yoga meditation and philosophy with Lynn
Asana as Meditation with Ashutosh Sharma
Notes from a workshop, written up by Michael Smith.
ASHUTOSH SHARMA has been practicing and teaching Yoga full time in the Himalayan Tradition for the last 10 years. He has studied asana, pranayama and relaxation techniques in different schools within Rishikesh, India. In 1992, he met Swami Rama of the Himalayas who sent him to Swami Veda Bharati to learn meditation and to intensify his practices. Swami Veda has sent him regularly to Europe, Asia and the USA to teach. Ashutosh lives in Germany, where he continues teaching yoga. For further studies in yoga and meditation he stays with his master Swami Veda annually in Rishikesh, India.
Ashutosh is an inspiring example of someone who has devoted time and intense concentration to asana as a form of preparing the body, breath and mind for meditation. He embodies the principles of yoga and is a delight to study with.
“Learn to be relaxed in all circumstances. Whatever you do and wherever you are, relax and you will see how powerful it is. The art of relaxation brings out the power that exists within you; through relaxation you can experience your infinite capacities. It is the art of making your mind still, and focusing all your energy on the work you are doing, whatever it may be. Thus you will be able to bring out all your potential. Once you learn this art, everything happens spontaneously and effortlessly.”
— Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi (Ammachi)
For a yogi, whatever is done is preparation for meditation.
At the end of Hatha session, you should feel still, relaxed, energized – not wanting to talk or move or do anything but meditate. You can’t get up or talk. All you want to do is meditate. If you do not feel in a meditative mood after doing asanas, you have not done them correctly.
The aim of Asana is not to get physically flexible. It is to get mentally flexible.
There is no need to do complicated postures. Physically advanced does not mean advanced. You can all the benefits you need from simple postures done mindfully with the breath and relaxation. Not a lot of complex postures are needed. We only need to open the nadis. Postures are not that important. Sequence is important. The sequence is designed according to energy flow. Do not keep changing postures; go to the depth of the postures with intensity and awareness. You can live without complicated postures, but you cannot life without the joints and glands exercises.
People would come to Swami Rama and say, “Teach me to stand on my head,” and he would say, “Do you know how to stand on your feet?” People would say, “Teach me advanced Pranayamas,” and he would say, “Do you know how to breathe properly?”
“Ha” yoga is very popular nowadays, but “Tha” yoga is neglected. “Ha” means the active part of doing a posture. “Tha” means the passive relaxed part of doing a posture. Most of us have been trained in “Ha” Yoga, but we need to balance “Ha” and “Tha.” To do Hatha Yoga properly we need both “Ha” and “Tha.” Then there is balance between active and passive, ida and pingala. There is balance between vata, pitta and kapha. There is balance of the five pranas.
The Importance of the Breath
Swami Veda once said that Hatha Yoga is to enjoy each breath fully. How to enjoy each breath fully? Observation!
To balance “Ha” and “Tha,” work with the main core thing: breath. If we ignore the breath, we are not doing Asana; we are merely exercising. Breathe throughout the postures. Stay “inside,” throughout the entire session and sequences with breath-awareness. The breath is pauseless. The breath is continuous.
In our lives, instead of calming down the drunken monkey of the mind, we usually give it more wine through random thoughts. We do this even during our Hatha practice. Try to observe the breath constantly to calm the fluctuating mind. Do not let the mind fluctuate and spin off at the end of a posture. Continue to breathe through the postures. Posture is not just the holding stage. It is going into and coming out. It is the transitions also. Maintain the constant breath-awareness and body-awareness from head to toe for an entire hour-and-a-half session. It is continuous awareness. Regulate the breath. The breath is kept deep, smooth and calm. As soon as you see your mind begin to fluctuate, bring your awareness back to the breath. Do not think of the next posture. Pay attention to this present moment and be here now. The breathing is the important part, not the physical movement and the repetitions. De-emphasize physical movement, and emphasize awareness of the breath.
Work with the breath and movement. Let the breath move the body. Let the breath begin, and then halfway through the inhalation or exhalation, move the body accordingly. The basis of movement is the breath. Breathe and then move. Coordinate the breath with the movement. The breath helps us move.
