Some insights on the practice of asana and “Dynamic Extension” from Light on Life by BKS Iyengar:
“Extension and expansion always stay firmly rooted in one’s center. They originate in the core of one’s being. When most people stretch, they simply stretch to the point they are trying to reach, but the forget to extend and expand from where they are. When you extend and expand, you are not only stretching to, you are also stretching from. Try holding out your arm to the side and stretch it. Did your whole chest move with it? Now try to stay centered and extend out your arms to your finger tips. Did you notice the difference?”
“Always stretch from the source, the core, the foundation of each asana. This is the art of dynamic extension. It is not yoga the injures, but the way on does yoga that leads to injury. The moment space becomes narrow, it means you are injuring. In the correct asana, there is no narrowness. Even if your body is stiff, you have to bring space.”
“Always try to extend and expand the body. Extension and expansion bring space, and space brings freedom. Freedom is precision and precision is divine. From the freedom of the body comes the freedom of the mind and then Ultimate Freedom.”
Facing death, illness, aging, loss and separation often bring about a fundamental shift in priorities. Situations which bring to light our mortality and interdependence can be catalyst for deep transformation. The understanding that the time of death is unknown, and that there is nothing material that we can take with us, can arouse a fundamental reorientation to our priorities and way of living. There have been times in my life when the clarity of these realities have prompted a fundamental reorientation of my values and way of living and practicing. In this essay, I will explore Buddhist and yogic teachings which turn the mind toward these eminent realities and point to compassion and right action as a way to live this understanding.
One of my earliest impressions of the teaching of interdependence was my first trip to Nepal in the winter of 2005. I had stayed in Boudhanath to study thanka painting and take in the culture of this important religious and spiritual center. I had just arrived in the chill of December, and in my naiveté, had my wallet pick-pocketed out of the back pocket my Jansport backpack while walking in a crowded section of Kathmandu. Alone with no money, aside from about $10, I made due on roadside paranthas and the generosity of the kind owner of a Tibetan Restaurant called Shambala who served me dinner for free every night and gave me blankets, while I awaited the arrival of a new bank card. During the day, I was painting a thangka of a Kalachakra mandala, the same year which in which the Dalai Lama was teaching on the Kalachakra in South India. At one point during this time, I caught a terrible flu and was taken to the hospital in the middle of the night by a monk who attended the hotel.
The experience of completely depending on the generosity of others, almost strangers, while working on this devotional piece of artwork, which signifies enlightenment within the manifold cosmos and wheel of time (samsara) was deep and profound. The thought that kept coming to my mind as I was painting, with a fine Nepali brush, was that further refinement is always possible, and a new height of perfection can always be reached – not only in painting, but in life and spiritual practice. By remaining open to and working towards greater refinement, in actions of body, speech, and mind, the infinite potential of life and illumination within the world full of suffering, war, poverty, and violence (samsara) remain open.
Relating to this potential of refinement of actions, and turning the mind towards the taste of freedom, the Buddha taught the Five Remembrances. “My actions are my only true belongings: I cannot escape their consequences. My actions are the ground on which I stand.” This is a quotation from Thich Nhat Hanh is based on the traditional five remembrances, taught by the Buddha.
The traditional teaching are:
“There are these five facts that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained. Which five?
I am subject to aging, have not gone beyond aging.’ This is the first fact that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained.
I am subject to illness, have not gone beyond illness.
I am subject to death, have not gone beyond death.
I will grow different, separate from all that is dear and appealing to me.
I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.
These are the five facts that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained.”
-Upajjhatthana Sutta: Subjects for Contemplation, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
The value of these contemplations, is that they can bring home the reality of impermanence and the law of cause and effect (karma). Although these five statements appear simple and straightforward, their implications are profound: by remembering and familiarizing ourselves with these five contemplations, we can avoid getting trapped in a petty mind which sees only its own self interest and views. This is a mind which is limited and in a state of ignorance (avidya). According to Buddhist and yogic traditions, avidya, or ignorance of the true nature of reality, is the ground of all suffering and afflictions (Yoga Sutra II. 4).
Awakening is returning to reality. Prajna, or transformative insight into reality, removes the veils of ignorance. The means are: meditation, reflection and cultivation of body speech and mind. The Tibetan word for meditation is སྒོམ, sgom, Skt. bhavana which also means cultivation. It is related to the word Tibetan word གོམ་, gom, which means becoming familiar with or accustomed to. By becoming familiar and intimate with the teachings, such as the Five Remembrances, our distorted views which lead us to believe on some level that we are separate from the whole, immune to aging, loss, separation and death, can be softened and dissolved. This leads to greater freedom, acceptance of life and living in harmony with the whole.
