An Essay on
© 2008 by Academic Services International, Los Lunas, NM, USA
Raja Yoga - Continued
3. Asana - Posture ("control of posture"): Asana really means "control of the physical body." It is practiced by choosing a position and sitting absolutely still in that position for long periods of time.
It doesn't matter which position you choose, because any position is going to get uncomfortable, so you might as well choose a position that puts the least amount of strain on your body. After beginning the practice, thinking another position might be better, and then changing to a new position, is discouraged and is merely the equivalent of starting all over again.
However, some positions might place undo strain on certain parts of the body, for example - the lower back. If asana practice results in chronic low back pain, then a new position is unavoidable. This is why the initial choice should be well thought out. Generally, for westerners, the simplest positions are best.
The Practice of Asana
The Practice: Sit in your asana (your chosen position) for a pre-determined period of time each day. Ten minutes is recommended in the beginning. You will probably need a clock or a timer.
Do not move. You may breathe normally - do not pay any attention to breathing.
Observe your body. You are looking for physical "breaks." A break is an itch, a twitch, a cramp, or some similar distraction. Keep a running count of the total number of breaks. Some people like to use an hourglass as a timer and count breaks on a string of beads.
At the end of each practice session, write down the date, the position, the time in asana, and the total number of breaks (>).
At first, as the days proceed, there is a tendency for the breaks to stabilize, then decrease, then greatly increase, and then stabilize again. Now it's time to increase the daily practice from ten to fifteen minutes.
One would think that by the time you got up to an hour per day, and several weeks or months (or years) had gone by, that you would gradually have taken control of the body's insistent messages - and to a certain extent, that is true. But that's not the effect your looking for!
The Result - Asana itself !
The Result: Rather, the desired result is instantaneous. All of a sudden the body becomes immeasurably comfortable and all breaks stop. There is a specific feeling associated with this event: Although it can easily be stated, I will not describe it here, for it is the password to be whispered by the student unto the teacher when he or she is ready to announce success!
Anyone who skips asana, and moves directly into advanced practices, will find that even mediocre results at the "higher" levels will simply stimulate breaks in the physical body and further progress will cease.
The Positions of Asana
The Positions: One would be wise to avoid the pretzel-bent "poses" of Hatha Yoga. The chosen position should be "easy." Typically, people just sit down, cross their legs, and rest their forearms on their lower, inner thighs just above the knees.
One popular position is the half-lotus. You sit down on the floor, cross your legs, and then lift one foot up so that it rests upon the thigh of the opposite leg.
Another similar position, but perhaps not quite so popular, is the full-lotus. You sit down on the floor, cross your legs, and then lift both feet up (one at at time) so that each foot rests upon the thigh of the opposite leg.
A Word of Caution: Many Oriental people become accustomed to sitting flat on the floor because they have done it since they were children. Westerners (and anyone else accustomed to chairs and couches) may find that they display lower back pain after sitting flat on the floor.
If so, the use of a sitting cushion may be necessary. Each person must determine, through trial and error, how thick is must be. It may vary from one to eight inches - thus, standardized, manufactured, meditation pillows may often be inadequate.
A simple, third floor-contact position is called The Dragon.
You kneel, making certain that your feet and toes are pointed directly backward. The full body weight rests on the backs of the leg, and the hands rest flat on the thighs.
This is the standard position that is assumed by teacher and students at the beginning of Japanese martial arts classes.
If any of the above floor-sitting (or cushion-sitting) positions are unsuitable, then one really should consider using The God position.
A simple, straight-backed chair is utilized, preferably one that is not fluffy and soft.
The feet are flat on the floor, the knees are touching (they will probably tend to separate), and the palms rest flat on the thighs.
In all of the above positions, the spine is straight and the head is erect. If the neck is held too straight, the ideal alignment will be off-centered. To obtain the proper alignment, tilt your head forward slightly until you find the perfect balance point: when you relax your neck muscles, your head should neither tend to drop forward nor want to fall back.
There are also various lying-down positions:
..There is The Corpse (flat on your back)
.And there is The Dying Buddha (on your side)
These are generally not recommended. Corpses tend to go to sleep.
Dying Buddhas have difficulty in performing Pranayama (the next step)..
There are also various standing-up positions:
< There is The Ibis (standing on one leg - one hand holds the other leg up, while the other hand holds its index finger up to the lips in the sign of silence).
And, of course, The Shiva Nataraj ("dancing Shiva").>
Your position is only limited by your imagination.
Standing positions are normally not recommended for Raja Yoga.
Two Hands - Ten Fingers
The Hand and Finger Positions: Once the practitioner is seated in his or her chosen position, the question may arise: "What do I do with my hands and fingers?"
This is a matter of convenience. Remember, when counting breaks, the fingers may be needed to flick beads along a string, or one may count breaks by using the fingers like a child performing basic addition.
There is one hand position, popular amongst "new age" yogis, wherein the open palms are placed facing upward. They explain that this is an attitude of "reception," as if the cosmic energy will be descending from above and will enter their palms. Although it is possible that a certain amount of environmental Prana (Chi or "energy") may be drawn into the palms, the ultimate goal of Yoga is to become one with the primordial consciousness, and that is found deep inside the practitioner's consciousness. So the "palms up" hand position is merely symbolic and represents an attitude of wishful thinking.
The typical hand position involves making a circle with the fingers, usually with the thumb and middle finger touching (see half-lotus image, above). Other fingers may be thus encircled. It is said that this circular pattern "closes the energy circuit" and re-routes the energy back into the main system. It is also said that this circular pattern announces to other people that "I am closed" in meditation - please do not disturb.
There are also complex hand and finger positions called Mudras. These are reminiscent of the pretzel contortions of Hatha Yoga. Each mudra is said to produce a specific effect (i.e., the overcoming of grief, or to gain prosperity, etc).
I highly recommend the simplest sitting position, with the hands free to count breaks. The hands are thus free to be used in the next stage . . . Pranayama.