יוגה עם אלכס ניימרק

יוגה בגישה אישית

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  • יוגה לנשים
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כבר 17 שנה

הוראת יוגה

מלב אל לב

Practice of yoga

 פרק קודם  תוכן                                                                             

Chapter 9                                                                               

Translated by Dmitri Nikonov
Edited by Rachel Douglas

 “ … knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, had been taught to feel …”

Ernest Hemingway

Even after many years of mixing with yoga enthusiasts, there is an odd trait of the Russian spiritual community that still surprises me: it constantly drifts toward the slogan, “In the struggle for peace, no stone will be left standing.”

The attitude of being either “for” or “against,” and violence as its essential attribute, has been so ingrained in the people, that the idea of change, including personal change, is intimately associated with inevitable, necessary, and even useful suffering.

Indeed, the poet Alexei Eisner once said, “Man begins from grief…”; but that is merely a metaphor, telling us that there is no urge for personal development unless your soul is in turmoil.

The thesis that physically feeble people are also poor in spirit does not hold water. There are a great many examples of a powerful intellect compensating for difficult circumstances or ill health, cases such as Nikolai Morozov, Daniel Andreyev, Milton Erickson, and Stephen Hawking. Clearly, these are exceptions: the potential of these people was so great, that no circumstances could hamper its fulfillment. In the overwhelming majority of cases, however, people with severe health problems have to put all their energy into just surviving. The higher stages of yoga are known to require being in perfect physical condition, which is essential to spiritual progress; indeed, it serves as its foundation. Nevertheless, yoga practice should not be a heroic feat every single day; rather, it should be organized in such a way that the rate at which the natural transformation occurs does not complicate life.

“The art of gentle self-control… The basic problem is how to control without controlling, how to use weak resonant stimuli to push the system onto one of its own paths of development, one which is favorable for the person. Actually, these synergetic principles are in accord with the eastern rules of conduct, one of which is do no harm. The Taoists claim that a ruler rules best, by ruling least.” [Osnovaniya Sinergetiki (Foundations of Synergetics), p. 304.]

For the purification and self-adjustment process to be initiated and to be optimal requires correct interpretation of the signals produced by one’s organism (in terms of body–mind communication). Because average Russians have first-hand experience of what a quick change in the social and economic order feels like, they now strongly advocate that reform should be gradual, and they recoil from any revolution. Why should the approach to oneself be any different? Useful changes always occur naturally, gradually, and without gnashing of teeth; therefore, traditional asana practice has nothing to do with suffering, nor should it. Man always tries to avoid pain, which is fully justified because pain is a danger signal. From childhood, everyone learns by trial and error to act in such a way as not to damage his body, and this is a law of life.

When a beginner starts practicing asanas, he confronts a great number of questions. Should the sensations he feels be strong or weak? How much effort is the right amount to make? Which sensations is it better to allow: weak ones, vivid ones, or unpleasant ones, up to and including pain?

Interacting, people exchange information and use it as the basis for organizing their behavior to satisfy their mutual interests. Communication is always a dialogue between two interested parties, each formulating his own and his partner’s considerations as clearly as possible.

Body and mind are an inseparable tandem, something like a centaur. One of them cannot feel good or bad without involvement of the other. People usually take little care of their own body, using it as a means to fulfill their desires. Up to a certain limit (age), the body silently obeys. But the tacit friendship and cooperation agreement between the physical body and the ego does include two “iron” clauses, which are always observed without fail: 

– you may exploit your body as you please, as long as you do not damage it;

– the body must have the conditions, time, and resources to recover.

Let us look at ahimsa (nonviolence) as applied to asana practice. Being universal, this most important principle of yoga ethics defines the limits of intensity for both physical and spiritual practice. Moreover, while asceticism completely disregards the principle of nonviolence toward oneself, yoga is based on it. The early stages of yoga are intended to purify, rather than to harm the body. Some yoga “teachers,” however, do not incorporate ahimsa. Pattabhi Jois, for one, often said, “No pain, no yoga.”

B. K. S. Iyengar, another of the foremost students of Krishnamacharya, goes even further. Here is an excerpt from his book Light on Life:

“Pain is your guru. We must not try to run from the pain but to move through and beyond it. While we do not actively seek out pain, we do not run from the inevitable pain that is part of all growth and change. In other words, the effort and its unavoidable pains are an essential part of what the asanas can teach us. In the beginning, pain can be very strong because the body resists us. By surrendering to it, we soften the body, and gradually it will lessen. But if once we are more proficient and pain returns acutely at a time when it should not be there, it is prudent to leave the asana for a while and reflect on what is going wrong. Pain comes only when the body does not understand how to do the asana, which is the case in the beginning. In the correct posture, pain does not come. To learn the right posture, you have to face the pain. There is no other way.”

Demonstrably, this short passage is nothing if not self-contradictory. It says that a correct posture involves no pain, on the one hand, but, on the other hand, that effort and inevitable pain are inherent components of an asana.

A discussion [in Russian] at http://realyoga.ru/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?p=49656#49656 is relevant:

Johns (4/10/2007): “Iyengar was riddled with injuries, and the fact that his approach to practice has not killed him makes him unique. But, IMHO, he is wrong to attempt to extrapolate his unique experience to others.”

