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Yogasanas: physical postures, spiritual method or both?

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Yogasanas: physical postures, spiritual method or both?

Yogasanas: physical postures, spiritual method or both?

A preliminary unedited report.


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Note to the reader

This paper resulted from the question of a good friend. His Christian daughter was practicing yogasanas (the physical postures of yoga) as a requirement of her school instructor. He and his wife did not know what to think, and asked my views, which resulted in the following document. It begins with a 'summary' letter to her parents, and proceeds to my analysis.

Due to the legal climate of our time, I offer the following statement. In the event that legal action is considered against the author, it should be noted that this material is only his opinion; no malice is intended or was ever contemplated, and reasonable care has been taken to insure accuracy. The research is unfinished, so the paper should be considered somewhat introductory, and in places tentative.

Letter

Dear ------

I said I would get back to you on Iyengar's yogasanas, and that I would first send it to you for your critique. I will examine your analysis and make any recommended changes I can. Then you may decide if you want to send it to -----. (Personally, I think she should read it.) I have written it in such a way that with relatively minor changes, she can give it to her yoga instructor for his/her comment.

You will need to read it carefully, in its entirety. Sorry,... I know the time crunch.

I have had one former yoga instructor, now a Christian, read an earlier draft and offer his critique. He agreed with the analysis, though he thought there were two or three paragraphs that yoga instructors would balk at. (I expect they might balk at a few more...)

I also wanted to wait to include statements by two former yoga teachers and to attempt to document Iyengar's suspected occultism, but this will have to be on hold until I receive the statements and can find the books.

Summary: It would be good if asanas were strictly isometrics/calisthenics. Even though this is how they can be used, it is not their nature. I do not doubt some potential physical benefits of asanas, as in any physically based program. The issue is the nature and effect of the potential mental/spiritual impact of asanas. Do they exist? How are they mediated? Practitioners of yogasana should have the whole story, so the choice they make is an informed one.

After reconsidering what I wrote in my chapter on yoga (in the Encyclopedia of New Age Beliefs (ENAB), I find my conclusions largely unchanged. Whatever asanas (yoga postures) may or may not be, or accomplish (physically, mentally or spiritually), I think it would be better if ---- did not continue in the program.

Giving asanas the benefit of the doubt is tricky for several reasons, and when it comes to Hinduism and paganism generally, I would rather err on the side of caution. In certain cases, the asanas may be harmless, or they may be something more. They are probably sometimes physical postures by themselves, and sometimes physical postures with psychological/spiritual effects. When the line is crossed may be suggested by usually ascertainable factors (spiritual context, motive, teacher), but one can hardly discount the unascertainable factors (psychodynamic, occult, demonic).

I would personally be upset if a school my child attended required participation in a yogasana program without offering proof of its secular/safe nature, especially when some noted yoga authorities contradict this. Please keep in mind that the yoga tradition has had a couple thousand years to ascertain whether what they claim about the asanas is true or not.

I think the burden of proof rests with schools that claim to promote 'nonreligious' yoga and with yoga practitioners who deny or downplay the religious nature of their practice. "Of course it's not religious, that would be illegal." "It's just physical exercise." What proof is offered for the truth of their claims--esp. in light of what traditional yoga authorities say? If they can't provide the objective evidence, school authorities have no business promoting yogasanas to their students. It would make more sense to use other physical programs without the baggage and controversy. In other words, why exchange an excellent, neutral, physical program for one that is, at best, suspect?

Could I be wrong? Sure, but I'd like to see some evidence. If for the sake of argument, the asanas are mere postures with no other connotations, then we may assume they are usually (but not always) harmless, but only when given with proper instruction. If asanas are or may be more than this, then it's anyone's guess as to the negative potential involved. (Unfortunately, there is also a problem associated with the 'proper instruction' idea--what one teacher forbids as 'dangerous' or 'false' yoga, another instructor teaches enthusiastically as 'safe and proper' yoga.)

In the meantime, I would encourage you to first re-read a few pages from ENAB, the two sections "Innocent Yoga?" and "Theory and Practice: Separable?,"pp. 597-603, as a backdrop to the attached. Therein I cited yoga authorities, yoga practitioners and a former yoga practitioner with an extensive background in yoga theory and practice. For example, Georg Feuerstein is the author of The Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga. (In addition, I am trying to locate a copy of The Secrets of Prana, Pranayama & Yoga-Asanas by Swami Narayanananda, which is said by one reviewer to have some rather startling information. I am trying to locate Teaching Asanas; an Ananda Marga Manual for Teachers, which is also allegedly relevant to the separation of theory and practice issue.)

Analysis

Yogasanas: physical postures, spiritual method or both? A preliminary unedited report.

Question:
I have a class that requires I participate in a yoga-asana program. I enjoy the postures and they benefit me physically. My Instructor has assured me that there is no religious connotation, let alone impact, in the practice of asanas. Still, a friend said this might not be a good idea, in that yoga asanas are designed to be more than just physical exercises/isometrics and may impact the mind and even spirit in unknown ways. I was surprised–and somewhat skeptical. Is this true? I'm a Christian and would not wish to participate in a program that, potentially, might have unknown psychological effects or even a religious impact inconsistent with my faith. My Instructor follows B.K.S. Iyengar.

Answer:
In that you are a Christian, I will try to address your personal concerns, as well as to answer the question more broadly. I think that if there is one Biblical Scripture that would help you in this case, it would probably be 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 to "examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil" (NASB) or, in the NIV, "Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil." Although the context refers to the testing of prophetic utterances, the principle is valid generally. In other words, examine the asanas, and their relationship to the overall yoga system carefully. Test it. Look critically at the claims that are made and see if they have merit or not. If asanas are good, hold onto them, if not, abstain.

Traditionally, asanas are more than just physical exercises, though they are often used as such in Western programs. It would certainly seem a logical assumption that yoga postures could become 'mere' physical exercises when intended as such. On the other hand, yoga asanas don't necessarily become what we make them. Sometimes things are what they seem; sometimes they aren't. When black and white merge, discernment in gray areas becomes important.

Someone might respond, “But these are just physical postures!" Notwithstanding, look closer.

Yoga is one of the six major philosophical/religious systems in Hinduism. From a Christian perspective, Hinduism would involve the promotion of a spiritual tradition that is considered 'pagan,' or 'occult' in that it's religious worldview is polytheistic/pantheistic and it promotes spiritual practices –idolatry, pagan meditation/visualization, spiritism, etc., that are considered occult or proscribed in the Bible, and therefore opposed to Christian belief.

B.K.S. Iyengar is a prominent Hindu and yoga Master promoting classical Hatha or physical yoga, allegedly in the tradition of Patanjali. Unless noted otherwise, all quotations are by B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga, (Schocken, 1979), designated “LY" in the references, or Light on Pranayama, (Crossroad, 2000), designated “LP" in the references. (These are widely considered Iyengar's definitive texts on yogasanas/pranayama.) Citations from the official Iyengar website (www. bksiyengar) are noted as URLs.) ENAB refers to Encyclopedia of New Age Beliefs.

To begin, let us try to fairly and accurately present the case your instructor is making. In other words, how would Iyengar and his followers like to see their case, presented truthfully, in documentation of their claim for the entirely non-religious practice of asana? I would assume this would take the place of four principal arguments:

First, yogasanas are merely physical stretching/isometric exercises which can be practiced with no religious import. The Iyengear website seems to make such a distinction, e.g., “The word "yoga" originates from the Sanskrit root yuj which means Union. On the spiritual plane, it means union of the Individual Self with the Universal Self; while, for the man of this world, it is the union of the physical, physiological, mental, emotional and intellectual bodies leading one to live a integrated, purposeful, useful and noble life." http://www.bksiyengar.com/iyengaryoga.htm

Second, although traditionally the eight limbs of yoga are interrelated and integrated, yogasanas can be separated out as part of a purely physical/health discipline. “'Therapeutic Yoga' has become an integral part of "Iyengar Yoga" with individuals suffering from myriad of

disorders seeking solace from Guruji [Iyengar]. Many thousands are indebted to him for literally saving and giving a new meaning to their lives." http://www.bksiyengar.com/bksiyengar.htm

Third, although yoga teachers typically incorporate pranayama or breathing exercises, with asanas, Iyengar, at least initially, does not. He encourages the practice of asanas by themselves. This is important because the techniques of pranayama have religious import in that they attempt the conscious manipulation of prana, or divine energy, throughout the body, specifically for spiritual purposes. By leaving aside pranayama, one discards the religious element.

Iyengar himself emphasizes that even for the one who wishes to practice the path of yoga, asanas and pranayama should generally be separated: "There is a popular misconception that both asanas and pranayama should be practised together from the time Yoga-sadhana [the yoga path] is begun. It is the author's experience that if a novice attends to the perfection of the postures, he cannot concentrate on breathing. He loses balance and the depth of the asanas. Attain steadiness (sthirata) and stillness (achalata) in asanas before introducing rhythmic breathing techniques.... When Pranayama and asanas are done together, see that the perfect posture is not disturbed. Until the postures are perfected, do not attempt pranayama. One soon realises that when asanas are well performed, pranayamic breathing automatically sets in." (LP, 10)

Fourth, Yoga practitioners get strength, power, tranquility, peace of mind, improved health and other benefits from Yoga, so who can complain about that?

