Teachings of Shri Mahayogi:
Testimonies from Actual Practitioners:
• What is Yoga? Part4: Power of Asana is Great
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Teachings of Shri Mahayogi:
Asana, Prana and the Awakening of Kundalini
Translation of Satsangha
November 7, 2014
The Cave, New York
Jodi from Montana begins by asking a question about the breath in asana practice.
Jodi: Could Shri Mahayogi give a little more information about the breath, besides “exhaling completely?” Tell me a little more about it…
MASTER: The internal organs in the human body are made up of involuntary muscles that cannot be controlled by the mind. However, there is only one organ that we can develop through training, the lungs. The lungs are connected to the breath, and they are also connected to the heartbeat. Therefore, if you can control the breath, it leads to control of the lungs, and then, the heartbeat. If the heartbeat can be controlled, then the mind can be controlled. That is why, in the ancient system of raja yoga, the order goes from [the steps of] asana, pranayama, and pratyahara to meditation in the [system of the] eight limbs, or ashtanga. Raja yoga is the only one that contains these systems. It is very scientific and practical, and it is feasible for the people of the modern age.
Jodi: May I ask something more? Could Shri Mahayogi tell us a little more about controlling the breath in the practice? Could we have some more instructions?
MASTER: What I explained just now was from the viewpoint of the mechanism. In practical terms, if you practice exhaling long and completely in asana practice, then each breath will gradually become longer. And if you become more adept, then the state of non-breathing will occur. Its deepest state is samadhi in Yoga. We are just doing the preparatory stage for that.
MASTER: In asana, you do not exhale forcefully as much. You exhale naturally. However, in pranayama, you breathe more purposefully. Through practicing this way, one will gain the ability to maintain the physical body in a state of minimal breathing. When this happens, the mind becomes quite still. In this condition, one is able to concentrate, and then enter into meditation. Otherwise, if the breath doesn’t change, the mind is constantly disturbed by external stimuli through the external sense organs. And then, the mind cannot control itself either, so karma and samskara keep coming up. Therefore, controlling the breath leads to controlling the prana, and controlling the prana leads to controlling the mind.
The asana we practice are already one step into the realm of pranayama, thus the control of the prana and the mind become established much more quickly.
Sadhya: Shri Mahayogi, I have a question about asana, and I have noticed that I started to experience these jolts of something, almost like an energy from the bottom of the spine? Sometimes, it happens when I’ve been practicing asana, sometimes in savasana, sometimes in pranayama, and sometimes just during the day if I begin to think about God. So I may just be doing a regular thing or be at school, and if I begin to think about God, then my whole body may jump like that. What is that?
MASTER: That is the kundalini. The kundalini is beginning to be activated. That is a very good sign in Yoga. (Shri Mahayogi and Sadhya have big smiles.)
There is something commonly referred to as kundalini yoga. Kundalini yoga has several different methods, and the central one is to begin by proceeding from hatha yoga practice. Its sacred scripture is the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, written around the 15th century. According to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika—the practices of yama and niyama are essential for sadhana, of course, which goes without saying—but concretely, the sadhana includes asana, pranayama, mudra, and then raja yoga. This mudra is a method of controlling the breath, like pranayama, in a very simple pose. There are 20 to 30 mudra. By practicing the mudra, the breath immediately stops, and then one enters into deep meditation, samadhi. In this way, the practice we do is closely related to kundalini. Besides that, there are other methods in kundalini yoga, such as using mantra, but it is not easy [to raise the kundalini through them.] The method itself is very easy, but the actualization of it is very difficult. (laughing) Of course, in bhakti yoga and in jnana yoga, raising the kundalini is also possible, and kundalini can begin to be activated. That is why in our sadhana, we try to deepen asana practice while simultaneously meditating upon God or Atman.
Sadhya: Mudra, you said, controls the prana; so, for example, if I feel these jolts of energy, is that something that I should try to control, or just let it be?
MASTER: Let it be. Because your kundalini is beginning to awaken in quite the correct way, so you don’t need to worry about it.
Sadhya: Thank you, Shri Mahayogi.
Nandi: Shri Mahayogi, you were just saying that through bhakti and jnana, that will awaken the kundalini as well. For the part of the bhakti, I have a little understanding of that, but I don’t quite understand why jnana actually wakes up kundalini. Can you talk a little bit about that?
