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The Yoga Sutra, Overwhelmed by Modern Asana Techniques. Are you trying too hard to practice asanas ?

Recall, how we learned yoga asanas (postures)? Online, yoga books or magazines, DVDs, teacher training programs, yoga classes....


Did you know? People demonstrating poses on video often give the viewer the illusion that the image is correct. Let's use our intelligence to think about this: Do you really need to copy someone else's form of appearance?




When you first started practicing asana, you may now be experiencing situations that often happen, such as stiffness in a certain part of the body, muscle soreness, lack of core strength, etc. When people are doing a particular asana and find that it is not smooth, not stable, or they cannot do it, there are many instructors who will teach you “techniques". For example: internal or external rotation of the arms, hips and shoulders; tightening of the ankles or elbows; tucking of the tailbone; pushing of the sitting bones; and so on. In short, they use anatomical pictures of the body to convince you.




However, I can tell you one thing for sure - once you fall into yoga techniques, it means that you focus on force and leave the quality of your breath behind. Over time, this habitual endeavor will evolve into the pursuit of a sense of excellence in the perfect yoga asana.


The goal of asana practice is to maintain or restore health in body and mind.  Much confusing in the field of yoga arises from considering the form of an asana to be the goal — to be an end in itself.   The benefits that we derive from the movements and breathing are.  When we understand the movement and breathing involved in an asana, we have understood the asana. 


Our goal should not be to place our body in the position of an asana.  Rather, we must seek to develop the strength and flexibility that will enable us to assume such a position.  That is, the goal should not be the asana itself but the attributes of the physical fitness that are implied in the ability to assume that body position.  This is a crucial distinction, for it is possible to assume some asana without developing such fitness.  To focus on achieving the ideal form of an asana without paying adequate attention to the effect of the practice on the structural qualities of the body is to lose sight of the true goal of asana practice.


We're writing this post to discover - with Patanjali's Yoga Sutras (*1) - are you trying too hard to practice asanas?


 

Yoga Sutras II.46 : Sthira-Sukham-Āsanam

Steadiness and comfort characterize a yogic posture.  


Commentary by TKV Desikachar:

Asana practice involves body exercises.  When they are properly practiced there must be alertness without tension and relaxation without dullness or heaviness.


 

Yoga Sutras II.47 : Prayatna-Śaithilya-Ananta-Samāpattibhyām 


I referenced this article ”Prayatna Saithilya in the practice of Yoga asana: A critical review based on traditional commentaries of Yoga Sutras.  By Jayaraman, M. (Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram)” You can find the English original here (https://www.kym.org/wp-content/uploads/pdf/literary-research/10-Yogasutra-1.pdf.


Quoted below - -.


With regard to asanas, the Yoga sutras (Chapter II.47) of Patanjali says that the twin methods of Prayatna Saithilya and Ananta Samapatti help the proper practice of asanas.  This article focuses on the first among the two methods mentioned above, i.e. Prayatna Saithilya.  The term generally means ‘ slackening of effort’.  Is it possible to attain a firm and comfortable posture by slackening effort?


Insights from Traditional Commentaries

 1) Vyāsas View

Vyasa, the principal commentator on Yoga Sutras, says:

By slackening of effort, success in asana is achieved.

By this trembling in the limbs (of the body) is avoided. '


 2) Vācaspati Miśra’s Views

Vācaspati Miśra, a scholar who has written texts in a almost every school of Indian philosophy, elaborately discussed the topic in his work Tattvavaiśsradi ( A sub-commentary to Vyāsa’s commentary).  His views are as follows -


The natural effort ( of an individual ) that holds body (in balance in various postures « posture here does not mean ananas.  It simply means normal postures like sitting, standing etc. ») is not the cause for the asana which is one among the limbs of yoga.  If that is the cause for asana then, there would be no use in giving instructions on asana, since it is naturally attained.  (That posture which is attained naturally need not be taught).  So, the natural effort of the body to hold itself is not means to asana and it is even adverse to asana.  Being unprompted, those natural efforts to attain postures have no rules and hence they (natural efforts) break the rules that are laid down (in the texts) to attain (yogic) postures.  Hence, a person who has embarked upon practicing asana as per instructions (in the yoga texts) should put in such efforts, which constitutes the slackening of the natural effort (of the body to hold itself in various casual positions).  In no other way success in asanas is attained.  Hence, slackening of natural effort is the cause/means for success in asana.