Throughout all the Ashutosh’s guidance the phrase most used by him is “Let your breath flow.”
Relaxed Stretching with “Ha”-“Tha”- Awareness
There is tension, and there is tension-due-to-stretch. Stretch without unnecessary tension. Extend without becoming tense. Extend in a relaxed way. There is extension but no tension. At the limit of the stretch watch the breath in the abdomen for 3 to 5 breaths. Then come out of the stretch with an inhalation and relax with an exhalation. In the transition between postures take 5 breaths mindfully.
The emphasis is on inner observation of the state of the body and the breath, not on completion of the posture or how many repetitions (such as in ankle rotations) you can do. Staying with the exercise at hand, and not thinking “what is next?” Being in the “Now.” The state of being is valued, not the doing of postures and the performance with degree of stretch etc. Go deep within and observe.
We need to observe all aspects of a posture: movement, relaxation, tension, stability. There is a double awareness. Close your outer eyes and open your inner eyes. Explore. Experience. You observe the stretched part and the still, stable part with the inhalations and exhalations. Usually we pay attention only to the stretched part and ignore “Tha.” If you ignore any of these aspects while doing Asana, we are not doing them correctly. The key is to keep with the flow of the breath throughout.
Practice and Learning:
If there is time, do hatha twice a day, morning and evening. If you do not have time, then Learn for a week or so, and then start Practicing.
Learning: Learn in the evening to improve. You can do “Ha” Yoga then. Keep the same series. Learn all the aspects of that series. Learn and correct. It will take you a while to learn the postures; then go into the “mood” of Practice.
Practice: Practice in the morning. Use the same sequence every day. You need a complete plan to practice oven and over, a single routine over a long period. When Practicing there should be only the experiencing of relaxation and enjoyment. Always stay within your comfortable capacity. Never go beyond your capacity. Accept your physical and mental state. There should be no struggling, no trying to improve, no effort, no strain, no analysis. Not like the usually striving at a job. It should all come naturally and effortlessly — flowing. Accept yourself completely and flow with the breath and enjoy! Practicing this way will energize you. You will feel energized and clear-headed and alert the whole day. That is why you do not do Practice at night; you will not be able to sleep.
Straightening the Spine:
Swami Rama and Swami Veda have both stressed the importance of a straight spine as a prerequisite for meditation. The spine is not naturally straight; there is a natural “S-curve” to the spine; however, due to genetics or poor postural habits like slouching, this curve can be exaggerated. One of the things a good hatha practice should do strengthen and limber muscles around the spine so that when a student sits in meditation, the spine is vertically balanced and aligned and the flow of energy through the nadis is not cut off. The concave curvature at the lower part of the spine is called a lordosis (fr. Gk. “curving forward”), and the convex curvature at the upper portion of the spine is called a kyphosis (fr. Gk. “humpbacked”). Most of the ways we use the back are counter to what is needed to straighten the spine because we have adopted poor postural habits. For example, when we bend backwards in the second position of Solar Salutation, we bend may backward from the lower back, therefore increasing its natural concavity. When we bend forward, we may hunch over the upper back, thus increasing its natural convexity.
Ashutosh spent quite a bit of time showing how one could correct the curvatures in the back to straighten the spine. One of the main things we can do is to observe how we are using the back and see what muscles come into play as we make various movements.
Breath can straighten the spine — the breath-energies. There are six movements to the spine: forward, backward, to the side, twisting, extension and compression. In Hatha we do not want compression. We get that during the day with stress and so forth.
Swami Veda said, “If you want to meditate, be lazy — but be completely lazy!” We can be completely lazy in meditation if the vertebrae are completely aligned and the spine is balanced.
If we are tipped forward, we will have tension in the lower back, and our attention will go there.
If we are tipped backward, we will have tension in the abdomen, and the breath will become constricted and irregular and pull us away from meditation. If the mind fluctuates, it may mean that the spine is tipped backwards and is constricting the abdomen and the breath.