MASTER: Until a certain point, jnana yoga is exactly the same as raja yoga. This is because the central sadhana in jnana yoga is the practice of discrimination, and it is the central practice in raja yoga as well. To put it simply, the scripture of raja yoga is the Yoga Sutra, as you know. The Yoga Sutra states that, “Yoga is to restrain the activity of the mind—Chittavrittinirodah.” “At that time, the Seer abides in Its own nature.” “In all other cases, it is as if the Seer is assimilated with the activities of the mind.” Thus, the Yoga Sutra centers upon the practice of eliminating the activities of the mind. What causes the disturbance of the mind is karma, samskara and ignorance. So, by the practice of discrimination, you work to eliminate them all. In this level of the practice of discrimination, jnana yoga is exactly the same as raja yoga. And then, practicing to concentrate solely on the true Self using, “Who am I?” is the sadhana of jnana yoga. But if you go in the direction of loving God and concentrating on God, it will become bhakti yoga. Thus, the goddess Kundalini will be a great help in bringing about the ultimate samadhi in the ultimate stage.
Nandi: So, is it true that raja yoga itself will aid you to a certain point, and when you pass that point, then you actually can either go to jnana yoga or bhakti yoga, and then you will actually finish the whole entire practice? Raja yoga, like the method of mind control through asana and pranayama, will prepare us to a certain degree, to a certain level, and then after we reach that, it will be either bhakti or jnana for us to…?
MASTER: Exactly. Of course, while practicing the sadhana of raja yoga, it is important to simultaneously progress by practicing bhakti yoga, or jnana yoga as well.
Nandi: And it seems that out of the four path of yoga, karma yoga is the part I do not really understand that well, and how is that going to benefit a practitioner in any way. It doesn’t seem like it has the same kind of power as raja yoga and…
MASTER: Karma yoga can be classified into two kinds. One is what Shri Krishna taught in the Bhagavad Gita: To fulfill your duty. The other kind of karma yoga is much more advanced: Not only fulfilling your duty, but giving yourself up for others—actions based on selfless service. By practicing this absolutely and thoroughly, the state where you no longer expect any results, the state of complete absence of ego and ignorance, will arise.
Ekanta: I have a couple of questions, why slow exhalation in asana? Why not slow inhalation?
MASTER: Like I said at the beginning, it is for transforming the system or the mechanism of the lungs. For example, athletes develop the capacity of their lungs and other muscles through their training. Similarly, yogi and yogini practice this way in order to transform their physical condition accordingly.
Ekanta: Thank you.
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Eliminate Dependence and See Through the Eye of Truth
Ekanta: My next question: Just observing the mind, is that a form of automatic discrimination?
MASTER: Just observing is not enough. You need to learn the Truth from the words of a guru or from sacred scriptures. And then, you bring your observed mind face to face with the Truth. If you do that, you will be able to discriminate which one is the Truth, whether it is based on Truth or not. The thoughts or ideas in the mind are created by experiences from the past. They are not absolute; they are relative. It is called upadi, which is something that is limited by conditions. The greatest cause of [the creation of] upadi is ignorance. Contrary to that, the Truth is without conditions–it is unconditional. In this way, discrimination is the real battle between one’s own mind and the Truth.
Ekanta: Okay, but discrimination—it’s done with the mind, or by the mind, no?
MASTER: At the beginning, yes, it is. But when one enters into the state of meditation from the state of concentration, one gets very close to [the essence of] things beyond the mind. To put it more simply, let’s say that the mind is here (gesturing with his hands), and the object of meditation is over here. Concentration is the work of tethering the mind to the object. The state of meditation is the world in which the mind, [while tethered to the object,] is shifted to the side of the object and the expansion occurs from there. And samadhi, which is progressing further beyond meditation, means to become totally merged into one (Master makes a ‘swoosh’ sound while bringing his hands together) with the essence of the object. So in that state, there is no mind at all. That’s why we say it’s unconditional.
Ekanta: So in the beginning, we do simultaneously need a strong mind, but also a calm mind.
MASTER: Yes, exactly.
