Asana (posture) and Pranayama are the 3rd and 4th limbs in the text of Patanjali Yoga Sutra. Asana literally means ‘seat’. In the text of Patanjali Yoga Sutra, Asana is described as a seat of meditation. In the second chapter, verse 46; Patanjali defines asana as ‘sthiram sukham asanam’. This verse is translated as ‘posture (should be) steady and comfortable’. While defining posture Patanjali was well aware of the body-mind connection. Therefore he puts asana after Yama (social codes of conduct) and Niyama (personal codes of conduct). He knows that having practised or incorporated the aspects of Yama and Niyama in life, sitting steady is possible. Sthirta (steadiness) of the body is only possible when one has channelled the mental energies. Otherwise sitting still is a big task.
In Raja Yoga tradition of Patanjali, yoga posture is primarily used as a seat to meditate. He also uses the term ‘sukham’ (pleasant/comfortable) as one of the states experienced while in an asana. Here sukham stands for spontaneity or the mastery one attains after perfecting the discipline of Hatha Yoga. Sage Patanjali further expounds that to reach the state of ‘sthiram’ (steadiness) and ‘sukham’ (spontaneity) one should relax all one’s efforts. In verse 47 in the 2nd chapter of Yoga Sutra, he mentions that ‘by relaxing the effort (prayatna shaithalya) and by fusing the mind with (samapattibhyam) the infinite principle (ananta), asana is mastered. Here the infinite or divine principle is Purusha (witness principle or atman), which should be the point of focus during the practice.
As long as there is struggle and resistance experienced in the asana, one is tied down to the body consciousness. This constant struggle doesn’t allow the aspirant to free the awareness from the limiting experiences of the body. The perfection of the pose is experienced when all these nervous stimulations and physical resistance cease and then one starts to have an experience of internalised awareness.
After having aligned with the awareness of the innermost being (self/atman/Purusha), he further says that then one transcends the influences of pairs of opposites in life. (Tato dvandvanabhighatah) Chapter-2, verse 48). Otherwise, awareness is constantly identified with the body-mind complex.
Once the state of asana is attained then aspirant is guided to use Pranayama (yogic breath-work) to transform mental cluttering. In Yoga, pranayama is the process of extending the prana (vital principle) in the body. Breath is considered the tool through which the vitality principle is expanded in the body. In order to experience the expansion of vital force within, the techniques of breathing are to be mastered.
Concept of Pranayama
Patanjali defines pranayama as the cessation of the movement of inhalation and exhalation. (Svasaprasvasayorgati viksheddah pranayamah– chapter 2, verse/49). Here cessation means to incorporate kumbhaka (retention of the breath). During the practice of pranayama, one learns to establish control over one’s breathing and as a result tunes one’s nervous system to cope up with the retention of the breath. Through the process of pranayama, one develops control over the autonomic functioning of the brain. And later on, learns to slow down the activities of the nervous system and mind.
In yoga, it is said that the breath is the outer reflection of one’s mental states. Through appropriate pranayama techniques once optimum control is established on the breath then controlling the thoughts and vital energies become easier.
There are three stages of pranayama as mentioned in Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. These three stages are called Puraka (inhalation), Kumbhaka (retention) and Rechaka (exhalation). Establishing control over these three stages of breathing results in controlling one’s inner psycho-physiology of metabolism, energy exchange and mental activities. With this control as one becomes more spontaneous and absorbed into the practice then the fourth stage of breathing unfolds. This is called kevali kumbhaka, where the breath is naturally suspended over a long period of time due to slowing down of the nervous system and mental activities. This is the stage where one experiences the state of complete thoughtlessness. Therefore Patanjali mentioned in his verse 53 in 2nd chapter; ‘as a result of pranayama, the mind is equipped to practice Dharana (One-pointed concentration).
Sushant embarked on a journey of yoga in 1997 as a postgraduate student of Yoga Psychology from Bihar Yoga Bharati (Deemed University); known worldwide for its authentic and systematic teachings of the yogic discipline. After completing his Post Graduation in Yoga Psychology; he was involved as an intern in various projects/studies in prisons, army, hospitals and corporate for one and half years. After an internship; he was appointed a lecturer in the Department of Yoga Psychology at Bihar Yoga Bharati until 2005, which provided him ample opportunities to explore the theoretical as well as practical dimensions of yogic knowledge.
Today he is an independent yoga teacher and co-founder of Rishikesh Yogis Yogshala and is currently living in Rishikesh. He conducts retreats and workshops on Yoga philosophy, meditations and Kriya Yoga. Connect with him on Facebook.