Rinugun (4/20/2007): “But Iyengar has taught yoga for a lot of years now. Has he been deluded his whole life?”

Michael (4/21/2007): “Though he’s almost ninety years old, Iyengar still practices yoga. Do you have any idea how a person who had sustained so many injuries could do yoga at the age of 90, when the average life expectancy is 65?”

Viktor (4/21/2007): “Michael, back in 1990, I heard Faeq Biria at the 2nd Moscow Seminar, telling how Guruji had been injured while doing an extreme back-bending asana, and he restored his health without going to a doctor. The thought flickered across my mind right then: ‘Good for him that he recovered on his own, but what was the point of getting injured in the first place?’ I don’t know whether he was riddled with injuries, but I remember that he did asanas with violent jerks, which makes me think that he very well could have been injured.”

Johns (4/21/2007): “That’s right. I have a video of a seminar where he demonstrated asanas at an old age: Extremely abrupt entry into asanas, short hold times, a lot of effort — and that’s just what you notice on the surface. It is clear that there isn’t a trace of CVN and relaxation in this case.”

Michael (4/21/2007): “I didn’t say he wasn’t injured, and that’s not so important here. What I was referring to is two points:

– If his injuries had been painful and regular, he would have stopped practicing 30 or 40 years ago, that is, when he started getting old and his reserves of endurance began to run low;

– I don’t know how much CVN and relaxation there is in his practice, but that kind of argument sounds naïve, at the very least, regarding a ninety-year-old man. His practice looks quite correct, if he’s still alive and kicking.

“Johns, I know you are not that old yet, but look at anybody else that age (if you can find someone) — it’s hard for them to tie their shoelaces or get out of bed, never mind practicing asanas. Obviously all of that doesn’t make him a good teacher. It will be possible to judge Iyengar’s quality as a teacher in the future, if any of his followers are able to practice yoga at the same advanced age. If none of them can, then Iyengar’s method of active and vigorous longevity applies to him alone, and he has failed to make it universal.”

Master (4/21/2007): “Here’s some food for thought (or even disappointment):

“Victor van Kooten, a yoga teacher, said in an interview [translated from the Russian version]: ‘A lot changed after Iyengar broke my spine in an attempt to open my chest, which left me paralyzed three days later… After that, I could no longer follow Iyengar’s teaching.’ Victor later recovered and now teaches a softer yoga style. How do you like that!”

Johns (4/21/2007): “OK, Michael, let’s be consistent. I picked some passages from Iyengar’s autobiography. Judge for yourself.

“Guruji [Krishnamacharya] taught me the advanced backbends in three days. Being young, he could force me to do back bends according to his will by making me to do on his lifted legs.”

“I thought that if my presentation were faulty, the Maharaja would notice and ridicule it. Naturally, to save his honor, I said I would do well. I struggled very hard with tears in the eyes and tremor in the body… Believe me or not, I did as asked… Though I was in ecstasy at that moment, I was in agony with pains and tremors for months at a stretch.”

“The physical exertion marred my intelligence and I failed in my final exam. On account of this, I lost my orphanship. Education came to a halt, but it turned to be a turning point in my life.”

“He [Krishnamacharya] said I was to stretch one leg straight to the front and the other back and sit erect [Hanumanasana or forward split]. In order to avoid this very difficult asana, I told him that my chaddi (underwear) was too tight. Chaddi was stitched so firmly by the tailors that even the fingers could not pass between the legs and the underwear. These chaddis cut the skin, left permanent marks and even changed the color of the skin at the pit of the legs. Thereupon, he asked one of his pupils to fetch a pair of scissors from the office and cut the underwear on both sides and then told me to perform the asana. To avoid provoking his wrath, I gave in and did it, but with a resulting tear in my hamstrings which took years to heal.”

“You will be surprised to know that almost all difficult asanas such as Vrschikasana, Adho mukha Vrikshasana, the hand balancings, I learnt in public performances only.”

“Knowing the [low] capacity of my lungs and underdeveloped chest box, Guruji said firmly that I was not for Pranayama.”

“It took me nearly 8 to 10 years to sit at a stretch for one hour for Pranayama. The reason why it took me so long is on account of my spine, which could not take the load to sit, as my Guruji was always asking me to do backbends.”

“I did not do forward bends, and often avoided them for years because they were so painful. This type of escapism opened my eyes and made me rethink and readjust my methodologies. I began the forward bends with fervor. “

“In 1958, I began to feel dizzy and breathless in whatever asanas I did. This unnerved me, and with determination I overcome blackouts and breathlessness by increasing the staying-time in all the asanas till I become unconscious. I consulted my senior colleagues and Guruji who told me to take Yoga easy, as I was older and a family man. I laughed at their remarks and persisted in my practice doing those very asanas quite often with intervals to conquer the dizziness and blackouts. It took a year to conquer this hindrance to Yoga. I continued without interruption from 1958 to 1978 without any accidents. My practice was smooth and enjoyable. But in 1978, after my 60th birthday celebration, my Guru advised me to devote time to meditation and to lessen my physical strain. I obeyed him and in 3 month my body lost its grace and elasticity. I began doing 4 to 5 hours of practice each day. As ill luck would have it, in January, 1979, I met with a very severe scooter accident, injuring my left shoulder, my spine and knees. I could not lift shoulders up or do forward bends or twists or balances due to the injury. I began Yoga as if I were a raw beginner. But within three months of the first accident, I met with another accident injuring my right shoulder and right knee. Since 1979, I have been fighting to get back to my 1977 standard. I tell you that I have regained 75% of the asanas with 10 years of hard work.”