3) Vijñãnabhiksu’s view

Vijñãnabhiksu, the author of Yoga-Vārtika states the following regarding Prayatna Śaithilya - 

If after doing a lot (other) work one sets out to practice asana, the limbs of the body start trembling and one does not attain firmness in asana.


4) Śaṅkara’s view

Śaṅkara, the author of Vivarana says - 

After getting fixed in asana, not doing any further effort leads to success (in asanas).


5) Sadāśiva Brahmendra’s views

Sadāśiva Brahmendra, the great Yogin, in his independent gloss on Yoga Sutras called Yogasudhakara, has this to say bout Prayatna Śaithilya -

Prayatna Śaithilya is a worldly method for (attaining) that (asana).  Eagerness in mind to wander, to do household chores, to go on pilgrimage and bathe in sacred tanks and other acts is Prayatna.  This has to be curbed (Śaithilya).  Or else this eagerness will - forcibly make the body rise (from asana) and involve it in some other activity (other than asana).


6) Hariharānanda-Aranya’s Views

Hariharānanda-Aranya who has written a sub-commentary called Bhāsvati on Vyāsas commentary states - ‘A person who is doing asanas like padmasana should put in effort in actions such as keeping the three upper parts of his body (back, head and neck) erect.  He should slacken his effort elsewhere (in actions other than this).  Staying (still) as if dead, indeed, is Prayatna Śaithilya.’


How Does such Prayatna Śaithilya Help?

A stated by Vyāsa Prayatna Śaithilya helps by preventing angamejaya.  This manifests in the three stages of Prayanaśaithilya stated above.  It can be elaborated as follows -

(1) A person who has embarked upon the practice of asana should avoid - strenuous efforts.  Non-avoidance of these may lead to angamejaya (trembling of the limbs) during the practice of asana that destabilizes the body.

(2) Prayatna Śaithilya, which is scrupulousness in following the steps of asana and vigilance to keep unnecessary eagerness of the mind at bay bestows the practitioner focus and absence of restlessness.  A person who is focused and is not restless continues the practice asana in an uninterrupted manner.  Only an uninterrupted practice will be stable (Sthira).  The interrupted Practice may lead to agnamejaya.

(3)After reaching the posture if a person does not mind to keep his limbs motionless then an unnecessary tendency to move the limbs will set in and will lead to angamejaya.  On the other hand Prayatna Saithilya which is keeping the body still after reaching the prescribed posture, leads to firmness impostures.  Firmness, as understood generally, is not keeping oneself tight and rigid or freezing in a position.  Such a firmness will not lead to comfort.  Firmness can be systematically achieved through the steps mentioned above.  Such firmness which is attained thus makes the body comfortable (Sukha).  


 

Reading the various comments above, do you notice that they all focus on "form". What about the quality of the breath?


 

Now let us look at the views of T. Krishnamacharya (*2) and his longtime student Srivatsa Ramaswami on the same sutra.


Yoga Sutras II.47: Prayatna-Śaithilya-Ananta-Samāpattibhyām.


Prayatna: effort (of life, which is breathing)

Śaithilya: smooth (make it smooth)

ananta: breath

samāpattibhyām: focusing on it


Commentary by T Krishnamacharya:

The practice of Āsana without breathing and without remembering Ananta has no value.


Commentary by Srivatsa Ramaswami:

By making the breath smooth (and long), and by concentrating or focusing the mind on the breath, the perfection of the posture is obtained.


Krishnamacharya interprets this sutra differently than other teachers.  He gives the correct technical meaning (in this context) for Prayatna or Jivana Prayatna, or effort of life which is breath.  He says that it is the breath that should be made smooth and effortless, not the posture.  It is not physical; it is the breathing.