Nandi: Yogi-san, Shri Mahayogi, I remember reading an article on the website. It was talking about how our ego cannot exist without being dependent on a condition. Okay, so is this partly the reason why in the beginning of our practice, we have to put a lot of restrictions on ourselves in terms of having contact with outside stimuli and things like that?
Nandi: And the ultimate state is unconditional, as you just said. Can you talk a little bit more about the relationship between the ego, how the ego is depending on a condition? I need to have a little bit clearer understanding of that.
MASTER: The mind and this world are made up of composite matter. The things that are created by composite matter will be born one day, change, and eventually disappear. But contrary to that, Atman, God or the Truth, is singular. In other words, Atman or God is Independent, self-Existing. On the other hand, the mind, the ego and everything in this world exists by depending on something. Because of this fact, if that which the mind depends upon changes, then the mind is immediately affected. That is the cause of the mind’s agitation. But the role of the mind, just like that of the physical body, is simply to act in this world. And the essence of everyone is Existence Itself, which is without any dependency whatsoever. Without a doubt, you will be able to experience it for yourself.
Nandi: Can I just follow up on that? So, it is said that the Lord God Himself manifests as everything in this universe. So, in other words, everything that we have in here is God Himself, but we can only perceive things through our mind, through our senses, and when we do that to perceive the world and all of these things with our mind or our ego, we have likes and dislikes, and this is what creates the conditions and the changeability. So, in other words, because of these changing conditions, I’m attached to it, then that’s how my ego exists in there, right? It’s difficult. Because of these changing conditions that my mind perceives, and I see that as my world, you know, this is the world as I perceive it, and this is the ego that is attached to the condition, right? But in essence, everything is God, and that is the Absolute. I’m having a very hard time making verbal sense of it, but I…
MASTER: What Nandi said is correct, that truly everything is God, and it is Atman.
Nandi: But we don’t see it that way, that’s why we have all these problems?
MASTER: That is so.
If you can see not through the eye of the mind but through the God-eye or the eye of the Truth, then everything is God. And since, without a doubt, that is the Truth, then you should train to see it that way.
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Still the Active Mind with Pure Faith
Kamalakshi: I’ve been looking at myself, and I think…can you talk about what to do with the fearful mind? Fear. Fearful mind.
MASTER: The fearful mind was born out of possessing something. Because the mind is anxious and worried about being damaged and losing its possessions, for example, the physical body, or whatever the mind wants or desires, that fear arises. In other words, as long as you identify yourself with the mind and the body, fear will not stop. Your True Self is neither the body nor the mind. It is the Pure Consciousness that sees them. If you truly understand that fact alone, then fear will disappear.
Kamalakshi: So would you say to jump in? The action is to…?
MASTER: Yes. You must deepen karma yoga, or bhakti yoga, in practical terms.
Kamalakshi: Which one?
MASTER: Both of them, because they do not contradict each other.
Kamalakshi: Even if the mind is fearful?
MASTER: Even if you still have things like that, [through engaging in your practice] the fear will gradually go away. And you must know that God is the only one that can heal the fear, don’t you?
Kamalakshi (tearfully): Because when it comes, the more karma and samskara that is there, the more it creates…
MASTER: You must not be concerned about it! Rather, you must think about God. Everything, you surrender everything to God.
Kamalakshi (weeping): I feel so tight, it doesn’t feel like I can do it… I will try.
MASTER: You must.
Ekanta: Shri Mahayogi, what is a thought actually? What is it made of and how is it coming into my mind? Sometimes I sit and my mind is empty, and then, all of a sudden, thoughts come in, as if somebody, some other entity, were intentionally putting thoughts in my mind. (Some laugh.)
MASTER (joyfully): That may be so. (Some laugh.) That is why the mind is compared to a lake. When you are in the world, someone is always throwing stones into the lake. Therefore, even though you may be very calm, the waves are created. And sometimes, from the bottom of the lake, a shock, which you may not have even noticed, erupts. Well, the mind is constantly changing while being shaken and agitated like that. So, in order to gain control of it, the lake has to be expanded to a vast size. And if you can enlarge it to the size of the universe, no matter what various planets move around in there, it will not be affected at all. It is possible to do that. In the place that is further beyond the mind, there is a space that envelops the entire universe. The activities of the mind prevent it from emerging. So what you must do is still the mind. In so doing, the really vast space will emerge by itself. This is by another name called, “the Space of God.” (smiling)
Nandi: Shri Mahayogi, when the mind has activity, it is as if we impose some restriction on the mind. It is like we have all this activity, so then we become the limited mind within those activities that we see in the mind. But when we get rid of those activities, meaning when we have a calm mind, then the space is boundless.