He injured his leg again not long before his 80th birthday, and injured his shoulder in late 2001. So, he didn’t change much. The body exercise habits he was taught at an early age stayed with him. As you see, he got injured regularly for many years. You, Michael, suppose that Iyengar’s yoga practice is quite correct because he is still alive and going strong. I disagree. His unique qualities, resilience, tolerance for pain, his will, and so on, are one thing; mental calm during yogasana practice is quite another matter. As far as Iyengar’s technique goes, try to follow Light on Yoga’s asana courses scrupulously, even just for three years. Chances are, Michael, we’ll see you land in the hospital or (if you’re stupid enough) the cemetery. Good luck with your practice!”

It is difficult to say if Iyengar is right or not. Every person is free to do whatever he wants to himself, but not to others. One thing is clear: pain occurs when yoga practice neither follows ahimsa nor targets CVN.

The physical body makes its case to us through hunger, thirst, fatigue, and pain. These feelings can be positive (feeling a need for something) or negative (a sense of danger such as heat, cold, pain, etc., which should be eliminated or diminished). The ancient Greeks called pain the watchdog of our health. It can bark to warn of danger and, if the warning is not heeded, it can get mad and bite you to death.

Ahimsa is a pillar of traditional yoga, especially for beginners. From infancy, every person develops a personal algorithm (safety measures) for contact with the living beings, inanimate objects, and phenomena of this world. Special, additional skills are formed for some specific fields of activity, such as the circus, sports, or space exploration. Therefore, beginners should develop additional safety habits when mastering yoga! If they don’t, they may find themselves in an absurd and dangerous situation.

Yoga manuals for popular consumption describe only the outer aspects of asana practice. Many asanas seem so simple, that the thought of hidden pitfalls may never even cross your mind. This simplicity, however, is only apparent, and it is deceptive because the beginner’s body has never experienced such activity before. None of the books I know, written by yoga teachers, details what one’s state of mind should be during asana practice, and how to reach it. Since yoga is CVN by definition, even the physical stage transforms one’s consciousness toward samyama. Moreover, yoga makes the sattva guna predominate. That is why Patanjali defines the asana as a motionless and comfortable posture. Calmness of the body is physical quiescence, while calmness of the mind is achieved by stopping any voluntary or spontaneous mental activity, and reducing to an imperceptible level the sensations which come with a posture and the associated effort.

If you overlook or ignore unfamiliar sensations (discomfort) during asana practice, this triggers a typical scenario. First, while staying in an asana, you may start feeling not exactly pain, but a kind of vague discomfort somewhere in your body. If you disregard this feeling, it will become persistent and more pronounced, which is a sure sign of incipient trouble. If you continue to ignore it, the discomfort will start to be felt in the same part of your body, but now in other asanas, too. This is a second alarm bell, warning that an overload has built up, become localized, and is now extending into the adjacent muscle (joint capsule or tendon). If the distress continues to go unheeded, the localized discomfort will follow you throughout everyday life. Persistent local discomfort, not yet rising to the level of pain, is a third alarm bell, warning about the onset of an inflammatory process, a future injury.

Here we may slightly digress. When walking down the street, are you aware of the work being done by your muscles, tendons, ligaments, organs, and other systems of your body? The answer will be a flatno, if your body is in good shape. Although walking engages the entire joint-ligament apparatus, it is a routine effort, to which perception has adapted. Thus, it is not perceived in any special way; you may be unaware of any sensations, unless you intentionally focus on them.

If the mind were to start to apprehend, even partially, the functioning of the muscles and internal organs, people would go crazy, or lose the ability to perceive their environment.

For a healthy individual, whose body has adapted to routine physical activity, there are no explicit sensations (never mind discomfort) during or after such activity. If any are felt, they are warning signals. Pain is not even an issue here. Nobody in his right mind would do physical work through pain, unless there were very strong reason to suffer in this way. 

But, this means there should be no excessive sensations (let alone pain) when the same body does asanas. If they do occur, it is an absolute priority to eliminate them, in order to stabilize the mind and preserve the body. You may practice asanas as much as you like today, unless your body will remind you of them tomorrow through sensations.

Above, we had reached the idea that an irresponsible attitude to asana practice leads to “excessive” sensations in everyday life. If they, too, are ignored, then doing asanas will cause explicit, outright pain in the same area of the body where it all began. After that, events will follow the same pattern: the pain at first will be localized within one area of the body and in one posture, then in the same area but in different postures, and finally it will come to be felt during everyday movements, eventually becoming persistent. As all this happens, not only the flexibility gained during yogasana practice is lost, but natural flexibility as well. Next, most asanas become impossible to practice, and even routine, everyday movements become difficult. That’s when you start thinking about that old musical, “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off!”

This sadomasochistic process may drag out over a considerable period of time, depending on how healthy and how mulishly obstinate you are. But, as matters approach their denouement (getting injured), there will be an onset of insomnia, irritability, and inner panic, followed by a break point such as an acute trauma or the process becoming chronic.

