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The Study and Practice of Yoga

An Exposition of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali


Chapter 77: The Importance of Asana and Pranyama

If tangible success is our aim in the practice of yoga, the habit of sitting for a long time, every day, becomes an equally necessary item of the practice. It is impossible to gain control over the mind and expect concentration, or attention of consciousness, if there is a persistent inclination to go about, run about, see people and talk, and do many things. This is an indication of restlessness; and such a person is certainly unfit for a life of meditation.

We can study and learn our own nature by the daily activities of our life and the moods that pass through our mind. The way in which we speak, the expressions that we use, the manner in which we conduct ourselves – all these are indications of the characteristic of the inner personality, which will also indicate our fitness for meditation. It is not anyone that is chosen. “Many are called, but few are chosen,” said Christ. Millions may be asked to apply for a position though only one may be chosen. Likewise, it is not everyone who struggles that will succeed. Even among those who strenuously put forth effort, very few will succeed because the effort called for is literally superhuman, inasmuch as a tenacity of an extraordinary nature is called for here. When we actually take to it, we will see the seriousness of it.

It is the opinion of the author of the Yoga Sutras that when mastery is obtained in a posture – an asana – one can be impervious to the onslaught of the pairs of opposites like heat and cold, even hunger and thirst. These normal biological reactions of the body also may be lessened in their intensity of experience if the metabolic functions in the system are controlled by the steadiness of the posture. There is a continuous transformation of the cellular structure in our bodies called the processes of anabolism and catabolism – both of which, put together, is called metabolism. This is a tendency to change physically, and to change for the purpose of building up the bodily system, due to which it is that we feel hunger and thirst, and fatigue if proper food is not taken. Also, heat and cold and such other physical experiences are due to the compulsion of the body to adjust itself to changing conditions of life for the purpose of maintaining itself.

This difficulty will be, to a large extent, kept under control if the biological activity is reduced to the minimum. Even our eating may become less if our activity becomes less. It is because we run about too much that we have to eat too much, and also have to sleep too much, and so on. Thus, the reduction of physical activity in the form of wastage of energy and a depletion of force would be a great assistance in reducing the intensity of the calls of the physical body. Food and drink, and even sleep, can be controlled and reduced to the minimum, provided the causes of these are properly understood.

Why is it that we feel hungry? Why are we thirsty? Why do we feel sleepy? Why are we exhausted? The causes of this should be found out. If we can have a control over the causes to some extent, the effects also are controlled. The causes are, at least in their outer shape or form, the activity of the physical body, which is kept always in a state of restlessness on account of its needs, its demands and its requisitions of various types, which go hand in hand with the cravings of the senses. The control of the senses and the reduction of the needs of the body organism go together – and it is not an exaggeration to say that even the powers of the senses get reduced if there is a mastery over the asana, or the posture of the body, in which one can be seated for hours. It is to be emphasised that this posture should be maintained for several hours in a day, though not necessarily continuously – with breaks. The practice has to be one of intense continuity and persistence, so it may become necessary, where the practice is very arduous and earnest, to sit for several times in a day.

One of the hints that can be given for easy success in a posture is to be seated in a chosen posture always, whatever be the work that one does. Even if we sit for a cup of tea, we sit only in that posture; we do not sit on an easy chair or on a couch. If we talk to our friend, we sit in that posture and talk. If we have our meal, we sit in that posture and eat. Whatever be the work that we do which can be done while seated should be done only in that particular posture, so that even unconsciously, spontaneously, as a matter of course, the posture is maintained. Then, even without our knowing what we have been doing, we have been sitting in that posture for hours. Even in satsang, we sit in that posture only. We do not go on fidgeting and changing position. Wherever we are, and whatever we are doing, we should let that posture be maintained, unless of course we are compelled to walk for some reason or the other. When it is not necessary to stand or walk, this posture should be maintained – whatever be the work that we are doing, even if it be office work – so that this becomes a habit. We will have no other alternative than to sit only in that pose. Then the body gets accustomed and it will not feel pain when we are seated for meditation.

This habit of sitting becomes second nature to oneself on account of this adoption of the pose under every circumstance, at every time, whatever be the function that one may be performing. Due to this control that one gains over the system due to the reduction of rajasic activity, there is, as I mentioned, a reduction in the intensity of the metabolic activity of the system, and one will feel less hunger, less thirst, and need less sleep. This can be seen by practise, and one cannot know it merely by hearing or studying. The appetite for food will lessen. The habit of gorging will become less, and we will have the least desire to eat or drink anything, or even to see people. We will have no desire afterwards. We would like to close our eyes and shut ourselves off, merely because of the reduction of rajas. It is the intensity of the rajasic property of prakriti in the system that perpetually compels us to be outward-looking through the senses and the mind, so that it is impossible for a person to sit alone – even for a few minutes – without anxiety, restlessness and unhappiness.

