Asana, literally, means a posture. By common usage, the term is most often used for the postures which form a part of yoga. To make that more clear, sometimes these postures are called yogasanas. Asanas are classified into three categories depending upon whether they are meant primarily for relaxation, physical exercise, or meditation. In this discussion, we shall restrict ourselves to the asanas which are primarily meant to give us some physical exercise. A typical asana begins with a starting position. From this position, the person goes towards the final posture through a series of slow, gentle and graceful movements. After reaching the final posture, the person holds the posture for 10-15 seconds, or longer. The final posture is a position of intense but enjoyable stretch. One of the requirements in the final posture is that the person should be stable and comfortable. After staying in this position for 10-15 seconds, the person returns, once again through slow and graceful movements, to a relaxed position. The person may spend some time in relaxation before going to the next asana. In other words, there are three stages in the asana – initial position (relaxed); final posture (stretch), which is maintained for a while; and return to a relaxed position. The transition from the first stage to the second, and that from the second stage to the third may be synchronized with breathing. How to enter into a posture, and how to come out of it, are at least as important as the posture itself. That is why, asanas are best learnt personally from a competent teacher rather than from a book.
One of the unique features of asanas is that although they involve physical exercise, they are not tiring; in fact, at the end of a session of asanas, the person feels rejuvenated. This happens due to a variety of reasons. First, asanas involve no jerky movements. Secondly, stretch alternates with relaxation. Thirdly, the sequence of asanas is so arranged that every pose is followed by a counter-pose. If a posture involves bending forwards, the next asana involves bending backwards. Thus the stretch produced by one asana is neutralized by the next one. Finally, postures are interspersed with relaxation, and the session ends with relaxation.
It is natural to compare asanas with other forms of physical exercise such as walking, jogging, swimming and sports. In contrast with asanas, most of the other exercises are tiring. Secondly, a set of judiciously selected 15-20 asanas gives comprehensive exercise to every joint and muscle, whereas other exercises may involve a relatively limited group of muscles. Hence asanas are, in general, better than other exercises with respect to improvement in flexibility of the body and coordination of movements. Thirdly, although the intensity of exercise in asanas is low, the improvement in fitness is comparable to that achieved by other far more intense exercises. This happens because the breathing excursions and fluctuations in abdominal and thoracic pressures in yogic postures are comparable to those in intense exercises, and therefore the improvement achieved in functioning of the heart and lungs is also comparable. However, lower intensity of exercises means that asanas do not burn too many calories, and therefore cannot contribute as much to weight loss as some vigorous exercises. Finally, asanas are done with full consciousness. Therefore they lead to an enhanced sensitivity to the goings-on in the body, leading to early detection of fluctuations in well-being, and avoidance of accidents. Asanas also have some practical advantages as compared to other exercises. Because of their gentle nature, injury is unlikely. Secondly, if there is pain in some part of the body, it may still be possible to do at least those postures which do not hurt. Therefore, the regularity of practice is generally not affected by minor aches and pains. Finally, asanas can be done at home, even in night pajamas, in any weather, and need no equipment.
Asanas are a part of yoga, and yoga is a spiritual discipline. What is the link between these physical practices and spirituality? While it is true that yoga is a system primarily designed for spiritual growth, spiritual growth cannot be achieved in a vacuum. It is by living a life consciously directed by the goal of spiritual growth that we can get closer to the goal. One of the requirements of life driven by spiritual growth (or any other goal) is that our instruments for living should be in good shape. Body is the principal instrument of life. Keeping it healthy is therefore important for living a life of purpose. When the purpose is spiritual growth, keeping the body healthy becomes not just important; it becomes a sacred duty. Therefore, asanas should be done with the attitude that we are doing them to keep the body healthy, and that we want to be healthy so that this body can be a fit instrument for doing what God has sent us to this world for. This is the spirit behind the prayer with which a session of asanas generally begins and ends. It is only when asanas are done with this attitude that they become yogasanas. Without this attitude, asanas are just physical exercises; with this attitude, even other exercises like walking become a part of yoga.