Pathophysiology tells us that a typical sign of inflammation at the microcirculation level is the overfilling of the capillaries with blood, or hyperemia, which may include both arterial and venous components. In other words, the arterioles dilate to increase the blood flow to the inflamed tissue and the small veins constrict, decreasing the outflow of blood and promoting capillary plethora. In acute inflammations, this scenario is justified, since it creates conditions for the accumulation of leukocytes and bioactive substances in the inflamed tissue, whereas chronic inflammation leads to blood congestion, followed by persistent hypoxia, local acidosis, cell structure damage, and active proliferation of connective tissue, which gradually replaces the original, functional tissue of the organs, joint capsules, or tendons. That is why practicing asanas through pain for a long time will cause a steady diminution of flexibility.

Such a scenario is typical not only of inflammations, but also of any local interference with venous drainage, be it a chronically constricted loop of a sluggish bowel or an intervertebral disc compressed in the same way for years. The intricate theory of the pathogenesis of osteochondrosis assigns a leading role to the impairment of microcirculation, while a sequence of correctly selected asanas works the whole spine, including all associated cartilage and ligaments.

I remember the case of a certain gentleman who visited the Sailors’ Club in Sevastopol and said he wanted to join its yoga group (then guided by Yuri Guryanov, a one-time submariner, but that’s another story). Responding to the raised eyebrows of the members who were of the ripe old age of seventy and up, the man explained that he had been practicing yoga on his own, and had gotten half-way through the fourth year of Iyengar’s Light on Yoga asana course. This fellow was young and in excellent health, and even seemed to become quite cheerful upon contact with yoga practitioners who were raw beginners, compared with him. Soon, however, he was laid up with a strange illness, which the doctors could not identify. He pulled through after six months, but never resumed his yoga practice.

Sometimes a beginner will persevere in mastering asanas at any cost, and this is an unfortunate case where the instinct for self-preservation fails and the person’s attitude toward his own body assumes a destructive character, as also occurs with anorexia.

“Even though most people are doomed to wish for what they do not have, it is nevertheless useful to work for greater satisfaction for all.” [A. H. Maslow, Motivation and Personality.]

Recall Skinner’s tests with rats in mazes. After much searching, a hungry rat would find the food at the end of the maze. When the food was removed, the rat would run the maze twice and, finding nothing, flatly abandon any further attempts. The same thing happened with any other species: upon making certain that there was no food, the animal would no longer pay attention to the maze, even if it was starving to death, but would try to do something different. 

When humans were placed in similar conditions (students searched for a hundred-dollar bill in a labyrinthine suite of rooms), they, unlike the “stupid” rats, ransacked the premises, looking for the money, time after time, making ten, twenty, or even fifty attempts. There actually was no bill there, but the people hoped to find it!

How many times does a rational human being, Homo sapiens, need to experience discomfort or pain, for him to realize that he shouldn’t be doing what is causing it?! What does someone hope to gain by doing the same thing over and over again without success? How long can a person waste time and energy without realizing the obvious truth, that real yoga must have an exclusively positive effect on any aspect of being, including one’s body? Hope unsupported by adequate knowledge and proper action is a person’s worst enemy. Socialism held on for three-quarters of a century, based on a constantly inculcated belief in a future result (the “bright future” of communism), even as socially hostile behavior persisted in the population.

How many knee injuries does it take to realize that forcing your legs to fold into Padmasana is the wrong way to master the lotus posture? Why injure your health systematically, in one and the same constantly repeated way, rather than gaining a useful effect through some different approach? 

I have seen “enthusiasts” who lived for years with pain caused by their stubborn way of “practicing” asanas, and yet they kept on practicing them that way, regardless! What’s more, these people were sincere in their belief that they were really doing yoga. What was actually happening is that they had turned into robots, programmed for self-destruction and incapable of communicating normally with the world or themselves, which is a kind of insanity.

St. Anthony once said: “Some have afflicted their bodies by asceticism, but they lack discernment, and so they are far from God.” The only true way is to do nothing with your body that causes discomfort or pain.

Let me recall once more, since it is important, the classification of physical loads by their effect on the functional state of the organism:

– weak (no noticeable effect);

– moderate (stimulates organs and systems; called weak stimuli in synergetics);

– strong (depresses vital functions);

– very strong (destroys the organism, which cannot adapt to such loads).

There are four associated grades of musculoskeletal sensations:

– background sensations (perceptible only by intense self-observation; have no effect on one’s condition);

– neutral sensations (quite perceptible, yet minimal; do not disturb mental relaxation, if it is occurring);

– discomfort (strains the mind and nervous system);

– pain (inconsistent with relaxation and mental calm; signals injury).

The above classification correlates with ranges of movement:

– in the typical range, there are no sensations or they are subliminal, imperceptible;

– distinct but moderate sensations, which can be dissolved through relaxation;

– sensations will become unpleasant if you rashly reach your flexibility limit and try to “push” it;

– if you hold such a posture for a long time or directly apply force to perform an asana, then pain will occur.

“Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience, associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.” [Fiziologiya Cheloveka (Human Physiology), Vol. 1, p. 222.] This experience is a signal. The sensation caused by ignorant treatment of the body is usually called deep somatic pain, and it has a tendency to become chronic.

