Yoga citta vritti nirodha

Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.

I’ve been thinking about what yoga truly is recently, and I guess especially the state of samadhi (which I will translate here as meditative consciousness or one-pointedness of mind).

Now, when we refer to yoga or what most people think of as yoga nowadays is actually only one of the eight petals of yoga, asana, aka the postures. The eight-fold path or ashtanga yoga (not to be confused with the hatha yoga style developed by Pattabhi Jois) is often represented as a tree like below:

Credits to shaktianandayoga

But I have seen other representations such as this one:

Patanjali’s 8 Limbs of Yoga Study Chart | Daily Cup of Yoga

I am personally not a fan of this second representation because it seems like it is an order in which you do things, so if you have achieved yamas and niyamas you can start asana*, once you achieve that, you start pranayama, and so on until dharana, at which point if you practice enough dhyana will happen, and if you get to dhyana often enough, then samadhi will be bestowed upon you.

Guruji BKS Iyengar has “debunked” this linear progression many times. The limbs are intertwined and you can practice every single aspect during your asana practice, for exemple during asana practice your breath should be soft and controlled like in pranayama, your awareness should be spread all throughout your body, you should not harm yourself, etc etc. I remember he also wrote about Gandhi being a prime exemple of what can be achieved with a strong ahimsa practice**, though I do not think Gandhi ever called himself a yogi. The tree imagery represent much better how the different limbs are interconnected, and it’s not like once you have roots, a tree stops growing roots to grow its trunk; on the other hand a tree keeps on growing in all directions, roots, trunk, branches, leaves, flowers and fruits, all at the same time (at least if it’s the right season ;).

Anyhow back to the topic of what I actually wanted to write about. Samadhi. I sometimes have glimpses of what I believe Samadhi must be like. This only happens to me during headstand practice, and not always, sadly. Some days I am just struggling to stay back up for 5 minutes. But some days, I manage to settle in the pose and stay there in a state of what I can only describe of effortless effort. I am lucky if this happens for a full minute. However this made me wonder about senior teachers. Though I have never met Guruji, based on what I read, I do believe that especially in his later years, he was in a constant state of samadhi, whether he was practicing asana or not. So I wonder about the senior teachers: are they in a constant state of samadhi? Do they only attain it during practice? Is what I think of as being samadhi actually samadhi? It does certainly feel like yoga in terms of cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. But then again, if I practice in a class setting I am likely to get corrected on my headstand, so is it possible to attain samadhi in a somewhat imperfect headstand? If by any chance a senior teacher (or anyone else, really, but if a senior teacher comes by, please please please comment) reads this, I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic.

Meanwhile, I finally invested on the Astadala Yogamala anthology, so I’m sure many more questions about yoga will pop up as I go through the material.


* Though I sometimes wish that yoga practitioners would “practice” yama and niyama before starting an asana practice… or at least have an idea of what it entails. So many people thinking yoga is just stretching :\ /rantover

**I believe this was in Light on life, but might be in Tree of Yoga.



Bonus tip: I finally made it to class, and I learned this amazing tip for backbends on the chair, the one where you curve over the lean of the chair towards the wall, with your feet on the legs of the chair. While you are reaching your hands down on the wall, stop for a moment where you are, and try to sit back on the chair (without moving your hands from where they are on the wall).  Then go back to walking your hands down on the wall, rinse and repeat, so that you’re basically oscillating in your backbend from more weight on your feet to more weight on your hands. Boy if that’s not a deep back opener, I don’t know what is!

Weekly Update: What's Been Going On At The Blue Osa Eco Resort

I’m talking about that one, whose name I’m not sure about. I’d say Chair Urdhva Dhanurasana, but usually that refers to coming up to Urdhva Dhanurasana from having your back on the seat of the chair like for the Introductory syllabus, so if anyone knows the “proper” name please let me know below. Image courtesy of blue osa




Workshop with Manouso Manos – Pranayama

On the second day, we started with pranayama. And I have to admit I was completely out of my depth here – I don’t have a regular pranayama practice (yes, yes, I know I should). So I’ll try my best to describe what we did, but if by any chance a senior teacher reads this please please please comment and correct me. I’m also writing this without Light on Pranayama nearby as it is already back to my parents’ in prevision of my moving, so I have no way to check what I am writing. And obviously in the Iyengar tradition it’s not allowed to take notes during the workshop – which I actually is a good thing, as you then only remember what you understood IMO – so my descriptions might be relatively less detailed than if I had written down things.

