Thoughts on Yoga

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Pashupat Yoga was the teaching of Shiva, the original Guru, who brought forth the system of yoga. He made it very clear that yoga is actually a lifestyle, not a practice. He mentions that there are 84 lakh asanas or 8 million, 400 thousand asanas. Shiva did not mean that 84 lakh asanas were the physical postures. After all what is an asana? Is asana a body posture? Is it a conditioning or a state of the body? Asana is not a posture, it has nothing to do with a form adopted by the body. Then what is an asana? When somebody comes to your place you give him an asana to sit upon. So asana literally means seat, and when you sit down on a seat you are comfortable and at ease.

84 lakh

The concept which has been given by Patanjali, sthiram sukham asanam, is that you place yourself in a seat and become comfortable. If you are poor, you will sit on a bamboo mat, if you are rich you will sit on a sofa. The bamboo mat and the sofa are asanas, the seat where you are comfortable, where you are stress free. So asana is the seat.

When we say asanas in yoga, what does it mean? A posture in which you can be comfortable and study. Whatever posture you are in is an asana. Asana is any physical posture in which you can make yourself comfortable and stable. When you sit on a sofa you move, you adjust your cushions, you adjust your body and become comfortable. The same thing has to happen in asana too. You can count the asanas in hatha yoga texts and you will find that they come to about eighty-four. Approximately, the major and the minor ones put together will amount to about eighty-four asanas. Yet to eighty-four zeros have been added to indicate that each form of life is a seat where the spirit is comfortable. Therefore, eighty-four lakh yonis or incarnations are the asanas, the cosmic asanas.

When we die and go back to our original form, we will be saying, “Oh I was practising the human asana.” As that was my life. If I was a tiger, I would say after death, I was practising vyaghrasana, for I was contained in the body of a tiger, I was living there, I was comfortable there, I was at ease in that. Just as I am comfortable and at ease in my own body, so I am doing human asana this life, becoming comfortable in my humanness in this physical body. That is the meaning of eighty-four lakh asanas. Even a bacterium is comfortable, even Corona is comfortable. It is creating havoc all around, but it is very peaceful and comfortable by itself.

Specific purpose

One person said that asanas are nothing but a dance form, as in dance you perform your mudras. The ancient armies in the past were taught dances as a form of exercise to avoid and save oneself from incoming weapons. If you know dancing and somebody throws a spear at you, you shift your neck a little bit.

There are two traditions of yoga: the South Indian tradition and the North Indian tradition. In the south, yoga was part of the army training once upon a time. Iyengar, Deshikacharya, Krishnamacharya, who taught the southern yoga, had military backgrounds. For generations they were teaching yoga to the army of the Mysore kingdom. All the props they use, are the army props to attain flexibility, mobility, stamina and strength.

The southern yoga tradition of hatha yoga asana was applied by the army to train the soldiers for warfare, defence, and as exercise.

In North India, the focus of yoga was not physical, it was more mental. There is an interesting background to it. In ancient days, it was the people of South India, which was the populated area of India, who would embark on ocean journeys for trade and commerce. The people of North India were landlocked. The South had people coming in for trade and commerce and as armies, whereas the North was isolated and landlocked by the mountains. In the mountain regions people focused more on the mental, meditative, spiritual component. In the South they focused more on the physical component. In the North you will find kriya yoga and raja yoga, yet asana is an influence of the South.

In olden times asanas were divided in three categories, the Brahma asanas, the Vishnu asanas and the Shiva asanas. Shiva asanas were meditative, as Shiva represented vairagya, detachment. Shiva was the only person who would be in meditation for days and months, and the postures which he would use like padmasana, siddhasana, sukhasana, were categorized under the Shiva group of asanas.

The Vishnu group of asanas were meant to maintain and nourish the body like chakrasana and garudasana. The Vishnu group of asanas was for maintenance of the body. These asanas are mentioned more prominently in the hatha yoga books. A lot of physical benefits are described in those asanas, not psychological or spiritual benefits.

The Brahma group of asanas is very simple, like a beginner’s group. Pawanmuktasana and TTK would come in the Brahma group of asanas, where you prepare your body, where you bring flexibility, stamina and strength into your body. When you are attacked by illnesses, the Vishnu group comes forward. When you are meditating then Shiva asanas come forward as they represent vairagya. In this manner in ancient times asanas were devised and I don’t think there is anything wrong in dividing the asana in this manner.

Lifestyle and true yoking

Let us look at your car. Your car is manufactured in a factory, you don’t see where it is manufactured, but when you acquire it, it is your duty to maintain it. You do not create it yet you maintain it, and when the car is old it is your duty to dispose of it. Narayana and Shiva become your focus in maintaining and then in disposing of the car. Brahma created the car and you bought it, so that is happening in the background, but your actual involvement with the car is Narayana and Shiva: maintenance and disposal.

In the same manner with yoga, you practise pawanmuktasana, TTK, surya namaskara, for they are the basic asanas and belong to the Brahma group, as they prepare you – they remove imbalances, they realign the forces of the body, the senses, the mind. You are always looking forward to the Vishnu asanas for good health and the Shiva asanas to help you meditate.

Today people practise yoga in the form of exercise, yet can there be any spiritual enlightenment? The answer is a straight no. If the practice of yoga asanas is in the form of exercise, the pranas won’t be balanced, the mind won’t be stilled and there won’t be any spiritual development. Therefore, we should stop calling that type of performance asanas or yoga, for yoga is different, yoga is a lifestyle.

Philosophers say yoga is the union of the individual consciousness with the Supreme. Religious people say yoga is the merger with your perception of divinity. An atheist will say the experience of peace is yoga. Each one will give a different interpretation to yoga, yet the best interpretation that defines the complete process of yoga is Swami Sivananda’s integration of head, heart and hands. That is the actual yoking, that is the actual yoga.

20 April 2021, Ganga Darshan, Munger, India