One of the secrets of traditional Hatha yoga is that neither entering, nor holding, nor exiting an asana involves discomfort. The weak sensations felt while in an asana melt away through the relaxation of body and mind, and the effect of the asana on the body remains of typical intensity and does not cause injury, just like walking, cleaning house, working at a computer, and many other activities. Useful work is being done and is obvious, but it does not involve discomfort, let alone injury.

Even if an asana is easily held at its extreme without sensations, explicit muscular strain in the affected areas of the body is undesirable. For example, when in Bhujangasana, the arms do an appreciable amount of work, but the major load is on the spine. In the extreme versions of Salabhasana, when, after passing the “dead point,” the chin and arms are the only supports, the back muscles should be relaxed, and the spine bears only the body weight. Any extra (voluntary) movements or effort may cause a great deal of trouble.

When you perform Ardha Matsyendrasana, only one hand actively works to hold your knee (or foot), but the whole spine is involved through twisting. In Paschimottanasana, essentially no voluntary work is done; the form of the posture develops under the weight of the torso.

In standing postures, as well as all other asanas where weight-bearing efforts predominate, you should be especially attentive because of the presence of both sensations and muscular effort simultaneously. The most common mistake beginners make is succumbing to the temptation to reproduce asanas as demonstrated by yoga “masters,” either live or in photographs.

There are rare persons, such as Houdini and To-Rama, who can endure pain without being injured or damaging their health, but they are exceptional, and should not be taken into account in normal practice.

In an interview in Yogasara (No. 3, 1997), Iyengar replied to a question about how to differentiate between pain caused by incorrect practice, and beneficial pain [translated from the French version]:

“If pain remains after practice, it means you did something wrong. If, however, you feel pain during practice, but not afterwards, this is healthy pain. When stretching, however, you can sometimes feel a pain which is calming, but may seem terrible at the same time. You should learn to distinguish between calming pain, which is healthy, and destructive pain, which bodes ill and is a strong warning that something is wrong and you cannot endure it.”

That question was incorrect in the way it was posed, and the answer was quite unclear, because tolerance for pain, as well as its damaging effects, vary from person to person. Pain which is “healthy” for one person may signal an injury for someone else. There are people who don’t feel pain at all. One of the causes of this anomaly is having very high levels of endogenous opiates in the blood. If they were reduced by chemical means for some period of time, such a person could receive a shock, as all the sensations previously not experienced return at once. Incidentally, such people have an extraordinary ability to regenerate tissue. Their injuries heal at a terrific rate. It is entirely possible that some “dynamic yoga” gurus have this capability.

Thus, during yogasana practice, sensations are felt at the place of contact with consciousnesses, which is caused by the posture—the virtual interface between the relatively mobile part of your body and the part not affected by the asana. In weight-bearing postures, just as with sensations in bending and stretching asanas, effort should be kept below the threshold of perception by means of relaxation, i.e., the effort should be shifted from the forefront to the background. This requires total physical quiescence. Effort (muscle tension) should not evoke sensations or become mixed with them.

Muscle activity and its support by the nervous system are below the threshold of perception in typical ranges of movement under mild or moderate loads. For instance, I do not feel the weight of my body while walking, but it can be felt very clearly when in Chaturanga Dandasana because it shifts to the arms, which are not adapted to bear that weight. 

Yogasanas are postures (positions) of the body, held for some period of time without motion or discomfort.

Enthusiastic beginners always violate these conditions, leading to:

– an automatic increase in alertness and mental activity;

– resistance by the body to attaining its limits of flexibility, and involuntary muscle strain;

– excessive activation of the nervous system in support of the unfamiliar activity.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras state that an asana must be effortless. This is achieved by relaxing the muscles. If the relaxation is more or less successful, then sensations will come to the fore.

“Sensations are the first stage of human cognitive activity. A sensation is a qualitative reflection of the external environment and of the body itself. The process of perception is based on sensations. There are three classes of sensations:

– exteroceptive (‘far’ sensations caused by remote stimuli and ‘near’ sensations resulting from direct contact with the external world);

– proprioceptive (or kinesthetic, including the muscle sensations which Sechenov called ‘vague’ because the mind does not grasp them);

– interoceptive (organic sensations induced by stimuli from internal organs and connective tissue).” [Tolkovyi slovar’ psikhiatricheskikh terminov (Dictionary of Psychiatric Terms).]

In Hatha Yoga, we deal with kinesthetic and with organic, or visceral, sensations. In everyday life and during correct asana practice, we do not feel our organs, muscles, or joints, and the associated sensations remain subliminal, imperceptible except in cases of functional disorders, synesthesia, or organic pathologies.

Once sensations begin to be perceived, it is time to exit the asana to avoid harm. Sensations felt immediately after entering an asana indicate either that this posture is too difficult for the body and should be simplified, or that something is wrong with the body, something like an old injury or a latent pathological process (such as gouty tophi) making itself felt.

Thus, there must be no sensations in the joints, ligaments, tendons, or muscles for some time while holding a pose (a posture or position of the body). This is a law, and not knowing, or disregarding it leads to the most common and fundamental mistake: unable to reproduce an asana as illustrated in a picture, i.e., to obtain the desired, seemingly useful result, the beginner misinterprets sensations that are uniquely caused by improper practice (violation of ahisma or holding an asana too long) as being the desired result.

