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The Great System of Yoga Propounded by Patanjali
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 8: Asana, or Posture

The individual is a miniature of the universe. This is the foremost point which a seeker on the path of yoga would bear in mind in undergoing its techniques. The difference between the art and techniques of yoga and the trainings that we acquire while we study the technical sciences of the world is that yoga is not an isolated science such as physics or chemistry. For instance, a student of physics need not bother about biology because his field of operation is restricted, but not so is the case with yoga. The field of yoga is not restricted. It is a vast, comprehensive sweep over every branch of learning and every field of knowledge.

The fact that the individual is a miniature cosmos explains the attitude which the individual should develop in the practice of yoga. Whatever is in the universe is also in the individual, so that the laws operating in the cosmos operate in respect of the individual also. It does not mean that we are bound by one law, and another law works in the world outside. There is a single rule operating everywhere, right from the solar system and the Milky Way down to the lowest atom and electron – so much so that we are in a cosmic atmosphere. We are not living in Rishikesh or in a small hall within an enclosure of bricks raised one over the other, as small human individuals independently thinking whatever occurs to one's mind, each for oneself. We are, fortunately or unfortunately, made in a different way from what we think we are.

The atmosphere in which we live is not the social atmosphere of a Hindu or a Christian or a Buddhist. It is not even a human atmosphere in the ordinary sense of the term. I can only call it a universal atmosphere, a cosmic air that we are breathing. It is not the air of India that we are breathing; it is not the air of Rishikesh or Muni-ki-reti. The air of the cosmos is sweeping over our heads and entering our lungs. The power of the universe is sweeping through our veins, and we are heirs apparent to the treasures of the cosmos. This should give us enough enthusiasm, spirit and a spark to proceed along the right path even in our day-to-day existence.

The great system of yoga propounded by Patanjali is our subject. We have gone sufficiently afar in our study of the scientific and logical aspects of the earlier stages, yama and niyama. Now we are trying to enter into what may be called yoga proper in its most technical form. The actual practice commences with a discipline that is directly connected with the very individuality, apart from the fact that we are units in a social atmosphere. We have already seen that we are not merely social units; we have a status of our own. This was the subject that we endeavoured to go into earlier.

The fact that we are individuals, miniatures of a cosmic setup, requires of us a discipline of a particular character. You may ask me why we should be disciplined. Are we not free individuals? We are not free, as we imagine. We are bound.  Discipline is required of us in order that we may realise the freedom that is our birthright. The discipline which the physician prescribes to a patient for the purpose of regaining health is not an external imposition that is inflicted upon the patient by an outside mandate. It is a health-giving discipline that is necessary for the freedom that we are asking for. Do you like to be a patient in bed? Can you call yourself a free person because you are on the bed as a patient? The freedom increases as the health increases, so the discipline required for the purpose of regaining health cannot be regarded as an unwanted imposition on you by the physician. Likewise is the discipline of yoga. It is not a harassment that is imputed upon you by anybody else – the scriptures or the Guru or anyone else. It is a necessity arisen on account of the very fact of your relationship with the universe. If you do not belong to the universe, that would have been a different matter, but unfortunately for you, you do belong to the universe; therefore, you are ruled by the law of the universe as a citizen is ruled by the law of the country to which that individual belongs.

There are various levels in which the universe maintains and manifests itself. The lowest level is the physical level. We are told in the scriptures that there are higher levels. For instance, there are various planes of existence. In Sanskrit language we say Bhuloka, Bhuvarloka, Svarloka, Maharloka, Janaloka, Tapaloka, Satyaloka. This is the Sanskrit terminology for the planes of existence, or the realms of being, higher than the physical. There may be infinite minute subdivisions of these seven layers, but broadly speaking, these are the seven stages of ascent on account of the seven stages of descent of the universe into the lowermost physical level. These also represent the seven stages of knowledge, about which we shall be speaking later on.

