Stages in Life
by Kay Parry
Our Geetaji lived a pure, simple, life dedicated to yoga. She was the ultimate yogini - doing her duty, living in the right way and eventually “gaining her freedom” when on December 16th 2018 our beloved Geetaji’s life on earth came to an end. She had just entered her 75th year completing the stage of life known as Vanaprastha which literally means ‘giving up worldly life’.
In December 1993 during a Yoga Intensive in Panchgani, India, Geetaji explained the Hindu traditions of the four stages in a person’s life and how the Indian philosophers, Rishis, classified these stages:
There are four ashrama (stages) of human life;
Brahmacharya (bachelor student, 1st stage),
Grihastha (householder, 2nd stage), V
anaprastha (transition, 3rd stage) and
Sannyasa (renunciation ascetic, 4th stage) over a life expectancy of 100 years.
The first 25 years are when the agni (fire) of the intelligence is bright, a time for acquiring knowledge. It is the time for study and learning called Brahmacharya. Then this acquired knowledge becomes ‘experienced’ knowledge that can be shared during the next stage called Grihasthasrama. Geeta said, ‘After knowing many things you have to know your duty in this world. Since you have come to existence in this world - you were born in this world - you have to know your duty and fulfil it’. This stage means doing something fruitful for the society, such as bringing up healthy children and educating them to ensure that they are the torchbearers of the next generation.
The Vanaprastha stage ultimately transitions into Sannyasa - a stage of complete renunciation and dedication to spiritual questions. After the age of 75 it is Sannyasasrama stage where a person becomes non-attached to this world. Our beloved Geetaji completed her 75 years in this world to perfection. And it was we her students who benefited from her dedication.
Practical and Philosophical Aspects of Yoga Practice
Transcription from an interview symposium held at The First Australasian Iyengar Yoga Convention, Sydney October, 1991
Moderator: Inez Baranay, Bondi Junction School of Yoga, Sydney.
Panel: Kay Parry: Senior Intermediate L 3 Iyengar Yoga Institute Bondi Junction, Sydney, Susan Robertson: Junior Intermediate L3, Kangaroo Valley, NSW, Peter Scott: Junior Intermediate L3, Rathdowne Yoga Room, Melbourne, Rod Saines: Introductory L2, Iyengar Yoga Institute Bondi Junction, Sydney.
Inez: One of the things that people would like to know is how the sequence in a class or a practice is worked out. What kind of guidelines are there for a sequence, and under what conditions or circumstances do sequences change, whether they are personal conditions or general ones such as seasonal?
Kay: In the beginning the sequencing is really important, how the asanas are introduced. In the beginners’ classes the emphasis is on standing postures because the emphasis is on the legs then. In Ayurvedic medicine the legs support the lower energy so if you do not learn to straighten your legs you often stay in a you have to have a neutralising posture. The first posture you go into, if it is a forward bend, then you do a twist or lateral movement, that neutralises. Then you can do a backbend. In the early stages do not do too much of those changes.
We don’t do so many laterals and twists in our daily lives, so in the beginning you will find that the standing postures are not only working the legs but also laterally extending the spine. The lateral movement comes first and the twist comes second. If you follow the sequencing then you are building up. So if you start doing Supta Padangusthasana etc. then you will find that same principle, the same idea come when you are upside down, e.g. Eka Pada Sirsasana. So if you have the stability to learn (asanas) when you are not worrying about balancing and other aspects, then when you are upside down, you can put that emphasis back in. If you have the foundation, and you keep moving along it is gradual process, one (step) leads to the other and there is no confusion; but if you miss those steps along the way then when you come into an advanced posture you don’t know where you are, not just physically, not just mentally, but emotionally. Also if you are going out of class and you don’t have that calming down, occasionally it is OK but if you keep that practice up then you become very rajasic in personality and bowl people over. But worse is what is happening to your own nervous system. You have to always cool down. The cooling down has to balance the stimulation.
On the other hand, if you are always cooling down then you will go dull, all the time it is that balancing. That is when it comes into your own personal practice. That is why the sequencing is important.
You will find, especially with Iyengar people, they will go through a stage of being very rajasic but that is the way we grow. You go from dullness to that, but then it has to change. If you stay on that plane and you don’t become sattvic then you just stay there: it is not growth, it is stagnation. You have to look at that in your practice. I am talking now about further along. You are not just looking at getting better asanas, you are looking at becoming a better person. It is not just about your body it is about the complete balance of personality.
tamasic state: that is, dullness. the dullness.