It is the purpose of this paper to attempt to ascertain the validity of the claim that asanas are or can become purely physical exercises. To help answer this question, we may begin by asking and answering five basic questions.

First, can it be determined that the Hindu tradition which alleges certain mental/spiritual effects from asanas is correct in its assessment? If so, then it is more difficult to consider the asanas as mere stretching, calisthenics/isometrics exercises.

It is difficult to prove the Hindu tradition is wrong in its claims as to the actual or potential mental/spiritual impact of asanas. The traditional claims may be incorrect under certain circumstances, but there is little doubt such impact exists. As many end notes show, 'mere' physical asanas can indeed have meditative inducing/ 'energy'(prana) manipulating, spiritual effects. (E.g., endnotes 20, 21, 24, 29, 46, 47, 50)

A person practicing yogasanas in a Hindu context is obviously engaging in yoga, with whatever this implies from a Christian perspective. If the religious aspect has been consciously removed, they may not be doing yoga. But there may still be religious effect in that the asanas are intended to have such an effect, in and of themselves. If, considered from a Christian perspective, any negative psychological or religious effects remain from the asanas themselves, it is probably due to multiple causes. This would include 1) 'incorrect' practice (physically or spiritually; a major concern for discernment, in that authorities disagree), 2) overall context, 3) practitioner's intent, 4) the intent and spiritual background of the instructor, and even, 5) demonic initiative. (For examples of the latter, see ENAB, Chs., on Yoga, kundalini section, Shamanism, Meditation, New Age Inner Work/Intuition.)

Unfortunately, no one is keeping records to see what specific effects the alleged nonreligious use of asanas has beyond the physical. But traditional yoga, pagan religion, and the modern field of Bodywork (cf. Somatics: Magazine-Journal of the Mind/Body Arts and Sciences (1976-) ; Journal of Bodywork & Movement Therapies (1995-) suggests that certain physical exercises/disciplines may indeed have dramatic impact on the psyche or lead to occult religious experiences.

Second, is pranayama ('breath" control, i.e., manipulation of 'prana' or the alleged divine 'life force' in the body) practiced with the asanas? If so, then the likelihood is increased of encountering the spiritual implications of yoga. If not, it is decreased.

Iyengar teaches that postures should be perfected first, and then pranayama engaged, but he also teaches that pranayama may be incorporated with asanas. In his “Hints and Cautions" section he declares, “In all the asanas, breathing should be done through the nostrils only and not through the mouth [See ENAB, p.595 Col.2, last para.] Do not restrain the breath while in the process of the asana or while staying in it. Follow the instructions regarding breathing given in the technique sections of the various asanas as described hereafter." (LY, 59) But he also teaches, “Never do asanas immediately after pranayama. There is no harm in practising pranayama after asana.... It is advisable to practice both at different times." (LP, 61)

At the end of Light on Yoga, twenty pages are devoted to pranayama techniques, the same techniques that yoga authorities allege as having religious import and effect. As Iyengar says of the Sahita and Kevala Kumbhaka Pranayama, “His mind is completely absorbed with Prana and becomes as free as Prana itself…pranayama drives away impurities of the body and mind. Then, says, Patanjali, the DIVINE FIRE within [e.g., kundalini, LP, 36] blazes forth in its full glory and the mind becomes fit for concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana)." (LY, 461)

Iyengar's 300-pg. text on pranayama, Light on Pranayama, has many declarations such as those given below, which illustrate the religious import of pranayama:

“Inhalation is the act of receiving the primeval energy in the form of breath and retention is when the breath is held in order to savour that energy. In exhalation... one surrenders the individual energy, 'I', to the primeval energy, the Atma." (LP, 10)

“The practice of asanas removes the obstructions which impede the flow ofprana, and the practice of pranayama regulates the flow of prana throughout the body." (LP, 14)

“...kundalini upholds all the disciplines of Yoga.... According to Tantric texts, the object of Pranayama is to arouse the latent power (sakti) called kundalini, the divine cosmic energy in our bodies.... To conserve the energies generated within the body and to prevent their dissipation, asanas and mudras (seals), Pranayama and bhandas (locks) were prescribed. The heat so generated causes the kundalini to uncoil.... If the power generated is not properly regulated it will destroy the [practitioner].... It is the same with prana and ojas, for they can destroy the body and the mind of the sadhaka." (LP, 37-38)

“Daily practice [of pranayama] insures success and perfect consciousness, which purge the sadhaka from the fear of death." (LP, 50)

“As Adi Sesa, the Lord of the serpants, is the supporter of Yoga (Hatha Yoga Pradipika, III,1), so Pranayama is the heart of yoga. Yoga is lifeless without Pranayama....Pranayama is the root of spiritual knowledge, knowledge of the Self [i.e., the knowledge that the individual self in its true nature is one essence with ultimate spiritual reality, Brahman]" (LP, 53)

“As an earthen pot must be baked in a furnace before it is used to store water, so should the body be baked by the fire of asanas to experience the true effulgence of pranayama.... Develop body intelligence to the level of the mind through asanas. Then raise both body and mind to the level of the Self through pranayama for the prana to move throughout the body." (LP, 59)

In that pranayama is the intentional manipulation of prana, or occult force/power (Iyengar defines it as both breath and soul, LY, 527), pranayama is part of an occult methodology having religious import. (See the brief documentation/discussion of prana, ENAB, 601, Col. 2)

Therefore, it might be unexpected to see Iyengars instructors removing pranayama from an asana program, unless the recognition has been made that, due to its religious implications/nature, it would violate the establishment clause in school programs. Further, in contrast to Iyengar, some authorities argue that practicing pranayama before asana is the proper method, while most have asana and pranayama practiced together. When one yoga authority warns about incorrect practice that can harm the practitioner, and another authority teaches this 'incorrect' practice as correct practice, the discernment problems for the practitioner are multiplied. (See ENAB, Yoga.)

Third, is the Iyengar Instructor using asanas (postures) to possibly assist people into a more robust yoga?

Based on Iyengars' teachings as to the importance of yoga as religion, and what would therefore logically be his teacher instruction, it would not be surprising to find Instructors using asanas for ulterior purposes. To what extent this may occur, if at all, is unknown. Further, given the contemporary popularization of yoga and my reading in the modern yoga literature (Yoga Journal, etc.), I would not be surprised to find considerable confusion even among many yoga teachers as to correct practice, potential harm, and knowledge of traditional teachings.

Nevertheless, for a true yoga instructor to claim that he or she wants participants to restrict practice to asanas alone, and that there are no other worldview or spiritual issues involved besides, is somewhat disingenuous. If so, they are not true yoga instructors; indeed they are betraying the yoga tradition. At this point, one wonders why they might claim to be disciples and instructors for one of the most well known yoga teachers alive?

True yogins do not abdicate or abandon their spiritual responsibilities. Iyengar has not squandered his life on mere yoga calisthenics; to do so would be, to switch religious traditions, blasphemous. One can only assume this is true for his instructors, at least those well informed.

If instructors are merely teaching the physical postures with no broader yoga impact or implication, then is this still yoga, when all eight limbs are allegedly inseparable? But if this selectivity involves a perversion of yoga, how can an Iyengar Instructor 'betray' his or her Guru/master, Iyengar (LY, 14) and degrade his teaching? The Iyengar website specifically claims that Iyengar's unique emphasis apparently incorporates all eight limbs of yoga by teaching merely the first two limbs: “Yogacharya B.K.S Iyengar has shown and taught how all the eight aspects of astanga yoga ["The eight limbs of yoga prescribed by Patanjali." (LY, 515)] are integrated in the practice of asana and pranayama;..." http://www.bksiyengar.com/iyengaryoga.htm

If all eight limbs are taught through asana/pranayama, then, clearly, we are dealing with Hindu religion--and all this implies for intertwining the asana practicing Christian with paganism.

A critic might further argue this claim to teach 'mere postures,' is part of a creative measure involving schools and students in a more complete yoga program indirectly--through mere 'exercises'--by naturally invoking their curiosity in the Tradition. Or, by a process that appears merely physical (asanas, pranayama) that may yet have subtle mental or spiritual effect.