The experience of intimately knowing for oneself cannot be learned from reading books or studying sutras alone. Transformation comes from experience, and nothing can replace practice. In my own experience, the times when I have had glimpses of freedom, are in a mind that is radically open and present and not consumed by usual thinking, planning, worrying and upholding a sense of self and security. My experience of being cared for by benevolent strangers showed me that it is how we meet and show love and compassion for others, that bring these teachings to life.
In the Kalachakra Mandala, the center most part is the center of an open flower around which encircle the mandalas of body, speech and mind and the vast universe of all elements of creation, cyclic existence, or samara. Within this complex mandala, samsara manifests, and in the center a flower is open.
In this complex world, may I remember this:
“My actions are my only true belongings: I cannot escape their consequences. My actions are the ground on which I stand.”
Practice and detachment are the means to still the movements of consciousness. BKS Iyengar (trans)
According to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the principles of abhyasa and vairagya are the two wings of yoga sadhana (practice). Abhyasa means “effort of long duration, without interruption, preformed with devotion which creates a firm foundation” (Light on Yoga, p. 28). Vairagya is renunciation, detachment and the absence of worldly desires. Together they are the means advised by Patanjali to restrain the fluctuations of consciousness: the vrittis (fluctuations of mind) and kleshas (hinderences) and obstacles in practice. The practice of abhyasa and vairagya function as both a means and an end in yoga sadhana; in the perfection of abhyasa and vairagya the sadhaka becomes a master of him or herself.
Abhyasa can be understood as the active component of yoga sadhana, which conveys a sense of cultivation, observation of precepts and repetition comprising of the path of action (tapas), whereas vairagya is the surrendering or letting go component related to svadyaya (self study) and ishvara-pranidhana, surrender of oneself and actions to God. In his commentary on this Sutra, BKS Iyengar also draws a parallel between abhyasa and the external quest (bahiranga sadhana: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama) and vairagya and the internal quest (antaratma sadhana, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi).
Practice and renunciation are equally important and interdependent. Sutra 1.32 further elucidates the connection between abhyasa and vairagya:
1. 32 tatpratisedhartham ekatattva abhyasa
Adherence to a single-minded efforts prevents these impediments. BKS Iyengar (trans)
Through abhyasa, the practitioner cultivates, purifies and guides body, mind, and intellect in a virtuous direction and prevents the arising of impediments. In proceeding sutras, Patanjai elaborates of the ways of practicing to prevent the arising of obstacles and impediments: repeating the sacred sound of OM, cultivating friendliness compassion, joy and equanimity, maintaining the pensive state felt at the end of a soft and steady exhalation, contemplating a luminous light, contemplating on enlightened sages, recollecting the the experiences of sleep, and absorption on any desired object.
Patanjali gives all of these methods, and the eight limbs of yoga to suit the needs and temperaments of practitioners of differing capacities. When done repeatedly with focused awareness and devotion (abyasa, tapas), these practices purify mind, body and intelligence. “Only when body, mind and intelligence are fully purified is it possible to surrender totally to God, without expecting any return.” (Core of the Yoga Sutras, BKS Iyengar). Here we see the connection between vairagya and pranidhana.
“To contemplate on God, to surrender one’s self to Him, is to bring everything face to face with God. Pranidhana is the surrender of everything: one’s ego, all good and virtuous actions, pains and pleasures, joys and sorrows, elations and miseries to the Universal Soul. Through surrender the aspirant’s ego is effaced, and the grace of the Lord pours down upon him like torrential rain.” BKS Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras, p. 78
Abyasa and vairagya are like the Ha and Tha of Hatha yoga, fully complementary and interdependent. Practiced, experienced and realized, they are both a means and a culmination of yoga Sadhana.
The first time I heard the word samskara, I was on a 10-day Vipsasana retreat at an SN Goenka Center. In some of Goenka ji’s talks he mentioned that the practice of meditation, or more precisely, the experience of insight, can actually burn up or purify the samskaras. Even though I only barely touched what Goenka-ji was getting at, what he said stuck with me. Recently, this topic has come to the foreground of my yoga and meditation practice, as it is a central theme in the Yoga Sutras. I am exploring what gives rise to habit, thought, and the formation of a sense of self. With reference to my own experience, this essay explores the nature of samkaras how the Sutras and contemporary masters describe the process of “burning the seeds” of habit, leading to real freedom.
