Asana practice and concentration, comments on the writings of Swami Kripalu #1
“Asanas performed mechanically strengthen the body and bring health. Asanas performed with concentration of the mind achieve yoga. Where there is concentration, there is Yoga.”
Swami Kripalu is speaking here of a common misconception in his day that still occurs today. That is the belief that asana practice is predominantly for benefits to the physical body. He wishes to make this clarification without undermining the physical effects that are very apparent to practitioners at any level. Asana practice does have tremendous physical benefits but that is just the tip of the ice berg.
In his writings on asana practice, Swami Kripalu focused mostly on non-strenuous asanas. His asanas often involve deep stretching and may be challenging in the beginning, but most are seated or lying with only a few standing postures. His instructions for asana practice usually encourage the student to hold these postures for up to 10 minutes. While holding, the students practice pranayamas and breath retentions, agni sara and nauli kriyas, bandhas, drishti or focus points, and sometimes mantras or prayers. To him, the asanas were bases in which benefits of all these techniques could be magnified.
Swami Kripalu believed in a nested practice where pranayama happened inside asana and led to stages of meditation culminating in samadhi. Such a practice can be perceived in the arrangement of Patanjali’s 8 limbs (….asana, pranayama, pratyahar, dharana, dhyana, Samadhi), and in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (The practice of Hatha Yoga is in this order: Asana, Kumbhaka [pranayama], Mudra [pratyahar and dharana], and Nadanusandhana [meditation on sweetness].HYP 1.57).
In our normal state of consciousness the mind is continually stimulated by what we experience around us. Every sensory perception leads us to another in an out flow of consciousness that perpetuates the active mind.
Patanjali Yoga Sutra speaks of a state of mind called ekagrata, in Chapter 3, verse 11. Ekagrata means to hold ‘grata’ only one ‘eka’ thing. Ekagrata can happen with external attention, but it is difficult to focus on just one thing without the mind being attracted to other things. When the obstacles are overcome and the mind focuses on only one thing we experience concentration that can be very satisfying. One pointed concentration on an object or topic can lead to a deep understanding of the subject.
In asana with long holdings, the body fills up with sensation. Usually one sensation will be stronger than all the others. The relative intensity can shift, but the strongest sensations will all be inside the body. Without the distraction of outside stimuli the attention should be easy to keep focused in the strongest sensations.
When we practice concentration on things outside our knowledge of them grows and we come to understand how things are connected to other things. Our knowledge of the world around us grows. When we practice ekagrata on things inside something mystical is supposed to happen. Patanjali says,
Through the mastery of that three-part process of samyama (pratyahar, dharana, dhyana), the light of knowledge, transcendental insight, or higher consciousness (prajna) dawns, illumines, flashes, or is visible. PYS 3.5
Patanjali elaborates to indicate that when we focus on something within the practice of asana and pranayama, a light of knowing occurs. This knowing though is different from normal concentration. In normal concentration there is the observer and the object observed. These two can move very close together and we feel connected with the object and at peace with ourselves.
When ekagrata is practice with asana and pranayama, it can lead to the experience where, there is no self and no object of concentration.
There is an unmanifest, indescribable substratum or existence that is common or contained within all of the other forms or qualities. PYS 3.14
In a lecture from 1974, Swami Kripalu spoke about this topic and gave a demonstration of ekagrata. He sat in a cross-legged position with a book on the floor a few inches past his knees. He stated that with ekagrata he would pick up the book. He began to stare at the book, then very slowly his right hand began to move. It literally took him 10 minutes to reach over and touch the book. To the observers it was experienced that the goal, the book, even Swami Kripalu disappeared in the ‘journey’ to pick it up. As the goal and actor disappeared a vast space emerged. This was the substratum of existence the Yoga Sutra speaks of. Something underneath us that holds us all up.
In summary, when we practice asanas in a very meditative way with long holdings, we create a steadiness of mind. When that steady mind then focuses on sensations inside the body a transcendent absorption occurs. This easily fits back into the Yoga Sutra’s definition of yoga:
Yoga is stopping the modifications of mind, then the self shines in its own glory. PYS 1.2-3