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The Heart and Soul of Spiritual Practice
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 13: The Foundation of Yoga

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.

In the beginning what you should do is, while you are seated in this required posture, breathe normally, slowly, comfortably, allowing the prana, the breathing process, to move as it would like to move without your pressure on it. Never command the breath to move only in a particular manner. As you are breathing now, for instance, you are not thinking of the breath at all in your mind. Your mind is thinking of what I am speaking and not thinking of the breath. Yet, at the same time, the breathing process is going on very comfortably and you are happy. Let it go on. This is the first stage: just allow the breath to move as comfortably as possible, without interfering with it in any manner whatsoever.

The next stage is, think of the breath – feel that you are breathing. What do you feel at that time? You feel the nostrils acting as passages for the movement of breath. Watch, first of all, whether the prana or the vayu is moving through the right nostril or the left nostril. Sometimes the breathing may take place through both the nostrils, though very rarely. Often, in a disturbed condition, the prana moves through one nostril only. When the right nostril becomes the avenue of the movement of the prana, you will feel warm. When the prana moves through the left nostril, you will feel cool, and if it continues for a very long time, not allowing the right nostril to operate, you may even catch a cold. The Ayurveda Shastra and systems of this kind advise us to sleep on the left at night, because when you sleep on the left side, the right nostril will start operating and this in turn will keep the body warm. When you sleep on the right side, the left nostril will start operating. As the usual heat in the body, which you feel during daytime, normally gets diminished in the state of sleep, it is good to keep the body warm by allowing the prana to move through the right nostril, which is the surya nadi, as it is called, the solar breath. This solar breath will heat up the system when all the activities are subdued to a large extent in the state of deep sleep. But if you sleep on the right side, you will feel chillness, and you may even sneeze. Generally when you have a cold, you will find that the right nostril does not operate at all. There will be sneezing, and then liquid coming out from the left nostril due to the surya nadi not operating. This is incidental information.

So, watch the breath – how it moves through the right or the left nostril. Whatever be the way the breath is moving, allow it to move in that way. Take a deep breath inside. Now you are sitting. In this sitting posture, start inhaling deliberately and not just breathing automatically as you usually do. Deliberate, conscious attempts should be made to breathe slowly – inwardly and outwardly. You generally breathe in a shallow manner; your breath is shallow, not deep. It has to become as deep as possible. You cannot make it deep in ordinary life. Therefore, sufficient oxygen does not go into the lungs. It affects the health because more carbon dioxide may be there in proportion to the less quantity of oxygen, due to shallow breathing, and that is why you yawn sometimes – that is, the carbon dioxide pushes itself out, as you are not allowing it to function normally in its own way.

When this is carried on, take an inhalation – deeply, slowly, not with a jerk – and for one, two, three seconds, hold the breath. Not more than that – tic, tic, tic – for three seconds hold the breath, and then slowly exhale. I am not talking of alternate breathing through the nostrils. I am talking about a natural, spontaneous breathing the way it is carried on by the organism according to its convenience and practice. The only thing that you have to do at that time, with your effort, is to see that the breathing is a little deep. Draw the breath inside as much as possible, without making a jerk or anything – very slowly – and hold it for three seconds, and then breathe out. Every day, early in the morning, please do this, if not for yoga, at least for your health. For fifteen minutes before you take your tea, coffee, milk, breakfast or whatever it is, after a bath if possible, sit like this in a comfortable pose, and deeply breathe in without putting effort on the breath, allowing it to move as it would like to do, but with the consciousness that it should be as deep as possible, and retain it in the form of a kumbaka, as the retention of breath is called, for a few seconds only, and then breathe out gradually.

You will feel very much energised if you do this. You will also be happy, because you are cooperating with the natural ways in which the body and the mind have to function for maintaining good health. Usually you are disturbed in your mind; you have anxieties of a hundred types. At that time you gasp, and oftentimes breathe heavily. This is a sign of total disturbance in the physical and mental system, which upsets everything, including digestion and good sleep. In the beginning, fifteen minutes of this practice will be sufficient. Deeply inhale through both nostrils, or through either nostril, and retain it for a few seconds, then breathe out. Let this practice go on for days together; perhaps for your lifetime you can do this practice in order to maintain health.

Later on, when you are well-equipped with this technique, you can increase the retention from 2-3 seconds to a double or triple period of retention without causing discomfort. You should never feel suffocation when the breath is held. If suffocation is felt and there is discomfort, it means you are not doing it correctly. Be happy and comfortable, always, even in the breathing exercise.