What is a samskara? Samskara is a Sankrit term used in both Buddhism and classical yoga philosophy. Samskaras refer toimprints or impressions left on the mind by experiences, also called “subliminal impressions.” Subliminal, in this context, means in the impressions are lodged in the unconscious and subconscious mind. B.K.S. Iyengar writes that memory and samskaras are not only stored in the brain, but also in the body and in each cell (since the spinal column and the nerves which enervate each cell are an offshoot of the brain). In short, samskaras are impressions piled and stored in the unconscious and subconscious mind and body which propel us towards certain behaviors and their consequences.
The cause of samkaras or subliminal impressions can come from perception, inference, choices, practice, interaction with others, thoughts, intent, willful actions, education, background, culture, upbringing and even dreams and past lives. Samskaras manifest as habits, behavior (acara), character (silam), tendencies, and psychological predispositions. Actions based on samskaras can be skillful or unskillful, yet habituation based on samskaras is ultimately the cause of our limitations and a small sense of self (i.e. identifying with what we like and dislike, identifying with our habits or personality: “This is just how I am”).
Within Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, samskaras are also the seeds which cause rebirth and endless transmigration in samsara, the ocean of life and death or wheel of time, whose essential characteristic is suffering, disease, or unsatisfactoriness.
The theory of karma is essentially the principle of cause and effect – that actions of body, speech and mind bear fruit. From our actions of body, speech and mind, whether negative positive or somewhere in between, we reap corresponding results. Furthermore, the subtle imprints or “grooves” in the consciousness created by our actions become deeper and more enforced by repetition. Repetition is a key factor in the formation of habits, whether positive or negative. In a sense, it is easy to change our habits — we merely need to repeat certain actions of body, speech and mind over a period of time and the habit will change, or new habits will be reinforced.
In Light on Life, B.K.S. Iyengar gives a down-to-earth example of how samskaras work, and how to break free of habitual patterns. B.K.S. Iyengar uses the example of coming home to ice cream in the freezer after a hard day’s work. After returning home from work and seeing something pleasing to eat, the hand impulsively reaches for the tub — knowing the the immediate feeling of eating ice-cream is pleasurable, based on past experience. This impulse can easily overpower the mind, especially if the “groove” is deep enough. Here is where the mind and intelligence can intervene in the usual habit pattern. Analysis and reasoning (vitarka) and reflection and consideration (vichara) are the first mental steps in overcoming habit energy. The mind needs to observe and reflect on whether an action is skillful or unskillful and anticipate the long term effects of the action, not only the immediate gratification. This process leads to discernment (viveka). After discernment has been reached, the mind is in a position to use its will (iccha) to act. This action, though likely more positive and skillful, is still in the realm of karma, and one reaps the corresponding effect, such as not feeling terrible after indulging in a tub of ice cream. After repeating this process the mind can create new, positive samkaras (or neural pathways). One is still not free from habit energy altogether, though the samkaras are being changed from negative to positive habits. However, the process of transformation has begun. In relation to this, I found this writing from Swami Chidananda, from the Sivananda lineage:
Over time, the effort to observe, reflect, discriminate and act bears fruit – one is no longer in the sway of the senses, habits and impressions. One is in a genuine position of choice and freedom as vairagya (non attachment) blooms. Vairagya can be understood as a subtractive principal – letting go of that which is unhelpful in the path. Whereas Abhyasa can be seen as the additive principle – repeated practice of cultivating the positive qualities which are helpful in realizing our deepest aspiration.
I have experimented with this practice of observation and reflection followed by discrimination and willful action to overcome habit energy. Getting up very early in the morning has often been challenging for me. One morning, I pressed the snooze button and turned over a few times and then the passage from Light on Life came to mind, where B.K.S. Iyengar writes that one has to use tremendous will to overcome the especially deep rooted habits (the Hatha of Hatha Yoga, also means will, or force). For me, one of these habits has been turning over in bed and sleeping another hour, when I could be ready to get up and practice. So I experiment, use will and get up and begin the day with meditation. Sometimes, this practice does not go as well, and I turn over to sleep. Sometimes I need the sleep, and sometimes habit prefers this comfort. This experiment of working with habit truly takes time and fortitude.
The following Yoga Sutras may be applied to overcoming unskillful habits:
II. 33 vitarka bhadhane pratipaksa bhavanam
When you are disturbed
negative thoughts or emotions,
cultivation of their opposites
and firmness in the precepts. trans. M. Stiles
Principals which run contrary to yama and niyama are to be countered with the principals of knowledge and discrimination. trans. B.K.S Iyengar
Through cultivation friendliness, compassion, joy, and indifference to pleasure and pain, virtue and vice respectively, the consciousness becomes favourably disposed, serene and benevolent. trans. B.K.S. Iyengar
Both of these Sutras indicate that our troubles and afflictions are rooted in unwholesome activity of body, speech and mind, which are themselves rooted in ignorance of the true nature of reality. These positive cultivations are a powerful practices and are helpful in overcoming habitual, unskillful states. Additionally, according to the Sutras, burning the seeds of habit, requires transformational insight (prajna), and breaking through all duality of good and bad habits into the realm of the unconditioned. B.K.S. Iyengar elucidates this in Sutras I.48 – I.51 with the dawning of rtambhara prajna – a seasoned intelligence or mature wisdom accompanied by intense insight.