The first thing is to lift.
If you were starting and you did what was asked in Light on Yoga and you practised every day, it would take you a minimum of 14 weeks before you even think about headstand. First we have to learn to stand on our feet; that is really important. With sequencing, if you are working out at home, there are a few general rules.
The most important is if you do inversions such as stimulating postures -handstand, forearm balance, headstand - then you must have a counterbalance, so you always do either Sarvangasana (shoulderstand), Viparita Karani. These you can do on their own but you must never do inverted poses such as headstand without a counterbalance. It seems, oh, why not, it feels good, I feel strong, it feels great. But it is not just about the physical body, a balance has to come from the inside. Yoga can be your best friend or your worst enemy. If you go on (without balancing) you might feel physically strong on the outside but it’s what it is doing to your nervous system and immune system. You will find out when it is too late.
Also, in the beginning, when we start introducing forward bends, we would not put backbends in the same class (or practice). It is not that they should not go together, but usually one way of moving the body is enough. Usually, if we do a forward bend and you are more advanced, and you put a backbend in after, then
Peter: I had two people that I know of, who practised headstand without shoulderstand and one, a reasonably experienced acupuncturist, considered that he had had a minor heart attack. The other, a woman, practised headstand without shoulderstand during pregnancy (not under my guidance), and ended up with blood pressure, in hospital with high blood pressure, so I certainly go along with what Kay has talked about. Rajas is head and fieriness and both those conditions are about heat and fieriness. These are two very personal physical examples.
Susan: These two poses have different head positions; namely, vertical head position where the head is .straight down and the brain cells are stimulated as in Sirsasana, and the horizontal head position which brings about the cooling process as in Sarvangasana, Setu Bandha Sarvangasana, Viparita Karani. As Kay said the cooling, the horizontal head asanas, must always come after the vertical head asanas, even if you do Sirsasana and Sarvangasana at the beginning of your practice to get energy or sensitivity for your practice the horizontal head asanas must be done again at the end of the practice.
Inez: If we can summarise that, I suppose the two guidelines are, one, you need to work on a foundation before you go on and the other is the principle of balance.
How can people know from their own practice when is time to bring different kinds of balances? When, should variations or changes in a regular sequence or
practice take place?
Rod: You have to make sure first that you are well grounded in your standing postures. Not only do they bring firmness, flexibility and stamina, but also they all work on the spine, and you need a healthy spine. Guruji says you should practise standing postures every day for the first few years, to make sure you are well grounded and then the other more advanced postures will flow, but first of all work on the foundation.
Susan: I think that a regular practice brings about that awareness gradually as to when you should change your practice.
Inez: Another suggestion that a lot of people want to ask affects all women and all teachers. How does practice change for a woman during menstruation? And how is that question important for men who are not teachers? Do they have anything to learn from that too?
Susan: Yes, the practice should definitely change during menstruation because it is a time of change in the physiological state. Geeta (Iyengar) says that the emphasis should be on recuperative poses so that you keep the mental balance, rest the nervous system and conserve energy. Over-exertion should be avoided. Let the body go through its cycle, rather than fighting it, as it is a natural physiological process. There are certain asanas that you absolutely must not practise and they are inversions, abdominals, backbends and Yoga Kurunta, which is the rope work.
It is said that men also have cycles, and they do have times when they are low on energy and need a quieter recuperative practice, so the sequence is also good for them too.
Kay: When you are menstruating there is heat in the body, so that is why you do cooling down. You don’t want to add more heat. Also for a woman, if she looks at her life time, eventually she reaches the change of life. If you don’t look after yourself and if you keep adding heat then you could have more problems when change of life (menopause) comes. There is much heat, hot flushes, etc. but if you slowly change cooling down (in your practice) then you are less likely to have strong effects at the end. So you can’t just see it as that thing of the month - it is part of your whole life.
Susan: I would like to mention what Geeta said in 1987 and I asked her again last year (1990) and she confirmed it, that as a general rule women should not do backbends or standing poses for two days after finishing menstruation because of the exertion on the uterus.
Inversions, with the variations, Halasana, Setu Bandha Sarvangasana and Viparita Karani should be practised to bring the hormonal change back to normalcy.