So the lowest level is the physical level, and from there we rise gradually, step by step, through the gradational processes of ascent. The physical level is also the bodily level. Our bodily existence is our physical existence. It is conditioned by the rules of the five elements: earth, water, fire, air, ether. The five elements are the constituents of this physical body. Just as bricks and mortar constitute a building, the five elements constitute this body; whether it is of a child or an adult, of a man or a woman, of a tree or a stone, it makes no difference. Whatever you see anywhere in this world is nothing but, physically speaking, the embodiment of these five elements. So is the body of every one of us.

The difficulty with us is that we are not en rapport with the five elements. We have some difficulties, for various reasons, on account of which we are unable to set ourselves in tune with the five elements. Thus it is that we seem to be troubled by the five elements in various ways. The Yoga System adopts a technique of gradual alignment of the individual layers of personality with the layers of the cosmos, beginning with the physical, and the first item here in this art of practice is what usually goes by the name of asana, the practice of the posture.

The word ‘posture' is a very wide term, signifying many things. It is the position that you occupy, the attitude that you develop, the outlook of your entire setup, and also, existence is the asana. So it has a deeper meaning than what appears on the surface from the purely hatha yoga point of view. You have been told that asana is a physical exercise, and you are all practising asana of one type or the other every day. The physical exercise that you are mostly acquainted with is a technique adopted to keep the body flexible in order that it may be tuned up to the required level. For instance, you will find that in the sutras of Patanjali no mention is made of these asanas that you are practising. The shirshasana, the sarvangasana, and all those asanas to which so much importance is given in yoga schools, are not even mentioned in the sutras of Patanjali. The reason behind it is that Patanjali deals with the higher stages of yoga. The very first verse of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika mentions that hatha yoga is a preparatory stage, which means to say the position or the discipline of the body is a preparatory step for the position or the attitude or the discipline of the higher levels inside us, about which we were speaking last time.

The mind is the thing that has to practice the asana, after all. The mind has to be positioned. The positioning of something is called the asana that is adopted by that thing. So we have to be stationed or seated in some particular way. It has to begin with the visible form, because the invisible is incapable of grasp in the beginning stages, just as if you want to stop the mechanism of a clock, you simply hold the pendulum, or even the hands. The mechanism stops for the time being because there is a connection between the hands and the mechanism inside. Likewise is the case with the physical postures and the internal structures. When the body is made to assume a particular position, it has a corresponding impact upon the inner structures of the body, and upon the mind itself, ultimately. Your whole attitude changes by continuous practice of certain postures.

So the flexibility that is the aim of the practice of the hatha yoga techniques is required for the final mastery that one has to gain in seating oneself in one fixed posture. Now, Patanjali does not mention the name of any asana. He is curiously silent about giving any nomenclature for the posture. He gives a verse, a small aphorism, a sutra, where he says that asana, or posture, is that which is fixed and comfortable. This is all he says. He does not say it is a topsy-turvy pose or a bow pose or a plough pose, etc. Nothing of the kind is mentioned. Anything that is fixed and comfortable, that is asana.

You may be wondering what all this is about, and why we are supposed to be fixed. Of course, it is understandable that we should be comfortable because nobody would like to be in a state of discomfort, but why should we be fixed in a particular physical pose? The reason behind this is scientific and philosophical. As I mentioned in the very beginning, the individual is a miniature of the cosmos. The miniature aspect of the individual requires the individual to keep itself in tune with the laws operating in the physical world – the five elements, for instance. The earth has a law, the water, the fire, the air and the ether have laws, which condition the physical body. We never feel that we are one with the five elements. Who feels a oneness with the earth or with the water, with the air or with the sky, etc.? Not for a moment can we feel this, notwithstanding the fact we are nothing but edifices constructed out of the building bricks of these five elements.