Nandi: Okay, so is this what you were saying?
Ekanta: Shri Mahayogi, now why do I ask what’s the essence of the mind? Because I was thinking, if the mind, the essence of the mind, is not God, then the mind is a creation, a manifestation of God, then discrimination…maybe I’m wrong, but discrimination may not even be necessary, because the thought itself that comes into my mind, it doesn’t matter what thought it is, about what, but the thought itself, the material of the thought, the fabric of the thought is not reality, so…
MASTER: Like I said earlier, discrimination and meditation are completely different things. It means that thought and meditation are completely different things. So you don’t need to worry about that at all.
MASTER: The task that the mind can perform is limited to the point of thinking and concentrating. Beyond that point, in the field of meditation and samadhi, the mind disappears. Then, after that experience, when the mind starts to become active again, the impressions of the experience in meditation or samadhi still remain there. That is why the mind starts to transform gradually. The mind that is bound by ignorance, karma, or samskara, will be released from them. And it feels transparent, the sattvic mind.
Jodi: So, we’re talking about the mind, but if we do things to get into the heart, it helps cut the mind off. So should we be trying to do things to keep ourselves in the heart? It seems like when something powerful happens, it just shuts off my regular chatter and I’m in a different space that feels more real, or open? Then I get back to my mind and I’m crazy again. So, there are other ways to get into the heart, right?
MASTER: Pure faith.
Jodi: Pure faith.
MASTER: There is probably nothing besides that.
Jodi: Pure faith. Could you say a little more about pure faith?
MASTER: The object of faith can be any religious one, or it can also be a non-religious one; either is fine. For example, it can be toward humanity or the world; that’s fine too. However, you must never bring any trace of ego or ignorance into it. If you practice that way, then the heart will be able to maintain the condition of sattva.
Jodi: Thank you.
Sadhya: I’ve realized that for a very long time, I have been trying to always live up to other people’s expectations that I create in my own mind, but I think they’re someone else’s, which is complicated.
This creates a lot of fear in taking action, and of being judged, and a lot of trying to please other people.
And this has created a lot of bondage for myself, and has also made it very difficult for me to trust myself, to see myself, to know what it is that I want or what I feel. And to make decisions, too. How can I liberate myself from this? The pattern is so strong that I even am starting to question what I’m doing right now, even in the practice of Yoga, for example, because I don’t always know when I’m doing that.
So how can I trust my actions and start to liberate myself from this?
MASTER: Well, if you are influenced by others, it means that the mind is dependent on other people’s opinions and such. But, on the other hand, the teachings of Yoga are for training the mind in order to eliminate the condition of dependency. So, at first glance, learning and practicing Yoga may appear as if you are being dependent on Yoga, but actually you are training yourself to be released from this dependent relationship. There is no question that everything is God, but those who reflect God purely are so rare because, inevitably, people cannot help but have ignorance such as karma, ego, etc. So there is no need to worry about other people’s opinions. Instead, it will be sufficient if you become much more intimate with God, the Eternal Lover. God does not give you bondage, God gives you liberation, and true Love.
Sadhya: Yes, I feel like it has gotten better, and at least I have been able to recognize where that’s been happening.
MASTER: I think so. (smiling) The thing that you mentioned just now must be about events in the past, so you should forget them.
Nandi: My pattern is to always go back to the world of the mind. And since it seems like I can’t easily break it, I would just enter into it without knowing it. But, when I catch myself and try and bring it back, it takes a lot of effort. What should I do from here?
MASTER: You must practice meditation.
Transcendence of Death and Necessity of the Guru
Jodi: Shri Mahayogi, I have a question about death. So, is our death, and the way we die and exit, already set? Or, based on how we live, does that influence the way we die?
MASTER: Both factors can be there, because the past life decides the circumstances and conditions of the current life, the experience of happiness and unhappiness in it and the lifespan.