The first thing we did was Shanmuki mudra to calm down the brain. It’s a different version from what is described in Light on Pranayama. We did this sitting (actually I did it standing because I couldn’t see the instructions otherwise and Manouso asked us not to move) as he explained that he cannot do it lying down. The main reason for this is that it’s very heavy on the shoulders. It goes like this : introduce both thumbs in your ears, palms down (you don’t want to have to turn the palm around in the ear). Then place the index finger on the eyebrows. The long fingers then go to touch each other and both sides of the nose. As you do this, the index fingers have to move slightly out to make place for the long fingers, but you’re not pulling them out, it’s just a natural movement arising from the positioning of the long fingers. Next, comes the ring fingers which gently pull the upper eyelid down. Once again, for this to happen, the first two fingers have to move slightly. Finally, the pinky finger touches the cheekbone. Anytime one finger is added, the rest of the fingers have to readjust. This is so heavy on the shoulders because the elbows have to be very much up in order to place the fingers! Finally, there should be no pressure on the pupil of the eye. It should not be the tip of the finger which is pressing down, but the first knuckle from the tip.

This is the closest exemple I’ve found, if this lady’s index finger was onto her eyebrows.

After this, we lied down in savasana over two trifold blankets lifting the chest. We did some Ujayi breaths while trying to touch all diaphrams: the pubic plate, lung diaphragm, up to the throat diaphragm. To help touching the pubic plate he instructed us to let the breath spread from the center of the belly to the sides. To exhale, let the flesh of the abdomen go down to the floor and let the skin follow.

The trifold blanket setting, also see this post by Iyengar home practice

Finally, he taught a short nadi shodhana or alternate breathing (only three cycles, sitting in simple cross-leg). I had really a hard time with this one, even though I have done it multiple times before, this time I had the feeling I could not draw in enough air on the inhale, and had to breathe quite fast as a result. This might have come from the positioning of my hand on my nose. As a result, I don’t want to give any indications on how to do this as I’m too unsure of if I’m doing it properly.

The iceman, the breath of fire, and pada III.38.

So, some time ago I heard about the iceman, i.e. Wim Hof. I read about him on the internet and decided to watch the vice documentary about him:

I was very surprised, since I live in the Netherlands, that I had never heard of him before. I find his story fascinating.

He is able to control is autoimmune system and able to teach others how to do it; all of it in a scientific setting – the results were published in PNAS, which is a high-impact factor scientific journal.

He says in the documentary that he is not the first person to be able to do this, and I believe that actually many yogis have reached a similar level during the ages. Indeed, while he does not call his technique “yoga”, in my opinion what he does is “simply” a very strong pranayama practice.

He talks about the inner fire, which obviously made me think of agni sara, breath of fire.

I really feel like Wim Hof is a yogi, also because he stays very humble through these demonstrations of “superpowers” and I am glad that his son pushed him to “market” his talent since otherwise there would be no scientific data on the fact that humans are capable of influencing their automatic nervous system.

I can’t help but think of Patanjali’s warning in the Yoga Sutras III.38:
से अत्त्ऐन्मेन्त्स अरे इम्पेदिमेन्त्स तो समधि, अल्थोउघ थेय अरे पोवेर्स इन अच्तिवे लिफ़े.
te samadhau upasargah vyutthane siddhayah
These attainments are impediments to samadhi, although they are powers in active life.

Divine perceptions¹ are hindrances to a yogi whose wisdom is supreme and whose goal is spiritual absorption. They are great accomplishements, but he should know that they fall within the range of the gunas of nature, and in acquiring them he might forget his main aim in life and luxuriate in them. If they are shunned, however, they become aids to samadhi.

The yogi may mistake these accomplishments and rewards for the end and aim of yogic practices. He may imagine that he has attained great spiritual heights, and that whatever is attainable through yoga has been achieved. In this way he may forget the goal of Self-Realization.

Patanjali warns yogis to treat these powers as obstacles in their sadhana. One should control them as whole-heartedly as one fought earlier to conquer the afflictions of the body and the fluctuations of the mind. Then one can move forward towards kaivalya, emancipation.

(Translation and commentary by B.K.S. Iyengar)

¹ Divine perceptions: powers that have been gained through the sadhana.
sadhana: practice
gunas: qualities of nature
samadhi: equanimity of mind, profound meditation, eigth and final aspect of ashtanga yoga, bliss

Another translation and text explanation that I found clear and useful.