The reason behind our not being able to feel our union with the five elements is the egoism of our personality. There is a peculiar thing in us called the ego. It is difficult to explain what it is. It is the sense of isolation from that to which one really belongs. That is actually the ego. When there is an instinct within to cut oneself off from that to which one organically belongs, really speaking, that sense is called the ego. Thus, the ego is a very unfortunate thing. It is not a virtue, merely because of the definition that I have given. It is the sense of isolating oneself from that to which one really belongs, so how can we say that ego is a virtue? It is a devil, and if there is a devil at all, it is this, and no other devil exists in the world. It is difficult for anyone to define what ego is, or explain what this sense of isolation is, because any attempt  at describing this isolation would proceed from the sense of isolation itself. It is the ego itself that is describing its own self. It is hard for anyone to speak of the nature of this isolation that has taken place. We regard the world as an outside object. The world is outside us. The earth is outside. When we speak of the earth, we think that there is something outside. The water is outside, the air is outside, the fire is outside, the sky is outside. Everything is outside. We never feel that we are made out of the substance of the five elements.

The asana that Patanjali prescribes is a position which diminishes the intensity of the ego. Now, the practical outcome of this assumption is a matter of experience. It is not possible to understand it by mere theoretical exposition. What impact the practice of a single fixed posture has upon the egoism of an individual is a matter of practical experience, each for oneself. You sit for one hour continuously without even a single motion of your body, and tell me tomorrow what difference it has made to your feelings. It would have made a tremendous difference. Your sense of existence gets cooled off. It is mellowed. You almost feel that you are gradually evaporating into thin air. I am not asking a person to think or meditate; that is not the question now. You merely get seated in one posture, a posture that will not pain you and make you feel the body more and more. If you sit in a cramped position with bent back or slumping, you will feel a discomfort after a few minutes, so you will be made to feel the existence of the body. The idea of comfort that is to attend upon the fixity of the body in this position of asana is that you should not have any necessity to think of the body. The more you are comfortable, the less you think of the body, even as the more you are healthy, the less you think of its existence. The ego is an assertive principal which emphasises that the body alone is reality, and my body is the only reality, and other bodies are not so important as my body. The ego boasts to such an extent as to affirm the supremacy of its own embodiment, to the exclusion of other bodies. That is why when your body is criticised or cowed down or not paid sufficient respect, you get a feeling of agitation within you and there is a resentment against other bodies. You do not like a word to be uttered even about your body itself, let alone about other things. If anybody tells you that you are ugly, you will not be very happy: Why should they call my body as ugly, as a crooked personality, etc.? The ego assumes an importance which is all-in-all. It is the most irrational element in us. If you can conceive of the height of irrationality in the world, it is this ego principle. For no reason whatsoever, it asserts that it is the only reality. It cannot be justified, because it is contrary to fact. It is not true that your body is isolated from the physical world. It is also not true that you are socially independent. It is not true that you are isolated or a free individual even in the ultimate sense of absoluteness. In no sense can the ego be justified. In every sense it is an unfortunate disease that has crept into your existence.

Yoga is nothing but the art of diminishing the ego until it evaporates into nothingness so that individuality ceases and you experience the non-individual existence which is at the background of the so-called appearance of individuality. Various techniques of yoga – call it karma yoga, bhakti yoga, raja yoga or jnana yoga, whatever it is – all these methods are endeavours to diminish the ego to nothingness. It has to begin with the visible atmosphere, as I mentioned. You cannot go to the skies in the beginning itself. The ego is a hard element to encounter. It is not an easy thing to conquer.