Iyengar himself raises the issue, at least in part. His question is a good one, especially for members of non-Hindu faiths practicing "only" the physical postures of yoga within a Hindu tradition: "Where does the body end and the mind begin? Where does the mind end and the spirit begin? They cannot be divided as they are inter-related and but different aspects of the same all pervading divine consciousness [Brahman]." (LY, 41)

At the official Iyengar website we read, [Q] “If "Iyengar Yoga" teaches only asanas and pranayama – is it only physical? [A] Asanas are postures which are performed by the physical body but the breath [prana], the mind and the intelligence is involved in the performance of the posture. Any posture performed without the total involvement of the mind and intelligence becomes an exercise and not an asana. Asanas are reflection in action. The mind, emotions and the physical body can never ever be "separated". http://www.bksiyengar.com/iyengaryogpra.htm#twelve

To re-emphasize, “Yogacharya B.K.S Iyengar has shown and taught how all the eight aspects of astanga yoga ["The eight limbs of yoga prescribed by Patanjali." (LY, 515)] are integrated in the practice of asana and pranayama;..." http://www.bksiyengar.com/iyengaryoga.htm

Finally, in a rather revealing citation, we read again that there is more than meets the eye when dealing with Iyengar asanas. (For an example, see note 50). Iyengar [Q] “Does "Iyengar Yoga" involve only asanas and pranayama?" [A] "Iyengar Yoga" teaches all the 8 aspects of astanga yoga through asanas and pranayama. Yogacharya B.K.S Iyengar has been teaching us how the performance of an asana needs disciplines encoded by yama and niyama, how the body needs to be guided in asana, the role of the breath (pranayama), how the complete involvement of the senses of perception (pratyahara) and total concentration (dharana) while doing asanas lead one to experience the higher or the antaranga and antaratma sadhanas of astanga yoga in an asana. One also needs to bear in mind that of the 8 aspects of asthanga yoga, only the first four viz., yama, niyama, asana and pranayama can be taught. Pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi are experiential states and can never be taught." http://www.bksiyengar.com/iyengaryogpra.htm#twelve

Thus, the claim is easily made that Iyengar does not teach any of the last four stages, because they are not teachable and experiential only: “Iyengar Yoga does not teach meditation. As mentioned earlier, meditation or dhyana is a state which can never be taught or experienced. It is a state where one becomes ONE with the universal spirit. One has no mind, intelligence, feelings or experiences when one is this state and there is no question of expressions of one's experiences. Thus meditation can never be taught !! Often, people confuse a feeling of quietness and serenity as a state of meditation. A meditative state has no feelings !!" http://www.bksiyengar.com/iyengaryogmed.htm. But again, the 'mere' practice of asana has the potential to induce a meditative state.

In light of this, one wonders how Iyengar, or his teachers, would logically claim that asanas are mere physical postures, especially in that they are traditionally designed to have a mental/spiritual impact? According to yogic spiritual theory, the physical body is merely a crude 'layer' of mind/spirit and thus, the mind/spirit can be manipulated by the physical body through asanas, to help assist and prepare it for the subsequent stages of yoga, leading finally to samadhi or spiritual enlightenment. (See ENAB, 602, Col.1 citation 2, for documentation; note esp. para.9: “However, for those who practice Hatha [yoga] for purely physical ends, outside of a total context of spiritual discipline, most of the classic commentaries issue dire warnings."

Indeed, if the warnings of physical dangers in classical yoga texts are valid, then the popularization of yoga that does not respect the spiritual/occult traditions is of no small import. (Cf. demons seeming 'territoriality' within pagan religious tradition–shamanism, idolatry, ritual magic, etc. and the consequences of disobedience.)

Fourth, is Iyengar violating his own beliefs involving yama/niyama in alledging the non-religious use of asana?

Iyengar emphasizes the necessity of incorporating yama/niyama, the first two limbs of yoga, prior to practicing the other limbs such as asana/pranayama. Yama/niyama constitute certain ethical duties, observances, etc., within the Hindu tradition. One of those is truthfulness. Clearly, Iyengar emphasizes the alleged physical and mental benefits of asanas, and desires to help people in this regard. But is he not also aware of the potential psychological, psychic, and spiritual impact of the asanas? Indeed, as a yoga master and teacher, and a guru to millions, he must be aware of this.

In the various Iyengar asana programs which claim to offer strict non-religious yoga exercises, one wonders if the potential psychic and spiritual impact of the asanas is frankly discussed–or is it glossed over of necessity? If such potentials exist, does not a consideration of fairness and truthfulness require their discussion? But if they exist, and are not openly discussed, how are we being fair and truthful to the individual who believes he or she is engaging in merely physical exercises? The asanas have been intentionally designed and evolved over thousands of years to have a specific impact. “Personality changes can be brought about in Hatha yoga by changing the body so that it influences the mind." (ENAB, 597)

Whatever the positive or negative physical/physiological impact of asana/pranayama, one question of extreme import is how they impact chitta or consciousness. If the techniques have been designed over thousands of years to induce spiritual effects, such as samadhi or alleged spiritual 'enlightenment,' is it safe to assume that no spiritual effects will ever occur in the practice of yogasana/pranayama? So how can this simply be brushed aside and the asanas be presented as solely physical exercises without any connection to the spirit? In any other field, might critics not allege this as a form of consumer fraud? When offered in schools, would it potentially violate the establishment clause?

One assumes that Iyengar is also fully aware that a certain percentage of individuals will logically be led into a full-blown yoga path merely through a course of instruction on asanas, and the interest in the yoga tradition it naturally invokes. One wonders, are students who practice asanas as mere exercises informed that a certain number of them will inevitably choose to take up the path of yoga, and are the full implications of this excursion into Hindu religion discussed with them? The implications are anything but small, as documented in relevant chapters in ENAB.

If yoga is religious by definition, and asanas are one of the eight limbs of yoga, are not asanas religious by definition? Granted, part of the difficulty is that it is virtually impossible to determine when any given intended spiritual effects will occur, because no one knows precisely how yogasana/pranayama interfaces with individual consciousness, the spiritual world, and under what conditions. But this does not justify non-disclosure.

If one examines the official Iyengar website, www.bksiyengar.com, or reads Iyengar's books, one sees that Iyengar is very concerned with Hinduism, and with yoga as religion, and that his claims conflict with those of Christianity. “The guru (teacher) and his pupil (sisya) are together concerned with spiritual knowledge (Brahma-vidya)." (LP, 40)

For example, Iyengar defines yoga as, "the communion of the human soul with Divinity." (LP, 4) Further, "Yoga is the union of our will to the will of God,... The chief aim of Yoga is to teach the means by which the human soul may be completely united with the Supreme Spirit pervading the universe [Brahman] and thus secure absolution." (LP, 287). Thus, "Yoga systematically teaches man to search for the Divinity within himself with thoroughness and efficiency....Yoga leads the sadhaka from ignorance to knowledge, from darkness to light and from death to immortality." (LP, 5) And, “Yama, Niyama, Asana and Pranayama are essential parts of the Yoga of action (karma). They keep the body and mind healthy for performing all acts that please God [Brahman]." (LP, 11)

In addition, Iyengar is obviously concerned with the religious aspect of asana: "The body is the abode of Brahman." (LP, 9) "Asanas purify the body and mind and have preventive and curative effects... they cause changes at all levels from the physical to the spiritual. Health is the delicate balance of body, mind and spirit. By practicing asanas the sadhaka's physical disabilities and mental distractions vanish and the gates of the spirit are opened....the essence distilled from practicing asanas is the spiritual awakening of the sadhaka. He is free from all dualities." (LP, 10)

Here, Iyengar himself admits that the asanas 'open the spirit.' But to what, one wonders, is the spirit opened? Asanas are said to lead to 'spiritual awakening.' Again, we ask, what kind of 'spiritual awakening'? From a Christian view, to be 'free from all dualities' is to be freed from all things Christian. Christianity is predicated upon religious dualism from start to finish–e.g., that God is distinct from His creation which He spoke into existence from nothing; that humans are finite and in need of redemption from sin through faith in the atonement of Christ, etc. The Biblical worldview is certainly not predicated upon the monism of advaita. For example, that Iyengar's ultimate goal is the destruction of human personality --i.e., the image of God in man--is evident from the following: "When all the eight disciplines of Yoga are combined and practised, the yogi experiences oneness with the Creator and loses his identity of body, mind and self." (LP, 4) As yoga authorities Feuerstein and Miller comment, yoga results in a “progressive dismantling of human personality ending in a complete abolition. With every step (anga) of yoga, what we call 'man' is demolished a little more.") (ENAB, 600)

Logically then, why would Iyengar teach a wholly secular program of one of the major steps of yoga? Is it disingenuous for him to stress the secular "health" purposes of the postures while simultaneously pursuing his program of yoga as a religion? Indeed, whatever the physical or mental benefits of yoga, to the extent the alleged health benefits of asanas are predicated upon ayurvedic medical/religious philosophy, they suffer the errors, weaknesses and dangers of that philosophy. (See Ayurveda critique.)

The quarterly journal of the Iyengar movement, Yoga Rahasya, has numerous articles relevant to our general discussion (They can be ordered from 1-800-899-YOGA). For example:

Volume 1 No. 1, 1994 -- "Importance of Lord Hanuman in Yoga Sadhana."

Volume 2 No. 1, 1995 -- "Yogasanas: The Search of the Infinite in the Finite Body," and "What Is an Asana?"

Volume 2 No. 2, 1995 -- "The Involvement of Consciousness in Yogasanas."

Volume 5 No. 2, 1998 -- "Vedanta of Asana and Pranayama."

Volume 7 No. 3, 2000 -- "Astanga [eight limbed]Yoga in an Asana."

The problem, then, is whether the postures can be entirely separated from their spiritual context? If so, what determines the separation is complete? If not, what are the potential risks? (Note again the above reference, para. 9.)

Fifth, when people deliberately attempt to make yoga non-religious, what is sacrificed and what remains? Is it still yoga?

Iyengar condemns mere postures that are practiced apart from at least certain aspects of Hindu tradition/belief. In his 360-page chapter on “Yogasanas," he begins with a section titled, “Hints and Cautions for the Practice of Asanas.": “1….Practice of asanas without the backing of yama and niyama is mere acrobatics. 2. The qualities demanded from an aspirant are discipline, faith, tenacity, and perserverence to practice regularly without interruptions." (LY, 57).

Iyengar has little interest in mere acrobatics. For example, "Yamas are universal moral commandments or ethical disciplines transcending creeds...." (LY, 535) (Yama is also the Hindu god of death and may symbolize death to the false ego, the person, and all duality.)

