I had the great opportunity this week to present a lecture and asana practice on the history of yoga as a part of a History and Cultures of Asia class. The students were incredibly receptive and were great sports, many trying yoga asana for the first time. We teach history utilizing visual and audio media (paintings and songs are examples) but not through movement very often. Ballet comes close, in that movement tells a story, however, yoga asana is quite unique in that the story is contained within the movement itself. This could be a direct reference, as Anjaneyasana is dedicated to Hanuman (Anjaneya is another name for Hanuman), or indirectly. Setu Bandhasana, Bridge Pose, recalls the bridge built by Rama’s army to cross the ocean to Lanka.
One of the challenges in presenting millennia of history in 1 hour is deciding what to cover. I decided to close with what I consider are the three most important poses in yoga asana practice.
At # 3:
Salamba Sirsasana: Supported Headstand.
Yes, I took 100 (3 sections of +/- 35 students each) unsuspecting students and put them upside down. In the middle of the room. Of course, I emphasized and encouraged a prepatory stage (even preparation for the pose is the pose!) and most stayed with this option. Several adventurous souls went for the full pose.
Physically this pose takes no more flexibility than standing upright. It gives the heart a rest by letting gravity assist with the return of venous blood from the lower 2/3 of the body. There is increased blood flow to the brain, and the internal organs are stimulated by the inversion. Concentration is increased—got to stay alert if you don’t want to fall over! And it forces you to face the fear of completely changing your point of view. We can analyze how we react to difficult situations by purposefully (and in a controlled environment) putting ourselves in a difficult situation.
Energetically we reverse the normal downward flow of energy and the sahasrara charka is stimulated through contact with the ground. Also the nectar (kapha) from the Moon (medulla oblongata) cannot drip into and be consumed by the Sun (Solar Plexus), extending life (there is only a finite amount of amrita, and like sands through the hourglass, when it’s gone, we’re gone) (c.f. HYP III. 77-82).
Coming in at #2: Savasana
In The Compete Illustrated Book of Yoga, Swami Vishnu-devananda, one of Swami Sivananda’s main disciples and the creator of one of the first yoga teacher training programs in the West, compares the body to a car. He asserts that a car (and the body) needs five items to run correctly: fuel, an electric current (for ignition), a cooling system, lubrication, and an intelligent driver. The cooling system for the body is conscious relaxation. The body is a machine, and all machines need to be shut down once in awhile. Savasana allows the body and mind time to cool down so that they can operate optimally. The students I taught were all culinarians. This profession is known for excessive hours (10-16+ hour days, 5-7 days a week) under demanding conditions (constant high stress, intense heat, intense personalities). To survive such conditions, to be physically able to sustain in this career, one must schedule time for the body to rest and recover.
I have not yet (crossing fingers) received any calls by concerned parents wondering why their good money was going to people teaching their children to lay about on the floor!
And at #1 [drum roll] The ultimate and most important yoga asana ever:
I’ll paraphrase Krishna for that answer:
V.27. “Shutting out all external contacts, fixing the gaze between the eyebrows, equalizing the incoming and outgoing breaths moving within the nostrils”
VI.13. “Let him firmly hold his body, head and neck erect and perfectly still, gazing at the tip of his nose without looking around” (The Bhagavad Gita. Sivananda, tr.)
That’s it. The most important yoga asana is sitting still and shutting up, more accurately sitting still so we can learn to shut up. Quite literally from God’s mouth to our ears.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika states that the goal of Hatha Yoga (practices which focus on the physical body and breath) are for the purpose of achieving Raja (Patañjali) Yoga. The goal of Raja Yoga is nirbikalpa (or nirvikalpa or nirbija) Samadhi constant unification with the Absolute with all karmas burnt up. Meditation is the means to this end. Sitting still to shut up is what this whole business is about.
Of all the poses I taught, the students had the most difficult time with this one. This was expected, and, in my experience, pretty common. It’s hard to sit still, even harder to justify to ourselves to make the time to sit still. Just like standing on your head, or jumping to crow, it takes continued, repeated, systematic practice.
At a time of year when our bodies and minds are taxed more than usual, these three poses offer much needed solace. And they only take a few minutes to practice. Give yourself the gift of time to practice.