“One of my goals in life is to do the slowest Primary Series anywhere… rather than the quickest”. Richard Freeman

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Story Time: The Story of Vajrasana - Srivatsa Ramaswami

We called it 'story time'. In the morning, after two and a half hours of asana, pranayama, pratyahara and meditation and following our savasana when he would chant, Ramaswami would more often than not tell us a story. I remember him telling the one below concerning Vajrasana clearly....twice I think, each time a little different. The first week we sat stiffly on our mats but each week would edge ever closer until by the fourth we were gathered around like children.

Photo's by BARRY WADSWORTH
Photo's by BARRY WADSWORTH

VAJRASANA STORY

"There is a story about
Vajrasana that I heard when I was young. This is the version I
remember from my childhood days......"


(story starts 4th paragraph below)


Srivatsa Ramaswami in a hasta vinyasa of vajrasana

The Sanskrit word ‘aasana’ comes from the root ‘aas’ to sit, to sit
quietly. Patanjali explains aasana from the yogic point of view as
sitting with comfort and steadiness. Even though several ‘non-seated’
poses are called asanas in Yoga, ultimately one has to find a
comfortable pose to sit -- steady and quiet-- so that one can do
Pranayama and meditate and hopefully get into Samadhi,--all of which
require a quiet pose in which the yogi can sit for a long time
steadily and without any discomfort. There are a few poses the  yogis
of yesteryears have discovered which meet such requirements—say
Padmasana, Siddhasana, Gomukhasana and of course Vajrasana. In many of
these poses, there is a certain degree of asymmetry—in Padmasana,
Gomukhasana and Siddhasana, the legs are not kept perfectly
symmetrical. But Vajrasana is perfectly balanced and further it allows
the body weight to be distributed equally by the arches of the ankles.
One sits snugly on the heels, the sit bones sitting on the heels. If
my ankles can stretch and my knees can flex well, Vajrasana is the
best example of an asana—perfectly comfortable and pleasantly steady.

There are many benefits attributed to Vajrasana. By perfectly acting
as props, the heels and the arches of the ankles support and nicely
transfer the bodyweight to the ground. They provide tremendous relief
to the low back by perfectly supporting the pelvis and the low back.
What a relief.

It is also said to be a great posture for the digestive system. My
Guru, Sri Krishnamacharya, once during my class, mentioned an incident
that happened when he was at the Mysore Maharaja’s palace. It is
common knowledge that Sri Krishnamacharya was running a Yogashala in
the Palace complex with the patronage of the Maharaja and had several
students including the Maharaja. The Acharya used to be requested to
give demonstrations and lectures on Yoga whenever dignitaries would
visit the Maharaja.  One afternoon it would appear that Sri
Krishnamacharya was resting at his home within the Palace Complex
having just had his lunch, when a messenger came to his house and said
that the Maharaja wanted him to come to the palace to give a talk/
demonstration of yogasanas for a few VVIPs visiting the Maharaja. It
is virtually impossible to do any of the difficult postures after
lunch ( lunch is the main meal), and doing difficult postures was
what  exactly was expected of him. My teacher said to me,  “I sat in
Vajrasana for about half an hour and did some deep Pranayama, and was
ready to do any asana having by then digested my lunch”. And,
Vajrasana is perhaps the posture which best meets the parameters of
steadiness and comfort for a good yogasana.

Vajrasana, and its variant Virasana, are mentioned in older texts
also. In the Ramayana of Valmiki, Sri Rama is said to be seated in
Virasana (Hero’s Pose), sitting on his precious throne embedded with
rare stones and bedecked with flowers. There is a story about
Vajrasana that I heard when I was young. This is the version I
remember from my childhood days.

Brahman, the ultimate reality, the Pure Consciousness, One without a
second, One without a gender, felt It should become many. It
contemplated deeply and then decided to ‘create’ this complicated
Universe only It could envision. Out of that Brahman evolved three
entities, the Trinity --, the Creator, the Sustainer and the Destroyer
gods. The entire Universe created was a masterpiece, only God could
create it. There were myriads of objects and activities, aspects of
the Universe, interwoven and several gods were created to see that all
functioned well as per the Lord’s divine plan. A god for wind was
created, one for fire, the earth had a goddess, all controlling one
aspect or the other of the Universe. According to the Vedas and
Puranas 330 million such gods were created. They had a supervising
god, Indra. Human Beings depended heavily on the grace of these gods,
so that the natural forces, under the suzerainty of the gods
functioned to the benefit of Humanity. Wind blowing across gave life
to beings. Water flowing down quenched the thirst, and was life
saving. Fire, always moving up outside and inside the body maintained
the temperature to live comfortably. There were gods of love, order or
dharma, of speech, of hearing, of intellect, memory etc.