It is generally said that alternate breathing is good. This is called sukapurak pranayama. You are all very well acquainted with this process, so I need not go into the details. Your yoga class instructor must be telling you all these things – the proportionate breathing, proportionate retention, and so on. You may do that. But for the purpose of meditation, that alternate breathing is also not necessary. Normal breathing is sufficient. This will contribute to maintaining good health. The harmonisation of muscular and nervous activity with the breathing process is the main point in question. But all this effort of yours – physically and in terms of breathing – depends much upon how you think in your mind, how you feel, and what you actually want.

Before you start doing yoga, ask yourself – what do you want? Most people cannot answer this question. What do you want? It is a terrible question. You cannot say what you want. Here, a little bit of philosophy is good. Philosophy is the art of finding the ultimate causes of things – not the immediate causes only, but the final causes. You want something just now. But why do you want it? You want it because if you do not get it, some trouble arises. That trouble arises because of a cause behind this feeling of immediate necessity. There is cause behind this cause, a cause behind that cause, until you reach a point where you cannot think of any further cause. A causeless cause is the state you reach, which is a state of perfect rest.

In this condition, adjust yourself gradually, and you will find that the agitations of the sense organs also cease, to a large extent, because the pranas, the breathing, constitute the dynamo which discharges energy for the sense organs so that they may move in the direction they like for the fulfilment of their desires. All desire is a disturbance of the system. Every desire is an attempt to move away from one's own self, and there cannot be a greater disease than the pressure to move out of oneself and become other than one's own self. In all desire, or fulfilment of desire, you become other than what you are, and it is a wretched condition. So every person who has any kind of desire is unhappy. This clamouring of the sense organs to jet forth outwardly into the objects outside is also controlled by subduing the breathing process, because the energy for the sense organs to activate themselves comes from prana, or breathing.

You cannot maintain a posture of peace of mind, which is the necessary background for the practice of yoga, unless your desires are stilled. To do something or not to do something, to have something or not to have something – this is the desire. This must be stilled and brought to a position of poise. How is it possible? Either you fulfil all your desires, in which case of course there will be poise of the sense organs, or you have the understanding that it is not necessary to fulfil these desires. These two aspects have to be considered very well. Are you going to fulfil all your desires so that you may have peace, as you call it? Do you believe that the fulfilment of desires will bring peace of mind? This is a moot question. A person who drinks liquor feels that he is in a state of satisfaction, but that satisfaction creates another agitation to repeat that process of drinking more liquor, so that he may expect greater satisfaction. It goes on like this until the whole body collapses, and he ruins himself. Desire is a devil. It wants to extract blood from your body and reduce you to the level of a corpse, though you do not know that this process is taking place.

A metaphysical meditation, in terms of the ultimate causes of things, will make you realise that you are a fool in allowing desires to move along their own lines. Desires are deceivers and thieves of the first water. Either you realise this by your acute understanding, or you go along the lines of fulfilling desires. You will be between the horns of a dilemma as to how you will handle this difficulty. For awhile you will feel that it is impossible to fulfil all the desires, just as if you dig a cave, more and more mud will fall and it will never end, and the cave will become wider and wider, and there is no end to this mud falling down. The cave of desire will go on expanding until it yawns to swallow you up. There is no end for your desire. Though you may unintelligently feel that you have only one or two desires, they are only the tip of the iceberg of your uncontrolled ocean of desires lying underneath, sleeping, in your subconscious and unconscious levels.

I have been telling you again and again that you cannot do this practice without some guide who has trodden the path and who knows what the difficulties are. Do not dabble with your prana or with your desires and imagine that you can perform austerities on your own without proper guidance. You want a light ahead of you to move along the path. You cannot move in darkness, not knowing what is ahead of you.

So, there is to be seen a living connection between your thought process, your desires, your longings, your positive and negative attitudes, your muscular activity, nervous function, breathing process and sensory activity. All are a simultaneous movement of hundreds of waves of the same ocean of your personality. This is a brief introduction on the very important subjects of yama and niyama – controlling the desire and setting the behavioural pattern in poise; asana and pranayama; and a difficult process called pratyahara, the control of desires by restraining the contact of the senses with the objects. Then comes meditation. So, do not think that suddenly you can meditate on That. Unless the ladder is firm, you cannot climb up to the pedestal of the meditational process. This is the foundation of yoga, of which you have to be fully aware and exercise great caution. Move very slowly but perfectly, and be sure that all is well with you inside and outside also – everywhere, all is well with you.