Up until a few years ago, Yoga for me was a series of twists, bends and undulations with ludicrous new age epithets like 'Prana Flow', 'Nude yoga', 'Shakti kicks' and 'Yoga trance dance', performed in slick studios by nubile nymphs wearing fluorescent skin-tight clothing. I couldn't quite see how cringe inducing catchphrases like 'rock your yoga' or 'unleash your inner rockstar' were going to transport me into mystical states of higher consciousness.
Having had enough of the carnival sideshow that passed as yoga in the West, one fine day I found myself halfway around the world, in the charming city of Mysore, located in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, far removed from designer bodies and streamlined studios.
Over time I had picked up snippets about the highly demanding 'Mysore style' or Ashtanga Vinyasa system, which had always intrigued me. Ashtanga yoga literally means "eight-limbed yoga," as postulated by the sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. According to Patanjali, the path of Tattwa Shuddhi or internal purification for accessing the Universal Consciousness or Brahman consists of the following eight Sadhanas or spiritual practices:
(1) Yama (The five abstentions): non-violence, non-lying, non-covetousness, non-sensuality, and non-possessiveness.
(2) Niyama (The five observances): purity, contentment, austerity, study, and divine surrender.
(3) Asana: (Literally means "seat",) and in Patanjali's Sutras refers to the seated position used for meditation.
(4) Pranayama (Control of Prana): Prana, life force, or vital energy, particularly, the breath, "Pranayama", to lengthen or extend. Also interpreted as control of prana.
(5) Pratyahara (Abstraction): Withdrawal of the sense organs from external objects.
(6) Dharana (Concentration): Fixing the attention on a single object.
(7) Dhyana (Meditation): Absorption of the mind upon the object of meditation.
(8) Samadhi (Liberation): merging consciousness with the object of meditation.
The man primarily responsible for the worldwide dissemination of the Ashtanga system was the late Sri Krishna Pattabhi Jois or Guruji, as he was affectionately called by thousands of acolytes all over the world. He belonged to an immaculate unbroken spiritual lineage that originated in hoary antiquity with Rishi Vamana, passed through eighth century Mahayogi Nathamuni and culminated in his 19th century descendant, the legendary Vidwan Thirumalai Krishnamacharya, who had been initiated into asana practice by Himalayan master Rama Mohan Bhrahmachari.
The rapidly proliferating phenomenon of modern yoga owes a huge debt to Krishnamacharya and his two original disciples — Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S Iyengar. Every style, technique and school of Yoga existing today has descended from these towering figures.
Soon after arriving, I found myself a simple, sparse and sunny room in the peaceful suburb of Lakshmipuram. The next day I was to commence studies under Yogavisharda B.N.S Iyengar (not to be confused with BKS), 86 year old protégé of Krishnamacharya and contemporary of Pattabhi Jois. 'BNS', as he was fondly referred to, was a veteran of the Ashtanga community and renowned for his eccentric genius.
Steeped in Vedic wisdom, able to recite verbatim any Sutra and deconstruct its esoteric meaning for a layperson, BNS was brilliant and luminous, but also possessed of a childlike, mercurial temperament that would ocassionally see him yelling at a nonplussed pupil for not being adequately prepared in class. I had enrolled to learn Vedic Philosophy, Bandha, Kriya, Mudra and advanced Pranayama under him.
The oral tradition passed on through Guru to Shishya or student, is the only authentic modality for the accurate transmission of 'revealed wisdom' or Shruti. Learning from books, dvds and semi-literate instructors can be detrimental to genuine progress along the path.
BNS could always unerringly sense when I was distracted. He once pointedly remarked that Yoga was akin to driving a car on a busy highway. I could not afford to let my mind wander or it could result in heinous injury or worse, death. He would then recite a corresponding Sutra on the nature of consciousness and launch into impassioned explication of Samkhya philosophy.
Yoga philosophy is closely allied with the Samkhya school. They are regarded as twins, the two aspects of a single discipline. Samkhya, attributed to Rishi Kapila, is one of the six 'Darshana Shastras' or schools of thought that constitute the foundation of Hindu philosophy or Sanatan Dharam as it was referred to in Vedic times. It provides a basic theoretical exposition of human nature, enumerating and defining its elements (Tattwas), analyzing their manner of co-operation in a state of bondage , and describing their state of disentanglement or separation in release (Moksha), while Yoga treats specifically of the dynamics of the process for the disentanglement, and outlines practical techniques for the gaining of release, or Kaivalya.
Samkhya divides all things that exist into two radically different categories: (a) things which possess consciousness or rather are constituted of consciousness (b) things which are unconscious but are objects of (or for) consciousness.
The latter category includes not only inanimate physical things and physical processes, living things and vital processes, but also minds and mental acts, occurrences like sensations, wishes and feelings. For one can be as much aware of one's feelings and perceptions of things as of tables and stones.
According to Samkhya, physical things, organisms and minds fall on one side of the fundamental ontological divide or Prakriti, on the other side of which are to be found only subjects of pure consciousness or Purusa. Purusha is a conscious witness which neither acts nor refrains from action. It is the Self, the Absolute, pure consciousness.