There were also asuras, the antithesis of the gods that were created.
Powerful and intelligent, these asuras or demons coexisted (like
feuding cousins in a joint family) with the gods in the Universe,
causing distress and corrupting the lives and minds of beings. Anger,
lust, adharma coexisted with the gods and there was a constant battle
for supremacy, even as God ultimately wanted good to triumph over
evil.

Now let us get to the story. The gods were ruling the Universe. The
Asura boss at one  point in time decided that the Asuras should rule
the Universe. He reasoned, “We, the asuras are also the children of
God, and why not WE rule the Universe? Firstly we have to defeat the
gods. But how could we defeat them?”

The Asura king was Vrittasura. He decided that the way the Universe
was ruled should be changed. He decided to approach the Lord. The
procedure to get the vision of the Lord and get a boon granted was to
do Tapas or severe penance. He was adamant and obstinate and was game
for that arduous penance. He would do anything to get what he wanted.
So he went to a lonely spot and did intense Tapas. After a long time,
the Lord appeared before him, praised his Tapasya and asked him what
he wanted. “I should not be killed by anybody, by any cause”. The Lord
was taken aback. “But such a boon can not be granted. The only one who
is immortal is Me”, the Lord said. Everyone else should die, this is
how I wrote the Constitution, I can not change it. Ask anything else
that I can grant.” The Asura King thought for a moment and came out
with another prayer. Will the Lord give him immunity from death from
certain weapons and means? The Lord thought for a moment and said that
it was possible. Vrittasaura made a long list of weapons including
those that would be invented in the future. After a quick glance at
the exhaustive list, the Lord approved it and disappeared.

It was virtually a carte blanche for Vrittasura and his clan to do
whatever they wanted to do with the Universe. He drove the gods out of
the heavens, took over all the powers of the gods and started
controlling the entire nature. Indra, the head of the clan of gods was
chased from his Indraloka.  He hid himself in the tip of a grain (some
say he hid himself in a molecule of water in the ocean). The whole
universe, especially the earth, was in enormous turmoil as nature was
made to function as per the new dictates of the Asuras. The Sun rose
in the west, water flowed up, fire burned downward, it was chaos all
over the cosmos. Incalculable misery prevailed under the Asuras.

Finally the displaced gods decided that it was time to look for
actions that would restore the power balance so that the gods would be
back in charge. So they did severe tapas and prayed to the Lord for
mercy. The Lord in due course appeared before them and asked them what
they wanted. The gods narrated their woes and said, “We, the devas,
are supposed to run the universe doing our appointed tasks. Now the
Asuras are in charge which is against the scheme of things You
Yourself contemplated when you created the Universe. So please take
back the boon you had granted to Vrttasura”. The Lord said, “I have no
powers to take away what I have given to someone after due Tapasya.
Anything else I can do for you ?”, the Lord asked. The devas thought
for a while and asked, “Can you please show the details of the boon
you granted to Vrittasura—we can’t find it on your website, nowhere in
Cyberspace”. The Lord agreed and  from thin air took out a huge
document containing all the weapons and means by which the Asura King
could not be killed, gave it to the devas and then disappeared. The
Devas pored over the list again and again and could not find one
single means or one weapon, known or what would be developed in the
future, like AK47 or whatever, left out by the scheming Asura. The
dejected Devas started slowly going back to their wretched lives,
brought about the Asura.

Enter Narada! Narada was a great sage. He is considered perhaps as the
best of the devotees of the Lord. His celestial music captivated every
being, including the mighty Lord. He is credited with an immortal text
called “Bhakti Sutra” or Bhakti Aphorisms, an authoritative text on
Devotion. He is associated with many interesting episodes in the
Puranas. Clever and helpful, he is known for his unorthodox means to
find solutions to knotty problems. He was passing by the dejected
Devas. Narada stopped and asked the devas why they were so dejected,
and the devas narrated the whole story and expressed their
helplessness. Narada thought for a while and asked the Devas if he
could see Vrittasura’s list given to them by the Lord. Then perusing
the list, he smiled and said that there appeared to be a loophole. It
does not contain any mention of a weapon made out of human bone. The
devas were startled as they never had a high opinion of human beings
and never considered anything from those human weaklings to be useful
in their epic struggle. But the next problem was to find out which
human bone was strong enough that it could be used as a weapon.  Most
of the human bones suffered from osteoporosis and hence were brittle.

Narada thought for a while and said that the backbone of a human
being, made up of a string of  small bones,  was both strong and also
slightly flexible. It could absorb the shock of hitting a hard object
like the Asura and still not break. Other bones were either too soft
or too brittle. But then there was another problem to contend with
when it came to the human backbone. All human backbones were crooked
and the curvature accentuated by bad postures and fused vertebrae. How
to find a human being with a backbone that was strong, with sufficient
inter-vertebral space and also straight, straight like an arrow?