People’s life experience before beginning to practice yoga does not prepare them to recognize that the total absence of something, rather than its presence, can be beneficial. That is why beginners unintentionally overdo their asana practice, allowing sensations or even slight pain, which they think is evidence that useful work is being accomplished. They may know formally that there should be no discomfort or pain, but they persist nonetheless, because habits of behavior are governed not by the conscious aspect of the mind. The action of the unconscious is stronger here.

Thus, the principal criterion of the correct performance of yoga asanas is the absence of overt sensations in the body, and this is the result to be sought. Only those efforts that occur without being perceived are useful during asana practice. Asanas should be done like walking or breathing, without any attempt to improve them. An asana has been performed correctly, if no sensations are felt. That’s it. Asanas are a vehicle which carries you into an altered state of consciousness, although doing them also is of unquestionable value for the body.

As a last resort, you should “process” any sensations which occur as you enter an asana, treating them with relaxation until they are no longer perceptible. Just as Laya Yoga tends to dissolve the mind, one of the options in traditional asana practice is to dissolve the physical sensations caused by assuming a posture. It is better (more reliable), however, not to have anything to do with sensations, because “dissolving” them is something that cannot be achieved every time, and not everyone can do it at all.

Here is another discussion [translated from the Russian original at http://realyoga.ru/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?p=5311#5311]:

AYuT (3.3.2003): “Sensations are the central link between the body and the mind (spirit). All thoughts, if you consider it, are accompanied by sensations. All emotions, and this is as clear as can be, are accompanied by sensations. Everything happening to your body is accompanied by sensations. At the same time, sensations as such are fairly independent of your world outlook, and observing them closely does not produce new or strengthen old hang-ups. But unbiased, interested observation for the sake of detecting what is going on, may help in tracing body–sensations–emotions–mind–motivation relationships, both from the ‘bottom up’ and from the ‘top down.’ That is, this type of observation of sensations creates favorable conditions for insight into the ‘base’ issues of the life of the body and the ‘lofty’ issues of the life of the spirit. It may even happen that an intellectual will place a notebook and pen near the yoga mat, to write down the wise thoughts which not infrequently arise during asana practice. Not only may Vipassana be based on sensations alone, but sensations are a good basis for Vipassana.

“By the way, S. N. Goenka, a Burmese Vipassana teacher, regularly praises ‘innovators’ who combine yogasana practice with the observation of sensations during total relaxation. But he seems to be frightened of introducing asanas into ‘official’ practice; the Theravada tradition does not include physical exercises in its canon.”

Thus, whether or not sensations are perceived in an asana depends on:

– the speed of entering the asana;

– the speed of exiting the asana;

– the muscular and nervous effort put into assuming and holding the asana;

and only then on

– the posture itself;

– how long it is held;

– the degree of muscular relaxation in the asana.

Explicit muscular effort accompanied by sensations is double overkill. Perceiving no effort or sensations is correct.

Trying to perform Paschimottanasana, an untrained, stiff person usually experiences contraction in the small of the back or/and on the posterior surface of the legs. Therefore, the right way to do this asana would be to sit on the mat, bend forward easily, and totally “let your legs go” from the inside, relaxing them and feeling this relaxation (which may take two or three minutes). If this succeeds, your torso will begin to drop forward and down by itself, with the pelvis folding at the hips. At the first instant that a point of sensation “pops out” somewhere (no matter where) from the perceptual void, it means your body is telling you, “Stop!” If there are overt sensations, but the posture continues to develop, the process should be stopped, followed by returning to the angle of bend at which the sensation could be felt just lightly. This is the point at which you should “hang,” deepening your physical and mental relaxation.

I do not attempt to “move into” the sensation, no matter where it is localized. Rather, I “hold” in front of it, as if slightly touching its boundary. Once even a state of relative mental calm has been achieved, the sensation dissolves and the body can be allowed to “drop” farther, until the next sensation appears in the same place or somewhere else. Then the “dissolving” process repeats, and keeps repeating until an indissoluble sensation is encountered. This point indicates the current limit of the posture (flexibility of the body), which cannot be forced.

Thus, Paschimottanasana can be held for quite a long time. Eventually, your body will jack-knife—your abdomen and chest will lie flat on straightened legs. And you will find yourself in this position without any sensations, as if it were Shavasana. Of course, somewhere inside there are subtle echoes of your musculoskeletal movements, but they do not jab into your mind or disturb its uniformity. Some isolated “sparks” of vivid sensations may flash into your perception, but they immediately vanish without a trace.

Sensations that do not melt away through relaxation are considered strong ones, which are not dealt with in yoga. To dissolve such sensations, they need to be transformed into moderate ones by simplifying the posture.

I should point out again that there is a riskier approach: not merely to hang at the contact point of a sensation, but rather to enter into it partially; then, to dissolve the sensation through relaxation and then “take up” the resulting slack in the posture. Holding just before the sensation is a cleaner and safer way.

We tend to associate “effort” with movement, and “tension” more with motionlessness. In weight-bearing asanas, muscular efforts should be such that:

– nervous impulses do not break into the motor structures of the CNS;

– no sensations occur which are intense enough to disturb the overall relaxation.