Rod: Remember, yoga asana work on the psychological body just as much as the physical body. During menstruation, women are subject to psychological change because of the hormonal change going on. Practice that does not lead to hormonal balance causes physiological imbalance and menstrual problems.
Susan: I think also, that it is important that when you are not menstruating you do a thorough and regular practice and every day practise Sirsasana and Sarvangasana to keep the hormonal balance and to avoid menstrual disorders.
Inez: I think we will go from menstruation to pain! Questions about frustration and pain have been offered by a lot of people in various forms and verbalised slightly differently. It is to do with how our emotions, and our feelings and our expectations affects our practice. A lot of people feel a certain amount of frustration in their practice. They have this ideal that at the moment is a long way from being realised. Another question which may well relate to that is the difference between pain which is necessary, pain because of extension and working to your limit, and pain that is a warning about possible damage. How do you identify the difference? What is the difference between surrender and laziness, or on the other hand, feeling extreme tension because that is what is required and yet needing to avoid any possible injury or over extension.
Peter: I will mention something that Geeta said to me personally last year, in 1990, when we were there. I complained of a pain in the rib and I think she quoted to the whole class that this person has a pain in the rib. Immediately she put us in Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana through the chair, the backbend through the chair. She came around and she grabbed my shoulderblades and lifted them up, and she pushed them up really high and the pain went away, and she said now stay there. She went on to talk about Westerners and when they relax they relax like rag dolls. She really emphasised not relaxing like a rag doll and not being like a sloppy Westerner. I found that a bit difficult being in India. It was a bit difficult to see in India, where they are all so rubbery and they all just flop around really easily, and she talks about sloppy Westerners. It is true though in restorative postures we do slop, and if we slop we are going to create pain and I think that it is an important thing that we often create our (own) pain rather than relieve it, and it comes from being sloppy not only in postures but also at other times.
What is good pain and what is bad pain? I always tell my students that a very sharp hitting pain will probably be a nerve e pain. Some dull pain in not worth bearing with. Joint dull pain is an indication to me that something is not being used correctly. Most likely it is knees or elbows and sometimes hips and shoulders. Another thing that Geeta says is that you Westerners, after class, go and burn off all the energy that you have built up in the class. You don’t conserve, you don’t hold, you don’t take it into the organs and therefore recreate vitality and quality of life.
Inez: What about the question of over and under extending when actually working?
Rod: Well we are not talking about joint pain like in the lower back or the knees, but if you are doing, for example, Virasana and you get pain in the bulk of the muscle or at either end where the tendons insert, initially there may be some tension coming from stretching. Now the stretching needs to be a passive elongation. If you stretch too quickly or too strongly, then you activate what is called the stretch reflex and this contracts the muscles automatically, so you need to teach that muscle or let that muscle learn itself how to stretch without automatically contracting. In the initial stage of the first part of a posture you will feel some stretch happening and some tension due to that stretch. If, after a minute or two, that tension subsides then you know you are working correctly. Perhaps five minutes later it might become stronger and that is the time to leave the posture, but if you start stretching that muscle and the pain gets stronger and doesn’t go away, you grit your teeth, it gets stronger and stronger and you grit your teeth harder and you say, “when am I ever going to get out of this!” you know you are working too strongly. You are putting too much strain upon that muscle. It is probably trying to contract because of the stretch reflex and you, because of the posture, are gritting your teeth and trying to stretch it some more, and all you are doing is creating a minute tearing in the muscle tissue.
So you have to listen to your own body. By listening to your own body you are more in tune with what is happening in your own body at that moment. If you have an ideal perception of your posture then you are , thinking about the fruits of the action and not the action itself.
Inez: Some of the questions have to do not only with physical pain but often non-physical pain - feelings of emotional disturbance, feelings of being confronted AND SO ON. Are they to be met and dealt with or put aside? How are people to know how to deal with that?
Kay: If you are dealing with the physical body you can’t just separate it from everything else. If you are doing a regular practice and coming along you are going to meet your ego, you are going to meet your emotions, you are going to meet your mental (state) and then hopefully you will open up and see the spiritual side of yourself as well. As for pain, I think there is good pain and bad pain. To a certain extent, pain is awareness. People say, oh my gosh, especially in beginners' class, oh my, and I say you are just being introduced to your body! It has not spoken to you in a long long time and now it is talking to you.
