Asana and Vinyasa

This article was written by Srivatsa Ramaswami and is published here with his kind permission:

‘About five years ago when I started offering a 200 Hr Teacher Training Program, I mainly wanted to cover a broad range of subjects Sri Krishnamacharya taught me. I thought that to have an appreciation of the depth and breadth of Krishnamacharya’s teachings Asanas alone will not do. But then even the asanabhyasa of Krishnamacharya was distinctly different from the general contemporary Yoga as his was based on traditional concepts of Yoga again based on teachings of such great works as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and his unique interpretation of the Sutras and tradition and accepted authority. In what way was his yogabhyasa different and distinct? I have written about it on different occasions but I thought it would be good to put up the ideas

There are hundreds of asanas in vogue, some standing like the famous Virabhadrasana, lying down like apanasana, prone ones like
dhanurasana, inversions like Sarvangasana, which are practiced avidly by yogabhyasis by the thousands all over the world, and have been for generations. However the word asana, coming from the sanskrit root aas ‘to sit’, refers to a seated posture basically. Asana  means to be seated or be in a seated position, as a good seated position was considered essential for yogis to meditate for long hours and be in Samadhi for a long time. It required that the Yogis had to discover seated postures that would give comfort and stability and a few classical poses came in to prominence. Padmasana,lotus pose, Virasana, the hero pose, swastikasana are some such poses that have been practiced for a very long time and reference to them can be found  in itihasas and puranas. Svatmarama in Hatayogapradipika implies use of a seated yoga posture for pranayama. One should firmly sit in a posture and have moderate nourishing/easily digestible food and practice pranayama as instructed by the Guru. Brahma sutras also mandates a seated yogic posture for meditation.

It may be safe to infer that the asana word mentioned in the Yoga Sutras as part of the Ashtanga Yoga system of Yoga  indicates a seated pose. Asana is a position of the body in which one can be comfortable(Sukha). The other parameter which  defines asana is sthira or steadiness. It  also indicates a considerable duration. An asana is a seated pose in which one can remain comfortable for a long time. What to do in an asana? One would engage in the practice of other angas from then on, like Pranayama, Pratyahara, and then the three phased internal practices or antaranga sadhana of dharana, dhyana and samadhi. Ultimately the yogi is able to transcend even that state of ordinary object-based samadhi and reach a state of Nirodha which is termed a state beyond the internal practice or athyangaranga. Basically all are said to take place while the Yogi is in a seated position called Asana.

So the purpose of learning asana anga is to be able sit for a long time in a yogic posture, initially at least to be able to do a round of uninterrupted Pranayama. What postures are good for that? Traditionally, asanas like Padmasana, Siddhasana,Swastikasana Vajrasana/ Virasana or Gomukhasana will meet the requirement. Vajrasana and Virasana are perfectly balanced poses. Padmasana and Sidhhasana are resorted to by yogis in large numbers as per tradition. How to get into the posture in the first place and then be able to remain in it comfortably and steadily for a long time? Someone defined asana as a procedure to forget the body, not to be disturbed by bodily distractions-like an ache here, an overstretch there, some numbness somewhere, a silent injury in some other place…..

According to Sri Krishnamacharya the way to attain such perfection in postures is to approach asana abhyasa following the vinyasakrama. He would aver both during his teaching and in his books,  that asana practice should be done with vinyasas to be able to achieve the asanas siddhi, the ability to not just get into a posture somehow but, stay in it comfortably and for the required length of time. Patanjali in the II chapter 47 sutra gives the parameters for attaining asanasiddi characterized by stability/endurance and comfort. The two parameters referred to in this sutra are prayatna saitilya and ananta samapatti.

Sri Krishnamacharya taught me yogasanas for several years following the vinyasakrama. One of the main ingredients of his teaching was the use of breath in asana vinyasas. I started studying with him when I was 15 and studied with him until I was approaching 50. Invariably he taught asanas with vinyasas and with the accompanying breathing. Every expansive movement will start with an inhalation which would continue smoothly until the completion of the movement 5 to say 10 seconds long. Likewise every contraction movement like a forward bend or a twist will start with an exhalation which exhalation would continue with the movement until completion of the movement. Inhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaale he wold say as he would ask you to raise the arms in a posture, say Tadasana, Parvatasana or Vajrasana, and exhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaale he would thunder as he would ask you to lower your arms in the same postures. He would ask you to keep attention on the breath, “follow the breath” he would say repeatedly. These two instructions in the vinyasa asana practice continued  throughout  all my 1 on 1 classes with him.