Friday, April 24, 2009
I am often asked how, as a medical doctor trained in modern scientific medicine, I drifted to yoga in such a big way. I started my career in medicine in the 1970s as a physiologist. Physiologists are medical scientists who specialize in how the normal body functions, and their main job is to teach medical students, and to do research. The area of research, which I focused on, was nutrition in relation to cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Around 1990, it started becoming more and more clear that although our food has a lot to do with heart disease and diabetes, these diseases are intimately related to our lifestyle as a whole, of which nutrition was just one component – physical activity, sleep, smoking, and, above all, mental stress being some others. I was myself going through a mentally stressful period those days, and that is what took me to the Delhi Branch of Sri Aurobindo Ashram in search of peace. Of course, I got peace there, but in addition, I also got a true insight into yoga. Although I had started doing some of the physical practices of yoga in the 1970s, I had never really understood how yoga could be a lifestyle, a way of life, a source of peace and calm, and a road to enlightenment. Like many others, I had also dismissed these claims of yoga as clichés which need not be taken seriously. With the insight into yoga that the works of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother gave me, these ‘cliches’ became very real to me. As a result, my personal life and professional life started converging. The culmination of the convergence was the Integral Health Clinic of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), which I was instrumental in establishing in the year 2000. The clinic started providing lifestyle modification courses, based on yoga and at the same time in tune with the latest advances in medicine, for the prevention and management of chronic disease. In the year 2005, I took voluntary retirement from AIIMS to find more time for dissemination of yoga. As a doctor, I never prescribed drugs. Today I work in the Mother’s pharmacy and dispense small doses of love from Her inexhaustible reservoir.
How I discovered Sri Aurobindo and the Mother
I joined AIIMS as an MBBS student in 1965, and spent 40 years there, almost without a break. Sri Aurobindo Ashram – Delhi Branch is less than 4 km from AIIMS, but it took me 27 years to discover this oasis of peace. And, it is not that I was blind to matters religious or spiritual. Before I went to the ashram, I had done a decent amount of study on these subjects, and had tried to construct mentally an ethical code by which I had tried to live my life. But being a rationalist, I had generally kept away from places of worship as well as any rituals or ceremonies. Anyway, I went to Sri Aurobindo Ashram for the first time in 1992 on a Sunday morning at 10 am for a satsang. The discourse was good, but what impressed me more was the cleanliness, order, punctuality, and the intense spiritual energy of the place. Moreover, there seemed to be no obvious or mandatory rituals, customs or dress code. In short, the emphasis was on what is within you, rather than on the surface. I soon discovered that the 10 am Sunday satsang was an around-the-year activity; rain, hail or storm. I started coming for these sessions regularly, not necessarily for what was said, but more to spend some time in a peaceful atmosphere. Gradually I also started buying some books from the bookstore in the ashram. Although I was not new to this type of literature, reading Sri Aurobindo was like stepping out of this world. He is so thorough: he looks at his subject from every conceivable angle, and considers even viewpoints other than his own in such depth, that after reading him, there are no questions left – at least I had no questions left. Further, the language of Sri Aurobindo is immaculate; even his prose reads like poetry. The Mother has given loads of precious guidance for spiritual life, and even Her pictures show so much love in Her eyes that one at once knows that She has a heart large enough to accommodate the whole world. The knowledge that I gained from the works of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother soon led to devotion. That is how I got hooked to them and I have not looked back since. Their abundant Grace, and what I have learnt from them (which is also their Grace) has shown me a path that guarantees lasting inner peace which is independent of external circumstances. If I am still not at peace, it is because I am not walking the path sincerely enough.
I have no intentions of using the opportunity to blog to talk about myself. Besides the fact that it would be un-yogic, the world has better things to do than to read about me. This blog, being the first one, is intentionally an exception to this general principle. It is my privilege to start blogging on an auspicious day – it was on 24 April 1920 that the Mother finally arrived in Pondicherry.