I feel bad pain is the one that you take away with you. If it is here and you are getting into an asana and it is uncomfortable but when you are out of it, it is not there, that is just change. Also you will go through times, especially when you are regular, when you are going to be challenged not just physically but emotionally and mentally and that is when it becomes difficult. How much is your ego pushing you to do that asana? And are you listening to your head or are you listening to your body? Are you listening to your emotions? All of them will come in. Those emotional ones - we hide things in our body - past experiences. You are carrying them around with you, then you start opening up the diaphragm opening up the heart area, you become vulnerable and also you start throwing out those old things. You fight a little bit, oh but I really learnt something, but instead of just learning it and letting it go we hang on and then the confusion comes. So I think it has to be confronted and that is most challenging.
The physical level, you know, our bodies are pretty nice to us and when they have had enough they will say I've had enough. But our emotions and our mind are a little more tricky and that is what we have to look for. You won't find it unless you do a regular practice. If your practice is irregular then you won't notice. If you are doing the same thing day after day after day - how come today it is difficult, how come today I'm this, how come yesterday it was easy, and then you start looking. It has nothing to do with the body, it is what is happening with the mind and the emotions and then you can start growing through that. Then you see yourself as a unit and not separating. Sometimes we have to separate so we can understand the whole.
Rod: The challenge is to become aware of the habits you carry around with you and the conditioning you hold from the past. If you can recognise these habits or conditioning, and we don't want to carry these (habits) around, then we can let that go and we are more able to be receptive in the moment, and that is the challenge, to be receptive in the moment rather than live in memory or in expectation.
Inez: And knowing all this means that you can tell when you are over or under extending!
Kay: The pain comes with either.
Susan: I think if the mind is in control there is a great risk of over extending, as you cannot surrender. If you have total awareness and you are using your breath, which is the bridge between the body and the mind, then there is involvement and surrender in the movement rather than it being forced from the outside. If it is a mechanical action and you have made a decision to do something, then there is the risk of over extension and subsequent injury.
Rod: Obviously if you work past your limits you are working with aggression, perhaps working with the ego, and you are not in touch with yourself and that balance is lost -the balance between the mind, the breath and the body. To understand & identify your limits helps to create that balance.
Inez: What occurs to me is how important it is to have a perceptive teacher who is able to guide you in this. We can understand it on the conceptual level but it is difficult to put it into practice and identify those philosophical things in our actual practice.
Question from the Audience: Should we always depend on a teacher?
Peter: No. That is what your practice is. You need to practise. Kay has said, I am not sure how many times, regular practice. I tell my students that it may not daily, but regular, very regular. As far as I am concerned daily is better but regular. I think if you are regularly practising, and I will reiterate what Kay then you will come across those things, you will come across barriers. What to do when all of a sudden you feel absolutely furious with the person next door because they have done so and so, or with somebody because they have broken something. What to do with that when that comes in your yoga. For me that is a practical way to deal with it.
Kay: I think the ultimate teacher is Guruji. He is up there charging along, sweeping that path so beautifully so that I can walk it. I feel he is not imposing his teaching on me but he is allowing me to follow. I am so grateful that he is sweeping that path so I can find it.
Inez: A wonderful thing that Guruji says is that it is your practice that is your Guru or your Guru is practice. The moment he said that I knew he was my Guru! It is true, yes, we have to develop our own practice and we are very grateful for the perceptions and guidance of our teachers and our Guru.
To go back to the question of asanas, people are also interested in the way asanas are taught especially in Iyengar yoga: a very precise way which pays a great deal of attention to detail and the way an asana is constructed. The question is why do we approach asanas in different ways at different times? Why do we concentrate on various aspects of an asana when the ideal or what we are working towards is the complete asana? What do we have to learn by looking at its components? Linked with that is the question about adjustment. How important is it to have adjustments in an asana?
Susan: I think the aim is for precision and understanding in an asana to bring the body into correct alignment. One way of working is to break the asana down into segments, which brings more awareness to each part of the body. Working this way can also tend to break bad habits often bypassed in the unbroken completed movement. If you are in the middle of the room, for example, practising standing poses always the same way you can maintain these bad habits, whereas if you are back against the wall working with props it is much more difficult to be unaware of the wrong movement. It is much more difficult for the body to take the path of least resistance.