As a Christian, one would need to question the utility of transcending absolute Christian/biblical, moral (or even philosophical) creeds. If Iyengar is correct that "the householder [average person] practising Yoga is not touched [affected, influenced] by virtue or vice..." (LY, 35), what happens to the Christian ethics of the person "enlightened" through Iyengar's yoga?

Biblical creeds assume religious dualism, the belief that God created the physical universe, that there is an essential difference between God and man, that man needs redemption in Christ, etc. Iyengar 'transcends' all this (and Christianity generally) when he teaches pantheism: "All creation is Brahman." (LY, 52) One result is that nonviolence (ahimsa) is required toward all creatures. "The yogi believes that every creature has as much right to live as he has." (LY, 32) Mosquitos, fleas and man all have equal 'rights.'

Ahimsa is a universal ethical command for Iyengar, but just as certainly then, the Christian Bible repudiates the morality of Hinduism, because it teaches religious dualism, that all creatures are not Brahman. How then would Iyengar view the Hebrew sacrificial system, and its ethics, and its God? How would his Instructors? Would Iyengar, an enlightened soul living beyond the confines of duality, find it a moral lapse to assist Christians in comprehending more robust spiritual truth through an innocent introduction to yogasanas?

Does Iyengar follow his own advice on honesty and morality? Consider the issue of consumer fraud. Hatha yoga is predicated, in part, on the idea that the more painful and complicated asanas are supportive of better health. I have seen claims made that hatha yoga, or even yoga generally, can cure virtually any ailment or disease.

This is no different than the fradulent claims made by promoters of hundreds of unproven alternative medicines. Where's the evidence?

In Light on Yoga, Iyengar has a twenty page appendix, "Curative Asanas for Various Diseases," which offers asanas for appendicitis, arthritis, asthma, high blood pressure, "brain," bronchitis, broncho-pneumonia, cold, coronary thrombosis, limb deformity, diabetes, spinal disc displacement, dysentary, "eyes," flatulence, giddiness, bad breath, "heart trouble," inguinal

hernia, impotency, migraine, obesity, polio, palpitation, paralysis, pneumonia, thrombosis of the legs, sterility, tonsillitis, TB, stomach tumors, ulcers, varicose veins and others.

He also declares, “When pranayama is performed properly diseases disappear...." (LP, 62) Oh?

One can only hazard a guess at the number of moderate to serious conditions that have been unnecessarily aggravated by people with these conditions who have attempted the more strenuous hatha yoga asanas, based on unsupported 'health' claims. (There is probably "supporting" medical literature akin to that touted by the TM people with "hundreds" of medical studies proving TM does this or that, while meta-analysis generally fails to confirm such claims.)

Of course, there are certain physical benefits to relaxation and asanas, but to make claims of "curative" powers for asanas like those above is hardly ethical.

So where is the moral responsibility of Iyengar and his hundreds of yoga teachers on behalf of those they claim to offer such health benefits? Yogic or Ayurvedic 'medicine' ala yogins, Deepak Chopra and others is a cause for health concerns, not a cure. (Again, see the Ayurveda critique.)

To reiterate, one of those yama (moral) commandments is truthfulness. Is Iyengar being truthful about the real nature of his asana programs and their benefits? In addition, the fifth niyama, Ishwar-Pranidhan, is meditation on the Divine–dedication of everything to God, i.e., Brahman, or one's personal Hindu deity. Another niyama is the necessity to study the Hindu scriptures, as Iyengar explains, “To have a clear notion of the true natures of man, of the world and of God, the sadhaka should study the sacred books (Sastras). Then he can distinguish the real from the unreal." (LP, 224)

Remember, Iyengar specifically teaches that one should not practice asanas apart from nama/niyama–truthfulness, study of the scriptures, devotion to God, etc.

Some may respond, “On the other hand, if it were true that asanas could become purely physical postures/isometrics with no spiritual connotations, then there would be no problem in one's Christian participation."

Part of the problem is addressing what yoga authorities claim about the asanas and determining its truth. Because yogis claim that asana/pranayama manipulates prana does not make it so. Unfortunately, determining the 'truth' of what happens in asana is impossible when we are touching upon a religious system (yoga) which is said to be revealed by the Hindu gods, and claims the asanas are part of a larger, overall system of discipline that allegedy impacts the mind/spirit and/or spiritual body.

From a Christian perspective, how would one objectively assess such a claim? It certainly cannot be assessed scientifically, but as a practicing Christian, one would want to assess it spiritually and theologically. Clearly, something is happening in the mind-body/spirit system through yoga per se, and through related practices, and it appears to be more closely related to the Christian concept of the demonic than many people might suspect. (For documentation, see ENAB Chs. on: Altered States of Consciousness, Eastern Gurus, Enlightenment, Meditation, Inner Work/Intuition, Mantras/Mandalas, Shamanism, Visualization.)

I know of two former Yoga instructors who agree that practicing asanas alone is dangerous and that it has the potential to lead to possession. One former teacher paralleled it to the proverbial frog in the boiling pot.

Here are some fundamental questions to continue the assessment. All citations are by Iyengar.

1) What exactly is Iyengar promoting through his asanas?

"My [60 years] experience [in yoga] has led me to conclude that for an ordinary man or woman in any community of the world, the way to achieve a quiet [e.g., spiritually productive or yogic] mind is to work with determination on two of the eight stages of yoga mentioned by Patanjali, namely, asana [posture] and pranayama ['breath' control]." (LY, 27) "All the important texts on Yoga lay great emphasis on sadhana or abhyasa (constant practice). Sadhana is not just a theoretical study of Yoga texts. It is a spiritual endeavor." (LY, 29-30)

Perhaps your instructor could answer the question, “What kind of spiritual endeavor is Iyengar referring to, and how do his asanas enter the picture? We saw earlier that Iyengar yoga believes that all eight limbs of yoga can be encapsulated in the first two. So, what does the instructor believe is the spiritual nature of asana?

2) Can asanas be separated from their intended impact on the mind/spirit? What specifically is that impact?

"The third limb of yoga is asana or posture....asanas have been evolved over the centuries so as to exercise every muscle, nerve and gland in the body.... But their real importance lies in the way they train and discipline the mind.... The yogi conquers the body by the practice of asanas and makes it a fit vehicle for the spirit.... The yogi frees himself from physical disabilities and mental distractions by practising asanas. He surrenders his actions and their fruits to the Lord [Brahman] in the service of the world. The yogi realizes that his life and all its activities are part of the divine action in nature, manifesting and operating in the form of man." (LY, 40-41)

"True asana [posture] is that in which the thought of Brahman flows effortlessly and incessantly through the mind of the sadhaka [student, seeker]." (LY, 42)

Does your instructor believe Iyengar is teaching false asana? (One assumes not.) Then, is it true that, for practitioners who have not studied yoga, there might be potential spiritual implications by engaging in the asanas, implications that practitioners may not be aware of?

3) Can we assume yoga postures are harmless?

With 15 million Americans doing yoga, and millions more throughout history, one would assume yoga practice is relatively harmless, even given the dire warnings in yoga texts. (See ENAB, 597-600, 603-10 for examples of such warmings, and practitioners experiences.)

But that assumption is not proven, nor is it the declaration of the Gurus in the authoritative texts. Again, no one is keeping track of people's negative experiences with yoga, so it is at least possible that many people are being harmed--spiritually, mentally and physically.

"Pranayama is thus the science of breath. It is the hub round which the wheel of life revolves. 'As lions, elephants and tigers are tamed very slowly and cautiously, so should prana be brought under control very slowly in gradation, measured according to one's capacity and physical limitations. Otherwise it will kill the practitioner' warns the Hatha Yoga Pradipika..." (LY, 43)

"Without the bandhas, prana is lethal." (LY, 436) Bhandas are defined as "a posture where certain organs or parts of the body are contracted and controlled." (LY, 515-16)

"There is great danger in attempting to learn the Uddiyana and Mula Bandhas by oneself, without the personal supervision of an experienced Guru or teacher.... Even the correct performance of Mula Bhanda has its own dangers." (LY, 43)

4) Even if permissible, from the perspective of one's Christian committment, is it good, or wise, to engage in practices that are part of a pagan tradition when the associated philosophy is antiChristian? (Is there a secondary message promoted?)

"The mind becomes pure when all desires and fears are annihilated." (LY, 46.) Mental 'purity' refers to nonduality. What about the Christian desire to love and glorify the God of the Bible? Most Hindus and yogins teach that the Christian concept of God is both a "primitive" and "false" concept, based upon the authority of the allegedly divinely revealed teachings of the Hindu scriptures. Again, from a Christian worldview, what about the fear of God or divine judgment eternity?

"While performing asanas, the student's body assumes numerous forms of life found in creation -- from the lowliest insect to the most perfect sage -- and he learns that in all these there breathes the same Universal Spirit [Brahman] -- the Spirit of God. He looks within himself while practicing

[asanas] and feels the presence of God in different asanas which he does with the sense of surrender onto the feet of the LORD [Brahman]." (LY, 60)

So, what is the asana practitioner surrendering to, according to the Tradition?

