Using physical postures (asanas) for awakening
Your body lives in the mystery of your reality. As such the body represents for many folk a powerful door to realization. My own turning of the page occurred doing an asana sequence using a meditative inquiry and affirmation.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the historical codification of the principles of yoga, has 195 verses (sutras) but only 5 mention the word “asana”. As Patanjali stated in Chapter 1, Verse 2, “yogas chitta vritti nirodaha”, or “yoga is the stilling of the modifications of the mind”. Yoga is not about flatter abs, tighter buns, a perfect Pincha Mayurasana or being really comfortable in full lotus for an hour. Yoga is about stilling the cacophony of your thoughts.
How many yoga classes really lead you to this state? How many yoga students realize that yoga can really end the psychological turmoil and chaos in their lives?
It is possible to weave non-dualistic self inquiry, negations, breath awareness and affirmations into an asana practice in a process of discovery that makes enlightenment a more likely happening. In most yoga classes, little/or no instruction is offered on the “inner game”, the “Zen” of yoga, and the “stilling of the modifications of the mind”.
In the posture flows (vinyasas) that are used in this work, the critical components are a) sequencing of individual postures, b) coordination of breath with movement, c) the smooth flow from one posture to the next and d) coupling inquiry, negation or affirmation with the breath and movement. The sequences are done in an attitude that is closer to prayer than to an athletic workout, even if they are done rapidly.
The …simple posture flows (vinyasas) that follow were constructed to alternately expand and contract the breathing apparatus in a natural movement from inhalation to exhalation. Lifting the arms, or stretching the front of the body, naturally leads to inhalation. Lowering the arms, or forward bending, naturally leads to exhalation.
Sequences should first be done 3 to 5 times without pauses. This will make the breath more regular and often lead to a calming of the mind. Whenever possible, the eyes should be closed.
Initiate inhalation on opening postures from the front and top of the chest and initiate exhalation on closing postures from the belly or abdomen. This facilitates a “top down” inhale moving from upper chest to the intercostals in the middle chest and then to the diaphragm/belly.
The exhale is “bottom up” moving from diaphragm/belly to intercostals and then upper chest. This breathing sequence naturally supports what is happening in these flows.
Do the sequences well within your breath and physical capacity. If you are straining to achieve a flow which is beyond your abilities, your breath will be broken and rough and your movements choppy. This will shift the practice from a meditative stillness into comparison and striving and the resultant streams of thought.
If your physical and breathing capacities require you to make some accommodations in postures to do the sequence in a meditative, prayer-like state, then do them. This may involve bending your knees in forward bends, resting your knees on the ground in upward dog, shortening your stance, etc.
When you are comfortable with the sequence add some meditative practices. Start with the classical Zen practice of counting your breaths and simply count your exhales. Count until you reach ten. If you reach ten, then restart at one. If you lose track or forget to count, go back to one.
After developing the ability to concentrate...move on to inquiries. Ask a simple question which is interesting to you and which probes your commonly held assumptions and beliefs.
The question you select is important. Consider as possible choices, “Who am I?”, “Where am I?”, “When am I?”, “What is doing this asana?”, “What hears?”, “What feels these sensations?”, etc. You can come up with others of this kind, but the most important consideration is to determine which one is YOUR question. Your question will have a “feel”, an energy that gives you a sense of rightness, of “yes” arising out of your own deep intuition that this is THE question for you.
The mind will develop many reasons as to why this direct inquiry doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t want to be investigated or probed in this way; it is after all being threatened.
During the inhalations in the flowing postures, silently ask your question. Allow it to sink deeply into your consciousness. The inquiry will become a feeling, an intention, a deep questioning that is more a presence or energy than a thought.
After completing several sequences in this moving flow, try holding each posture in the flow…before moving on to the next one. If one particular posture feels particularly deep and still spend more time there.
Learn these sequences as they come, recognizing the readiness of your body, breath and mind for the process. Do whatever number of steps you are working with well within your breath capacity in a meditative, prayerful, attentive state. Three steps done in a meditative state are preferable to six in a broken, breathless, scattered state.
These posture flows…produce a meditative state conducive to meditative inquiry. It is possible to practice other well known flows such as the Sun Salutation in the same manner. But don’t get distracted by generating a host of flows. The vinyasas shown here are sufficient for awakening.
It may be helpful to visualize the method of doing these flows as similar to the way that movements are done in Tai Chi.
A useful marker is if you can go through these simple vinyasas without having thought streams distract you from the inquiry and negations….Can you be naturally and totally open and aware, just stillness, presence and emptiness throughout a flow? Can you go through a vinyasa without thought?
If you are doing asanas as part of a Patanjali yoga approach…The state of your mind while doing vinyasas is evidence as to what your pranayama, pratyahara, dharana and dhyana have really produced.
If you cannot have a still, alert and clear awareness during asanas, there is no chance that you will have it in your daily life.
The posture flows indicated can be physically demanding, particularly if they are done rapidly or with many repetitions. It is important that anyone attempting them should be fully aware of their physical condition and capacity for exercise. Be aware of any medical limitations, including but not limited to blood pressure, skeletal and heart problems, etc. If there is any doubt, contact your health care provider. It is important that postures not be done to the point of pain; stretching will occur but if you feel pain, stop.