Sage Narada thought for a while and said that only a Yogi in a posture
that would keep the back straight could have a backbone that would do
the trick. He thought of several yogis in various classical postures
like Padmasana, Siddhasana, Gomukhasana or even Virasana but these
postures put a slight strain on the low back, and possibly did not
provide a perfectly straight backbone. Then he thought of a great sage
sitting in a peculiar pose and remaining in Nirodha or Nirvikalpa
Samadhi. His face brightened and he told the Devas that they should
approach a sage, whom he knew was in Samadhi and then, and then.. He
stumbled and mumbled that they should procure his backbone. It was a
ridiculous idea to get the backbone of a living person, but that was
the only way available.

The devas, the gods who give all the human beings what they need, now
were going to a human being with a begging bowl. They saw the Yogi.
They stood in front of the Yogi who was in a trance, sitting in a
peculiar asana for a long time, and finally the Yogi opened his eyes.
Oozing peace and contentment, the Yogi asked the Devas “How can I help
you?”  It was hard and cruel to ask someone to give up one’s life so
that some part of the body can be made use of for personal gain. It
was not like asking for a kidney, but virtually asking for somebody’s
life.  They hesitated and mumbled their request. Could the Rishi
please give up his life so that they could use his backbone as a
weapon to kill the Asura and bring back welcome relief to the whole
universe? The yogi who had the spiritual realization about the nature
of the Self and was already in a state of Kaivalya or a Jivan mukta,
agreed, closed his eyes and left the mortal body peacefully.

They looked at the posture of the sage. His name was Dadhichi, rhymes
with Marichi another great Yogi, associated with Marichyasana. The
posture was peculiar. Contemporary yogis who do not particularly care
for seated postures or who run for props to sit in a seated pose would
find that the posture the sage was seated, now known as Vajrasana, had
a prop as an integral aspect of the posture itself. Most of all seated
poses like Padmasana, Virasana, Siddhasana, Gomukhasana, etc., require
one to sit with the sit bones placed on the floor.  Unless the pelvic
girdle is pulled and the hip muscle stretched up, it is difficult to
maintain the low back straight and stress free, in these seated poses.
But in this posture invented by Dadhici, the arches of the ankles
transmit the weight of the body uniformly and the heels support the
sit bones and the pelvis is kelp elevated. And in the process the low
back is well supported. Further, this posture does not put any strain
on the low back obviating the need for any artificial props. It is an
excellent posture for Pranayama and Meditation, provided one can
prepare the knees and ankles appropriately.

Then the devas harvested the backbone of the Yogi and the rest of the
story is simple. Indra, the chief of Devas, ultimately used the weapon
made of the back bone of Dadichi and used it as an arrow/thunderbolt
to shoot at the Asura. Seeing a peculiar weapon aimed at him,
Vrittasura quickly ran through in his mind, the list of banned weapons
he gave to the Lord and found to his horror that the one that was
directed at him was not one of them! Suddenly the fear of death
gripped him and he felt uncharacteristically very vulnerable and
started running away from the battlefield, at lightning speed, the
same speed with which the weapon was approaching him.. A small cluster
of grass, in which a deva perhaps was hiding, stuck between his toes
and the mighty asura fell down on his face—he was felled by a weak
weed. The pursuing weapon caught up with the fallen villain and he was
momentarily killed by Indra’s new weapon which came to be known as
Vajra-aayuda, or thunderbolt weapon. It became the chief weapon
associated with Indra from then on. The asana itself came to be known
as Vajrasana or Dadhicyasana. So Vajrasana is a fantastic and a
wonderfully designed yogic posture.

There are different versions of the story, so don’t rush to google to
find out the different versions. Some versions refer to Vajrayudha as
disc shaped, so let us stick to this yoga-friendly story.

Vajrasana lends itself to several graceful and useful Vinyasas. With
the legs firmly on the ground one can anchor the legs to do powerful
backbend vinyasas like Ushtrasana(camel pose) and Kapotasana (pigeon
pose) and refreshing forward bends like Balasana and others. If you
want to know more vinyasas based on and built around Vajrasana, and
also how to do Vajrasana by the Vinyasakrama approach, please refer to
the chapter on Meditative Poses in my book, “Complete Book of Vinyasa
Yoga”.  Sorry for the commercials. Thank you and Good Luck!

Sincerely

Srivatsa Ramaswami
from Ramaswami's April 2009 newsletter

See my post yesterday for information on Ramaswami' 200 hour  teacher training July/Aug 2013

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A Reminder

from Kalama sutra, translation from the Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi This blog included.

"So, as I said, Kalamas: 'Don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, "This contemplative is our teacher." When you know for yourselves that, "These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering" — then you should abandon them.' Thus was it said. And in reference to this was it said.

"Now, Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness' — then you should enter & remain in them. Buddha - Kalama Sutta
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