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Philosophy in Asana practice

For most traditional Yogis, yoga is first and foremost a philosophy of life. For most modern Yogis, it is a physical practice. But can the physical practice exist without espousing the underlying philosophy of Yoga? Let’s take a look!

The basics of yoga philosophy

At its heart, yoga philosophy can be thought of as the way of Sattva Guna – the quality of peace, purity and truth within all of us. All Yoga kriyas (practices) are aimed at increasing Sattva guna in our minds and our environment.

To achieve this, Yogic philosophy is based on a few simple tenets:

  1. Be disciplined and regular in your practice as irregularity is a breeding ground for stress.
  2. Walk the right path (Dharma) that allows Sattva guna to be predominant in both our minds and our society. This entails ideals like Satya (Truthfulness), Ahimsa (non-hurting), Aparigraha (non-avarice)
  3. Develop vairagya (non-attachment) so that our desires and fears don’t colour our judgement.
  4. Walk the path of non-judgement.
  5. Stay away from ego as ego is the principal cause of suffering.
  6. Develop faith – in the process of Yoga, in a higher consciousness, and take time to contemplate and meditate.
  7. Practice a good hygiene of life based upon an understanding of mechanisms of the mind and body.

We can of course write a book each on every single one of those points, and indeed list others, but for this article, let’s stick to these ideas that are integral to the original path of Yoga.

Difference between exercise and yoga asana

So, what’s the difference between Chaturanga Dandasana and a push-up? Why do we call one posture uttānāsana instead of merely calling it a standing hamstring stretch?

Is it merely about being conscious of our breath? But, in my experience, most elite sportsmen already use mind-muscle connection and their breath to get the most out of their training! So, what changes when you are practicing Bhujangasana and the exercise known as Superman?

Frankly, nothing. Other than the use of weird Sanskrit names and coffee-mug philosophy, nothing has changed between a simple push-up and chaturanga Dandasana.

Unless. Unless we start integrating yogic philosophy into the practice.

The tale of a yogi.

The person who taught me started on the path of yoga when he was nine. He practiced for every single day of his life. Yes, even when he was ill or injured because real yoga can be practiced every second we breathe!

He began teaching when he was in his 30s. He taught for 45 years continuously. 4-5 hours a day, and sometimes even in the evenings when there were philosophical discussions. He never took a break. Never went for a vacation. He had neither Saturdays nor Sundays.

I never saw him lose his temper. I never saw him stressed. He was just peaceful. Even the day he passed away; he was peaceful. Everybody missed him. Yet, his death didn’t make us sad. Even in death, there was just peace. For him. For everyone around him.

That is the true power of Yoga, when practiced according to the scriptures.

When you integrate the philosophy into the asana

No, I’m not talking about being gentle with yourself. Ahimsa doesn’t mean that. Gandhi pushed himself hard, but he walked the true path of Non-Violence. My teacher worked constantly upon his skills as a teacher, and he too walked the path of Ahimsa.

And no, Satya doesn’t mean Truth (even though at the beginning of the article I translated it as truthfulness). As I write this article, I’m wearing a blue t-shirt. It is certainly the truth, but it isn’t Satya.

Satya means “That which is True”, “That which is Real (Ultimate Reality)”, “That which is just and right (the path of Dharma)”. Similarly, Ahimsa means the lack of desire of hurting someone (or ourselves), whether it is through act, thought or words.

But it doesn’t mean being gentle or kind to oneself. It means we do what must be done, what is right, what is just, that which is Satya. And we do so because it must be done, and not because we wish to harm anyone or anything.

The difference might seem subtle, but it is when we understand these subtleties of Yoga philosophy that it transforms even our asana practice. Fears simply vanish. The question of performance doesn’t even arise. We become in sync with every aspect of our being.

A typical asana practice

The yogi starts in Samsthiti. He is at peace. His breath is calm. His dosha are in equilibrium. He controls nothing yet is the master of everything. The breath arrives, and his hands rise in unison with the breath, as if guided by a higher calling.

Each of his 5 senses are alive. As he transitions from one asana to another, he can actually taste and smell the movement. When he stays still in an asana, even the air around him stills. In every asana, he “sits”. He becomes one with the pose he holds.

He finishes his asana practice without a shred of perspiration or without ever being out of breath. His body never contracted. The muscles remained relaxed throughout. He feels no “buzz”. His mind is active, and yet there is only peace. He isn’t in conflict with his thoughts. Thoughts arise only when they are required.

And yes, in this case, bhujangasana is very different from the exercise known as superman. And yes, when practiced this way, bhujangasana has many benefits like improving our reproductive system and stimulating our digestive organs.

So, have you ever practiced a Yoga asana?

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