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John’s Letter ~ Winter 2018 ~ Spark of Divinity

Guruji is absorbed in Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana. Students interrupt their own practice to look on.

The leaves on the oaks surrounding the house hinted at the approaching autumn this past October as I taught the third of three teacher trainings I offer each year at Serendipity Retreat in Berkeley Springs, WV. The topic for that weekend was “The Art of Teaching Philosophy”. As part of the program, we studied classical teachings from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, as well commentaries and ideas from other sources. Although we covered many concepts that constitute the core of yoga philosophy, we barely scratched the surface of what is a vast and fascinating subject.

One central yogic teaching found in the Yoga Sutras is called the eight-limbed (ashtanga) path. Of the eight limbs, asana (yoga postures) is the third. Of course, asana is the aspect of yoga with which most people are familiar, so a great deal of teacher training revolves around how to practice and teach asanas. This teacher training was a little unusual in that we didn’t focus primarily on asanas. Although at 6:00 each morning we did an optional asana practice, and each afternoon I critiqued practice teaching of asanas, the 9:00 to noon morning sessions were for the most part presentations and discussions of yoga philosophy, not asana techniques. Even so, we did talk about asana’s place in the grand scheme of yoga.

It is interesting to note that, even though asana is the primary focus of most people’s yoga experience, only three of the 196 sutras in the Yoga Sutras deal directly with asana. Having studied the Yoga Sutras for many years and having taught asana for even longer, I am very familiar with these three sutras. They appear in the Sadhana Pada, the second chapter, sutras 46-48.

II:46  sthira sukham asanam  Posture should be steady and comfortable.

II:47  prayatna saithilya ananta samapattibhyam  Such posture should be attained by relaxation of effort and by absorption in the infinite.

II:48  tatah dvandvah anabhighatah  From this, one is not afflicted by the dualities of the opposites.  [Translations by Edwin Bryant]

Many yoga traditions regard asana as physical exercises having little to do with true spiritual practice. At best they are regarded as a preparation to be able to sit for meditation. The relatively small space given to asana in the whole of the Yoga Sutras might seem to support that idea.

B.K.S. Iyengar has a very different view of asanas, however. In Light On Yoga , he says, “In the beating of the pulse and the rhythm of his respiration, the yogi recognizes the flow of the seasons and the throbbing of universal life. His body is a temple which houses the Divine Spark.” Mr. Iyengar always fought against the idea that asana was merely “physical yoga”. For him, the asanas were a gateway that revealed the infinite Self.

In our discussion of ashtanga yoga at Serendipity, we spent quite a bit of time on the philosophy of asana, given that it plays such a significant role in our practice of Iyengar Yoga. As I described the three sutras and what they said, in that moment my own words led me to an understanding of them in a way I  never had before.

“Posture should be steady and comfortable.” This is pretty straightforward. When you do a pose, you shouldn’t wobble and wiggle about; rather you must observe and adjust to bring about an external and internal balance and awareness that leads to stability. This is especially true when sitting for pranayama (yogic breathing) and meditation. To do this is simple, but not easy. Most of the asanas require effort and to master them demands the practitioner make that effort consistently over a long period of time. Yet despite that effort, the sutra says you should be comfortable.

How do you do that?

Patanjali gives us a clue in the next sutra: “….by relaxation of effort and absorption in the infinite.”

Having made the effort to become steady, the practitioner must begin to shed every unnecessary action, every extraneous movement of body, breath, and mind, so that his effort becomes effortless, and the posture becomes comfortable. Mr. Iyengar demonstrated his mastery of this when he stayed in physically difficult postures such as Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana for long periods of time, as much as forty-five minutes, unsupported. Letting go or “relaxation” of effort  repeats in a different way the second of the two essential requirements of yoga practice that Patanjali names in the first chapter (I:12).  Effort (abhyasa) is the first requirement. Detachment (vairagya) or “letting go” is the second. Both are necessary to  attain the goal of yoga: realization of our true Self, our Divine Nature.  Thus, in the second of the  sutras on asana, Patanjali restates the core teaching he introduced earlier  about how to still the fluctuations of the mind and become absorbed in the infinite: effort and non-attachment.

“Absorption in the infinite” is a profound phrase. What do we know that is infinite? The Universe? Maybe. Modern physics seems to call this into question, but that’s way past my pay grade. God? God, whatever that means to you, is usually said to be omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent, without beginning or end. That sounds kind of infinite, but the existence of God is also debatable. What else? This moment is infinite. It is perpetually Now. Now doesn’t end. Now doesn’t begin. It’s always Now. Now is beyond time, beyond place, beyond thought. When Guruji does Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana, he is totally in that moment, he is, at least as far as I can tell, absorbed in the infinite Now.

“By relaxation of effort and absorption in the infinite,”Patanjali says, “one is not afflicted by the dualities of the opposites.” On one level this means that, according to Mr. Iyengar’s commentary, for the practitioner “[t]here is no longer joy or sorrow, heat or cold, honour or dishonor, pain or pleasure.”   Again, this echoes one of Patanjali’s essential teachings that occurs earlier in the text at the beginning of the second chapter wherein he states the causes of suffering (kleshas), two of which are attraction (raga) and aversion (dvesha), a pair of opposites.

But there are even more fundamental dualities that exist for most of us: the separation of mind and body and the separation of mind and spirit.

When Guruji or we become totally absorbed in an asana (or anything for that matter) we are no longer doing a pose, we ARE the pose. For that brief infinite moment our mind isn’t directing our body; everything – mind, doing, body – is united and no duality exists.  There is no disharmony, no conflict, no disturbance. In other words, there is only Yoga.

What struck me in discussing this with the students at the teacher training was the realization that the entire scope of Yoga exists within these three sutras. The goal of Yoga – absorption in the infinite – is there. The means to attain that unity – effort and surrender – are there. The condition necessary for the attainment of the goal – the end of duality and conflict – is there. It’s all there in those three short sutras.

What further struck me was Guruji’s genius in uncovering the heart of yoga in what was so often considered a non-spiritual, low level aspect of the journey: asana. B.K.S.Iyengar threw himself into the practice of yogasana wholeheartedly, without reservation, and with total commitment, and through his incredible discipline; his relentless study of himself, his pupils, and the texts; and his passionate devotion to the subject,  an experience of the deepest teachings of  yoga  opened  to him.  And therein lies the possibility that when we practice our own asanas, we, too, through discipline, study, and devotion, can  open our heart and mind t   and experience for ourselves our own true nature, our own Spark of Divinity.

“The body is my temple and asanas are my prayers.” ~ B.K.S. Iyengar

(Photo of Mr. Iyengar from Parabola, Volume 34, No. 3 “The Path,” Fall 2009.)

 

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