Somewhere along, one day I asked my Guru if there are any texts that mention the use of breath in asana practice. Here is what I wrote in Namarupa a few years back on this as part of an article on “My studies with Sri T Krishnamacharya”[ downloads/05_NR6-Srivatsa.pdf read the whole article]

Vinyása Krama was the mainstay of Krishnamacharya’s teaching of Hata Yoga. The word vinyása is used to indicate an art form of practice. This word is used in several arts, especially in South Indian Carnatic music, a fully evolved classical music system. Vinyása Krama indicates doing ásana with multiple aesthetic variations within the prescribed parameters. Yoga was considered one of sixty-four ancient arts. Hence if you approach yoga ásana practice as an art, that methodology is Vinyása Krama. The beauty and efficacy of yoga is eloquently brought out by Vinyása Krama. What about breath synchronization, another important ingredient of Krishnamacharya’s Vinyása Krama? What about mental focus on the breath while doing ásana practice, central to vinyása yoga? None of the yoga schools teaches yoga in this manner and no classic HathaYoga texts mention breath synchronization in ásana practice specifically. Where can one find references to these?

This was one of the few questions I asked my guru: Is Vinyása Krama an old, traditional practice? Sri Krishnamacharya quoted a verse indicating that reference to this practice can be found in a text called Vrddha Sátápata and also in the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. Therewas no point in looking for an obscure text like Väddha Sátápata, but Yoga Sutra was at hand. But where is the reference? There are hardly two Sutras explaining ásana, and there is no reference to breath in them—or is there?

Going back to my notes on Yoga Sutra classes with my guru, I found a very interesting interpretation of the sutra, Prayatna-saithilya anantasamápattibhyám. The word prayatna, very commonly used in India, basically means “effort.” saithilya indicates “softness.” So Prayatna- saithilya could mean “mild effort”; hence you find that many writers on the Yoga Sutras declare that the way to achieve perfection in a yoga posture is to “ease into the posture effortlessly.” This is easier said than done. There are hundreds of practitioners who cannot relax enough to be able to easily get into a posture like the Lotus, for example. So we have to investigate the meaning of the word prayatna as used by the darsanakáras in those days. Prayatna according to (Navya)Nyáya, a sibling philosophy to yoga, is a bit involved. Nyáya explains prayatna of three kinds (prayatnaê trividhaê proktam). Two of them are the effort put in for happiness (pravätti) and the effort to remove unhappiness (nivätti). Every being does this all the time. One set of our efforts is always directed toward achieving happiness and the other toward eradicating unhappiness. But the third type of effort relevant here is the effort of life (jàvana-prayatna). What is effort of life? It is the breath or breathing. Now we can say that prayatna-saithilya is to make the breath smooth. Thus in ásana practice according to Vinyása Krama, the breath should be smooth and by implication long (dàrgha).

The other part of the sutra refers to samápatti, or mental focus. Where or on what should the mental focus be? It is to be on ananta
(ananta-samápatti). Now we have to investigate the contextual meaning of the word ananta, translated as “endless” or “limitless,” which many writers equate with infinity. So some schools tend to say that while practicing ásanas, one should focus the attention on infinity, which is inappropriate—and impossible, at least for the vast majority of yogàs. Ananta also refers to the serpent, Ädisesa, whose incarnation Patañjali is believed to be. So some schools suggest that one should focus on a mental image of Ädisesa or Patañjali. It may be possible, but it is uncomfortable to think that Patañjali would write that one should focus on his form for the success of ásana practice. So what might ananta symbolically signify? The word ananta can be considered to be derived from the root, “ana”—to breathe (ana sváse). We are all familiar with the group of words–prána, apána, vyána, etc., names of the five pránas derived from the root “ana.” So in the sutra, ananta could mean “breath”; ananta-samápatti is then translated as “focusing the mind on the breath.” In fact Ananta, or the serpent king, is associated with air. In mythology the cobra is associated with air; there is a common mythological belief that cobras live on air. If you look at the icon of Natarája (the dancing Siva), you will find all five elements of the universe (earth, water, air, fire, and space) represented symbolically in Siva. The matted red hair represents fire, the Gangá in his tresses, the water element; the air element is said to be represented by the snake around the Lord’s neck. So ananta-samápatti would mean focusing the attention on the breath or prána.

Thus this sutra means that while practicing ásana, one should do smooth inhalations and exhalations and focus the attention on the
breath. Since Vinyása Krama involves several aesthetic movements into and within yoga postures, to achieve the coordination of movement, breath, and mind, one should synchronize the breath with the movement with the help of the focused mind. By such practice, slowly but surely, the union of mind and body takes place, with the breath acting as the harness. But why don’t other texts talk about it? There is a saying, “Anuktam anyato gráhyam.” If some details are missing from one text, they should be gathered from other complementary texts. Hatha-yoga- pradàpiká explains a number of ásanas but does not mention breath synchronization and other basic parameters. But Hatha-yoga-pradàpiká proclaims that its instructions are like a prerequisite for the Rája Yoga practice of Patañjali. These two texts are therefore compatible. Thus we can conclude that Patañjali gives the basic parameters of ásana practice (and also of the other angas like Pránáyáma), but for details we have to refer to compatible texts like Haôha-yoga- pradàpiká,Yoga-Yájñavalkya and others.

