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Season 1 - Episode 7

Yoga and Asana

60 min - Talk
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Through a consistent yoga practice we may gain self-mastery and create a state of sustainable harmony inside and out.  James discusses the role of Asana in a yoga practice, looking at 3 key aspects of Asana: as foundation, as attitude, and as self-realization. Using his gift for engaging storytelling, James helps us see how yoga allows us to make the body a place where we can feel at home, to remove ourselves from the world for a period of time and practice steadiness amidst challenge, and to accept and work with what is in order to incrementally make adjustments for what could be. You will feel inspired to get onto your mat, and put in the steady effort to “be the change” you wish to see in the world around you.
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Apr 05, 2021
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Aum Ga Na Nam Ta Ga Na Pate Ga Ma Va Mahi Ka Ving Ka Veen Aum Pa Ma Shrava Sta Ma Jish Ta Ra Jam Bra Ma Na Bra Ma Na Spata Anishin Va Na Te Bessi Ra Sa Ra Nam Aum Ga Na Nam Ta Poro Sha Ya Vit Mahi Va Kritan Da Ya Deem Mahi Tan Naran Dev Prachora Ya Ti Aum Ga Na Pate Ya Na Ma Aum Ga Na Pate Ya Na Ma Anishin Ma Ga Na Pate Ya Na Ma Aum Ga Na Nam Ta Jarnar Vind Seandar Sheta Svaat Ma Su Ka Va Bote Na Sree Se Jang Nika Ya Ma Nee Samsara Lala Moo Shanti Yaheen Saam Svetam Pranaman Pa Tan Jarnar Aum Ga Na Cheta Sya Pare Na Va Cham Lam Shree Sya Cha Va Idya Kena Ya Pa Karotam Prabh Ram Nee Naam Pa Tan Jarnar Pran Jarnar Rana Tos Mee Aum Shanti, Shanti, Shanti Namaskara. Welcome. Hello everyone. Today on Yoga Now we're going to speak about asana. Now these days when people hear the word yoga which has entered so many languages all around the world, often the very first thing people think of is these yoga postures, these yoga poses, these yoga exercises that we could perhaps put underneath the umbrella term of asana or asana practice. But it wasn't always thus. I had a very memorable experience in the early 2000s. I went with my family, my parents and my sister to visit a lady who had been kind of like an auntie to me and my sister when we were very young. And at that time she was in her 90s and she was suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's in a way that meant she didn't recognize us. She'd worked with my father many, many years. We'd been closely associated in younger years.

But when we went to visit her she didn't know who we were but we had some conversation and when she heard that I was studying, teaching, practicing yoga, she said, the first thing she said, it wasn't, oh, oh you must be able to touch your toes very easily. It wasn't, oh, you must be very flexible, nothing of the kind. She said, ah, you must have very good control over your mind and your emotions. And I said, well, perhaps slightly better than I used to. I'm practicing yoga. I've still got a long way to go. But it was very striking that the first thing she thought of was self-control, self-mastery when she heard this word yoga. And she, you know, she was born in the early part of the 20th century and when she was learning about yoga or hearing about yoga, she really had that association of these human beings who had this great, let's say, mastery over their conscious faculties and their conscious capacities. And these days, I think in the second half of the 20th century was the yoga, arson and boom. And one of the benefits of that is that so many of us have had the chance to experience yoga who perhaps otherwise might not have had this opportunity. But when people hear the word yoga, just like when they hear the word arson, one thing I often find is that people tend to, when people practice, it's different. The term starts to open up.

We start to realize, wow, this can mean so many different things in so many different ways. But often people have a pretty narrow association of what arson is. So I'd like in today's sharing to look at some of the key ideas around yoga and in three principal areas. Firstly, arson as a kind of foundational practice in yoga. Secondly, arson as attitude. And then thirdly, arson as it relates to the bigger picture of yoga, the aims of life and self-realization. And we'll do that in relation to the epic story of the Ramayana.

So what is arson? What does it really mean? Well, literally it means seat. So arson, maybe you can hear the influence of the Sanskrit coming through to English here. But one thing I'd like to mention too, one time I was in India and I sat in on a class where the local teacher and an Indian teacher of many decades teaching experience said, you have to remember that arson is kindergarten yoga. And when he said this, he was not suggesting that arson was just for beginners or just for kids. What he was suggesting, at least as far as I understood it, was that in arson, we can learn lots of the foundational principles that will support and accompany us on the whole journey of lifelong practice. Like if you're lucky enough to go to a good kindergarten, we learn some useful habits, some useful principles that can support lifelong learning.