The body in the asana can be broken down into the feet, the legs, the hips, to work with, for example, alignment. So that is one reason for a different approach. Another reason to work differently would be because of the change of seasons. In winter you would do more dynamic, heat producing asanas like jumpings, backbends and jumpings incorporated with standing poses for example, to heat the body. In summer you would practise more cooling poses that keep the body hydrated and you would do the backbends differently in summer than you would in winter, i.e. with more use of props in summer. You would work harder on difficult asanas and probably try new asanas in winter. In summer you would practise more passive asanas, but still practising Sirsasana and Sarvangasana. You practice asanas such as forward bends, sitting and supine, Viparita Dandasana on the chair, supported Halasana, Setu Bandha Sarvangasana etc, so that you do not deplete your energy and you keep hydrated
Peter: Can I slightly vary - on Melbourne’s winter. It is very cold. This is really wonderful weather for yoga. It is humid and it creates softness. In Melbourne the difficult ones come more in autumn when it is reasonably dry, a combination of dry and humid. In other words it is not raining but it is damp in the atmosphere. For me, that is when I tend to do more difficult things. In winter, it is really a matter of getting through it. It is freezing cold and it is damp. It is the wettest winter on record down there, it is cold and wet, so we do a lot of the heating ones, and the heater is on very high when we are doing restoratives. The thing I have found this year is that finally in Savasana I only need one blanket in winter so the balance is starting to come from practice, and very much from going to India the last few times.
To add a fraction further to what Susan was commenting on, to use props I find really useful particularly when I am teaching, because someone is going to have a long achilles tendon and someone is going to have a short one, someone’s hip is going to turn more than somebody else’s. To get an idea which prop helps, you can use in your practice, not every time, but a little bit more. That is the useful part about using props, and Mr. Iyengar said that when he saw someone unable to do it in class he would go home and he would put himself in that position and try as much as possible to be like that person’s body, and then how to change it and that is the way the props have been built up.
Kay: Separating and segregating the body in that way brings mindfulness and awareness. We are very conscious of the parts that move but we are not so conscious of the dull parts, so by stopping you have to look and by looking sometimes you might feel and then you might start understanding. Yoga is mindfulness, so if we are going to change not only our body but our mind and perception, then quick movements and fast movements will not do it. Coming in, honing in, bringing the mind into the body, then we lift not only our physical body but our mental. You have to refine everything.
Rod: Intellectual awareness comes quickly, but the real understanding or the realisation of an adjustment to be made in a posture takes a while to happen. Only through experience are you able, when you come back to the next class and you are in the same posture, to
have the awareness in that part. It is only with practice and with understanding will that happen.
Kay: Reading is good, understanding what you are reading is better but absorbing what you are reading is the way. That is the same with our bodies. After understanding there comes the absorption, so then you go past your mind to the mindfulness and intelligence of the body; that is the state that we are looking for. The mind is in each and every cell.
Inez: Ideally, eventually, the complete asana would include an awareness of every single part and component and aspect at different times.
Susan: Regarding the question of why we approach asanas in different ways at different times, sometimes instead of having a focus on any particular part of the body in a class a fast sequence of asanas may be given, such as standing poses, or Paschimottanasana and Halasana for example, and this is for a different effect. The practice of quick flowing backbends would for example, have the effect of lifting the mind. When asanas are done in a held and focused way, sometimes the brain becomes heavy and the body tense. If, on the other hand, they are done at times in quick succession there is a lightness that comes.
Rod: It is very easy to be too serious in your practice.
Kay: Well, you can still be serious, but it is changing the mental attitude. Sometimes if you just keep focusing and focusing you just lock in. You have to give freedom to your mind so that you can give freedom to the body. Sometimes you often find that when you have been intensely doing something, then you might be put in the ropes to do quick rope movement or quick jumpings, just to let your mind have a little play.
Susan: One thing I remember that Geeta said in regard to changing one’s practice according to the season, is that this way of practising trains the ego. In winter backbends keep your spirits up, and in summer forward bends and supine poses teach you how to be in a hibernation-like state and hydrated. This is how you learn to find the balance between action and passivity. In the former the ego is expressed and in the latter the ego is subdued.