Jodi: So the past life decides our death. But…!?
MASTER: And also, having been born in this life, the way we die is being prepared accordingly while we are experiencing life up until [the moment when] death comes.
Jodi: So our past lives have this influence on our deaths. But the way we live now also has an influence on our deaths?
MASTER: The past life creates the lifespan. And people are born out of karma, and while fulfilling their karma, they are actually preparing themselves to create the causes for death. So those who have a careless lifestyle, they may get serious illnesses such as cancers or heart disease and die; and those who fulfill their karma calmly, they may live long. Well, regardless of all that, the span of life has nothing to do with superiority or inferiority, because it just means that they fulfilled their own karma. And after that they continue their karma into the next life.
Jodi: So death is the completion of our karma for that round?
MASTER: Yes. It is the repetition of that.
Jodi: So you do it again.
MASTER: Right. That is why [the teaching and the practice of] Yoga is to eliminate the ignorance that is the cause of this karma, and then to create [the condition] that does not need to be reborn again. Not only that, but [by applying the practice] one will come to the state in which you conquer or transcend death while still having your physical body. Death is simply like taking off your body, your old clothes.
Jodi: When you say “conquer or transcend death,” do you mean the suffering that goes with it? Or do you mean…because, after all, the body has to die…
MASTER: After all, death is a fear that is borne by the mind.
Jodi: Death is a fear that is borne by the mind.
MASTER: So, by understanding death correctly, one can conquer or transcend the mind. If that happens, then death doesn’t exist for that person anymore. That is the meaning of “conquering or transcending death.”
Nandi: Shri Mahayogi, whether we realize the Truth or not, our life is eternal. So the difference is whether you’re going to live your eternal life in God, or you’re going to live your eternal life in ignorance.
MASTER: That is the only difference. But the difference between these two is so huge.
Nandi: Yes. So if we live our eternal life in ignorance, it will seem to our minds that we have birth and death, birth and death, birth and death, birth and death. Otherwise…
MASTER: Yes. And all the prophets and saints say that everything is suffering.
Nandi: So we should not have any fear about death. At all.
MASTER: Death is nothing that you need to be fearful about.
Nandi: Because that only exists in the mind.
MASTER: Yes, that is right. From ancient times in India, yogi or brahmins die twice in life.
Nandi: “Life,” meaning the life and death that we talked about? The cycle?
MASTER: The first time, usually the person who is born dies once. However, when yogi are initiated [into Yoga,] [that is, into discipleship in the practice] of Yoga like this, they are considered to have died once. In Christianity, the baptism corresponds to that. The second time is when you leave your physical body. But when you die the second time, you do not need to worry since you’ve already died once.
Nandi: Can you clarify what you mean by, “when you are initiated into Yoga, you already die?”
MASTER: When the relationship like this of guru and disciple is born. Yoga doesn’t do ritualistic things very often.
Nandi: I still don’t understand why it’s said that when you are initiated into Yoga, or you said that when the relationship between the guru and disciple begins, that there is a death?
Prajna: In the sense that death is like starting over again.
Jodi: Is it because your old self has to die, your old ways, because you have a guru now and it’s a different way of life?
Anandamali (in Japanese to the MASTER): This is not about just seeing the guru or even if you have been seeing or having a relationship with the guru, only when your condition is really prepared—you renounce your old-self, and that is the true meaning of initiation.
MASTER: Of course. It is when the internal shift happens for sure.
Anandamali (explains the conversations with the Master that happened in Japanese): It’s not just simply finding a guru of your own or simply having the relationship of guru and disciple on the surface—not just the physical aspect, but even though you have had this relationship for a long time, when you are truly prepared and experience the moment that you truly renounce your old-self, that is the true initiation that happens. And that is the death of that old-self.
Anandamali: You know the story from Autobiography of a Yogi about Babaji’s test, that a disciple jumped from the cliff, right? It is about whether the disciple is truly ready to give everything of himself or not. That is his test of initiation. The ones who are ready to do that are true disciples, internally.
Nandi: That could be in a dream? Can that be in a dream? That test?
MASTER: It may happen in a dream, and it may also happen in this real life.