And it's like that with arson. Arson, just like any aspect of yoga, everything's connected. So the microcosm connects out to the macrocosm and within arson, we can see and learn so much about how to bring ourselves into that deeper balance and harmony that is the real yoga. Now, when we think of arson and taking a seat, if somebody is being very hospitable to you and you arrive in their home or they'll say, please sit down, take a seat. Are you sitting comfortably? And things like this. So the first question this makes me ask myself is like, am I being truly hospitable to myself in my own skin?

Am I sitting comfortably here? If not, why not? My body is my home. I'm always here. So can I or do I sit or stand comfortably in my own skin, in the space of my own body? Am I truly at home here? An arson practice and yoga practice really aims to making this place a place where we can really feel at home, at one, at peace. Now, arson as well, it's part of what is classically termed Raja yoga. Maybe say that with me, Raja yoga. Raja means a sovereign, a king, or if it was made in the feminine, it would be a queen.

So Raja yoga is the yoga of becoming a true sovereign being. And Raja yoga is another name for what is sometimes referred to as Ashtanga yoga, the yoga that is encoded by Maharishi Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra, the text that makes yoga a Shastra, a codified body of cohesive, robust, time-tested knowledge that is a practical use for so many different people and for so long over so many different periods of time. Now, in the Ashtanga yoga, Ashta means eight. Anga means member or limb. So the Ashtanga are the eight mutually supportive members of the body or the collective yoga practice. And each of them affect each other. They are all present in any practice.

So we start with Yamaniyama. This is how we behave in relation to ourselves, to others and to the environment. And obviously how we behave in relation to ourselves and others is going to affect the state of our body, our mind, our emotions. Then we come to asana, which means the seat of our awareness. And it's very striking that this is encoded here. Like we have to have a steady foundation for our awareness.

If our foundation is not steady, then it's unlikely again we're going to be able to come to this state of deeper harmony. Then we come to pranayama, the extension of our life force, pratyahara, turning the powers of our sense experience back towards the source, towards the conscious essence. Then the sometimes referred to by the term internal limbs, dharana, jnana, samadhi, concentrated awareness, meditative awareness and integrated awareness. So these eight are all part of any meditation practice. We have to take a seat. Even if we're standing or moving, how is my awareness seated?

How is it feeling? How stable and relaxed and easeful is it? If my awareness is not very present, it's not going to be easy at all to access a meditative state. So these are always present in all aspects of work with technique and in the bigger practice of life. Now, the classic definition of asana that Patanjali gives in his yoga sutra, sometimes people say, oh, the yoga sutra doesn't say anything much about our yoga asana because Patanjali just devotes three sutras out of almost 200. to the topic of yoga asana directly, 28 syllables in total.

However, when people say, oh, it doesn't say much about asana, I think that is misreading the sutra text. Patanjali says so much about asana. It's just he says it so, so concisely, so masterfully, jaw-droppingly, amazingly concisely. Let's just look a little bit at his initial definition of yoga asana because it's so beautiful and so instructive. And as we continue, we'll see how it can keep expanding and it's a great reference to keep reminding ourselves and keep coming back to. So Patanjali describes yoga asana as sthira sukham asanam.

Maybe we can put that on the screen for you. This is the 46 sutra of Patanjali's yoga sutra. And he describes asana, the seat of yogic awareness, as being sthira, which means steady, and sukha, which means easeful. So this can appear like a pair of opposites. However, really steadiness and easefulness are mutually complementary.

We cannot really have one without the other. So asana, we can really consider it as a state in which force and counterforce are brought into balance so that they can actually help us become more established in that integrated state. Now, before we continue, I'd like to just tune in a little bit more to the significance of the words here. So the asana of the seat is at once sthira, which means steady, and sukham, which means easeful. But the word kham means space.

And suh, good space, agreeable space. Now, in the Indian system, space is associated with sound. The research scientists of the Indian tradition going back millennia, they recognized, like some more recent research scientists have recognized, that the space we experience in is not empty, but is pulsating. We live in a realm of vibration. So the seat of yoga, asana, is a space in which there are sustainable good vibrations.

Asana is a state of sustainable harmony. Now, one way we can consider yoga practice is tapas, which means fire. Now, what do we know about fire? It heats, it warms, it purifies, it clarifies. We're very, very grateful for fire.

But if it is not tended to, fire can cause us all sorts of horrendous problems. So asana has to be steady and easy, force and counterforce, brought into a mutually supportive balance. So it's not too much. It's not too little. It's not too full on. It's not too laid back. It's this sweet spot of the middle.