Iyengar closes his Introduction with the nondualist Sankara's 'Song of the Soul': "...I have no name, I have no life....Virtue and vice, or pleasure and pain are not my heritage, nor sacred texts, nor offerings, nor prayer...") (LY, 53)

From a traditional Western/Christian view, people are held to be real, independent creations of God, not illusions of Brahman. From a Christian worldview, is virtue the heritage of the Christian and does the spiritually 'enlightened' person reject the Bible and prayer?

"According to the Tantric texts the object of Pranayama is to arouse Kundalini, the divine cosmic force in our bodies.... This latent energy has to be aroused and made to go up the spinal column piercing the chakras..." (LY, 439) (ENAB, pp 606-610 documents that the kundalini 'force' is not divine--to the contrary, it is explicitly demonic.)

Christian Fashion model Rachel Lee (www.ModelsForChrist.com) was asked to do a shoot that included yoga postures. She declined as a Christian because of the message it sent. According to Paper magazine, Features section, “Model Ministry founder Rachel Lee nearly ruined a recent Fitness magazine shoot when she was told to demonstrate yoga positions. She balked, reasoning that "yoga comes from an Eastern religion. It is about spiritualism, it's about channeling and meditation"--ideas that run counter to Christian practice. She told them, "I don't mind stretching, but I can't have my pastor or kids in my youth group back home seeing that." Lee then urged them to hire another model. The Fitness team was stunned that she was willing to hand the job to a competitor. In the meantime, she began calling all her Christian friends to ask them to pray for her. But the magazine switched a shot around and kept her working for 12 more hours. "I stood up," she proudly declares. At least she has a sense of humor about it. "Some girls won't wear fur, but I won't do yoga," she smiles.'"

5) May Christians engage in pagan associations or practices with the assurance of impunity?

It depends on their nature and context. Christmas, Easter, the days of the week, all have pagan origins or associations, but the paganism is no longer present. Is the paganism no longer present in yoga? Or is yoga, as commonly practiced around the world, a pagan practice itself, and what are the implications?

Iyengar begins his principal text, Light on Yoga with a prayer to, "Adisvara (the primeval Lord Siva [the god of destruction] who taught first the science of Hatha Yoga..." ( LY, 9) "Some asanas are also called [named] after gods of the Hindu pantheon..."(LY, 42) "[Virabhadrasana]... this asana is dedicated to the powerful hero created by Siva from his matted hair." (LY, 70) In Light on Pranayama, Iyengar offers the following invocation: "I salute Lord Hanuman, Lord of Breath, Son of the Wind God-- who bears five faces and dwells within us in the form of five winds or energies pervading our body, mind and soul.... May he blesss the practitioner by uniting his vital energy -- prana -- with the Divine Spirit within." (LP, ix)

Does one have to believe in yoga philosophy to practice yoga? Obviously not, but that misses the point. One does not have to believe in the law in order to be subject to its penalties. The questions of intent, impact and implication remain valid.

Perhaps a more thorough discussion with ones Instructor would help clarify these issues.

In conclusion, given the following--

  • the intentional psychospiritual impact of the asanas,
  • the opposite worldviews of Christianity and Hinduism,
  • the pagan nature of Hinduism and the Biblical prohibitions against paganism (belief & practice),
  • the stated dangers of asanas, and,
  • the Biblical teachings on the subtleties of spiritual deception/warfare–

--then one would logically have to advise caution over mere practice of the asanas.

I have attached 50 supporting references, and highlighted particularly relevant portions. It should be kept in mind that with a few exceptions, these citations are from proactive yoga sites and assume Hindu/yogic definitions and worldview. In other words, they assume the truth of the Hindu worldview such that certain words and concepts have a Hindu, not Christian, meaning: God, man, morality, health, body, awareness, quiet mind, purity, etc., all mean something different for a Hindu or a Christian. For example, a discussion of how one relates to the inner and outer life of a person would have quite different meanings in Hinduism and Christianity. When Iyengar discusses the beneficial effects of Hindu meditation, he points out that the practitioners, "thoughts are pure." (LP, 231) This has nothing to do with moral purity in the Christian sense, rather it refers to the practitioner's consciousness being centered in non-duality, the antithesis of Christian sanctification and the antithesis of the Christian life.



Additional References on Asanas from Internet Yoga Sites.

(Two were non-yoga sites, designated N.)

1. (N) The postures

It is usually taught today that Yoga is nothing more than a method of maintaining body fitness, physical vigor and mental health, etc., having nothing in common with religion. This way of defining Yoga regards primarily the practice of asanas, well known today as an effective way for inducing relaxation. However, as mentioned above, the purpose of the asanas is to immobilize the body, bring it under control and refuse movement, in order to help concentration. If the asanas are performed without following the 10 moral precepts and not as a step on one's spiritual path toward liberation, they have nothing in common with true Yoga. Through the symbol each posture represents (the locust, the fish, the candle, etc.), it involves a change of personality and is prescribed by the guru according to the spiritual needs of his disciple, so that he may easier surpass his ignorant condition.

Therefore, Yoga cannot be reduced to a mere form of psychophysical therapy. It has always been considered a path toward transcendence, a way of surpassing the world of illusion and reaching the Ultimate Reality. It was and will always be religious. This aspect has never been doubted in the East. Only after it was brought in the Western world, the terms in which it was described were changed. However, its goal has not changed. It still aims to annihilate man's psycho-mental life and anything that can define

personhood. http://www.comparativereligion.com/Yoga.html

2. Yamas and niyamas are the suggestions given by yoga on how we should deal with people around us and about our attitude toward ourselves. The attitude we have toward things and people outside ourselves is called yama in yoga, and how we relate to ourselves inwardly is called niyama. http://www.holistic-online.com/Yoga/hol_yoga_astanga-limbs.htm

3. Asana is a two-way street. Once the mental attitude has been created, it can then be spontaneously expressed as an asana; if one takes on the external form of an internal attitude, soon that attitude moves through body into mind, thus creating it there. Whichever way one works, the results are the same. Asana is thus both a preparation for meditation and a meditation sufficient in and of itself." http://www.holistic-online.com/Yoga/yoga_ashtanga_asanas.htm

4. (N) A second aspect concerns the fact that the moral demands in Yoga do not have the purpose of achieving social harmony, but only to feed the Yogi's own spiritual progress. One should not have in mind what is good for his neighbor, but only his personal quest toward liberation. Considering the meaning of liberation (detaching purusha from its psycho-mental attachments), one has to surpass moral values, attain a state of total detachment toward them, and not become attached to them. Only in this way can one act without accumulating new karmic debt. As long as morality makes sense only in communion with other people, and Yoga demands

detaching oneself from the illusory status of such involvement, the Yama and Niyama morality is different from what we commonly understand by morality, i.e. following positive demands in order to seek what is good for our neighbor.

Another paradoxical aspect is that, while advancing in practice, many Yogis (especially in the West) forget the basic moral requirements and become arrogant, acquiring a feeling of superiority toward the profane world. Instead of being humble and pure (shaucha), they often behave like they feel pity for the inferior fellow-humans. Although they claim that the ego has to disappear, as it is a primitive character feature, their pride and contempt grows. This reveals a lack of truthfulness (satya), self-control and purity

(shaucha) of mind. Far from detaching from any egoistic attachments, the result a Yogi often reaches is weakening or even breaking his relations with "ignorant people" (usually the family) and establishing an idolatrous relation toward the guru, the one in charge of interpreting his experiences and keep him moving along the right path. The relation with the guru usually becomes very subservient, with the disciples surrendering their entire life to him and even worshiping him as a god. Therefore, the requirement of abandoning

personal attachments seems to be valid only toward the profane world, while the strongest personal relation (attachment) becomes that with the guru. The scriptures seem to encourage this attitude:

When the sleeping kundalini awakens by favor of a guru, then all the chakras are pierced through (H.Y.P. 3,2). There is no doubt that the Guru is father, mother, and even god. He has to be served with all thoughts, words and deeds. By the favor of the guru, everything that is bound to the self can be attained. Therefore, the guru has to be served day and night; else nothing of great value can be attained (Shiva Samhita 3,13-14). http://www.comparativereligion.com/Yoga.html (See ENAB, on Eastern Gurus)

5. Yoga asanas (postures) and breathing deal with the physical body, but due to their effect on the brain, they also affect the mind. http://www.holistic-online.com/Yoga/hol_yoga_intr.htm

6. …asanas are the various positions that make up the practice of Yoga.