These are the ways in which we have to diagnose our system and find out what is the extent of our fitness for meditation. But, when this diagnosis becomes successful and we have a proper knowledge of what our strengths and foibles are, the results that are indicated in the sutra, tataḥ dvandvāḥ anabhighātaḥ (II.48),follow automatically. Dvandva is a pair of opposites, one counterbalancing the other. Where there is heat, there can be cold; where there is pleasure, there can be pain; where there is exhilaration, there can be sorrow. These oscillating, ambivalent moods – physically, socially and psychologically – are the processes and vicissitudes through which our organism has to pass, due to which it is always kept in a state of sorrow, whether visibly or invisibly, consciously or subconsciously. This can be obviated, says the sutra, by mastery over the asana.

Therefore, a great importance is laid upon the practice of the posture for meditation. Here the posture, or asana, does not necessarily mean the eighty-four lakh (8,400,000) postures mentioned in the hatha yoga shastras, but a single chosen one for the maintenance of the balance of the system, because the aim of yoga is meditation. Everything has to converge on that point. For the purpose of this ultimate aim of yoga, which is meditation, all these practices are undertaken. For the purpose of the fixity of the mind there should be fixity of the body, fixity of the muscles, fixity of the nerves, fixity of the pranas and fixity of emotions. For this purpose it is that the limbs of yoga are prescribed – asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. These stages of yoga are the steady practices of control of the various layers of the body – the physical, the vital, the emotional, the intellectual, etc.

Hence, the first and foremost requisition, as mentioned in the sutra, is the gaining of an appreciable mastery over asana. It goes without saying that when the first step is taken, and it is taken firmly without there being any need to retrace the step, the foundation stone is automatically laid for the next step. The harmony that is introduced into the system by one particular step spontaneously invites the harmony of the next stage, and there is an inclination of the next step to tend towards the harmony which is the aim of the practice in the higher stage.

Tasmin sati śvāsa praśvāsayoḥ gativicchedaḥ prāṇāyāmaḥ (II.49), says the sutra. Tasmin sati means: after having gained mastery over. It is a very important phrase. It means: after having done this – not before that. This means to say, one should not take to a serious practice of pranayama if one is a restless person. If one has activities of a distracting nature, if one is a busybody, if one is always compelled to move about, if one is a travelling train inspector, one has no time to sit. One cannot practice pranayama in that case because the agitation of the physical body will tell upon the pranas. It would be very dangerous and unwise to meddle with the pranas, even in the interest of bringing harmony to them, if the body is restless or exhausted, or is unwilling to yield. If the body is not amenable, the pranas will not be amenable. Thus, from our daily physical conduct, social behaviour and emotional moods, we can have an indication of the extent to which we can sit for pranayama. Is there a subduing of emotions and feelings? And, what are the inner cravings which have been kept under check for a long time without fulfilment? Tensions are quite the contrary, or the opposite, of the requisites in pranayama.

After having gained a sufficient mastery in asana – that is the meaning of this tasmin sati – then śvāsa praśvāsayoḥ gativicchedaḥ (II.49) will follow. It is not advised that one should take to what they call alternate breathing, etc., in the beginning. No one should take to this alternate breathing at the very outset. What is advised in the beginning is only deep inhalation and deep exhalation, which itself is a great achievement.

Most people do not breathe in or breathe out in a systematic or harmonious manner on account of distractions in the mind. The distraction of the prana is an indication of the agitation of the mind. The more are the desires in the mind, the more is the restlessness of the prana. There is an arrhythmic flow of the prana with heaves of wave emotions, which has to be brought down by calm and quiet pondering. Deep breathing is the only possibility for a beginner – not alternate breathing. There should be only one-way breathing, and not these sideways and alternate processes. Even that would be a difficult thing if we are not in a position to sit for a sufficient time. If we are running about, how will we breathe?

In fact, the breathing practice should not be done after any kind of exhausting work. For example, we should not start breathing after returning from a walk. We know very well what our body is like after we return from a three-mile walk. There is warmth in the system, sometimes also perspiration, and a very rapid movement of the prana on account of the activity called walking. If we try to check the prana at that time, we will be treading in a danger zone because the prana is trying to adjust itself with the requirements of the body which has already undergone this fatigue called walking, and we are trying to do something the opposite of it. Therefore, no pranayama should be practised after walking. Also, it should not be combined with physical exercises such as dand baithaks (knee bends) etc., because these physical exercises – or vyayama, as they are called – of modern types are exercises which extrovert the prana, drive the prana out of the system, whereas pranayama is the opposite process which drives the prana inside.