And this is one of the ideas of how yoga asana practice can, over time, attended to with diligent presence and a spirit of inquiry, really help us come to appreciate how too much and too little, neither one nor the other is really going to bring us home to that place of sustainable well-being. Sometimes what happens in our lives, when we notice that we've been doing something too much or something too little, we can overcompensate. But yoga always seeks to cultivate our connection to, our affinity for, our capacity to stay tuned to the centre, that sweet spot, where the seeming pairs of opposites can actually meet and draw out each other's complementary potential. And this is what asana is all about. Now, today it is Friday, and Friday is the day of the goddess.

And the goddess is one of the great archetypes of the yoga tradition, some would say the greatest, and there are many reasons for this. One of the reasons why the goddess is such a great archetype is because as the mother goddess, for example, she reminds us of what it means to womb it. She knows how to womb it. Now, when we start practising yoga, one of our main concerns and one of our main intentions is to invite ourselves into a recognition of something that reaches wider, deeper, further, vaster than we have previously been able to recognise. Now, when I say it's so significant that the goddess knows how, or the mother knows how to womb it, this is what I'm suggesting.

The mother knows how to create something amazing, something more beautiful than perhaps you would even have dreamed or dared imagine was possible from within the existing structure. And this is what yoga invites us to do. Yoga invites us to actually build on our inheritance and to go beyond our revolutionary past and start walking the way of the evolutionary. So, you know the revolutionary history. There's too much in one side, and so we don't like that at all.

And so we overthrow it and then we go to too little the other way and it becomes, you know, a revolution and everything gets turned around. We don't like this. We throw it out and we replace it with something that seems at first glance so different, but before very long at all, it becomes quite apparent that really it's very similar just with different labels. And yoga says, enough of this revolutionary inefficiency. Can we muster the courage to actually build on what we have experienced before, what I've experienced up to now?

Rather than this swinging from extremes and these, you know, these kind of crazy revolutions, can we actually walk the heroic path of the evolutionary? One who owns, admits, recognizes that yes, there may be many things that are existing now that could be much, much better, but I also have a lot to be grateful for. There are also many wonderful things going on right here and out there in the world. And if I actually want to advance, then reinventing the wheel, that might not be the most effective use of my time. So Arsena can teach us, rather than swinging from one extreme to another, to tune in more to this place of steady, incremental growth and evolutionary development.

And the mother archetype really reminds us how that is possible. We work with what is, and from within the existing structure, from within what is already here available, we can fashion something, we can bring to emerge something that is so much more beautiful than we might ever have dreamed was possible. And this is one of the reasons why meditative practices are so key to the yogic method. Yes, sthira sukhamasanam, it also encodes the idea of steadiness and constancy. So we have to keep inquiring constantly.

We have to keep cultivating the habit of examining our habits. We have to keep practicing in ways that help us reach beyond our habitual ways of looking. But also, can we just sit down? Because when we just sit down, we give ourselves a chance to experience in ways that we don't have so much access to when we're busy moving in the external realm. And this is why Sita meditation, I think it's really worth privileging it, consecrating some time and space to it regularly so it can support all other aspects of our life.

And this is very much the foundational traditional yogic way, we might say. Now, if I would say to you, yeah, please sit down, be still for one hour a day. Sometimes people hear this idea and they don't like it. I've encountered many people over the years, some of whom have something of a meditative practice themselves, perhaps a movement discipline or a musical discipline, for example, because any type of discipline can be a meditative inquiry, can be a yogic inquiry. But sometimes people say, sit still doing nothing for an hour every day.

What are you talking about? And they'll maybe cite some very service-minded person who is busy helping save the world, helping do great things in community. They say, that's what I want to be doing with my time, not sitting still doing nothing. And I can understand this perspective. However, whilst it is, and the other people say, for example, oh, my running is my meditation or my gardening or the time I spend standing on my head.

Let's say they stand on the head for 20, 30 minutes at a stretch. That is my meditation. And of course, running can be a meditative practice, gardening can be a meditative practice, and one can access a meditative state when one is doing various forms of asana practice or posture-based practice for sure. Any activity can be meditative. However, there is a difference between these external meditative activities and seated internal quiet practice.

Yes, we can access amazingly transcendent and deeply integrated, immersed states of awareness in activity. But it is very difficult. It's not entirely impossible. But it's not so easy to have these types of experience that can actually really start to recalibrate our system in a very efficient way. Now, for myself, some of the most amazing experiences I've had of Samadhi, they came in activity.

I remember when I was a child sometimes playing sports, and I was so into it, everything else faded away. I was just in the present, and it was very ecstatic. It took me out of my normal state of awareness, and it was quite life-changing. It made me think, wow, what was that? It made me realize there must be something more than all this, and was not the only, but one of several important sparks of ongoing inquiry into yoga.