(Source lost)

7. As Yoga regards the body as a vehicle for the soul on its journey towards perfection, Yogic physical exercises are designed to develop not only the body. They also broaden the mental faculties and the spiritual capacities. >http://h.kuhite.tripod.com/yoga.htm

8. Asanas arouse the queue strength or Kundalini, which sleeps in the Muladhara Chakra. http://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=de&u=http://www.yoga-vidya.de/art_Yoga_Asanas.html&prev=/search%3Fq%3Dyoga%2Basanas%26hl%3Den%26lr%3D%26safe%3Doff

9. The practice of yoga posture differs radically from conventional exercise such as aerobics, weight-training, jogging, etc. The goal of asana practice is not to develop muscular strength or cardiovascular fitness (although both are possible) but to restore to the body-mind its fundamental state of well-being, ease, and vibrant alertness. Yoga postures work on all dimensions of the body-mind -- "physical" through healing, strengthening, stretching and relaxing the skeletal, muscular, cardiovascular, digestive, glandular, and nervous systems; "mental" through the cultivation of a quiet and peaceful mind, alertness, and concentration; and "spiritual" by way of preparation for meditation and cultivation of inner strength. http://www.santosha.com/asanas/asana_def.html

10. Although yoga postures are meant to provide a strong foundation for further yoga practice (concentration or dharana and meditation or dhyana), their benefits are such that they can stand alone as ways to cultivate a body-mind that is strong, healthy and relaxed. http://www.santosha.com/asanas/asana_why.html

11. The physical aspect of Yoga was developed in order to focus the mind in a single direction. While practicing Yoga, the mind and the body work together, and when they unite in perfect harmony, there is no thought or ego, there is no judgement or attachment. There is only peace of mind and a piece of happiness. When doing Yoga, try and be aware of its philosophical backbone. Realize that enlightenment need not last a lifetime, a single moment is enough. When concentrating on your postures, watch your mind. Let all thoughts and judgements pass. Concentrate on your breath and be in the moment…. Leave behind the confines of your outer world. Become the tree that you are emulating and you will taste the sweet morning dew upon your leaves. (Varun Soni is currently a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. http://www.yogadirectory.com/emag/page2.html

12. It is said that God Siva was the first to teach yoga asanas. He is said to have taught 84 lakhs of yogic asanas. Of them, only 84 are now commonly known. http://www.hindubooks.org/culture_course/book8/Yogaasanas/page3.htm

13. Most people, especially from western worlds, think of yoga as merely an eastern exercise program. Nothing could be further from the truth. The underlying purpose behind the practice of yoga - the literal meaning of yoga is `joining' - is to reunite the individual self (Jiva) with the absolute or pure consciousness (Brahma). Union with this unchanging reality liberates the spirit from all sense of separation, freeing it from the illusions of time, space and causation. Since according to yogic philosophy the human body and mind are part of the illusory world of matter, with a limited time span, while the soul /spirit is eternal and passes onto another world when this body wears out. Thus, central to yogic philosophy are the concepts of Karma (cause- effect relationships) and Reincarnation. Yoga is therefore regarded as a divine science of life, revealed to enlightened sages in meditation. >http://www.allayurveda.com/cyoga.htm

14. When these vigorous "pranayamas" are practiced by someone who is not adequately prepared, they can cause irreparable damage to the heart, lungs, and nervous system. The symptoms of this damage--shaking and trembling, flashes of light, imaginary voices, uncontrollable rushes of energy--are then offered as proof that the student's kundalini has been awakened. This is only one of the many misuses of yoga resulting from its popularization in the past thirty years or so. Anything that is popular is, by definition, "suitable to the majority; easy to understand," and in their proper context, most yoga practices are neither. The yogic view of the world is radically different than the worldview held by the majority of people in our culture. Yoga is based on assumptions about the nature of man and the purpose of life that run directly counter to the assumptions current here in the West. http://www.himalayaninstitute.org/cgi-local//do.pl?form=viewstory&id=103

15. Vinyasa means "breathing system." Without vinyasa, don't do asana. Intervew with K. (Patabi Jobis; “Practice Makes Perfect" by Sandra Anderson is a contributing editor to Yoga International. As a student of yoga she has studied and practiced a variety of approaches to asana over the past decade. http://www.himalayaninstitute.org/cgi-local//do.pl?form=viewstory&id=88

16. Ashtanga Yoga Institute Guidelines for Yoga Asanas (Postures)--Through asana practice, we increase our energy, strength and flexibility. The postures rejuvenate the vital organs & glands and balance the life energy [prana] systems of the body. When we do asana with concentration on the breath while consciously moving the body in different positions, asanas become a meditation, increasing the benefits and distinguishing them from exercise. >http://www.mountmadonna.org/ayi/guide.html

17. Yoga teaches that each posture reflects a mental attitude, whether that attitude be one of surrender, as in a forward bending asana, or the strengthening of the will, through backward bending postures, or the creation of a physical prayer or meditation with the body, as in the practice of padmasana (lotus posture). A posture or asana can be used for rejuvenating specific organs and glands as well as the spine. http://www.holistic-online.com/Yoga/hol_yoga_pos_intro.htm#Introduction

18. The vast diversity of asanas is no accident, for through exploring both familiar and unfamiliar postures we are also expanding our consciousness, so that regardless of the situation or form we find ourselves in, we can remain "comfortably seated" in our center. Intrinsic to this practice is the uncompromising belief that every aspect of the body is pervaded by consciousness. Asana practice is a way to develop this interior awareness…. What distinguishes an asana from a stretch or calisthenic exercise is that in asana practice we focus our mind's attention completely in the body so that we can move as a unified whole and so we can perceive what the body has to tell us. We don't do something to the body, we become the body. In the West we rarely do this. We watch TV while we stretch; we read a book while we climb the StairMaster; we think about our problems while we take a walk, all the time living a short distance from the body. So asana practice is a reunion between the usually separated body-mind." What are Yoga Asanas and Why Practice Them? Donna Farhi (A small excerpt from the book) http://www.1upautomotive.com/writings/health/yoga/farhi/yoga_mind3.htm

19. Asanas--A pose or posture designed to stimulate glands, organs or body awareness, and to quiet the mind for meditation. Asanas often apply pressure on nerves or accupressure points, reflexing to the brain and body for certain effects. >http://www.kundaliniyoga.org/asanas.html

20. Yoga Symposium.15.357

Kit Spahr (Kit Spahr, 9/19/99 12:36:42 PM

I've noticed how much lighter my body feels when using mulabandha in arm balances...specifically crow pose. And re: letting go during practice. I've noticed that when I'm doing urdva dhanurasana I'm often inclined to just lay there for a few minutes...sometimes longer...and not because I'm resting my back but because this kind of meditative state takes over after practicing that pose...and then I kind of come back to the body and go up again. Its odd...no other pose does that too me as consistently. Kit http://www.movingintostillness.com/symp/discussions/asanas.htm#15.0

21. Yoga Symposium.15.366

kevin wood (sahaj, 9/21/99 6:03:54 PM)

Karen, It seems that the backbending asanas are stimulating in nature and tend to move energy that is stuck. My experience is that the heart chakra opens by feeling open and vulnerable. I suppose you could do a backbend with a will a agression that wouldn't allow the flowering of the heart. But if I am open and yielding, the power of the pose seems to bring up stuck stuff in all the chakras, releasing the holding and letting in the light and breath. I told my class the other day to bring the breath into areas that haven't seen the light of day. It seems to be like that prana gets stuck and stagnant, and the asanas help to get the flow happening again. Then once the flow is happening, pause to feel and enjoy the effect of a freeing up of prana. Thanks for that suggestion on the position of the hands during pause on the back, Erich. Ill try that out. http://www.movingintostillness.com/symp/discussions/asanas.htm#15.0

22. Finally, it should be noted that asanas are a serious component of tantra yoga practice. One should treat asana practice with care. Some asanas can be dangerous or are contraindicated for some persons and in certain combinations. No one should practice asanas without permission of an experienced and properly trained Acharya (teacher). http://www.abhidhyan.org/Teachings/Asanas.htm

23. Hatha yoga is mostly yoga that prepares the body for the spiritual path via physical and breathing exercises, and asceticism. Hatha yoga is the most superficial component of yoga, the one that is preoccupied merely with the means to the means. It prepares and conditions the body so that the mind can practice meditation more or less without obstacles. Hatha yoga, as a main rather than an accessory practice, is quite a tiresome and roundabout way to enlightenment. Most yogis in India do not pay too much attention to it, and frequently completely ignore it. They think, why perfect the body if it is already working well?

The main component of hatha yoga, which has a special application to the spiritual path, and which we will discuss in more detail, is yoga postures, or, in Sanskrit, asanas. The word asana means comfortable, stable pose. Asanas are exercises of a special kind. The form that they have taken is the result of a thousand years of experience: trial and error, experiments, and scrupulous observation. The yogis have discovered that certain positions of the body can give human beings qualities that they do not have or that are in deficit. Asanas are usually named in honor of their inventors (Matsyendra), certain bodily structures (a triangle), tools (a plow), birds (a peacock), or animals (a lion, e.g.) and reflect physical or psychological effects that these asanas have on a person. For instance, a snake pose makes the spine flexible; a frog pose helps the body to conserve energy and use much less food and water (like during hibernation); an action pose develops emotional and physical energy.

Yoga postures should not be confused with mere exercise, calisthenics, which help strengthen and develop muscles. Asanas are special positions of the body that strengthen, purify and balance the endocrine, nervous and circulatory systems. ….The main application of asanas is the resolution of problems that appear on the path of meditation. Most of us, especially when we begin meditation practice, become surprised to what extent the mind is restless, unstable and full of various thoughts and desires. Emotions of anger, fear, hate and their derivatives torture us, while emotions of enchantment, infatuation and attachment (so-called love) and their derivatives delight us. Both kinds of emotions do not allow us to enter deep meditative states. Such mental disturbance happens due to the effect of mental modifications (vritti), which are trying to find external expression through the sensory organs and the nervous system (indriya), and therefore creating emotional confusion. Since vrittis are derivatives of endocrine glands, if you can regulate their (hormonal) secretions through asanas and other special yogic techniques, you will be able to regulate and control the emotions and the mind. Asanas squeeze and stretch glands, and thus invigorate and balance their secretions. As a result, endocrine defects are cured, and emotional and mental difficulties caused by these defects gradually disappear, without much effort and frustration on your part. Gradually the mind becomes calm and focused, i.e., ready for deep meditation.