Inez: There’s another thing that people want to know about a lot, especially people who live in Sydney. A lot of people who have jobs they have to go to every day and spend a lot of time at. What kind of guidelines are there for people whose time available for yoga practice is very restricted. What should a minimum practice consist of? Particularly for people whose life is full of a lot of stress and tension and they come into a practice needing to work through that as well?
Peter: Again, advice to my students in Melbourne, 15 minutes is good. If you can do 15 minutes all the better. If you can do 30 and it goes up. I always say that one pose that should be practised really regularly is Dog Pose and, I think, given that pose you can do an enormous amount. My further advice is to do the more active postures in the morning, a Dog Pose, standing postures. If you have 15 minutes you might do Dog Pose and Standing postures in the morning and then do 15 minutes in the evening or at night before bed - something that is passive or something that is soft, perhaps even something that is sitting like Virasana. Personally I find Dog Pose very refreshing and very recharging. It is always used as an introduction to class work. I am not sure if I have been in a class where I haven’t done a Dog Pose.
Inez: And the stress?
Peter: The stress. Again think if you can get into this planning of a minimum yoga practice, whether it be daily or three days a week and couple of classes, if you can get into that pattern you will start to de-stress. There is no doubt that you will start to de-stress.
Rod: Well, the most important thing is to start a practice. That is the hardest thing, starting your own individual practice. You come to class and you learn so many asanas and you take them home, and surely some can be worked through a little bit more, or you find that you like a particular asana. It is necessary to develop your own practice so that if you cannot come to class all the time you can have your own practice. Once you start your own regular practice, the decision to do the practice is no problem. It is making the decision. I agree with Peter, you need to do the basic things - standing poses, Dog Pose. If you are a regular student you should be doing some inversions. If you are stressed, well it depends on the nature of your lifestyle and your job etc. but it may be enough for some people to do Viparita Karani at home or even at the office or somewhere, or Supta Virasana with support, followed by perhaps forward bends with the head supported. If you are stressed then you need to do quietening, calming poses, perhaps Setu Bandha on the bench.
As Peter said it depends on whether it is the morning or the afternoon. If you come home after work and you are stressed out, put your legs up the wall and just let loose. Become non-attached to what happened in the day. Let that stress go when you get home or when you leave the situation that created the stress instead of bringing it with you.
Susan: As with Peter, I have always said to students even if you have only five minutes do Dog Pose because there are so many benefits from that one asana. It is a semi-inversion so it is invigorating, it lengthens the spine, stretches the shoulders, arms and legs, there is no strain on the heart and it removes fatigue. It is a start to a personal practice.
Regarding the stress part of the question, pranayama is very effective -Viloma I and II, Surya Bhedana and Chandra Bhedana.
Inez: Is that (pranayama) suitable for beginners, people who haven’t done a lot of yoga?
Susan: Viloma I and II in a lying position. This is effective for fatigue and strain and particularly Viloma II for the nerves. You get rid of accumulated toxins in the body, which removes the fatigue.
Kay: If you are too tired in the beginning, start with the resting - Viparita Karani, Setu Bandha, etc but then work towards doing Headstand and Shoulderstand.
Once you put that effort in you are going to get twice as much reward back. Also, for short practices, in the book “The Iyengar Way” by the Mehta’s they have 20 minute sections in the back.
Inez: We are going to move on now. We have been talking about the foundations. The foundation of yoga is a very ancient philosophy. I think a lot of people are interested enough to have started reading around that area and some people even go to lectures and so on. We have had a number of questions come in to do with the philosophical basis of yoga and how those teachings can be integrated into the practice we do. It seems to a lot of people at first a merely physical practice.
One of the questions has been how can we pursue the teachings of Patanjali and still function in the kind of world we live in. It is not the kind of world Patanjali probably lived in. We have a very competitive, high powered and stressful world. Patanjali, who wrote the Yoga Sutras, has provided the basis for a lot of the teachings.
I am going to ask Rod to answer this first because as well as answering the question you might summarise what those teachings are in a sentence or two! People want to grasp the philosophical basis and integrate it.
Rod: What is the first part of the question?
Inez: It is how we can integrate the teachings of Patanjali in our practice and still function in the kind of world we live in.
Rod: Well, the second chapter of Patanjali’s Sutras deals with practice and the steps you take along The Path of Yoga. There are eight steps: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi.
Inez: For people who don’t know, can you just say what Yama and Niyama.