A new life begins with this truth bearing light. Previous impressions are left behind and new ones are prevented. Trans. B.K.S Iyengar
I bring in this Sutra in to inspire and give a vision that such things are possible, even for all of us beginners, if we persist. That such a penetrating insight can prevent the arising of future suffering, is an inspiring reason to practice. The Yoga Sutras go on to say that even this powerful insight must be relinquished, for it too is a seed, though a very positive seed.
Even this distinctive knowledge of insight (I.50) has to be restrained, subdued and contained. Then, as a flame is extinguished when the wood is burnt out, or as rivers loose their existence on joining the sea, all volitions and impressions of the unconscious, subconscious, conscious and superconscious mind cease to exist. All these rivers of consciousness merge with the ocean of the seer.
However lofty this may sound, this ultimate freedom is within the reach of each person if the aim and means are present. The yogic practices outline the path towards freedom, through seeing, knowing, discerning, practicing and letting go — the path to becoming free of habit and limitation. Our habits and our difficulties can be our teachers, if we use them to study the self and as a starting point for transformation. This does not happen over night, but the yogis have shown us the way… now it is our turn to walk the path.
Here is a distillation for ways of working with habit:
Identify the habit.
Identify what is deeply and spiritually important in your life.
Analyze and reflect if the habit is helpful or hurtful in both the short and long term – prioritize the long term in relation to your spiritual path and deepest yearnings.
Set your mind to be aware of the habit and the impulses of mind.
Practice not reacting to impulses.
Cultivate positive habits over a long time, until they become natural.
Practice friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity to yourself and others.
Persevere and do not lose sight of your aim.
Practice observing the mind in meditation, go deep.
Continue, repeat, let go, surrender to higher self.
In the “Hints and Cautions for the Practice of Asana” in Light on Yoga, BKS Iyengar writes that the qualities demanded from an aspirant are discipline, faith, tenacity and perseverance. These are the very qualities that came to mind when I thought of what I admired most about BKS Iyengar.
The quality of discipline has many shades of meaning. While looking up synonyms for the English word, discipline, I found: control, training, teaching, instruction, regulation, direction, order, authority, rule, strictness. None of these words quite hit he mark, and for some people these words may strike a negative chord, based on their associations with these words. Although all these synonyms have their place in the discipline of BKS Iyengar, the Sanskrit word Tapas, based on the root Tap (तप्) meaning “to heat, to give out warmth, to shine, to burn,” comes closer. BKS Iyengar writes:
It (tapas) therefore means a burning effort in all circumstances to achieve a definite goal in life. It involves purification, self-discipline and austerity. The whole science of character building can be regarded as a practice of tapas. (p. 38 Light on Yoga)
Tapas, one of the five niyamas, is self-discipline with one’s highest aim always in mind. It is not a selfish quest, or a working to satisfy one’s desires in life, but a “conscious effort to achieve ultimate union with the Divine and to burn up all desires which stand in the way of this goal.” (p.38 LOY) Tapas means reflecting on one’s actions in body, speech and mind and refining one’s actions everyday.
The quality of faith in BKS Iyengar’s life is exemplified by his faith in his guru, T Krisnamacharya, faith in the practice of yoga, faith in himself to overcome all obstacles and faith in (or surrender to) the Lord, True Self, or Ultimate Reality (ishvara-pranidhana). Faith comes through very strongly in his personal religious devotion and his faith in the transformative power of practice which he worked hard to teach to his students.
Tenacity is linked to tapas and faith. Tenacity is putting the qualities of the heart (faith, devotion, tapas) into action until one’s ultimate aim is achieved. It is the unstoppable urge to reach perfection and freedom.
Perseverance is closely linked to tenacity. It implies that one continues in practice and faith even when times are difficult and obstacles (क्लेश, klesha) are many. BKS Iyengar has illustrated these qualities in his own life on several occasions: when he was young and overcoming tuberculosis and other health problems, when he failed for years to understand or properly practice pranayama, and when he lost most of his asana practice after a scooter accident. After all of these various setbacks, BKS Iyengar did not give up or become complacent. Instead, he applied more interest and application in his practice to overcome what stood in his way to reaching his aim. He was strict with himself, yet compassionate to his students. This is what made him a remarkable teacher and human being.