There is a Chinese or perhaps a Japanese Zen analogy which is usually given as an example of the way in which the ego, or the mind, is to be controlled. The ego or the mind is compared to a wild bull, which is ferocious. You cannot even look at it; it will simply gore you to death if you go near it. This ferocious bull is to be controlled in such a manner that you have to ride upon it. Can you ride upon such a ferocious bull? Now, the technique is how to control it. The example says to put a fencing around this bull. Don't go very near it. It may be even a half a mile away from the bull, but put a fencing around it. Now you have restrained the bull within that circumference; that is the first step. The bull cannot go outside the circumference of the fencing that you have set up. At least you have succeeded in one thing. The fact that it cannot go outside the conditioned atmosphere or the periphery or the circumference of the fencing that you have put shows that it has come under your subjection, at least to a minimum extent. Next, you go on decreasing the radius of the circle little by little, little by little, little by little, until you come to the minimum radius of the circle. Then the next stage is, you visit that bull every day, as many times as possible, so that it sees you. In the beginning it will snort at you and come near the fence to try to attack you. But if you go and see it every day, it gets acquainted with you. Then afterwards you go with a little green grass or something that it likes to eat. Throw it inside the fence, as you cannot go near it. The bull eats it. Every day you bring this food, throw it, and it gets familiarised with your personality. It knows the same person is coming, and thinks: “I have seen him again and again. Now he is coming with something which is to my taste.” Then the next step is to thrust your hand through the fence and give it the grass or the food with your hand. It will eat. It has come under your subjection. Then you touch it, pat it on the face, still standing outside the fence. Then you hold its horns and shake the horns, still standing outside the fence. Then you go on patting it and rubbing it and touching it again and again until it becomes friendly towards you. Afterwards you thrust your leg, thrust your hand, thrust your head through the fence and see what happens. It will become more friendly, gradually. Then you remove the fence. So goes the analogy, until you will be able to sit on it and ride it. People control even lions and tigers with this kind of method. Otherwise, who can put a hand into the mouth of the lion, as you see in circuses? Can anybody thrust their hand into the mouth of a lion? But it is seen. This is an example that is given for the way we have to adopt in controlling our own selves, the ego which is the ferocious bull, the lion, the tiger, the scorpion, the snake, whatever you call it – unyielding and very terrible, and tempestuous. Like a wild elephant, like a tempestuous wind, uncontrollable is this mind, this ego, this individuality.

So yoga tells you, “Don't be in a hurry, don't be in a haste, don't be too enthusiastic and emotional about it.” Go gradually, slowly. The first step is to be seated, as you put a fence around a wild bull.

There is an advice specifically given by Patanjali in connection with the practice of this one posture. This advice is in one sutra, a simple aphorism: Prayatna śaithilya ananta samāpattibhyām (Y.S. 2.47). How do you sit in one posture? You say, “I have got an ache here and there, I cannot bend my knees, I cannot stretch my legs, I cannot sit for two minutes.” This is the complaint from most people. Can you sit in some posture? Is it possible for you to sit in some posture, at least for a few minutes? Is it true that you cannot be in any posture except lying down? In the beginning it may be like that. There are some people who cannot assume any posture except the lying pose and there too, they are fidgety. Even there they cannot be for a few minutes in the same position. Let it be. You start with lying posture, the lowest stage possible. Then you be seated for a few minutes in any posture you like – it may be in a stretched posture, it may be in an easy-chair, it may be in an armchair, whatever it is. Then be seated with a cushion, not on the hard ground where you feel the pain.

The point is, prayatna śaithilya, as the sutra puts it. You should not put forth effort in sitting, because effortlessness is the sign of success in the practice of the asana. Why should there be effortlessness and not effort? Because effort is pain. Effort means consciousness of that which you are doing, and consciousness of what you are doing is the same as consciousness that you exist. We want to diminish that consciousness itself. Even the idea that you exist should go, should evaporate gradually, so why should you have effort of that kind which will enhance the feeling that you exist? Assume any position, not necessarily padmasana or siddasana, anything that is convenient with effortlessness and ease, and later on you will find you can be seated in the posture in which most of you are sitting just now. It is a simple, non-technical pose that you are seated in at present. That is quite all right. There is nothing difficult about it. It must be effortless, prayatna śaithilya.

