By Dr. Rita Khanna
Yoga is a science that aims at the harmonious development of the body, mind, and soul. It is a methodical way of attaining perfection, through control of the different elements of human nature, both physical and psychic. It is a process of continuous transformation. Inner perfection comes about gradually. As you progress in Yoga, the ego is progressively replaced by the spirit. The seeker is freed from the tyranny of the lower mind and attains the state in which there is union with the absolute. Through Yoga, you can increase energy, vigor, vitality, longevity, and a high standard of health. Its practices will help control emotions and passions and bring about serenity, calmness, and wonderful concentration, if you are earnest in your Sadhana or practice.
Asanas, the body postures, were founded by the ancient Rishis of India. It is the third limb of Ashtanga Yoga. Patanjali, the founder of Ashtanga Yoga, defines Asana as a “steady and comfortable posture”. If you are firmly established in Asanas, you will not feel the body at all. When you do not feel the body, qualities of the pairs of opposites will not affect you. When you are free from the effect of the pairs of opposites, such as heat and cold, pleasure and pain, you will be able to take up the next higher step – Pranayama, and practice it with an unruffled mind. Therefore, you should select a posture, which is easy and comfortable, and in which, you can remain for long time – say, three hours.
Asanas affect different systems in the body, such as the muscular, respiratory, circulation, digestive, excretory, reproductive, endocrine, and nervous system. This, however, should not make one presume that Yoga Asanas are merely physical exercises. There is something spiritual, something divine, at the bottom of this system, for it awakens the sleeping Kundalini Shakti, helps the Yogic student in establishing himself fully in Meditation, and finally, makes him experience cosmic consciousness.
Here are some essential guidelines on performing Asanas:
• All Asanas should be practiced in the morning, and not in the evening. The reason for this emphasis is that, in the evening, the body is tired; and you will not be able to practice with the exhilaration and freshness felt in the morning. If you wish to do muscular exercises, you may do so in the evening.
• There should be absolutely no feeling of depression or fatigue, either before or during, the performance of Asanas. The amount of energy expended in performing Asanas should, on no account, strain your system. This is an important point to remember if you wish to enjoy the benefits of the practice in the fullest measure.
• You need not go through an elaborate course every day, but must be regular and systematic in the little that you do, and be a master of those practices.
• All Yoga Asanas must be practiced on an empty stomach. However, there is no harm if a small cup of milk, light tea, or coffee is taken before commencing.
Pranayama is the fourth limb of Ashtanga Yoga. It begins with the regulation of breath, and ends in establishing full and perfect control over Prana – the life current or inner vital force. With the practice of Pranayama, Nadis, channels of Prana, are purified. Breath is gross Prana. By establishing control over the gross Prana, you can easily gain control over the subtle Prana. Control of breath also brings about control of mind; and he who has controlled his mind, has also controlled his breath. If one is suspended, the other follows. If the breath is unsteady, the mind is also unsteady. If the breath is steady and calm, the mind is also steady and calm. Therefore, Pranayama steadies the mind and makes it fit for Concentration. The practice of Pranayama should be systematic and well-regulated. Just as it takes a long time, patience, and perseverance, to tame a tiger, so also you will have to tame the Prana gradually.
Given, below, are preliminary instructions on Pranayama practice:
• It is preferable to have a separate room for your practice, which is dry and airy, and not damp or ill-ventilated. The practice can be carried on by the side of a river or a lake, at the top or foot of a hill, or a secluded part of a pleasant and beautiful garden, or at any place where the mind gets concentrated easily, due to good spiritual vibrations. Whatever place you finally select, take particular care to see that it is free from chill and strong draught, mosquitoes, bugs, ants, etc.
• A Pranayama practitioner’s diet should be light and moderate.
• The rule of celibacy, or moderation, will ensure quicker and better results.
• Do not miss your practice, even for a single day, except if you are seriously ill. The practice of Pranayama should be commenced in spring or autumn. In the beginning, you can have two sittings: morning and evening; and as you advance in your practices, you can have four: morning, midday, evening, and midnight.
• A small cup of milk or fruit-juice can be taken with much advantage, before commencing practice, and another cup of milk and some light food, half an hour afterwards.
• To start with, do mild Pranayama, with only inhalation and exhalation, for a month.
• Practice the various exercises, one-by-one, step-by-step. Never be in a hurry. Never go beyond your capacity. Do not take up the higher exercise before completely mastering the previous one. This is the master-key to success in Pranayama.
• There should be a feeling of joy and exhilaration after the practice is over.
• Do not take a bath for at least half an hour after the practice.
• Do not expect results, after a few days, if you practice Pranayama for two or three minutes. You must practice for at least fifteen minutes daily, in the beginning, for some months.
• Success in Pranayama can be gauged by the duration of Kumbhaka or Retention. By a slow and steady practice, you will be able to retain the breath for at least five minutes. Real concentration of the mind is achieved when the breath is suspended.
• You can practice Asana and Pranayama side-by-side. In the course of time, you will acquire perfection in both.
You know that you are achieving proficiency in Pranayama, when your body becomes light and slender, your eyes acquire a shine, and your countenance glows, your voice becomes sweet and melodious, you can retain the breath for longer periods of time, you can hear Anahata sounds, the digestive fire is augmented, and you enjoy perfect health, and are cheerful and happy. Then, one should know that the Nadis are purified and success in Hatha Yoga is approaching.
PRATYAHARA AND DHARANA
The fifth and sixth limbs of Ashtanga Yoga are Pratyahara (abstraction or sense withdrawal) and Dharana (concentration). From Pratyahara, starts the real inner spiritual life – for this is when the external world is shut out and the mind is turned inwards. Yama, Niyamas, Asana, and Pranayama all prepare the aspirant for the practice of Pratyahara. A sustained practice, of these four limbs, takes the mind to the point where it can be easily detached. It is difficult to say where Pratyahara ends and Dharana begins. When the senses are withdrawn, the mind naturally assumes inner concentration, and eventually, merges into Meditation.
• Concentration is holding the mind on some particular object, and an unbroken flow of knowledge, in that subject, is Meditation. Concentrate gently, either on the lotus of the heart (Anahata Chakra) or at the space between the two eyebrows (Trikuti). Close your eyes. The seat of the mind is Ajna Chakra at Trikuti. The mind can be easily controlled if you concentrate on Trikuti. Bhaktas should concentrate on the heart. Yogins and Vedantins should concentrate at Ajna Chakra. Crown of the head (Sahasrara) is another seat for concentration. Some Vedantins concentrate here. Some Yogins concentrate at the tip of the nose (Nasikagra Drishti). Stick to one centre in concentration, and never change it. Your Guru will select the centre for concentration. If you do not have a Guru, you can select it yourself.
• If you find it difficult to concentrate on the heart, the tip of the nose, the space between the eyebrows, or the crown of the head, select an external object for the purpose. You can concentrate on the tick-tick sound of a watch, the flame of a candle, or any other object which is pleasing to the mind. Or you can concentrate on the blue sky, the light of the sun, the all-pervading air, the sun or the moon. If you experience any headache or pain in the skull, or any part of the body, due to the strain of concentration on a particular place or object, shift the centre of concentration, or change the object.
• Even if the mind runs about during concentration, do not bother. Let it run. Slowly bring it to your object of concent