The whole “bouquet” of signals received from the body in each pose should be closely examined, in order to raise the quality of mind–body communication to the necessary level.

Any asana goes through three stages of relaxation: (i) muscular relaxation achieved by volition, and (ii) mental relaxation, which induces (iii) additional muscular relaxation.

By no means everything in our life can be arranged at will, in successive steps. Unlike logical constructs, many processes and events are not continuous (as death reminds us, it should be said). Suppose, for instance, that I have no skills for attaining Samadhi. I am not on a pathway which presages this experience, and my previous experience is useless. There is no sequence of meaningful actions that would lead me there. I can rely solely on natural processes which, if properly arranged, will gradually produce the needed result. Such processes can unfold only of their own accord, and there should be no interference in them. They are natural and cannot be good or bad, because they obey objective laws, rather than human wishes. Thus, they follow their own course, and cannot do otherwise. Man cannot willfully transform or accelerate these processes, and any intervention destroys them. For the field (The One, The All) to “resonate,” to respond to a person, the dimensionality (tone and activity) of the perceiving mind must be reduced nearly to zero. It is this minimization (CVN) that gives rise to a resonant wave called enlightenment (Samadhi).

The ancient Greeks knew that for true understanding to crystallize, external activity had to be completely stopped, and all actions abandoned. They called this Amechania (equivalent to the term “non-doing”) and considered it evidence of intellectual maturity.

Amechania, the initial phase of non-doing, which brings together the conditions necessary for the spontaneous unfolding of events, should not be confused with laziness or idleness.

“Actions will not be successful unless they are coordinated with inner developmental trends [or the maintenance of homeostasis – V. B.] in a complex system. If these actions are not proper and resonant, they will most likely be in vain. The controlling action should be topologically correct, rather than energetic [it should not consume energy or excite a sympathetic reaction of the nervous system – V. B.]. The configuration of a stimulus, rather than its intensity, is important. A resonant stimulus is a kind of puncture of the environment at appropriate points and at a certain time.” [Osnovaniya Sinergetiki (Foundations of Synergetics), p. 304.]

In each asana, as well as during the intervals between them, we inhibit our personal activity, delegating powers to the system, to change and control the course of events. Everything else, such as feeling better, improved flexibility, relief of stress, etc., emerges and develops of its own accord. 

A story is told about an occasion when Henry Ford, Sr. was boozing it up with all his company executives in Florida for an entire month, scarcely letting them out of his sight. Meanwhile, a team of auditors was evaluating how the absence of management would affect the business. Ford then fired, without severance pay, all the executives whose departments had lower performance ratings in their absence, because he knew that a competent manager tunes the business mechanism so that it will run on its own, all other conditions being equal.

The right approach is to create the appropriate conditions by assuming a posture that is doable, and letting any sensations dissolve (or avoiding any involvement with sensations by holding back just at the boundary where they would occur), and then everything else will happen by itself. I do not want anything, I do not expect anything, and I make no attempt to go beyond what the algorithm prescribes; the system will make the necessary corrections on its own, and that is precisely what constitutes self-improvement. I perform only the minimum required activity, and remain an observer.

A yogi uses yoga to switch his psychosomatic processes into a heuristic mode of functioning, rather than to achieve some predefined goals.

Let’s now discuss the time for which an asana is held. In principle, this time is counted from the point when all movements made to assume the posture have ceased. If the time it takes to achieve absolute motionlessness is quite long, however, then this period may be considered the hold time. Poses with a fixed configuration (Sirsasana, Virasana, Chaturanga Dandasana) should be differentiated from those which tend to develop (Bhujangasana, Matsyendrasana, etc.).

It is impossible to establish an average, one-suits-all hold time; it’s absurd even to try. This time is an individual matter, but there are signs that will indicate when to exit the asana.

The main signs are discomfort and nonuniformity of body sensations: the first pinprick of sensation from within the void of perception means that the useful hold time is over, and holding the pose for any longer would intensify the sensation up to the level of discomfort or even pain, also inducing sensations in other parts of the body. It goes without saying that the internal organs should not be sensed; if they are, the pose must be exited immediately. If the sensations are due to a chronic disorder, such as cholecystitis, it is permissible to perform asanas while feeling these sensations, but their intensity must not be greater than the habitual discomfort felt in everyday life. A similar approach applies to steady pain (pain syndrome) caused by arthritis or any other chronic process in the joint-ligament apparatus.

This is the case where pain is unavoidable, but it recedes quite rapidly during practice, gradually fading first to sensations of discomfort and then to moderate sensations, which can be dealt with in the classic way. 

Physical pain sometimes accompanies the relief of mental stress, especially when an asana is held for a long time. This pain is psychogenic in nature, and should be differentiated from pain which is due to incorrect practice. Sometimes, it is possible to avoid discomfort by entering a posture along one trajectory and exiting it on another. Also, chronic processes may sometimes be exacerbated during the initial phase of mastering asanas, in which case it is appropriate to take a break from practice for a while.

Flexibility/stretch postures may be repeated up to three times in a row. If the process is going well, the body will easily bend to the level achieved the previous time, and will continue to “flow” to a new interim limit. If, however, your body’s flexibility is less than the first time, then either you have unconsciously and incorrectly added something personal to the process, or you have reached your current limit of flexibility.