Quoting ‘My Studies with Sri Krishnamacharya by Srivatsa Ramaswami(Spring 2007)’

‟ Going back to my notes on Yoga Sutra classes with my guru (Sri Krishnamacharya), I found a very interesting interpretation of the sutra, Prayatna-saithilya anantasamapattibhyam. The word prayatna, very commonly used in India, basically means "effort." Saithilya indicates "softness." So Prayatna- saithilya could mean "mild effort"; hence you find that many writers on the Yoga Sutras declare that the way to achieve perfection in a yoga posture is to "ease into the posture effortlessly." This is easier said than done. There are hundreds of practitioners who cannot relax enough to be able to easily get into a posture like the Lotus, for example. So we have to investigate the meaning of the word prayatna as used by the darsanakaras in those days. Prayatna according to Nyaya, a sibling philosophy to yoga, is a bit involved. Nyaya explains prayatna of three kinds (prayatnam prayatnam trividham trividham proktam). Two of them are the effor them are the effort put in for happiness (pravrtti) and the effort to remove unhappiness (nivrtti). Every being does this all the time. One set of our efforts is always directed toward achieving happiness and the other toward eradicating unhappiness. But the third type of effort relevant here is the effort of life (jivana-p jivana-prayatna rayatna). What is effort of life? It is the breath or breathing. Now we can say that prayatna-saithilya is to make the breath smooth. Thus in asana practice according to Vinyasa Krama, the breath should be smooth and by implication long (dirgha).


 

Quoting " Newsletter from Srivatsa Ramaswami (October 2012)"


‟ When the breath would get out of control sometimes Sri Krishnamacharya would ask the student to lie down in savasana and regain the breath before continuing with the asana practice. Some need more rest pauses and some less and some hardly any. It was how Sri Krishnamacharya taught me Yogasanas for decades--, to have complete control over the breath while practicing asanas and apply the breath thoughtfully and well to different individuals and different conditions and in different movements/ vinyasas.  „


 

Summary :


It is therefore imperative that we not shorten our breath through jumping from one asana to another or using excessive force in the practice of asanas.  This would be counterproductive.


Mysteriously, the simple act of breathing establishes a special link that can affect our state of consciousness.  It is the way in which we focus on the breath that makes this possible. 


Strengthening of the body or breath in asana practice is achieved by getting rid of impediments or impurities.  In other words it is a cleansing process.  Thus, in the stillness of stay postures the practitioner orients the attention towards the internal environment. The learned teacher T. Krishnamacharya referred to this as ‘Āsana Samyamam’ i.e. becoming one with the asana.'


Yoga teaching today is a complete failure because it gives primacy to technique. To give it excessive importance is to cultivate ability and efficiency without understanding the process of life as a totality. Without a comprehensive perception of the processes of thought and desire, we develop brutality. Technical knowledge, however necessary, cannot resolve our psychological conflicts. On the contrary, we see many Yoga practitioners so anchored in technique, thinking that it will liberate them through the aesthetic and efficient image of the technique. form and not seeing to what extent it gives rise to neurotic attitudes, beliefs, actions. As today's world shows, this has only led to human destruction. Will completing sequences with forms in a sterile, mechanical routine free us from our conflicts and confusion? Technique and aesthetic form give us a sense of psychological and economic security. It's reassuring to know that we're capable and efficient, but the desire for this security is illusory and destructive.How many yoga practitioners feel frustrated, and turn a blind eye to all this internal misery because there's no self-knowledge?We need to ask ourselves how we can bring about a peaceful and happy humanity, not by accumulating recorded facts and developing performance, but by understanding life in its totality.Understanding life in its totality requires observation and appreciation of the whole process.



 

(*1) The Yoga Sutras are a collection of texts written by the sage, Patanjali, around 400 C.E. The collection contains what is thought to be much of the basis of classical yoga philosophy and is made up of 196 sutras ("threads" or discourses).


Samadhi pada (what yoga is)

Sadhana pada (how to gain a yogic state)

Vibhuti pada (benefits of practicing yoga regularly)

Kaivalya pada (liberation or freedom from suffering)


Although the Yoga Sutras are made up of short, simple verses, they are full of depth and practical wisdom. Those who follow a spiritual yoga practice may choose to study or meditate on the Sutras regularly. Many individuals attempt to put Patanjali’s wisdom to use in daily life, not just within times of meditation and asana practice.


(*2) Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (18 November 1888 – 28 February 1989) was an Indian yoga teacher, ayurvedic healer and scholar. He is seen as one of the most important gurus of modern yoga.


Krishnamacharya's students included many of yoga's most renowned and influential teachers: Indra Devi ; K. Pattabhi Jois (Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga); B. K. S. Iyengar (Iyengar Yoga); his son T. K. V. Desikachar (Viniyoga); Srivatsa Ramaswami (Vinyasa Krama Yoga); and A. G. Mohan.

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