But I had no control over that. And I was watching an interview, or parts of an interview with the actor Hugh Jackman recently in which he was speaking about God. And he mentioned how, as an actor, there had been these rare occasions when he's on the stage and he just feels at one with the whole audience, and the script is moving through him, and it's just like this ecstatic experience. I know other actors have said the same thing, and they say, it's amazing, but you cannot command that. You cannot call it in.

It's just like a kind of grace. It can happen. And for sure, we can have these very elevated and life-changing experiences in activity, and that's wonderful. That's beautiful. But we've no control over when that grace arrives.

And a key difference. If I am, when I was a boy, when I was playing sports, I practiced those sports a lot. So I prepared to be spontaneous. Then in the rigor of the game, I was being called on to act in ways that totally demanded my presence. And so I got very high, had this wonderful experience.

But it was, I couldn't command it. It was completely unpredictable. Those impressions nonetheless had a very lasting legacy. I can't forget that I did taste that experience. Now, yoga is very practical.

It recognizes that everything that we do leaves an impression. But there is something special about the impression of samadhi. When I have an impression in the external world, let's say, for example, and this was another beautiful meditative experience I had. One time I was about 20 years old and I was in Italy. I was a student at the time.

And I went to this beautiful place on the coast. And for quite a long couple of hours in the afternoon, I was running along this hill trail on the cliff. And because it was on the cliff side, it was very beautiful. The sparkling sea to one side, the forest to the other side, running through the forest. But sometimes you're right on the edge of the cliff.

So I had to be very, very present. And the whole path is very uneven. So I got really high as a transcendent experience because it was a beautiful environment, beautiful sunny day. I'm running. I have to be completely there because I'm not there.

I'm likely to trip up or lose my footing. And I could even fall off the cliff. And it was fantastic. It was amazing. But what was happening in that experience?

My kinesthetic proprioceptive sensory powers, they were all externally recruited. They were all busy outside. And they had to be. If they weren't, I wouldn't have been able to continue with the activity and have that type of deeply integrated uplifting experience. But because those powers were externally oriented, it's almost like it precluded access to a completely unified experience because different powers were operating in different ways.

Some powers, in this case, my proprioceptive kinesthetic and sensory perception, they were all very much to the fore. And some of my other powers were kind of just sitting back, going along for the ride or for the run in this instance. So that had a lovely impression. But in terms of really changing the way that I operate, the way that I perceive reality, the way that I relate to myself and others in my environment, that type of experience is a little bit different from the experience that I can have when I just allow myself to sit down and be still. Because when I have that type of subtle samadhi impression, it is an impression that the whole system experiences at once as one.

And this is why samadhi can be so transformative. This is why it can really change our mind. When my powers are externally busy, when they are recruited and operating externally, they cannot lend their support to that subtler realm of experience. They cannot give such ready support to accessing something more beautiful than I might ever have even dared dream was possible to experience. When I do have those types of subtle internal experience, they really start to change my understanding of who I am and reality.

And one very significant thing it can change is my sense of who I really am. When I connect to this deathless, essential part of me, then death is no longer so intimidating. And this can be very encouraging. It can embolden us to move through life with greater integrity and with greater confidence and greater peacefulness. Because if I die today, well, okay.

So this is one of the benefits of asana. But before we say a bit more about the benefits of asana, well, this is about the benefits of asana as well. But this running along the cliff and having this transcendent experience, fantastic. But I cannot run along the cliff every day. It requires a beautiful locale, beautiful weather, certain physical condition, all the rest of it all came together on that day.

What about doing something every day that invests into an account that never depreciates? Could I give myself a gift that keeps giving more and more to me, that keeps giving me more support steadily, easily, step by step as the years go by? And this is the idea of having some time every day for that quiet time. Now, in the yoga tradition, one of the great masters is Shankaracharya. And Shankaracharya says that the meditator knows the same secret that the archer knows.

So I mention earlier these people who say, sitting still doing nothing for an hour a day, just think what you could do with an hour a day if you put that to good use. Well, for sure. But how many hours a day do you really think can be really efficient? And what about the connection between that quiet time to tune the instruments of the orchestra of our being and our capacity to be efficient in our external activity? So Shankaracharya says, the meditator knows the same secret as the archer.