Rod: Yama deals with social ethics and Niyama individual conduct. In the past the guru or the teacher would ensure the pupil was steady in Yama and Niyama before the pupil was introduced to Asana and Pranayama practice.
Yama is social ethics and there are five main ones. The first one is non-violence, so even though we are practising asana, the history of yoga before Guruji, mostly before Guruji, was that a guru would have one pupil. The guru or the teacher needed to know if the pupil was steady in Yama and Niyama before the guru or teacher would introduce the pupil to Asana and Pranayama practice. So, being steady in Yama and Niyama is very important. The social ethics of Yama are non-violence, truth, non-stealing, brahmacharya which is moderation in sensual desire and non-coveting or non-greed. There are the five basic principal Yamas and universal truths. They apply to any culture, any creed and any philosophy. Introducing these five important Yamas into the way you live, these universal truths could help you in coping with the social world that you live in.
There are also the Niyamas. They are the things you do do. They are the personal practices or ethics - cleanliness, contentment, effort study of the Scriptures or the texts and devotion to God, the God that lies within. They are the five personal ethics which are important in the way that you conduct your life. Once more, they can be universal practices. So just remembering the five Yamas, and five Niyamas, I think trying to parallel your lifestyle according to these universal truths, not only are they important for your practise of asana because every part of asana might include some aspect of these Yamas, for example, non- violence. You might be violent to your own body in asana. It penetrates every part of your lifestyle.
Susan: Just to add to that, and it is a very difficult thing to do - be compassionate but dispassionate, that is do not let the emotions get involved.
Kay: I feel that your Asana and Pranayama will not be fruitful unless you observe the Yamas and Niyamas. They are guides. Maybe like the Ten Commandments.
I always found when I listened to great men talk on these subjects that they put them into daily life. When you read them in the texts. oh yes, that’s good, very interesting, but it has to penetrate, it has to be absorbed. You have to know what you are reading. You have to absorb it into your daily life or you are having yourself on. It will not be right unless your foundation is the Yamas and Niyamas, and that doesn’t mean from your past, it means from this moment, now, the very moment you are in.
Rod: This does not come from consuming material or external objects. This comes from recognising the bliss which lies within.
Inez: How and why and when does our yoga practice become something more than physical? How does the attention to the body eventually become attention to other aspects of ourselves?
Peter: Bliss. Wisdom. I would use the word wisdom. Wisdom comes very much from when yoga becomes ones’ own and I think that goes along with what Rod has just said. I thought about that when I heard that was a question, and I thought well, when is yoga spiritual and I think it is when it is your own and it goes right back to what we were talking about with the first question. Practice, when it is your own practice, when you are developing it, when you are starting to give input to it. When it is not just a response to an instruction. It starts to become your own and you start to grow from that. You start to become wise from that, you start to learn from that. It is very much about learning about what is within.
Inez: One of the other philosophical questions that a number of people have asked to be discussed here is the question of sexuality. I guess the background to that is a kind of perception. I am not sure about the best way in which to word the question so I will just ask what is the relationship of yoga practice to one’s sexuality. Is yoga, on one hand a way of repressing or sublimating sexuality or on the other hand awakening it? Or neither of those things?
Susan: I take Brahmacharya, which is one of the Yamas to mean restraint of sensual pleasures.
Question from the audience: How much restraint?
Rod: I think it means also, not craving, not being lustful. It is more moderation.
Peter: Craving is an interesting term. Craving is really desire. There is a quiet pop song that I really like about desire. Caffeine is probably the yogi’s drug. I have just given it up without too much craving. Craving is sensual desire and it leads on. Sobriety is a good word to use there. Sobriety of body and mind. Whether it be sobriety or not eating peanut butter like Elvis Presley or caffeine or nicotine, whatever it may be. Any particular thing will change our sobriety and our mindfulness, and that’s fairly important, that we keep our mindfulness. Not as in head mind but as in awareness and wisdom.
Kay: You cannot deny your sexuality. At a certain stage when you start your yoga practise you open your body. You open your heart, you open all parts of the body and then it’s a matter of what you do with it. That is when you become tested with your practice. You will never get to the stage with your yoga practice that you will not be tested.
When you start opening, what are you opening? Are you just opening the love that is inside you and is that love for humanity as it is, or is it a desire to have that fulfilled? It is a tricky one, but something to look at. People can often only see love in sex because we link love and marriage and sex and all those things together .