Therefore, we should not do two contrary activities. It is said that even yoga asanas should not be combined with physical exercises, for the same reason – because the purpose of yoga asanas is to tend the prana inwards for toning the system, whereas the purpose of physical exercises is to drive the prana out. And so, after having exhausted ourselves in a volleyball or a tennis match, we find ourselves heaving with heavy breath, with a warmed-up system, and wishing to lie down if possible. But this is not so after we practise asanas. We do not feel tired. On the other hand, we feel relaxed.

Inasmuch as there is a great contrary effect produced by yoga asana and physical exercise, these two should not be combined; they are absolutely two different things. Even more caution is to be advanced in the case of pranayama, because it is a more dangerous practice than physical exercise or asana. It is very important to remember that unless one is able to sit for an hour or two continuously, this composure of the prana cannot come about. We must sit for half an hour or one hour without getting up. This is very important to remember. Only then should we start thinking about the deep breathing exercise.

The purpose of this system called pranayama is to cleanse the nervous system through which the prana flows. Generally, when the prana flows in the usual manner, there is a so-called normalcy maintained, but the system is not cleansed due to a peculiar reason. We have, for instance, water flowing through a pipe. If water flows through a pipe in one direction only, and we allow the water to flow in the same direction for months, it can be seen that some sand or silt becomes deposited inside the bottom of the pipe, and this silt is not disturbed by the flow of the water due to its getting accustomed to the intensity of the flow. The silt remains there at the bottom. Though the water is flowing over it, it will not be removed. But, suppose we drive the water in the opposite direction, and repeatedly drive the water this way and that way – both ways – we will find that the silt is disturbed. The silt is stirred up into activity, and the pipe is cleaned completely. We can clean the pipe by running the water back and forth, again and again, repeatedly, with force.

Likewise, this alternate system of breathing called pranayama is something like driving water back and forth through the pipe for the purpose of cleansing the pipe – called the nerves or the nadis. Usually this alternate breathing is not practised. People breathe only in a single, linear fashion. Hence, though there is a flow of prana, the silt is there; the nerves are not cleansed. There is some kind of deposit which is not observed and which is the cause of various kinds of difficulties in the physiological system. The purpose of the bringing about of this cleansing through pranayama is, of course, obvious. It needs no mention that it should keep the body flexible and malleable, so that there will be no ache or feeling of fatigue in the body.

The quick feeling of exhaustion and fatigue in the system is due to the presence of some dross in the body – whatever be that dross. It may be due to continuous overeating or continuous eating at wrong times; or, it may be due to eating the wrong food, which is not required by the system, and so on. It may be due to constipation, etc. There are umpteen causes for the toxic matter getting deposited in the system. Thus, there is always a feeling of unhappiness in the body; it is never happy. Always people complain something is wrong – either here or there. It is quite understandable.

The prescription given here is to avoid these feelings by various means of purification. We have to bring into memory once again the canons of the yamas and niyamas mentioned earlier. Every succeeding stage implies and involves the preceding stage, so when we are in the stage of asana or pranayama it does not mean that we have forgotten what was told to us in the stages of yama and niyama. Saucha was mentioned as a purifying process, and we were told of many other means to purify the whole system; and some sort of purification was effected. Now we are going to effect a greater purification with a greater intensity and tenacity of practice. As we go higher and higher, as we take further steps, at every step there should be a simhavalokanam, as they call it – a retrospection of the previous stages that we have passed through so that there cannot be, or need not be, or should not be a forgetfulness of what has happened in the past.

When we study a book, it does not mean that when we advance through the pages we forget the earlier pages; that is not a good study. When we reach the hundredth page of study, we must close our book and recall what we have read up till that time. If we have forgotten the first page, second page, or third page because we are at the hundredth page, it is not a good study. Many students forget what they have studied earlier, merely because they have advanced. So here, ‘advanced’ does not mean cancellation of the earlier, but transcendence of the earlier stages by their sublimation and absorption. Hence, in this process of purification called asana and pranayama, the implication of the canons of yama and niyama is already there. This is to be remembered always. We are going to effect greater and greater types of purification, and not entirely newer types of purification.