The archer knows that in order to fire the arrow towards the target with power and precision, first we have to draw the arrow back away from the intended target. Only when we first draw it back away from the target can we send it towards the intended direct target with power and precision. So same idea in meditation. If I want to be efficient in the world, if I want to really relish, save and fully appreciate the amazing gift of being alive here now today, then how about drawing back first, drawing inside and inviting myself to a place of evenness, balance, steadiness, integration, that is then the platform for skillfulness, dexterity and efficiency. It's a bit like the orchestra.

Even the best orchestra full of amazing virtuosos, what do they do before every movement? They take some time to tune up and tune in to make sure they're all playing in the same key. And then they can play this music that can move the audience. That can be almost life-changing for the audience. I was once, it was in the Prague Spring Festival one year and my friend got these tickets the last minute on the front row and it was just a few euros for the ticket.

And it was an amazing orchestra and literally at the end of the performance the whole audience were in ecstasy. It was this transcendent experience. It was just so masterful and the music was so transportative and absorbing. And before they played, all of those musicians were fantastic musicians. They all had decades of diligent practice behind them, allied to talent and the supportive ground of being in a place where that music is appreciated and encouraged.

But even so, what did they do before they began playing? They spent a good 10 minutes tuning up. And then between the second and third movement they spent another three or four minutes pausing, tuning in again. Because even a fantastic orchestra, if they don't take that time to tune in and tune up, they might make a cacophonous racket. Now we are an orchestra.

We have amazing instrumental powers. The powers of our senses, the powers of our movement, the powers of our minds, our emotions. So when we take that time to give those different instrumental powers the space, the time to get quiet, to relax, and to tune in so they can come into harmony, so they can come into accord, where they can work in a mutually supportive way, how much more efficient are we going to be able to then act in the external world? Maybe we will realise that these people who we were looking up to because they are able to accomplish so much, maybe many of them take some time out of their day like this. That time to prepare to be able to move through the rest of the day more easily.

Another thing about this is that in the world we live in, we are always being encouraged to go, go, go. Do, do, do. Achieve, achieve, achieve. Buy, buy, buy. Consume, consume, consume. Zone out, zone out, zone out. All these different things that are being demanded of us. The world doesn't really ask us to be fully present.

The world is constantly inviting us to be distracted. And our minds, our minds are being bombarded with so much information and are getting such rigorous demands placed upon them. So one of the beautiful benefits of taking some time to devote to meditative practice is it's like I can say to my mind, I'm going to give all the powers of my awareness in classic yogic style an object to focus on, to orient towards, to gather around. So I invite my mind and say, okay, mind, slow down. Be quiet now. Be still.

Look at that lovely sunspot over there. Just go and sit down in the sun and let's all come together in a circle, mind, all my bodily powers, all my sensory powers, all my emotional powers. Let's just come together around this central focal point of meditative support and just tune in. And then we give the mind the experience of being part of this mutually supportive group. And this can then really have this amazing recalibrating, rewiring effect in our neurology and in our attitude because it can help the mind understand that it doesn't always need to be dominating or trying to control.

Rather, when it learns to relax and trust in the other instrumental powers in this amazing orchestra of the body-born human vehicle, we can actually get along that much more steadily, that much more easily when we allow ourselves to come together. And this can be very fortifying and very encouraging because it's like we can actually cultivate our self-trust. We can actually cultivate our faith in our own capacity to access a steady, calm space or state. When we practice going there, we get used to what it means to invite ourselves into that space. So when things get a bit frantic, oh, well, we know what to do.

We know that we can access that subtler space. And the basic practice is when my awareness wanders off, I just invite it to come back to the centre. My mind is chatting, raging, howling, complaining. I observe it. I notice it. As soon as I notice it, I'm empowered. Maybe I have a little smile to myself and gently, patiently, kindly, I invite all the powers of my awareness once more to come together around the object of support.

And as I do this, I'm training myself in the ways of steady, easeful, calm. And slowly, slowly, step by step, I can make it that little bit easier to navigate the challenges, the unpredictable challenges of the day to day, that little bit more easily. When we do this, another really important thing happens is that we actually interrupt the barrage of information that is bombarding our brains and our awareness and we interrupt our habitual patterns. Now, I don't know about you, but when I stop and notice my thoughts, my preoccupations, I notice that it's like my mind, it runs around these familiar circuits. It has these patterns.

And one thing about these patterns is that sometimes they're described as some scarters. They're things that have been very well made. Now, it's also said in the old tradition that just a moment of samadhi can ash mountains of some scarters. How is that? Because that samadhi experience, it impresses itself upon the whole system at once as one.

