Why neither asana nor meditation are enough

I.31 The obstacles to yoga surface as anxiety and depression and unsteadiness of body and breathing pattern.

From those symptoms we can gauge that the various obstacles, some of which were listed in sutra I.30, are present. The obstacles don’t just stop at intercepting our yoga practice, but they manifest as various forms of suffering and frustration in our day-to-day life.

They also – and this is very important for the physical side of yoga – manifest as unsteadiness of the body and its breathing patterns. The presence of obstacles can be deduced if one has physical difficulties in sitting peacefully in meditation or in performing pranayama exercises. Vyasa states in his commentary on the Yoga Sutra that these difficulties are not present in one of concentrated mind (ekagra chitta).

The connection between mental obstacles and physical manifestation is mutual. If the mind is distracted, the life force (prana) will be scattered, which results in unsteady breathing and posture. Since thoughts and prana move together, we can steady the thoughts by smoothing the flow of the prana or we can correct the body and breath through meditation.

For many people the first way is much easier, since meditation is difficult if the mind is distracted. The focus on asana and pranayama (breathing exercises) will, however, not only alleviate the symptoms of a distracted mind, it will also exercise the mind in concentration and, most importantly, it will make the flow of prana even. This in turn will still the mind.

From the yogic viewpoint, it is not helpful for a beginner to start with meditation (dhyana). According to Patanjali meditation is higher yoga, and if the mind is not prepared – if it is neither single-pointed (ekagra) nor suspended (nirodha) – meditation will lead nowhere. If body and mind are prepared through the outer limbs of yoga, meditation will be successful.

Frequently experienced in meditation is the ‘white-wall effect’ – daydreaming and wafting. Such meditation is detrimental, since it increases the grip of tamas and rajas. In meditation the mind needs to be bright and luminous and the intellect sharp, otherwise meditation will lead at best to the ‘bodyless’ and ‘absorbed in prakrti’ states that were discussed in sutra I.19. A Tibetan lama told me once that incorrect meditation could lead to reincarnation as a fish. He also suggested studying the facial expressions of fishes, to recognise those of certain meditators.

Pattabhi Jois has stated that meditation, if performed wrongly, cannot be corrected. As the teacher cannot from the outside assess whether the student is meditating correctly or not, the correct performance of asana and pranayama must be studied first. Since they are visible, external exercises they can be corrected, and correct performance leads to correct meditation, he says.

However some people are by birth or habit in a state of the single-pointed (ekagra) mind. (The yogi would say this was a result of effort performed in previous incarnations.) In Shankara’s opinion these people would be wasting their time if it were insisted they perform asana and pranayama.

Cases as these, however, are considered so rare that for the purpose of this exposition we can ignore them. For the rest of us mere-mortals, a (relatively) quick road to attaining transformative states leads via a combined effort of asana, pranayama and meditation. Notice that this present sutra states that obstacles surface on the mental (mind), respiratory (prana/breath) and physical (body) levels. A trauma or strongly negative experience will not just disturb your mind. It will also be imprinted in your tissue and your respiratory strata. That’s why attempts to think positively are often met with only limited success.

Have you ever noticed how even exulted meditative experiences can quickly decay into tamasic (dull) or rajasic (frantic) states of mind? This is because your predominant conditioning (vasana) consisting of millions of subconscious imprints (samskaras) does not simply go away by you thinking good thoughts or superimposing a layer of meditative experiences onto it. Consider the fact that in your DNA and tissue even the experiences of your most remote ancestors, single-cell organisms (protozoas) are stored, not to mention of our reptilian, mammalian and primate ancestry. It will take some work to undo all of that so that our decisions are not fear-based anymore like that of a protozoa.

If our yogic work focuses only on one strata (such as body or mind) the predominant conditioning will simply reboot from the stratas that you have not cleansed. This is what Patanjali states in this sutra. Since conditioning and our past crystalize in body, breath and mind all these stratas need to be included in the process of yoga. Compare this to sutra II.28 where Patanjali says that “practicing all the limbs of yoga removes the impurities so that the light of knowledge and discernment shines”. The gist of these stanzas is that neither asana nor meditation alone by themselves will do the trick. Apart from many ancillaries yoga uses asana to purify the body, pranayama to purify the pranic sheath and yogic meditation to address the mind.

Notice also how this approach reverberates the panchakosha model of the Taittiriya Upanishad. In order to access our deeper layers, which contain our lives purpose and transformative states, we need to first purify the three outer layers. In the language of the Taittiriya these are called anamaya kosha (body), pranamaya kosha (pranic sheath) and manomaya kosha (mind). Both the Taittiriya Upanishad and the Yoga Sutra agree that it is not enough to simply change ones body or ones mind, but that body, breath and mind need to undergo a concerted course of cultivation consisting of asana, pranayama and yogic meditation.

This is a modified excerpt from my 2006 text Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy.

About Gregor Maehle

Gregor Maehle started his yogic practices over 38 years ago. For almost two decades he yearly travelled to India where he studied with various yogic and tantric masters. Gregor spent 14 months in Mysore, India, and in 1997 was authorized to teach Ashtanga Yoga by K. Pattabhi Jois. Since then he has branched out into research of the anatomical alignment of postures and the higher limbs of Yoga. He obtained his anatomical knowledge through a Health Practitioner degree and has also studied History, Philosophy and Comparative Religion.

Gregor lived many years as a recluse, studying Sanskrit, yogic scripture and practising yogic techniques. He has published a series of textbooks on all major aspects of yoga. His mission is to re-integrate ashtanga vinyasa practice into the larger framework of Patanjali’s eight-limbed yoga in the spirit of T. Krishnamacharya. He offers trainings, retreats and workshops worldwide.

Posted in Ashtanga Yoga, Teaching, Yoga Philosophy.

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