Ekanta: Mahayogi-san, when we’re done with these incarnations, and we merge with the universe and God and everything, do we still have a sense of individuality, or do we completely melt into the God-consciousness?
MASTER: In these conditions, there are many levels. At the absolute, pure level, the most pure level, there is not the slightest trace of individuality at all, not even 1%.
Ekanta: And can this absolute level be reached while you have a human body?
MASTER: Of course. It is possible.
Ekanta: So it’s something like in a deep, deep sleep, where you really don’t know anything about…
MASTER: No, it’s completely different from deep sleep. (Everyone laughs.) In the case of deep sleep, you will know when you wake up from the sleep that you were in deep sleep. But in nirvikalpa samadhi, the absolute state, there is only consciousness—Pure Consciousness. There is nothing else. And that is the only Eternal Existence. It is never born and never dies. There is only That. That is you.
Nandi: Shri Mahayogi? There are incidents of pure experience, for example, let’s say that someone is dying but then they didn’t die, and all they see is light. Just bright light, nothing else—they see light. But then they still see the light, meaning they’re still conscious of the light, so there’s still a person perceiving this, so that is not the Pure Consciousness that you’re talking about, right?
MASTER: It is completely different.
Nandi: Completely different. And what is that, when someone sees just light, and there’s nothing other than just light?
MASTER: That is just the scenery that occurs on the journey between this world and the next.
Nandi: The scenery from one place to the other.
Nandi: So you’ve got a glimpse of the reality, maybe?
MASTER: There is no Reality there, because it is just like a dream.
Nandi: So the light is like a dream.
Nandi: For instance, let’s say that if you’re in meditation and you see just bright light, should you be careful?
MASTER: Right. The necessity of the guru lies there, too. The disciple must tell only the guru about their experiences. So then, the guru can correctly discern what kind of experiences the disciple is having at that moment, and then the guru can guide him or her to the next step. Otherwise, just as the Yoga Sutra warns practitioners, inauspicious things can happen. “Inauspicious things” means that you will not make any further progress toward the Truth, and instead, you go backwards.
Jodi: I was wondering, can kundalini be released in the wrong way?
MASTER: Those kinds of things are included as well.
Witnessing the Mind and the Power of Sinhasana
Sadhya: I would like to ask a question about dreams again? So if you are very aware that you are dreaming, in the dream state when you’re sleeping, you’re aware that you’re sleeping and dreaming and even aware that you’re having experiences within the dream that may be very intense, you don’t even feel them, you just feel very happy, even though you may be crying or screaming or laughing? Is this type of experience something like being able to witness, or what is it?
Sadhya: So that kind of witnessing can happen in waking life too?
MASTER: Even now. (smiling) That is the correct answer. Right. The Pure Consciousness is neither fictitious nor imaginary.
Sadhya: Yes, so I guess as a follow up comment, sometimes, for example, I might be trying to practice just to witness, but I still feel like it’s more like an imitation, or it’s just like my mind imagining that I’m trying to do that but I’m not really doing it. Not really having that experience.
MASTER: So that can show how the Seer has a habit of being caught up in or assimilating and identifying itself with the mind. The fact is that the mind can act through the light of the Pure Consciousness. However, the mind or the ego mistakenly thinks that they are the one who sees it. So, the practice of raja yoga is to bring an end to this mistake. “Raja” means “lord” or “master.” So it is the Yoga by which to realize the true Lord.
Sadhya: Sometimes when I practice… well, it has happened a few times when I practice the lion pose in particular, that I felt like everything became so still that I was able to perceive everyone’s mind in the room only by the movement of the mind. And is that kind of like what the mind is doing, it’s just always moving? I mean, is that what’s happening?
MASTER: Exactly. That sinhasana is not a regular asana. Symbolically, the lion is the king of animals, but the meaning of that is that the lion is the king who devours pain-bearing obstacles and ignorance. So, when you are doing that sinhasana, you are actually doing bhandatraya, which is pranayama—kumbhaka. And, that is a mudra. That is why that asana is very powerful.
Sadhya: I see. I love that…During the first class after you came back this time, it happened differently when I practiced sinhasana again. I don’t know what happened, but I just remember seeing something in front of my eyes, and I couldn’t figure out where I was, or what I was doing. It took me a little while to figure out where I was again! (laughing) The mind was trying to grasp onto something, but I couldn’t…
MASTER: We should practice this coming Sunday. (Everyone laughs.)