These other tendencies I have, some of my powers, perhaps my senses, perhaps my body, perhaps my mind, perhaps my emotions, they are to the fore, they are leading that pattern. And I jump between the emotional circuit and the analytical circuit and the bodily circuit and the sensory circuit and these habitual circuits. Now, when I come to sit and meditate, it's like I invite myself to jump out of that mass transit system where the trains are whirling around and around and just sit down in the sun or the shade, if you prefer, and let everything settle and come together where all the different powers can be more mutually supportive. So when I do that, I give my mind the chance to actually experience a different way of being. Now, the mind-amazing power tool, though it is, it struggles with things it has not experienced.

So in meditation practice, it's like I'm inviting my whole being, including my mind, to experience a state of deeper integration than it has been up to now familiar with. And as it experiences that, then the mind can kind of get with the program of relaxing and allowing itself to cooperate with all the other powers that support our human experience. And this practice of asana, it can also really, excuse me, this practice of seated meditative practice can also support all of the aspects of our life and our yoga practice, including physical posture practice, sometimes referred to as asana practice. So when we're doing that time, when we spend that time working with all those different postures or movements, when we do that, having first invited ourselves to a place of cohesion and balance and harmony, there's every likelihood that our experience in the asana practice modality can be deeper, richer, subtler, and more nourishing. Now, when we think of the word asana, there's another thing that strikes me about it.

Now, sometimes when it means literally seat, but it also refers to posture. And one word that is associated with posture is attitude. And in French as well, attitude, it means one's posture, one's deportment, how one carries oneself. Here also, the description or the definition of yoga as tirasukam asanam can be very helpful. Am I conducting myself in a steadily easy way?

Is my attitude, is the way I relate to myself, to others in the environment conducive to steady easefulness? Is my attitude the way I deport myself in relation to life? Is it actually helping me connect to my aptitude for yoga, to my internal innate capacity for cohesion? Am I doing what I can to actually promote what I really want to experience? And when, for example, I do my yoga asana practice, how do I do it?

Do I do it with joy, with reverence, with gratitude, with devotion? Or do I do it greedily or fearfully? Do I use it as a place to hide or run away? Do I do it to show off? Do I do it to avoid?

How can I do that practice so it's actually inviting the type of experience I would like to have the rest of the time? Now, how might we do that? In the yoga tradition, the greatest of yogins is Shiva, as well as being one of his many names is Yogishwara, the lord of yogins. Another of his names is Natharaja, the lord of the dance. And as the lord of the dance is Natharaja, he's in this beautiful graceful live posture balancing on one leg, and his matted locks are out on the horizontal to demonstrate that he is moving so fast.

He's dancing within this ring of fire that symbolizes the constant change and whirling wonder of life and existence, and his hair is out on the side because he is spinning and turning so swiftly, and yet he is perfectly poised, symbolizing stillness in dynamism. But when Shiva is depicted as Yogishwara, he is depicted in a yogasana, a sthirasukam asanam, a posture that is steady and easeful on some high Himalayan peak. Steady like the mountain is Lord Shiva. How is it that as Natharaja, he is able to be so steady in the midst of so much dynamism, so much change, so much unpredictability, because his consciousness is seated in sthirasukam asanam. So when we see Shiva as Yogishwara, what posture do we see him in?

Do we see him in Trikonasana? No. Do we see him in that favorite of the Instagram yoga poses, the Ekapararaja Kapotasana? Certainly not. How do we see Shiva as Yogishwara? He is sitting in an easy posture, a posture that he can hold for a long time. Yes, a long time, because how long does Shiva like to meditate for? Eons. How long does yoga practice go on for? It's a long practice.

It's a lifelong practice, maybe many lifetimes. And so when Shiva is shown as an icon of yoga, how is he shown? He is sitting in sukhasana, sukhasana, or maybe siddhasana, or virasana, or padmasana. And these postures, their names are all highly significant. What does sukhasana mean? Sukham, it means easeful. He is sitting happily. Siddhasana, the posture of completion.

He is feeling whole, fulfilled, easy. Virasana, the posture of the hero, the posture of the one who is willing to wrestle with all it means to be alive as a human being. Now, as I've already mentioned, stopping, being still. This itself in the world we live in is a heroic act. But the rewards are worth it because taking that time can recalibrate our awareness, can give us that chance to experience things that go beyond what we might previously even have dared dream as possible.

And of course, the other classic posture that Shiva may be pictured in, which I am not capable of demonstrating, is that which is known as padmasana. Now, padma means lotus. But what does padmasana really mean from a yogic perspective? Now, padma, there are many ways of saying lotus in Sanskrit. Another one is pankaja. Now, pankaja means that which emerges from the mud, from the mire, from the admixture of worldly existence, from the earth and the water. Where do we live? We also live on this amazing planet of the earth and the water.

