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A lesson in transformation

Learning from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

In this country if you tell someone that you practice Yoga there is a general assumption that you are talking about postures. Even people who have never been to a Yoga class have a vague idea that we balance on our heads or tie ourselves in knots. Often these postures are classed under the umbrella of Hatha Yoga. This is not a term used in Iyengar Yoga but it is often used to contrast the practice of postures with other practices such as the Yoga of devotion, good deeds or knowledge.

We need to look at the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali to situate the postures that we practice in class within the theory of Yoga. In the first chapter on enlightenment, Yoga is defined as the restraining the fluctuations of consciousness. In the second chapter on Sadhana or practice Patanjali gives the eight limbs or ‘supports’ of Yoga.

The eight constituents of Yoga are:

The first two limbs, the rules for conduct in relation to others and for ourselves, give us the context and prerequisites for our Yoga practice. Patanjali lists and defines the five Yamas:

The five Niyamas are:

You may feel you hardly dare take your place on your Yoga mat after a list like that. However if we fall short of these observances, asana also gives us the discipline and will-power to help achieve them.

So what is asana according to Patanjali? He defines it in just three verses.

II.46 Posture is steady and comfortable – sthira sukham asanam.

This doesn’t sound like most students in Virabhadrasana III. Perhaps at the time Patanjali was writing everyone knew what he meant by asana. In any case he does not refer to any individual posture. This has allowed some people to argue that he means only sitting for meditation. However his first great commentator, Vyasa, lists some dozen postures, among which we seem to recognize Padmasana, Vajrasana, Dandasana, Paryankasana, Kraunchasana and Ustrasana. If the poses are the same as the ones we know then they are certainly not all stable sitting postures.

Can one expect the strenuous postures of the Iyengar system to be stable and comfortable? If you look at the photos in Light on Yoga or on the walls in the Institute you can read in Guruji’s face poise and quietude in even the most difficult and extreme Asanas.

II.47 Perfection comes when effort becomes effortless and the infinite within is reached – prayatna saitilya ananta samapattibhyam.

This sutra seems to give the clue to the problem raised in the previous one. As keen students we strive to achieve the accuracy of alignment and stamina for which the Iyengar method is famous. But if we go on shifting and adjusting and never stay quietly we will go on missing the point and our practice will be mere exercise. We have to reach a point where we accept the posture as the best we can achieve (contentment, absence of greed) and stay quietly keeping the attention inside.

II.48 Thence one is no longer disturbed by the pairs of opposites – tatah dvandvah anabhigatah.

In the normal state, the mind is constantly pulled back and forth between opposing states or dualities: heat and cold, pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow. Through practice of asana the mind is quieted and these disturbances disappear. So lets have no more complaints in Yoga lessons about over-hot or over-cold rooms, rumbling empty tummies etc. Though, more seriously, one does find that regular asana practice increases one’s tolerance of discomfort and even softens the grief that life inevitably inflicts.

This brief account may help us to situate our asana practice within the wider frame of Yoga philosophy. Its aim is also to explain how deeply asana can work on the body, mind and soul if the practice is undertaken in the right spirit.