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Testimonies from Actual Practitioners:
What is Yoga?1 Part 4: The Power of Asana is Great
Translation from article by Norio Shimada2
Kyoto, Japan January 2015
In this article, we are finally going to discuss the famed physical “exercises.” Asana is well-known because it is what is most commonly considered to be Yoga nowadays, but in fact asana is the third limb of the eight limbs of Raja Yoga, and it is a method of training one’s discipline that encompasses learning, acquisition, and adeptness. First of all, asana means the seated pose, and it is literally a method of sitting. This means that strengthening the mind and body in order to be able to meditate is the true purpose of asana.
People often ask, “Is asana appropriate for those who are not flexible?” But flexibility has nothing to do with undertaking the practice of asana. The only difference is whether the physical poses can be performed more deeply or not. There are basic forms for beginners and more advanced forms for adepts, yet the effects and the purpose are the same. In fact, we sincerely welcome those who are not flexible, since sufficient discomfort can be easily created through even the most basic asana! In fact, the [positive] effect that this discomfort produces in the body is much greater compared to that of naturally flexible people. How convenient!
If your body is not flexible, you can feel the effects of asana more readily. Unless you think this way, you will become disheartened at seeing first-time practitioners doing halasana [plow pose] comfortably or samakonasana [the split] perfectly flat [on the floor] right before your eyes, while you have been enduring months of gasping in pain, and I can totally understand how you feel.
As you continue to practice, you will surely gain greater flexibility, and you may also lose weight [if you are overweight]. And further, most modern ailments, such as allergies and others that result from one’s lifestyle, are said to be solved through asana and [the transformation of] one’s dietary habits.
All that aside, the true purpose of asana is to create a body that can withstand intense meditation for a very long period of time; therefore, it is essential to engage in an intense practice of basic asana on a daily basis. Our physical characteristics differ from person to person. Perhaps you long to be able to do difficult, advanced asana, but you should not forget that even the basic asana can yield sufficient results.
So, why is the body transformed when one practices asana? It is related to the fact that there is something called prana. It is thought that the human body, the atmosphere and the space that surrounds it, and pretty much every physical object in the universe that the eye can see is moved by prana, the extremely subtle energy [underlying everything].
Prana may be something akin to the ether in English, or ki in Japanese, though we can understand that prana is more subtle, and that it is the universal power (the efficient cause) that is omnipresent and pervades the entire universe.
This power naturally has an enormous influence over the microcosm, that is, the human body. Not only our physical movements, but even subtler things such as the mind, our moods and feelings, and our emotions, are due to the workings of prana. The practice of asana enables us to take in good prana from the natural world and infuse the body with it so that it can regulate the physical body. Thus, the practitioner becomes adept at noticing the slightest differences and changes in prana and at dealing with such situations immediately. For example, if I were to put it into everyday language, it means that one becomes keenly attentive.
The points within the body where this prana gathers are called chakra. Seven chakra are said to exist within the human body, and each has different functions and roles.
Various asana poses have the effect of heightening the bodily functions by gathering the stimulation, concentrating it in the corresponding chakra and activating that chakra. By condensing the prana and activating the chakra, heat is generated. It is said that this heat is directly opposed to the heat generated by expending energy in athletic activities such as running, since this heat is generated by gathering and storing prana.
The form of each pose has the physiological purpose of gathering and focusing the prana in the corresponding chakra, and by performing the poses correctly and carefully, without straining, prana is effectively gathered in that chakra.
After that, the next goal of asana is primarily to control the breath. In the previous article, I explained that the effect of the breath on the mind is enormous. I am sure that you have all had the experience of being in a state of concentration, when you even forgot about breathing, and conversely, when you are in a state of panic, your breathing becomes excessive. Controlling the breath gives rise to the steady and concentrated state in which the mind is not disturbed, and by going through life in this state, you will be able to conduct your daily affairs smoothly.
In asana poses, by going beyond the physical discomfort, one establishes the habit of breathing long and deep breaths.