Sooner or later an advanced sadhaka (spiritual aspirant or meditator) will experience an awakening of his or her usually dormant spiritual power (kundalini). This is the result of many years of conscientious meditation practice, and calls for major changes in the body and mind. The body needs to become stronger and more enduring, while at the same time capable of being more sensitive, aware and open, so that it will be able to tolerate both powerful and subtle currents of spiritual energy which are produced or released by meditation. Regular practice of certain asanas and other hatha yoga techniques helps maintain inner and outer vigor and purity that is necessary at such an advanced stage of spiritual development.

– Acharyaji

(Translated from Russian) http://www.abhidhyan.org/Teachings/Hatha_Yoga.htm

24. Yoga postures, or asanas, work at a deep level. They release your muscles and joints, and holding the postures tones your muscles, massages your internal organs, and asanas also release the flow of [pranic] energy within you, and relaxing your muscles acts to calm and still your mind. http://www.unifiedherbal.com/HealingMethods/Yoga/cfms/Asanas.cfm

25. The practice of yoga posture differs radically from conventional exercise such as aerobics, weight-training, jogging, etc. The goal of asana practice is not to develop muscular strength or cardiovascular fitness (although both are possible) but to restore to the body-mind its fundamental state of well-being ease, and vibrant alertness.

Yoga postures work on all dimensions of the body-mind -- "physical" through healing, strengthening, stretching and relaxing the skeletal, muscular, cardiovascular, digestive, glandular, and nervous systems; "mental" through the cultivation of a quiet and peaceful mind, alertness, and concentration; and "spiritual" by way of preparation for meditation and cultivation of inner strength. http://www.santosha.com/asanas/asana_def.html

26. Asana

Sanskrit Asana (“sitting posture," “seat"), in the Yoga system of Indian philosophy, immobile bodily posture that a person assumes in an attempt to isolate the mind by freeing it from attention to bodily functions. It is the third of the eight prescribed stages intended to lead the aspirant to samadhi, the trancelike state of perfect concentration. Once the practitioner is able with ease to maintain a rigid, essentially unnatural posture, he has in a sense “concentrated" his body (the antithesis of its normal dispersed state, that of infinite mobility). As many as 32 or more different asanas have been enumerated, of which perhaps the most common is the padmasana (“lotus

posture"). In the visual arts of India, asana refers to the posture of a seated deity or figure or to the seat or throne on which he sits. http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=9882

27. Generally the Yoga process is described in eight stages (astanga-yoga, “eight-membered Yoga"). The first two stages are ethical preparations. They are yama (“restraint"), which denotes abstinence from injury (ahimsa), falsehood, stealing, lust, and avarice; and niyama (“observance"), which denotes cleanliness of body, contentment, austerity, study [of the scriptures], and devotion to God. http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=80076&hook=181913#181913.hook

28. Although yoga postures are meant to provide a strong foundation for further yoga practice (concentration or dharana and meditation or dhyana), their benefits are such that they can stand alone as ways to cultivate a body-mind that is strong, healthy and relaxed. http://www.santosha.com/asanas/asana_why.html

29. Through continued practice Yoga postures can have a profound effect on the inner dimensions of life, establishing deep calm, concentration, emotional stability and confidence. http://www.santosha.com/asanas/asana_benefits.html

30. The body, within which the knowledge dwells, has no real existence. (The Mahabharata) http://www.hinduism.co.za/thepath.htm

31. …the mind does not exist at all…. Sri Ramana Maharsh >http://www.hinduism.co.za/thepath.htm

32. Therefore it is foolish to attempt to kill the mind by means of the mind. The only way of doing it is to find its source and hold on to it. The mind will then fade away of its own accord. Sri Ramana Maharsh http://www.hinduism.co.za/thepath.htm

33. Without proper breathing coordination, breathing exercises may help initially, but in the long run may take way too long to benefit and or can bring great harm by training people in non optimal breathing patterns. Breathing exercises, especially some of so called the advanced Yogic ones, including but not limited to bastraka, and kumbacka (pranayama) is most often too extreme. Practice makes permanent, not necessarily perfect.

From my experience, Hatha yoga styles such as Sivananda or Iyengar utilize stretching in a breathing supportive manner. But they are not breathing specific and many of the teachers are first to admit that.Few people know what deepest easiest and coordinated breathing feels, looks, acts and sounds like. Far fewer can teach proper technique and exercises to direct others.

MANY YOGA TEACHERS DO NOT KNOW HOW TO TEACH BREATHING.

Both Donna Farhi, author of The Breathing Book and "R", a co founder of Yoga Journal (and my former minister's wife) have stated that they taught Yoga for over 20 years - Donna - and 40 years -R- and "did not know how to breathe". So there may well be many thousands of yoga instructors and

students uncertain about healthy breathing. The greatest tragedy of this is that many are first to defend their breathing development proficiency but alas, last to prove it. See http://www.breathing.com/articles/deeper.htm.

Karlfried Durckheim -- Respected German psychotherapist, and well versed in the integration of body, mind, and spirit, lived in Japan for 10 years. - In his book Hara (as in Hari Kari or Sapuku/suicide by plunging a knife in one's own belly/hara) The Vital Centre of Man, he discusses some of the dangers of yoga style breathing exercises. >http://www.breathing.com/articles/yoga.htm

34. (N) Therefore Yoga practice can lead to a quite different end from that much-advertised peace of mind and inner balance. The experiences it produces may be very dangerous because they are either the premise or the actual experience of demonic possession. If this interpretation seems absurd for some, in what other way could we explain the experience of Eastern initiation, especially when trying to be consistent with Christian theology? http://www.comparativereligion.com/Yoga.html

35. Many Westerners are under the false impression that the purpose of Yoga is to become relaxed, free of stress, and to be better able to obtain their desires. While it is true that Yoga practice does bring about a more untroubled attitude, to present this as the goal of Yoga is to support a misperception that Yoga practice is about becoming better adapted to the world. This takes Yoga out of its spiritual context and diminishes the possibility of the radical reorientation of consciousness necessary for

realization of one's true nature…. If Yoga practices are presented outside of their spiritual context, they are no longer Yoga. This is my criticism of most Yoga classes given in health clubs and similar settings. Prem Prakash, Yoga Research & Education Center >http://www.yrec.org/amstyle.html

36. …the &#acirc;sanas in themselves have a philosophical quality. The philosophizing that happens in a prereflective way in the practice of &#acirc;sanathe philosophy within &#acirc;sana–is the basis of a philosophy on &#acirc;sana, which tries to explain theexperience of &#acirc;sana systematically with the means provided by philosophical methods. A really deep and reasonable practice of &#acirc;sana is a way of philosophizing….My thesis is that the practice of &#acirc;sana especially deals with the lived-body's transcendence. In asana, we do not open ourselves to intend this or that; &#acirc;sana is a bodily opening towards the wholeness of the world we live in. Thus the practice of &#acirc;sana means a cultivation of the lived body's pre-reflective, pre-conscious attunement to the openness of Being as a whole….This usually hidden region shines forth and enlightens us through the practice of &#acirc;sana….The way the vastness of Being manifests itself in relation to the space created by our motility is developed, enriched, and extended by &#acirc;sana….Shri Iyengar compares this twofold movement to the growth of a tree: “In practicing &#acirc;sanas, you feel

the energy flowing in your system," he says. “You feel how it is working, how it is flowing. In the tree the energy flows from the seed to the leaves, and as the leaves make contact with the air they feed energy back on a reverse journey through the branches and the stem to the root, and the root makes the tree grow further to produce the blossoms, fruits and flowers." The tree is a very good example of how the process of opening oneself and becoming visible in one's true stature is always accompanied by a secret movement of the hidden roots into the depth of the ground….The religious aspect of the experience of rootedness is indicated by Shri Iyengar when he says: “Mastery over it [the &#acirc;sana] takes place after uninterrupted practice which leads to the cessation of efforts. By such a mastery in posture, the mind is absorbed in Lord Ananta, who, according to myth, holds the globe of the earth steadily on His hood. The aspirant, too, yearns for such unwavering steadiness" [Yoga-Sūtra of Patanjali, 2.46]. The bodily experience of the ground that holds us up and gives us stability opens the door for the awareness of the infinite supreme Being that holds and supports the earth and all earthly beings….By practicing asana, we learn to respond to the vastness of Being by opening ourselves, gathering ourselves within a present that embraces past and future, and by trustful rooting ourselves in the depth of Being. http://www.yrec.org/asana.html

37. As the German psychiatrist Dietrich Langen has shown, Yoga and archaic shamanism have much in common. Georg Feuerstein http://www.yrec.org/art_science.html

38. Yoga is easily the single most complex and diversified spiritual tradition in the world. Georg Feuerstein http://www.yrec.org/art_science.html

39. (Translated from the German by Google search engine)

Apart from these differences, the Yogasanas has a mirror-image-ritual reference. The Yogasanas, which are only regarded as another form of physical exercises to have only apparently no connection to the Spiritualitaet. But in truth everything that has to do somehow with Yoga, has finally a mirror-image-ritual background.