And the lotus that grows in the mire, in the earth and water, what happens? It is warmed by the sun, element of fire. It is then caressed by the air and the wind. And then what may then happen? It blossoms open into space to reveal its innate beauty, that amazing beauty that was dwelling within its secret heart all along. And so I would suggest that the real padmasana is any attitude, any posture, any practice that actually helps all of us emerge into the embodied recognition of our deeper innate beauty, our deep innate potential. So forcing my legs into padmasana is not going to make this lotus bloom.

I have to work respectfully with the system. But for Shiva or for a person who grew up sitting in that posture, there's no doubt about it. It's very stable. So these postures, what do they have in common? They're all very stable. They're all very sustainable, providing it as a realistic posture for that particular physiology. But let it be sukha. Let it be easeful. Let it be sustainable.

Remember, sthira sukham asanam. Sthira sukham asanam. Eight syllables. Yet sthira sukham asanam. Seven, eight. It's encoding so much in this one phrase. So can we cultivate that steadiness? Can we cultivate this easefulness? When we practice with shiva as our archetype, this is not incidental or accidental.

If we do make this steady effort to cultivate this sustainable ease and to invite samadhi, it is altogether quite possible that may come into our life more shakti, more power. With the discipline of practice that is sometimes likened to a fire, will come more luminosity, more capacity. Now, we mentioned already fire. Yes, we're very grateful for it. It makes our lives so much more beautiful, so much easier, so much safer. And yet fire can also be rather dangerous.

So if we want to keep walking a steady, easy path of yoga, shiva is essential. What do I mean? They say shiva without shakti is shava. Shava are lifeless corpse. But shakti without shiva, shakti without the steady awareness to hold it, to guide it, then this can be a raging, uncontrolled, ravaging, a conflagration. This can be not at all what we want.

So as we start practicing yoga, we want to cultivate this quality of shiva to become stambha. Stambha is another of his names. It means steady light, steadier than the mountains, like this linger of light, super steady. So we can actually digest and assimilate the greater power that we are quite likely to accrue as we continue to practice. Now, of course, when we keep practicing, we might think, well, I know what I want with my greater power.

I want more of this and more of that in the world. And for sure, meditative practices can do so much to support efficiency and accomplishment and skill in so many of our worldly pursuits and endeavors. However, another benefit of that time where we really grant ourselves space to leave aside our ideas, to leave aside our thoughts, and to bathe in that subtle internal experience and richness of inviting all the parts to come together, it can actually help us tune in more to our sincere, authentic, deeper longings and be able to then respond more readily to the question, who do you serve? What do you really want to do with your life? How do I really want to feel today?

What do I want to share with the world today? When we grant ourselves that space to step back from all the ideas or possibilities that the external world may throw at us and invite ourselves to connect to this subtle space inside, I feel that it gives us then greater authority to move authentically in the world that we experience outside ourselves. And when we ask the question, like, who do I want to serve? What am I here for? In yoga, it's laid out. What is the purpose of life?

Four principal aims, arta kama dharma moksha, basically to live well in the world, to leave it better than we found it, and then to become free. And these things are not mutually exclusive. There's the idea that if our arta, our material means, our way of living, our way of making a living, our kama, the way we enjoy ourselves, the way we learn, the way we share, the way we celebrate, dharma, the type of action we do in the world to support the wider community, to support the well-being of the whole. When all of these things come into balance, they naturally help set us free. So it's not one or the other. It's not like worldly attainment or spiritual attainment.

No, no, no. Microcosm and macrocosm, they support each other. And one way this is beautifully encoded in the Indian tradition is in the epic Ramayana, sometimes described as the fifth veda, this epic story that encodes the teachings of yoga in this memorable story form. Now, the Ramayana, the principal character, the main protagonist, is Rama. And Rama is the prince of the royal house of the sun and is the eldest child in his family. So what is his destiny?

As prince of the royal house of the sun, his destiny is to sit on the throne of the royal house of the sun. In other words, to sit on the throne of enlightenment. And this story is a yoga story. Rama symbolizes each one of us. Now Rama, he's very, very qualified.

As a young man, he's showing all great signs of being a wonderful sovereign. But before he can become sovereign, he has to go to the University of Life. He has to be tested in the arena of real life experience. Virtue never tested is no virtue at all. And in order to become king, Rama has to overcome Ravana.

So we have Rama and the principal barrier to his becoming the king and the claiming that seat on the throne, sthira-sokamasanam, of enlightenment is Ravana. Now you might notice Rama, Ravana, those names are quite similar. They both relate to the seed sound rum, which is associated with the Manipura chakra and the element of fire. And fire is very much associated with the path or journey of yoga sadhana or yoga practice. It's about illuminating ourselves without burning the house down.