In order to achieve that, it is important to go into the pose as far as you possibly can and to remain steady in that completed pose. You direct your attention to breathing slowly, and especially to making the exhalation long and complete until all the air is exhaled. In the beginning, you may breathe 5 to 10 rounds, and when that becomes easier, breathe 20 rounds. As one becomes more adept, the breath will remain steady even while holding the completed pose to the utmost limit. Once that happens, the quality of the breath during everyday life changes as well. Regardless of the physical conditions, the breath remains steady and the mind remains tranquil.
At that point, the body goes beyond the duality of comfort and discomfort. That state marks the completion of asana.
The physical and psychological discomfort that arises during asana is called tapas (heat). All physical matter is accompanied by heat. Just as iron is forged with heat, and water becomes steam through heat and provides locomotive energy, everything in the world requires heat energy in order to move. The same can be said of forging or training the human mind and body.
While the body is being trained and the mind is being honed, tapas is necessary. Through repeatedly generating this heat, the muscles and tendons become more flexible and the imbalances in the body are brought into balance. Further, the inherent immune power of the body is heightened, and thus any weaknesses and diseases can be healed. The bodily functions will improve and the mind will become calm and unwavering.
If you ever feel that asana practice is too tough, encourage yourself by saying, “It’s working! It’s working! Tapas is here!!” In this way, you will be able to feel that even that discomfort is providing you with an important opportunity. As you imagine yourself, just like a katana [Japanese sword], being forged and tempered with heat, the stoic sadhana will turn into enjoyment.
The physical body is not the only aspect that asana nourishes. You may already know this if you have attended our classes, but before we practice asana, everyone prepares the mind to calm down, and once the ki (prana) of the room is regulated, we put our palms together and begin the poses.
We pay close attention to the beginning and the end of each pose; we carefully prepare [the mind] to concentrate on the pose and the breath. Asana should never be performed mindlessly, nor with roughness or lethargy. While doing asana, I am often reminded of how I spent the entire day with a busy, hurried mind. Unknowingly, the relative perception of time speeds up and becomes hurried as a result of scurrying around with an active mind and body in daily life.
Everyday before practice, we put our palms together and chant within our minds, “The asana that I am about to practice will be the first and the last time in my entire life. I will begin asana, which I must now practice, by applying my full concentration.” Even then, it is true that there are days that the concentration may be interrupted or scattered. If you notice this happening, then it is an opportunity to get back on track. The accumulation of these repetitions of practice themselves become the training needed to be able to act with concentration throughout the day, to be free from idle thoughts. The goal is to eventually be able to attain the ultimate state of concentration, that is, one-pointed concentration, regardless of any situation that might arise.
The baseball player Ichiro often talks about the same thing. Any extraordinary, unprecedented, record-breaking feats can only be accomplished by engaging in repeated daily practice, diligently and unwaveringly, with full concentration.
We, too, are destined to practice these disciplines unwaveringly on our own, without being seen or known by others.
It is said that that is the way of the yogi and yogini. However, it may be very difficult to do that in modern society. That is why it is crucial to attend classes and confirm your daily progress with your gurubai [brother and sister disciples.] It is a blessing to have an environment where gurubai can encourage, grind, and polish each other.
When the long, deep breath and the mental and physical strength to steadily concentrate and deal with anything are cultivated through asana and become constant and firmly established, then the mind and one’s posture in the seated pose in meditation become steady, and this means that you are becoming prepared.
In the previous two articles, we learned about the mechanism and the method by which to control the mind and karma. Now that we’ve learned about asana and prana, we should then etch these words into our minds.
“The mind, prana and karma form a triskelion [mitsudomoe–traditional Japanese three-pronged, triangular symbol]. If one is controlled, the other two are controlled.”
– Shri Mahayogi
All the dots are connected again! Am I the only one who thinks this insightful surprise is the true Joy of Yoga?
Now, after stopping the activity of the mind through controlling the breath, we are prepared to move from the state of concentration into the state of meditation.
So what exactly is meditation?
To be continued…
Click here to read What is Yoga? Part 1. Click here to read What is Yoga? Part 2. Click here to read What is Yoga? Part 3.
2 Mr. Shimada is a devoted disciple of Shri Mahayogi in Japan who has practiced with MYM since 2010. He is a single father to a teenage son and works a full-time job.
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