My Guru had written a book called “Yogasanangalu” in Kannada, a copy of which I have had for a long time, but never read it as it is in Kannada. Of course I have gone through the wonderful asana pictures of my Guru in it many many times. Recently I found a few pages of the translation in the blog pages of my friend Antony Hall and I am reproducing the relevant portion from it hereunder (Thank You Tony)

Sri Krishnamacharya wrote:
“Vinayasas” many people are curious about its secret. Some others want
to know its basis. I agree.
“prayatnashithilyanantasamapattibhyam” (Yoga Sutra II 47)

Please see Patanjala yogasutra and Vyasabhashya (P 2, S 47)

Both type of people (practitioners), be happy .

Vachaspathi Misra in that commentary

“Saamsiddhiko hi prayatnah shariradharako na
yogangasyopadeshtavyasanasya kaaranam. Tasmat
upadeshtavyasanasyayamashadhakah virodhi cha swabhavikah prayatnah.
Tasya cha yadruchhikasanahetutayaa sananiyamopahamtyatvat.”

Here is my translation: Surely the innate effort–prayatna– (in every being) is to sustain the body (which is prana, Prana and sariradharaka are considered synonyms). But it (the normal innate breathing) is not helpful in achieving the task on hand (achieving the yoga pose). Therefore the natural/involuntary effort/breathing (swabhavika prayatnah) is counterproductive in achieving the intended goal. Consequently a man, practicing the specific posture as taught, should resort to an effort(prayatna) which consists in the relaxation (saitilya) of the natural/innate(swabhavika) effort (breath). Otherwise the posture taught cannot be accomplished

Krishnamacharya continues to talk about using breath in asanas. “Therefore, how many breathings for which asana? When is inhalation? When is exhalation? In what way? When body is stretched forward, inhalation or exhalation? What about when you raise your head? To know this mystery and practice in order is called Vinayasa. These along with the significance of each asana will be discussed in 1 to 32.”
Why do I do a flurry of Vinyasas?
So that I could sit in a Yogic posture
Firm, for long ,comfortable
Why sit in a Yogic posture?
So I can do Pranayama, Pratyahara
Do Parayana (chant), do dhyana (meditate)
May be then I can get into Samadhi.…
Why do I want to get into Samadhi?
To realize first hand
How intrinsically,immensely
delightfully peaceful
I really am
So why do I do all this
Flurry/Flow of Vinyasas …?

So what have I been trying to say?

1. Asana in Raja Yoga (Patanjala Yoga) refers to a seated posture in which the Yogi stays put comfortably and steadily for a long time

2. According to Patanjali and interpreted by Krishnamacharya it is achieved by Vinyasas done with coordinated /synchronous smooth breathing and focusing the mind on breath.  While doing the vinyasas, Sri Krishnamacharya would ask us to breathe with a slight rubbing sensation in the throat and producing a ‘hissing sound’ a la cobra— another aspect of ananta samapatti. As mentioned earlier some commentators refer to meditating on Ananta (ananta samapatti) and normally it is done by Sri Krishnamacharya by saying a prayer in praise of Patanjali at the beginning of a yoga practice session. There are a few prayers on Patanjali. Sri Krishnamacharya  invariably chanted the prayers  starting with “yastyaktva rupam..” then “yogena chittasya..” and “aabahu purusha..” and then “Srimate Anantaya Nagarajaya Namo Namah” at the beginning of a session while teaching me, which I follow faithfully.

3. There are hundreds of vinyasas Sri Krishnamacharya taught. To meet the requirements of different individuals one chooses the appropriate ones from these. The individual package will depend upon the condition of the individual and the posture/s one would look to attain siddhi in. (Here is a commercial. To know and learn more about the myriad vinyasas, systematically, please refer to my book “Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga”)