Another sign to exit a pose comes from the circulatory system, which causes sensations of heat, burning, swelling, heaviness, numbing cold (in the feet during a headstand), or pulsation in some areas of your body. If pulsation occurs in the same areas during different asanas, then either your practice is injuring some blood vessels, or circulatory problems were already present. 

A person’s range of flexibility varies from day to day. There are a multitude of factors people are unaware of, such as geomagnetic disturbances, which cause it to change or to drift. This should come as no surprise, and you should simply work with what you have at a given moment.

We should now discuss delayed reactions, which are the worst-case result of overexertion during practice. Here, what happens is that trouble with your body turns up not during your practice, which may seem to have gone routinely, but some time later — the next day, for example. In these situations, it is impossible to trace and analyze where and how you overdid it. You will have to be more attentive to your organism the next time. Another option is to determine the source of the injury by process of elimination. If you have encountered such discomfort, despite yesterday’s seemingly correct practice, every movement and pose involving the injury should be eliminated, and the hold time for all the remaining asanas cut in half. Then, by omitting one posture in your asana set each week, it should be possible to figure out which one caused the overload, and take appropriate measures.

It sometimes happens that when practicing so-called dynamic yoga, young and flexible people with weak nervous systems work themselves into a paradoxical state: the higher the emotional intensity, the lower the body’s resistance is, and the better its physical flexibility. While incorrect asana practice leads to physical injuries, this sort of activity overtaxes the nervous system. This is where super-flexible but neurotic yoga teachers come from. They flourish only as long as their youth and health permit.

Exiting an asana should be smooth, with relaxation (stillness of the mind) maintained, and no sensations. The right way is to let your body loose, allowing it to straighten out the way a soft rubber toy does after being squeezed. If sensations remain after exiting an asana, there should be a pause to let them dissolve before performing the next posture.

In correct practice, there is no perception of muscle tension in weight-bearing asanas, nor sensations in relaxation asanas. When performing Chaturanga Dandasana, the most important thing is for your belly, which involuntarily tends to strain, to be relaxed, literally hanging all the way to the floor, making it possible to breathe freely. The solar plexus area and intercostal muscles should also be relaxed, because they, along with the abdominal wall, are commonly “seized” by overall body tension.

It might sound strange to say this, but any weight-bearing asana can be held either by straining or by relaxing, with a different scenario in the respective cases. The length of the beneficial hold time is directly dependent on whether the mind is silent or not during practice. If it is, the useful hold time will be about one-third longer, with the parasympathetic dominance remaining unchanged. The weight-bearing effort which earlier had excited a psychosomatic response no longer does so. What are the consequences of this effect? First, you can alternate asanas more quickly. Second, you can hold every posture for a longer time, which will make you physically stronger (recall the teacher Sharan Gupt in Ivan Yefremov’s The Razor’s Edge). Third, you can perform combined postures in a “clean” fashion. 

New strength-training routines involving no movement, called isometric exercises, were devised in the 19th century. This exercise technique, however, ran upon the rocks because it led to overstrain. Alexander Zass was the only Russian athlete to succeed in combining tremendous strength and excellent flexibility.

Thus, relaxation makes it possible to change intensity and focus tension (effort) as you see fit. An asana can be controlled by monitoring any of the seven perceptible parameters: muscle relaxation, mental relaxation, sensations, breathing, tension (effort), heart rate, and blood pressure. Let’s examine each of them.

The first three parameters have been discussed above. Breathing should always be free, no matter how complicated the posture is, and should not be affected by how the nervous system supports the muscular effort. Overstrain tends to be perceived as a slight yet sensible heat on the face and/or pressure in the head or eyes. Exit the asana immediately, without waiting for blood to rush to your face. Trembling indicates muscular weakness.

When relaxation is truly deep, a slight quivering of the muscles may be felt in Shavasana, like ripples on the water, usually starting on the left part of the face in right-handed people. This quivering then extends to the right side of the body, and may finally turn into a spontaneous dance of the muscles. This phenomenon is nothing to fear or react to, because it is one of the ways in which mental stress is relieved (via efferent nerves).

If you are able to maintain stillness of the mind during practice, then your heart rate even in “standing” and other weight-bearing poses will remain within your normal range, or not exceed 90 beats per minute, no matter how difficult the exercises may be. Blood pressure remains stable.

If you accept, understand, and follow all the recommendations in this chapter, you will never be injured.

Medicine uses the concept of subliminal pain (such as in arthritis), which intensifies so slowly that it is imperceptible. This type of latent pain, of which the person experiencing it is unaware, strains the nervous system and may cause problems.  

In summary: the dissolution of sensations is a necessary initial stage of mind–body communication, and an essential part of yogic technology.

B. L. Smirnov wrote that “the ancient rishis were exceptionally keen observers and had well-developed kinesthetic sensitivity. They were able not only to interpret kinesthetic sensations, but also to use them to achieve their goals.” [Poboishche palitsami (The Book of Clubs).]

Mind–body communication, which is the first step toward mental integration, makes it possible to restore and preserve what has always been called the soul.

“What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him?” [James 2:14.]

                                                                               פרק הבאה