|The Temptation of St Anthony, by H. Bosch|
A status update by Ramaswami yesterday gave me pause.
"If I practice asanas alone all my life and expect everything mentioned in Yoga texts to happen to me, then how come Yogis of yesteryears like Sri Krishnamacharya studied, practised and taught other yogangas like Pranayama, chanting, meditation, texts and others in addition to those exquisite yoga postures? Am I missing something very vital in my lifelong Yoga practice?" Ramaswami
I know many never get around to reading the Yoga Sutras or any other yoga text. For many yoga offers the promise of health and fitness, perhaps a greater sense of well being and yoga as asana, as purely exercise, can deliver.
That in itself is enough to recommend the practice.
But what are the expectations we might find in the Yoga Sutras and other yoga texts that are not perhaps fulfilled by asana alone.
clarity and focus,
heightened powers of concentration,
peace and tranquillity,
liberation from the tyranny of desires,
freedom (with a small f),
...for some this might signify happiness.
Yoga also claims to offer...
awareness of what is
...and what is not,
knowledge of self
perhaps union with god (depending on your reading).
Freedom (large F)
Quite a list, no wonder Ramaswami suggests asana is not enough.
Yoga is wilful one pointed concentration.
Asana can help develop concentration, most importantly perhaps, it develops self discipline, we focus on the breath, the bandhas (depending on our style of practice), the posture, perhaps the finer points of alignment and we concentrate on all this for an hour to two hours every day (perhaps twice a day).
It improves concentration but it isn't necessarily one pointed concentration, there's a lot going on in asana as we shift our attention from breath to bandha to alignment, refocusing, bringing one or the other back online all the time.
Pranayama has many benefits but there is less to think about, we stay in the same posture and can focus on just the breath, the bandhas, perhaps a mantra.
In pratyahara there is even less distractions as we withdraw the senses.
All this on the ground of our work the yama's and niyama's
It's in the meditation limbs however that we really get down to business, to working on one pointedness.
The asana has calmed our agitation, the pranayama our lethargy, we are peacefully alert.
We no longer worry about the posture, about the breath, about bandhas we merely bring our attention back to the object of our concentration practice, a simple mantra, an image, an icon. In other traditions a flame, a pebble, our heartbeat, inhalation, perhaps our exhalation, our 'third eye'....
The mind is frivolous, questions jump into our heads, we make a pact with ourselves to explore them at another time perhaps in our studies of the texts where such questions may have been raised before, perhaps with a teacher, we put the questions under erasure and continue to sit quietly renewing our focus again and again.
Our human lineage
Some argue that as Westerners we are not ready for the meditation practices, that it is an exclusively 'Eastern practice', that we are best left to asana, like children. The well established western Vipasasana, Zen and Buddhist communities have perhaps finally silenced that argument, quietly getting on with their practice, just sitting.
The tradition of Christian mysticism has received renewed interest of late, Thomas Merton comes to mind, the Desert Fathers, for me, despite being myself agnostic, it was Meister Eckhart.
"A man may go into the field and say his prayer and be aware of God, or he may be in Church and be aware of God; but if he is more aware of Him because he is in a quiet place, that is his own deficiency and not due to God, Who is alike present in all things and places, and is willing to give Himself everywhere so far as lies in Him... He knows God rightly who knows Him everywhere".
Meister Eckhart (c.1260 - c.1327)
To retain focus and concentration amidst the cacophony of modernity just as well as upon a pastoral hillside, to attain clarity whether concerning God or an Idea, was appealing to a young philosophy student.
Ekhart was a yogi.
"That which a man acquires by contemplation he should spend in love". also by Ekhart
In our tradition we refer to meditation as contemplation but I'm reminded of the last wedding I attended where the Reverend called on the congregation to take a moment of silent prayer of quiet reflection.
On 9/11 we didn't need to be asked.
Prayer and reflection, meditation practices, have always been a part of our culture as surely every other culture, it's in our nature, we reflect, we grow silent.
Perhaps in our hectic modern lifestyles our moments of silence, of reflection, aren't as sustained or as consistent as they used to be, ...as disciplined. We're out of practice somewhat but meditation remains a birthright, our tradition, our...human lineage.
Krishnamacharya taught asana and pranayama, philosophy, meditative practices, he taught these limbs of yoga all his life, to beginners in yoga as well those more experienced. He taught them to women as well as to men and to those from the west as well as his native India.
To repeat Ramaswami
"...then how come Yogis of yesteryears like Sri Krishnamacharya studied, practised and taught other yogangas like Pranayama, chanting, meditation, texts and others in addition to those exquisite yoga postures?
...Am I missing something very vital in my lifelong Yoga practice?"