Now Ravana, Ravana is great. He is utterly magnificent, but Ravana has ten heads. Think about that for a moment. There are many fantastic reasons why he has ten heads. It demonstrates his mastery over so many disciplines and arts and crafts and ways of seeing and ways of knowing.

There are also beautiful stories about why he has the ten heads, because he kept cutting his head off as an act of devotion. He's that devoted. He's the greatest devotee, he's the greatest lover, he's the greatest warrior, he's the greatest aesthete, he's the greatest scientist, greatest philosopher. Ravana is an amazing character, but he has ten heads. So imagine five heads on this side, four on this side.

In other words, he's out of balance. He's not seeing the whole picture. Ravana symbolizes and represents what happens when, even with great qualities and great intentions, we deploy our innate capacities in an imbalanced, unsustainable way. Rama has to overcome Ravana in order to become Rama. If we're going to take our seat on the throne of enlightenment, if we're going to realize our true self, then we have to face our shadow in its entirety.

We have to face that part of our self that could misuse that gift of fire, that could misuse the gift of creative capacity, of consciousness, of awareness. We have to recognize that the capacity to misuse it is within us, and then overcome that tendency to take perhaps the easy or short-term way out and actually act with balanced equivision for the long-term good of the whole kingdom. Rama's destiny is to become the sovereign. The sovereign's duty in the Indian tradition is loka sangra, which means the well-being of the whole. So if we are to become established on the throne or seat of enlightenment, we have to play the sthira sukham asanam along game.

We have to cultivate this steadiness. Now, interestingly, at the beginning of Ramaayana, before the great adventures of Rama's life really get going, as they're just incipient at the beginning, we hear two amazing stories. The story of how the Ganga was brought down to earth by Bhagiratha, and then the story of how Vishwamitra went from being a worldly king with lots of worldly ambition to being a rajarishi, somebody who was fit to rule the earth in a very dharmic, far-sighted way to then becoming a brahmarishi, a knower of totality. And in both of these stories, we see encoded again and again very clearly the importance of persistence, the importance of steadiness. Bhagiratha, his father didn't manage to do it.

His grandfather didn't manage to do it. His great-grandfather didn't manage to do it. They were all great men. Was he put off by this? Was he dissuaded by the fact that it hadn't worked out in the past?

Not at all. He was not dissuaded by that in the least. He kept his resolve and he kept steadily inviting that steadiness. And then the Ganga did come down. It's a beautiful story.

Vishwamitra, his life was very dramatic, but in between all of this tumult, plenty of sitting. And that's so intrinsic to his evolution. Same with Rama. Rama leads a dramatic life. But every morning and evening, Sanjivandana, at dawn and at sunset, shut things down.

Now, when I first encountered the Rama, my teacher said, just imagine. He says, when Rama became king, it's described as the Rama Raja, the time of balance and harmony on earth. And so my teacher just said, imagine if everybody, the whole world stopped, half an hour, morning and evening, to dive inside, to tune in, to forget the distractions, to step back from our habitual ideas and thought patterns and to bathe as best we can to invite ourselves into the healing waters of that subtle internal togetherness. What would the world be like? Everybody did that.

Now, I might think, well, I can't change the world. But another famous Indian in the last century said, be the change you wish to see in the world. So my invitation is, take an hour a day. It doesn't have to be all at once. Maybe do 20 minutes in the morning, 20 minutes in the evening, and you do a couple of little five minutes here and there.

Try and see. When I grant myself that space to step away from the external distractions and step in to those inner riches, then I can infuse my life with this deeper, subtler, richer quality. And I would say there's nothing to wait for. We look outside, we can see the world could do with a bit more harmony. And yoga is always very practical.

Let's focus on what we can do. Let's be the solution. Never mind getting caught up in the problem. Do what we can to invite the solution. And so I would suggest, please grant yourself that sacred space.

Honor this amazing vehicle of your body born conscious vehicle and give yourself that time and space to just sit down, be quiet, and let all these amazing instrumental powers tune in and then go into the world from that place of evenness and steady recalibration. Thank you.

Comments

Christel B
2 people like this.
Great invitation and reminder to yoga's purpose.
Kate M
2 people like this.
Again, a brilliant exposition on the "seat of yoga". I very much appreciate when you illustrate with your own experiences. This makes the yoga practice so much more real (as opposed to theoretical) which it absolutely is. Thank you James!
Daniela D
Semplicemente Grazie!!

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