Some days I wish there was a yoga pill: “One a Day to a better you! Now with MORE ENLIGHTENMENT!” Bottle it and make a bundle. Because when it’s early and dark and cold and early and early, motivating body and mind to get out of bed is challenging.
Patañjai does give us that pill. No, it’s not asana. Although we would like it to be because that’s where we expend so much energy. And money. No, it’s not the 8 limbs. It’s what the 8 limbs (or at least the first 5) prepare us for: meditation.
If we read the Yoga Sutras the way most of us practice, that is beginning as a novice, our work begins in chapter 2 (from a practice standpoint, most of us begin at ch. 2 then progress to 3, 1, and 4). The first thing we must do is engage in Kriya Yoga, which is to develop discipline of and desire for practice, study of texts written by those who have successfully followed the path, and faith. These let us move beyond the klesas, afflictions: ignorance (the cause of all the rest), egoism, attraction, aversion, and clinging to life. II.11 tells us “In their [kleshas] gross form, as patterns of consciousness, they are subdued by meditation.”
A lot of work before we even get to the 8 limbs.
Further along the path, Patañjali warns of obstacles which impede even the more advanced practitioners: sickness, apathy, doubt, carelessness, laziness, hedonism, delusion, lack of progress, and inconsistency, which manifest as distress, depression, and the inability to remain steady in posture or breathing. (I.30-31). Patañjali presents 6 specific techniques to conquer these obstacles, which are truly all forms of, you guessed it, meditation.
Funny, think of the percentage of practice time the average yoga student (by that I mean think of your own practice and I’ll think of mine) spends on asana, practice of poses, versus the amount of time in meditation. Asana only takes up 3 of 196 verses (4 if you want to count the verse that says “The 8 limbs are….asana…”) or 1.53% of the system.
So to get the benefit of the other 98.47% of the practice, for every 1 hour of asana we need to do 65.36 hours of meditation.
No wonder why Ramakrishna and Vivekananda totally bagged asana in favor of meditation.
Asana practice is useful. It gets us disciplined. It gets us strong enough to sit still. It helps us focus. But it is not the goal, only a minor method. Patañjali gives no asana instruction. In fact, the only physical practice prior to the Hatha Yogis (recall that Hatha Yoga is but a preparation for Patañjali’s Raja Yoga) comes from The Bhagavad Gita:
V.27. Shutting out (all) external contacts and fixing the gaze between the eyebrows, equalizing the outgoing and incoming breaths moving within the nostrils,
VI.11. In a clean spot, having established a firm seat of his own, neither too high nor too low, made of a cloth, a skin and kusha grass, one over the other,
12. There, having made the mind one-pointed, with the actions of the mind and the senses controlled, let him, seated on the seat, practice Yoga for the purification of the self.
13. Let him firmly hold his body, head and neck erect and perfectly still, gazing at the tip of his nose, without looking around.
That’s it. That’s what countless hours of asana practice is for: To let us be able to sit and breathe in and out.
And then the real work begins.
Personally, I do about a 1:3 ration of meditation to asana, about 20 minutes v. 60 minutes. Better than the 0:100% of not too long ago. Much work to do, but getting there.
There are no shortcuts. No magic pill. But if we practice smartly, and focus on what is important and provides the most benefit, all is coming.