causes many other subsidiary and sympathetic distractions. If the mind could be requested to contribute its part to bring about a mitigation of the vehemence of this distraction, even in this stage of the practice of asana, that would be very good.

What is this contribution that the mind can make at the time of the practice of the asana? The mind can think something, and that thought would certainly help the maintenance of the position, provided that thought is free from distractions. Every thought of an object is a distraction. Whatever be that object – good or bad – it is a distraction, inasmuch as it is outside the body, outside the mind, outside one’s consciousness. The very awareness of the presence of something outside is the cause of the distraction. We feel agitated because something is there outside us.

The mind can, with the aid of the energy it has already gained by the practice of the yamas and niyamas, prevent this distraction of externality-consciousness by a contemplation of the infinitude of things. Ananta means endless, or infinite. The Infinite is that which has no external, because that which is called external, that which is outside, is also a part of what is infinite. ‘The Infinite’ is a term that we use to designate that which includes everything; and that which includes everything should include the objects also.

Thus, the contemplation, the thought, the feeling, and the mood towards the Infinite should naturally include a satisfaction of having brought within one’s thought or feeling the very thing that the senses are asking for – namely, the objects. It is not meditation that we are speaking of here, but a mood that the mind is expected to develop by a sense of satisfaction that it has to rouse in itself merely by the single thought that infinitude includes even the objects of desire. So the thought, the feeling, or the affirmation of the presence of the Infinite would release the mind and the senses from this natural distraction caused by their having to move towards the objects. In the Infinite there is no movement, because there is no externality. Hence, the position that the mind maintains on account of the feeling of the Infinite is the highest type of fixity conceivable, and it will act upon the body. When we think nothing in the mind, the body will also be seated in a fixed position. It is because of roaming thoughts and uncontrolled feelings that the body also becomes fidgety.

By these two hints given in the sutra (II.47) – prayatna saithilya and ananta samapatti – one is expected to be able to be seated in a particular posture. Effortlessness and relaxation, a feeling of spontaneity and a mood of the mind towards the presence of the Infinite – these two are supposed to be conducive to maintaining the position of the body. When the body is not in position, we have to find out why it is not in position. It is either because we have sat for a very long time – beyond the limit prescribed or possible – or there is some other thing which is harassing the mind.

If we are highly agitated in the mind due to some reason, the asana will not succeed at that time. Thus, a study of the feelings should precede this practice of the attempt at the position of the body. Either too much exertion on the part of the body in maintaining a position, or too much oscillation of the mind on account of some restlessness present in it may be the cause of the inability. We have to find out why we are not able to sit. If we have an engagement, the mood will be towards the engagement. Then, naturally, we cannot sit. Therefore, when we are about to attempt sitting for a protracted period there should be no immediate engagement; it should be a little far off. For some hours there should be no engagement of anything whatsoever.

Hence, the mind has to be prepared, and the body has to be prepared. The place, the time and the circumstances are also to be considered. Where are we sitting? That will tell upon the extent of success that we will gain. At what time? Is it a suitable time? Is it midday, or midnight, or are we tired? Is it after lunch, or before lunch? Are we hungry? Are we overloaded? What is happening to us? These also are important factors to consider. If we are very hungry, we cannot sit; or if we had a heavy lunch, then also we cannot sit. We must know the circumstances, the conditions, the place and the time, as well as the mood of the mind and the atmosphere – all these factors have to be considered in finding out what amount of success we may achieve in the practice of the asana. So, even this asana is a very difficult thing, because it is a yoga. It is not merely a joke that we are making. It is not a hobby. It is not an unnecessary limb of yoga. It is a very necessary limb.

These two sutrassthira sukham āsanam (II.46) and prayatna śaithilya ananta samāpattibhyām (II.47) – give us some idea, in an outline, of the things that we have to do at the time we are trying to sit in position. The position should be comfortable and not painful, is the advice. The asana, or the posture, should be pleasant. We should be happy that we are sitting. We should not be grieving that we are in that position. That is the meaning of the term ‘sukha’. And, because the position is pleasant, it will also be fixed – sthira. If it is unpleasant, there will be no fixity. So let there be pleasantness, which is possible only if the position is not strained or forced by mere will against the limits or limitations of the bodily system. A daily attempt at gradual relaxation, as suggested, together with the mood of the mind gravitating towards the presence of the Infinite – we call it the presence of God – will certainly put the body in position.