4. In practice,for the seated asana siddhi, inversions along with the multitude of vinyasas in them are very helpful to relax and exercise the lower extremities; so also the joints of the lower extremities like the ankles, the knees, further up the hips and also the spinal column. My Guru would ask us to be careful about thighs and waist. “Never allow the thighs and waist to spread and get out of control”. “Tape measure these and keep them under control.” And the inversions with the vinyasas help keep the waistline and thigh size under control, very essential to achieve seated posture siddhis. Since the legs play an important role in seated poses these are very beneficial to attain the sthiratva and sukhatva in seated poses. Further as many varied vinyasas in scores of other asanas as possible should be practiced to cover/exercise the whole body comprehensively and with the bandhas at the end of exhalation and wherever appropriate. Yoga is considered a sarvanga sadhana or a system that reaches and benefits all parts of the body including the internal organs. It is achieved by different vinyasas in different yoga poses, with appropriate breathing and the bandhas. When a Yogi sits down to start the Pranayama, the Yogi’s whole body should be perfectly prepared with the Vinyasas in different asanas with smooth mindful breathing. All these to make it possible for the Yogi to sit comfortably for a long time and concentrate on the job on hand like Pranayama or meditation and completely be oblivious  of  the body .

5. A deliberate effort to link the breath with the movement mindfully (mind/breath unity) will help the asana siddhi as per Patanjali’s

6. Sri Krishnamacharya taught asanas with a proviso that it should not be strenuous, no strain on the heart. Yoga should be helpful for the heart by the judicious use of breath (respiratory pump effect) and varied use of vinyasas (muscle pump effect). It is corroborated by a verse in Hatayogapradeepika. Quoting Gorakshnatha,  Svatmarama says “varjayet…….kayaklesa vidhim..” It indicates that the yogi should avoid procedures that put strain/pain (klesa) on the system. Yoga is to reduce pain or klesa, both physical(kaya klesa) and psychological(the pancha klesas). Brahmananda in his commentary explains kayaklesa that should be avoided will include, bahubhara udvahana or carrying heavy weights and bahusuryanamaskara or performing multiple sun salutations. Sri Krishnamacharya taught me SunSalutation with appropriate breathing with the movements but it was an optional small part of the routine . Suryanamaskara chanting however was an important aspect of the vedic chantings he taught me.

7. He also would say that a serious yogi should be krisa or lean. For a yogi, heaviness caused by fat or lean (muscle) is not helpful.

8. The asanabhyasa I learnt from my Guru was not merely slowing down the pace of the asana practice but a deliberate practice to slow down the breathing rate itself. As against the normal breath rate of about 15 per minute, in Vinyasakrama the breath rate is brought down to about 6 or less per minute during vinyasa practice for most of the time. Without controlled breathing, the breath rate in many physical exercises, outdoor games and gym workouts could be much higher than the normal rate and is the antithesis of vinyasakrama I learnt from my Guru consistently for many many years. Sri Krishnamacharya had a clear preference for slowed breathing and advised his serious students not to participate in activities that tend to increase the heart rate/ breath rate substantially like running etc. even as he had no objection to walking as an exercise. This advice was of course for serious yogabhyasis.

9. I remember that once  there was a talk/demonstration on Yoga by Sri Krishnamacharya , if I remember correct, at  T S, in Adyar, Madras. Sri Krishnamacharya spoke for a short while and asked someone in the audience to come and check his pulse rate. It was about 60 or so. Then Sri Krishnamacharya, sat up and did some pranayama and bandhas a few times and asked his pulse rate to be checked. It was around 30. Within a short duration with Pranayama ( and bandhas) he was able to amazingly reduce the rate substantially.

10. When I was  young I actively participated in outdoor activities. I even represented my college in three games, Cricket, Table Tennis and Tennis (Captain). For a few years I was learning Yoga and also playing outdoor games and I enjoyed both. But soon I realized the distinct difference in the philosophy of both. While one–aerobics– encouraged free breathing, increased metabolism, substantially increased heart rate during the physical activity, Yoga, at least the Yoga I learnt from Sri Krishnamacharya encourages, nay mandates, deliberate slower breathing, and achieve lower heart rate. I think both systems have their own idiosyncrasies and distinct advantages. Aerobic kind of exercises, especially the strenuous ones, may I say, tend to flog the heart, by increasing the heart rate(sometimes even pounding),  breath rate all of which of course help to strengthen the heart muscles and
develop collateral blood vessels. But then Yoga virtually accesses, supports, caresses, gently massages and directly aids the heart in its function. (For more on this please read my article “Yoga For the Heart”, in my May 2009 Newsletter

11.  So, Yoga may not be practised as a workout with heavy breathing, profuse sweating and accelerated heart rate . The nicety about hatayoga is the smooth, long, more complete breathing even while doing those beautifully flowing vinyasas and asanas and unique Mudras, else there is physiologically no difference between Yoga and aerobics/ workouts.  And one must admit Sri Krishnamacharya knew a thing or twoabout the heart and health. He lived for a hundred years a healthy manand also, as documented, had shown tremendous control over the heart
and its beat.’

(c) Srivatsa Ramaswami

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