Rod: The mind is easily led to the objects of the senses and the senses lead to desire. If we have desire in our head all the time we do not have equanimity because we are not experiencing the present moment. We are thinking of some other time or place or experience. Sex is there to be enjoyed but not to take us out of our own particular awareness at that moment. The other thing about renunciation it is not cutting yourself off from objects of the senses, but it is having thirstlessness for the objects themselves. It is no good going and living on a mountain thinking that renunciation will be good for you because all you are doing is carrying the desire there with you. Not having the objects of the senses does not mean to say you will not have the desire in your own mind. It is more thirstlessness and non- craving than renunciation. The attitude that yogi’s live an austere life of privations is not correct.
Inez: We have time for some questions - questions of a general nature, not your particular sore toe.
Question (Jim) When you mention the ego and release of the God within and I think that is called the Atman.
Inez: Atman is the individual soul and Brahman is the universal soul of which Atman is part, I think.
Jim: So we are attempting to release the individual soul to become part of the universal soul. Are we looking at dissolving the ego or the self? Are we looking to dissolve the self or to enrich the self?
Rod: About ego. The mind stuff is made up of the mind, the ego and the intellect. What we are more concerned about is balance between the mind, the ego and the intellect rather than being led by the nose perhaps by the ego or having the ego in predominance. You cannot dissolve the ego. It is part of our make-up. It is not saying we should not have an ego but it is more harmony and balance between the three components of chitta, which is mind stuff.
Susan: Sometimes the ego needs to be expressed and sometimes it needs to be restrained. I think what is important is knowing when this should take place.
Rod: What is important is recognising how many of your acts are based on the ego. It is more recognition of your own particular action.
Jim: It is self that I am talking about -the enrichment of self or loss of self.
Peter: Can I ask what you mean. How would you define enrichment of self and loss of self?
Jim: Well you could talk about the individual as being a fixed entity and as we practise yoga does, with the rising of the soul, if you like, the self dissolve and the soul take over or does it become enriched by the.......
Inez: Don’t we have both? It seems to me the practice of yoga both cultivates a stronger sense of the individual self and equally a stronger sense of the limitations of the self and the self that is beyond the Atman. Yoga is full of paradoxes like that.
Peter: The world is. To deal with the paradox in our paradigm is difficult. I think what yoga does is hopefully create an assertiveness that is not an arrogance or an aggression and, therefore, we get selflessness where our ego does not act from an aggressive point of view nor from a passive point of view -I would really like to tell you off Jim but I cannot bring myself to do it because I am too scared. My ego is still very strong and present there, and all I am not doing is acting because I am scared, or I rush in and tell you off because I am right. There is no assertion at that level. There is lots of ego because there is fear or aggression. Does that make sense?
I think you do enrich yourself because you become more assertive, again it is about this weird thing called balance.
Inez: I will just finish with what many people think of as the key verse from the Baghavad Gita. In this translation is goes like this:
“Find full reward of doing right in right. Let right deeds be thy motive, not the fruit which comes from them and live in action.”
Thank you all for being here and especially thank you to our panel - Kay, Susan, Rod and Peter.
This discussion was conducted at the First Australasian Yoga Convention held in Sydney in October, 1991. It has been transcribed from tape by Susan Robertson, who is thanked for completing such a difficult, lengthy undertaking. The article was first published in the journal for Australasian Iyengar Yoga Convention ’92 (Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Auckland) with Yogacharya BKS Iyengar.
Guruji visited Australia in 1992 the year following this convention, then Geetaji visited in 1996 and again in 2003.
At the time of the reprinting of this article Kay Parry holds an Advanced Junior 2 Certificate and teaches at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of Bondi Junction, Peter Scott is an Senior Intermediate Level 3 teacher and teaches at Yoga Jivana, Melbourne; the moderator Inez Baranay is a successful writer and has had many novels published since 1991 and is a long term yoga practitioner. Both Susan Robertson and Rod Saines have retired as teachers but continue their life journey with yoga.
The panel’s answers from so many years ago give clear and valuable guidance to those practicing yoga. Thank you Kay, Peter, Susan, Rod and Inez.
An asana is not a posture which you assume mechanically. It involves thought, at the end of which
a balance is achieved between movement and resistance.
Persistent practice alone is the key to yoga.
- BKS Iyengar -