Ananta samāpattibhyām. There is another suffix to this definition, and that is, ananta samāpatti: The attainment of ananta. Many commentators of this sutra have given different opinions about the meaning of the word ananta. The sutradhara, or the author of the sutra, seems to suggest that you are enabled to sit in a particular posture by contemplation on ananta. But what is ananta? There, the commentators differ. The dictionary meaning of a prosaic character is the snake or the serpent, the mythical serpent that is said to be supporting this whole Earth, a huge snake mentioned in the mythologies of India on which the great Narayana is said to be reclining in the milky ocean. He is the supporter of the whole Earth, and he concentrates himself in such a manner, it is said, that the Earth does not shake. Otherwise, it will tumble down. This is the mythological definition given, but I feel that there is some other meaning which is significant behind this word ananta. Ananta means ‘endless'. Anta is ‘end or limit', and ananta is ‘limitless or infinite'. The sutradhara, or the author, seems to suggest that you should be able to concentrate on infinitude in order that you may be able to sit in one posture because position is the character of infinitude, and fidgeting, restlessness and discomfort arise due to the consciousness of a distinction between the subject and the object. The more are you conscious of the distinction between yourself and others, the more are you restless. This you can see by practical experience in day-to-day existence. If you are intensely conscious of the people around you, you are unhappy in that atmosphere. You would like to get up and go way. Even in an assembly, you cannot sit for a long time if you are constantly aware of people around you and you cannot think anything else; you feel unhappy and go away. Similarly, a person who speaks from a pulpit will not be a success if he is conscious of the audience so much that he cannot say anything at all. The best speaker is he who does not even know that there is an audience. He is thinking only of the ideas in his mind, and not of people in front of him. The subject-object relation is abolished in the highest orator so that he is in an infinite mood, and that is why he speaks so beautifully; otherwise, the man will be thinking of the people in front, and what will he speak? And he will even be thinking something worse: “What is that man thinking about what I am saying?” etc.

What I mean to say is, when the subject-object relationship gets intensified, it creates a sense of restlessness in us, and finitude is nothing but the consciousness of this distinction. The more I become conscious of my distinction or separation from others, the more am I finite, so that when I become intensely conscious of my own body, I am in the lowest state of finitude. The greater is the success you achieve in the consciousness of the infinite, the more are you free, the more are you comfortable, the more is the ease that you feel, and the more is the satisfaction also felt at the same time. You become natural. The more is the approximation of your being to the infinitude of the atmosphere around you, the greater is the ease and the satisfaction that you feel within yourself. Satisfaction is the characteristic of the lessening of individual consciousness. The lesser is the individual sense in you, the greater is the happiness that you feel. A great philosophical point comes in here to be discussed later on. Even the little joy that you feel in life, even the littlest scrap of happiness that you experience in day-to-day existence in different moments of time is due to a sense of losing your sense of personality. Many of us may not be aware of the secret that is taking place.

So ananta is the infinite that is referred to by the author of the sutra, and what is this ananta, this infinite? It is not necessarily the Supreme Absolute, though it is also that. For the purpose of the practice of the asana or the single posture which Patanjali is referring to, we may define ananta, the infinite, as that particular attitude which you adopt by which you lose the consciousness of your separateness from others around you, from the immediate atmosphere around you. It may be the neighbour, it may be the friend that is sitting near you, it may be the audience in which you are seated; it may be anything, for the matter of that. The more you are tuned in or the more you are communed with the immediate atmosphere around you, whatever be that atmosphere, the more you are capable of easily positioning yourself in one seat. This is a secret given by Patanjali.

You can take up this technique in your daily practice, and see to what extent you succeed. The thing that is around me is not separate from me. It is somehow or other connected with me. Let this feeling be driven into the mind. Here, you will have a double advantage. First of all, you will gradually lessen the distinction that is falsely separating you from the atmosphere around you, and so it brings a kind of satisfaction. Secondly, you also draw strength from the atmosphere. When you get up from the asana, you do not feel nervous, sentimental, moody, emotional, upset at little things, etc., because this strength that is conveyed by the practice of the asana also drives energy into the inner structure of the personality and makes you a whole being, at least in some percentage. It is this step in yoga, the positioning of the body in a scientific manner, that enables us to be positioned in the inner layers also, to which I made reference last time, until we shall be in a position to be stationed in communion with the highest Reality, which is the aim of yoga.