Prakriti is comprised of three qualities (Gunas) which interact in the make up of physical things in a manner not unlike the relationship between atoms and molecules. These are Tamas (heaviness, dullness, sloth), Rajas (energy, passion, activity) and Sattva (Higher Intelligence, Self-awareness, wisdom).
Sattva is the highest manifestation, and the quality to be aimed at and realized. Tamas provides obstacles to this realization. Rajas is the force by which the obstacles may be overcome. Through association with Prakriti, Purusha gains experience of material existence and Prakriti has the possibility, through Rajas and Sattva, of knowing that which lies beyond material existence.
Each person is composed of Prakriti (gross body) and is simultaneously Purusha (subtle body). Because they are obviously Prakriti in substance people have the illusion of being Prakriti also in essence. Thus the soul is bound to matter. But the soul can know its true nature and find release through yoga and sadhana.
A girl in class once asked B.N.S if he could finish the course in two weeks as she was in a hurry. He replied by telling her to go to the market and buy five kilos of mangoes. When asked why, he said her time would be better spent eating mangoes than learning yoga since 'the digestive system works faster than the brain in some individuals' and two weeks was just enough to digest five kilos of mangoes.
Another time someone butted into the midst of a lecture to ask a question. He made the person lay down in corpse-pose saying 'all queries will be answered in Shavasana'. His jokes would always elicit laughs from the room, even though everyone had been at the receiving end at some point.
I gazed in wonder at this virile octogenarian, who was able to run circles around people one-third his age, a gleaming testimonial to the ancient science he propagated.
The following weeks were an intense succession of vigorous Asana practice at six am, followed by Pranayama and later, Philosophy class with BNS.
Initially, the process of peeling away accumulated layers of escapism, denial, neuroses, old fears and traumas can be agonizing for anyone. I could feel my cognitive filters and sensory apparatus being cleansed of the primordial filth. The downside of catharsis is the tendency of the mind to repeatedly return to wallow in old murky waters due to sheer conditioning or force of habit and one has to constantly watch for it.
These embedded behavior patterns are known as Samskaras in Sanskrit and are said to be manifest in various parts of the physical body — hips, chest, back, hamstrings etc, thereby obstructing the free flow of Prana. The practice of Yoga was designed to burn through accumulated Samskaras.by generating Agni or the fire of inner purification.
With the passage of time, glimpses of clarity and insight appeared more frequently and without bidding. Occasionally, walking through the teeming marketplace or sipping hot chai with the neighborhood rickshaw wallahs and coconut sellers, I would experience unconditional waves of joy at the raw sensation of being alive. I realized that the state of bliss was not predicated on any external factors at all.
According to Rishi Patanjali, the final state of yoga is 'Chitta Vritti Nirodhah' ; cessation of fluctuations in the mind-field. Chitta is a Sanskrit term that can loosely be understood as the psychophysical hierarchy of Manas, Ahamkara and Buddhi. Ahamkara is the 'I-maker' or tendency of mind to identify with the gross body and sense objects. Manas corresponds with the sense oriented mind and Buddhi with higher intellect.
The Vinyasa system or Mysore style for which people flocked here from all over the world, was based on the 'Yoga Kurunta', an ancient manuscript penned in antiquity by Rishi Vamana, which had been discovered in it's original state bound together with the Yoga Sutras and a commentary by Sage Ved Vyasa.
The ultimate goal of Ashtanga Vinyasa is the state of 'Trishtana' — a union of Drishti (focused gaze between the eyebrows or tip of nose), Vinyasa (synchronization of the breath with the flow of Asanas) and Bandha (Energy/Prana 'lock' or seal).
The three Bandhas — Mula, Uddiyana and Jalandhara, corresponding with the Perineum, Navel and Throat respectively, are deployed to seal the Prana or life force within the body during the practice of Yoga, thereby causing the Kundalini Shakti, lying dormant at the base of the spine, to rise up the Sushumna Nadi (central energetic channel) through the five Chakras and elements to unite with Shiva seated on the 'thousand petalled lotus' or Sahasrara on the crown of the head.
Pattabhi Jois had codified Krishnamacharya's teachings into six sequential series, designed for cumulative effect. Each series, beginning with Primary or 'Yoga Chikitsa' took an average practitioner anywhere from five to ten years to master. The second and third series are called Nadi Shodhana (purification of subtle meridians) and Sthira Bhaga (strength and grace) respectively. The last and penultimate series is shrouded in mystery.
By the time one reached that rarified level, the heart could be stopped for indefinite periods of time, blood could be transferred at will to any part of the body and food and water were no longer prerequisites for survival. One was now finally ready for intense prolonged Sadhana in the deep Himalayas.
My practice continues unabated till present day, bringing with it periods of deep abiding calm and a growing appreciation of renunciation or Vairagya.. In times when the inner light is dimmed, I remember Guruji's favorite expression; 'Practice, practice, practice and all is coming…'.
Image by mikebaird, courtesy of Creative Commons license.