Tasmin sati śvāsa praśvāsayoḥ gativicchedaḥ prāṇāyāmaḥ (II.49), says the sutra; and there are two more sutras which give some idea as to the nature of the practice. In three sutras, the whole system of pranayama is summarised by Patanjali. The second sutra is: bāhya ābhyantara stambha vṛttiḥ deśa kāla saṁkhyābhiḥ paridṛṣṭaḥ dīrgha sūkṣmaḥ (II.50); and the third is: bāhya ābhyantara viṣaya ākṣepī caturthaḥ (II.51). These are very short sutras, but are very difficult to understand because they contain everything concerning pranayama in a single aphorism. Śvāsa praśvāsayoḥ gativicchedaḥ (II.49) was what was told in the first sutra. The normal movement of the prana is restrained and diverted in a different fashion altogether in the process of pranayama. That diverting of the process of the prana in a different fashion is called gativicchedah, or svasa prasvasayoh; or it may also mean the restraining, the inhibiting, the setting, the positing, and the stopping of the flow. The ultimate aim of pranayama is to stop the breathing. Alternate breathing is not the end, or aim; it is only a beginning.

As I mentioned, in the earliest of stages there should be only deep inhalation and deep exhalation. The next higher stage is where we breathe alternately, and simultaneously try to hold the breath until a point of suffocation is reached, and do not go beyond that. But, the main or central purpose is to stop the breath in kumbhaka. Why we should stop the breath may be a query that the mind raises. What is the intention behind stopping this breath? What do we gain out of it? This is a very great subject which is not only biological and psychological, but also philosophical.

The breathing process is a great obstacle to concentration of mind. The svasa and prasvasa processes, what we call respiration – inhalation and exhalation – are constant goads that keep the mind restless. Suppose you want to sit quietly in one place, and I come there and push you; you will feel disturbed. “I am sitting quietly and am being disturbed by this man.” Then, I come from the front and push you again, and then I come from behind and push you for a third time. I push you from the front as well as the rear, constantly. I will not allow you to keep quiet. What sort of quietness can there be?

The mind is trying to keep quiet and focus itself in what is called meditation, the aim of yoga. But these pranas push it from behind as well as from the front. They are like two brothers. One pushes from the front, the other from behind; one pulls from the top, another pulls from below. They are the prana and apana, as they are called. They cannot allow the mind to keep quiet. We cannot concentrate. No meditation is possible – no focusing, no attention, nothing of the kind – as long as this breathing process continues, because the constant pushing of the pranas hampers our attempt at concentration. That the retention of the breath is simultaneous with focusing, or concentration of mind, can be seen in daily practice where we are sometimes able to stop the breath spontaneously, without knowing it, when we are gazing at an object intently. Suppose there is a snake charmer, and he brings a snake with its hood raised. We stare at it and our breath stops – not because we are deliberately stopping the breath but because our mind is so much concentrated on what is happening there.

Or, walking along a narrow bridge: suppose there is only one plank along Lakshmanjhula bridge – a small, sleeper-like thing which is long enough to cover the entire length of the bridge. We know the plank is only one foot in width and the length is of the entire length of the bridge, and we have to walk on it. How will we walk? Just see. A little carelessness means down we go into the water. We know that very well, and we know it will be the end of the matter. So, we are very cautious. We will never talk to anybody at that time, even to a friend. The nearest and dearest may be there, but we will not be conscious of him. Every step we take will be measured carefully – stepping this way, that way, due to such a narrow width of the plank that is serving as the bridge. There, the breath stops. We will observe the breath is not functioning at that time.

Or, we pass a thread through the eye of a needle. We see at that time what happens to the breath. We are unable to see the small hole in the needle. We keep looking at it to find out where the hole is; and however much we may try, the thread will not go in – it will come out. Great caution is necessary to thrust the thread through the needle’s eye; and there the breath stops – we will not breathe. Or, we are archers pointing an arrow towards the target, and we see what happens; and so on. When we are compelled to concentrate the mind on a given objective, function or task that we are doing, the breath stops. It is very clear that the breath must stop if the mind is to concentrate; otherwise, there is no concentration.

Inasmuch as the intention of yoga is deep meditation – the absorption of the subject with the object, the embracing of the subject and the object together in a fraternal embrace of union – inasmuch as such a tremendous concentration is called for, which is most uncanny and weird, we can imagine why the yoga shastras lay so much emphasis upon the regulation of the breath. When the pranas do not cooperate with the intentions and aspirations of the mind, the intentions and aspirations fail.

Hence, these two should go together. The attempt at the concentration of the mind and the subdual of the movement of the pranas – both these should go together harmoniously, so that the rajas in the mind as well as the rajas in the prana are put down in order that the level of sattva be raised, which is the same as concentration of mind.