That is the special feature of the Indian culture. Everything has a reference for the Spiritualitaet, even the simplest ritual or a serving, the unbedeutendste admiration, the study or any practice. Of India culture a large target before eyes has to spiritualisieren each action; in this light regarded, no work without mirror-image-ritual background should be. Therefore even a Asana is a mirror-image-ritual exercise, although it is to be understood not easily, how a physical exercise can be regarded as mirror-image ritual. Asanas are mirror-image ritual due to practice lying behind, due to the practice and the special effects on the spirit. Shri Swami Krishnananda Maharaj “Yogasana and Pranayama" http://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=de&u=http://www.yoga-vidya.de/Buecher/Wissenschaft/science12.htm&prev=/search%3Fq%3Dyogasanas%26start%3D10%26hl%3Den%26lr%3D%26safe%3Doff%26sa%3D

40. Yoga is a way of getting in touch with your Self… The process begins very often with the exploration of body posture. Yogasanas are not just the physical exercises practised in a HATHAYOGA class but a very positive way of gaining more and more control over body functions. … It then becomes possible to sit erect for meditation without discomfort. Most Asanas affect a specific area of the body…They are said to train mind and body for spiritual perfection and to free consciousness from . http://www.londonhealth.co.uk/BritishWheelofYoga.asp

41. Patanjali describes truthfulness as: "To be in harmony with mind, word and action, to conduct speech and mind according to truth, to express through speech and to retain it in the intellect what has been seen, understood or heard." A perfectly truthful person is he who expresses in his speech exactly what he thinks in his mind and in the end acts according to it….Commentators describe Ishwar-Pranidhan, the last of the niyamas, as the dedication of all our actions, performed either by intellect, speech or body, to the Divine. The results of all such actions are by definition, therefore, dependent upon Divine decision. The mortal mind can simply aspire to realize the Divine through dedication, purification, tranquilization and concentration of the mind. This Divine contemplation spills over to all aspects of the yogi's life. http://www.lifepositive.com/body/yoga/yoga_ashtanga.asp

42. If one has mastered the technique of selective Yogasanas in life, one remains free from disease in the body. http://www.angelfire.com/biz4/freeyoga/series5.html

43. Some asanas She [Sivananda-Valentina] performs like a Sacred Dance; it is obvious that, for Her, asanas are also a means of communication with the Supreme. Her asanas are beautiful and sacred prayers, never a mechanical exercise. Valentina gives us a treat when She practices Yogasanas. We have regular classes for various people of various ages and capacities. She goes into precise instructions with everybody, correcting and encouraging, being humorous or tactful or reserved - all depending on the type of class She has. "Asanas are not gymnastics" She says often. "They are not for the body's sake but for overcoming the sense of body. You should be able to forget that you have legs and arms when you practice asanas. http://www.lightsv.org/gusti2.htm

44. Gurudev [YogYogeshwar Anant Vibhushit Sri Chandra Mohan Ji Maharaj] used to explain asanas in context of asanas- siddhis, differences between asanas and other physical exercises, effect of Yogasanas on mind, body, soul. It effect on speech, celibacy, use of asanas in awakening of kundalini power and samadhi. Many a times people were able to perfect an asana just by a mere divine look from Gurudev. Gurudev also wrote a book called ' Sachitra Yogasanas' explaining them in detail. http://chsharma.tripod.com/pages/gurudev.html

45. Iyengar Yoga refers to the methodology developed by Sri. B.K.S. Iyengar, an internationally reputed teacher and practitioner of yogasanas (also known as Hatha Yoga). Sri. B.K.S. Iyengar is one of the pioneers in modern times that propagated worldwide the knowledge of Asanas. He currently runs Ramamani Memorial Iyengar Yoga Institute in Poona, India. His contributions have inspired his students to establish Iyengar Yoga Institutes around the world. The methodology of his teaching is called "Iyengar Yoga". This approach emphasizes the physical postures of yoga (or Asanas).

The Asanas are an important part in the spiritual development focussing on the physical postures and regulation of breathing. Sri Iyengar emphasized the achievement of physical postures rather than the intricate aspects of the breathing pattern. In his approach, refinement of physical posture will prepare the student for Pranayama (breathing related) practices. In his book, "Light on Yoga", he explains about 200 postures and gives the beneficial effects of each posture on physical and medical aspects. The practice of

yogaasanas will help develop the well being of body, serenity of mind, and the means to harmonize the sadhaka (spiritual student) with God. (By Dr. M.G.Prasad and Patrick Fullan) http://www.informasian.com/health/helt3.html

46. A yogasana is a posture in harmony with one's inner consciousness. It aims at the attainment of a sustained and comfortable sitting posture to facilitate meditation. Asanas also help in balancing and harmonizing the basic structure of the human body, which is why they have a range of therapeutic uses too.

Functions of Yogasanas. Asanas basically perform five functions:

• Conative,

• Cognitive,

• Mental,

• Intellectual and

• Spiritual.

Conative action is the voluntary exercise of the organs of action. The asanas being the main yogic instrument of balancing the body, they consist of various physical postures, which are designed to release tension, improve flexibility and maximize the flow of vital energy. The purpose of the

asanas is to create a flow of positive energy so that our concentration is directed within ourselves and the mind is able to perceive (parokshya jnana) the effects of our purposive action. That is cognitive action.

When the earlier two actions are fused, our mind's discriminative faculty guides these organs to perform the asanas more correctly. The resultant rhythmic energy flow and awareness leads to a mental state of pure joy (ananda). Physical postures, therefore, end up affecting the various

interrelated channels (nadis) of the mind-body complex. And ultimately the performance of a perfect yogasana leads to the absolute intellectual absorption of the mind on a single task (dharana), which in turn leads to the fusion of the individual spirit with the Divine Self (dhyana).

Benefits of Yogasanas

The regular practice of yogasanas has an immense amount of therapeutic value. Besides various physiological benefits, they positively affect our minds, our life force energies as well as our creative intelligence.

Regular practice helps to keep our body fit, controls cholesterol level, reduces weight, normalizes blood pressure and improves heart performance. Physical fitness thus achieved leads to reduction of physical stress and greater vitality. Asanas harmonize our pranic ability and mental energy flow by clearing any blockages in the subtle body leading to mental equilibrium and calmness. They make the mind strong thus enabling our human body to suffer pain and unhappiness stoically and with fortitude. http://www.lifepositive.com/body/yoga/yoga_ashtanga.asp#ky

47. As it is, Yogasanas and Pranayama are closely interwoven. Regular practice of Yogasanas makes a person aware of the sensation of Pran[a] in the vicinity of the Nabhi-Chakra. http://www.indiangyan.com/books/therapybooks/mystic_science_vastu/
vastu_dosha_and_yogic_remedies.shtml

48.The core Ashtanga practice [taught by Mysore master K. Pattabhi Jois] consists of six progressively difficult series of linked postures, each requiring between 90 minutes to three hours to complete. The structure of Ashtanga makes you repeatedly go through an entire spectrum of postures, some of which are displeasing or difficult. The series work like a combination lock. If you do the right poses in the right order, the mind and the body automatically open up.

Each series unlocks a particular aspect of the body and mind. The primary series called yoga chikitsa (yoga therapy) realign and detoxify the physical body, particularly the spine. It also builds a foundation of considerable physical strength, especially important to balance out the overly flexible students who are often drawn to hatha yoga practice. The intermediate series, nadi shodana (cleansing of the nadis or river or channels), purifies and strengthens the nervous system and the subtle energy channels that link the seven chakras. http://yoga.about.com/health/yoga/gi/dynamic/offsite.htm?site=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.holistic-online.com%2FYoga%2Fhol_yoga_poweryoga.htm

49. Nivedita also objects to the criticism of the Iyengar style as purely physical, a form of gymnastics. "First he teaches the more physical aspect,'' says she, "going on to the middle and higher levels of yoga." "If it were purely physical," she argues, "how did I, who had become a total pessimist, gain everything? Today I'm hundred per cent positive." Then, there is the pranayama class and a separate class for medical cases at the Iyengar institute. One factor in Nivedita's recovery may have been that she "followed Iyengar's instructions to the T". Nivedita's experience is that Iyengar may not give discourses but he teaches everything. By doing yoga with him, you imbibe the whole philosophy of life. http://www.lifepositive.com/body/yoga/joshi_article.asp

50. From the introduction to Erich Schiffmann's book Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness:

I went to Poona, India, during the summer of 1977 to study with the great Iyengar. …

One incident I remember most clearly from that summer occurred at the end of class one day. It had been a very intense, difficult class, and during Shavasana, the Relaxation Pose, I went particularly deep. I remember being very quiet, very centered, and yet very wide awake. Iyengar must have noticed this because he came over to me afterward and said, "You see! It takes Krishnamurti twenty years to get your mind quiet. I can do it in one class." And he had a point. His methodology worked. It wasn't just physical, as is the common criticism of his teaching. Many people attempt to discredit him by saying his yoga is not spiritual. But here it was! Spiritual in the most practical, grounded, obvious way. And it was equally obvious from what he said to me that his intent all along was to impart the experience of yoga--not just put everyone through the paces, physically speaking. The whole point of all this physical, hard work--and it was very physical and very demanding--was to get into a deep meditative state. And for me, it worked. I am extremely grateful to have learned this from him. >http://yogacenter.lawrence.ks.us/quotes.htm

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About this page:
Yogasanas: physical postures, spiritual method or both?
First posted: Apr. 28, 2003
Copyright: Dr. John F. Weldon
Link to: http://www.apologeticsindex.org/y06aa.html
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