Sharath gave a beautiful and demo filled conference today on the theme of the 8 limbs of yoga. He started off saying how when people think of Ashtanga yoga they often think of asana because that is how they were introduced to the practice. They hear the word Ashtanga and they react by commenting on how hard it is. Sharath said he agrees, “it is very difficult” but “it is difficult because it is NOT only asanas. It is anushtanam.” Anushtanam means the total absorption of the qualities of yoga.
We develop the qualities of yoga by observing the outer limbs (Yama, Niyama, and Asana) and then over time there is a transformation that happens within us. Sharath went on to explain that Yama, Niyama, and Asana are the pillars of spiritual practice. He likened them to a tripod holding up a camera (Sharath’s an avid photographer) or to the foundation of a building which must be strong, for the upper levels to survive. Sharath said he’s often heard there are two kinds of yoga: yoga in the east and yoga in the west. He frowned on westerner’s obsessions with asana details such as jumping through with straight or crossed legs which put too much emphasis on the physical aspect of yoga and leave out the spiritual.
Sharath said stability in asana is important, but as a support for the spiritual practice. Each individual should watch and observe how the asana practice helps him as a spiritual being. After years the practice will become like a meditation. Sharath explained how in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika only 6 limbs are mentioned. He said this is because Yama (restraints) and Niyama (observances) should be practiced while doing the asanas and went on to give some examples. Saucha (cleanliness) has two parts, internal and external. Inside we should practice keeping our thoughts clean, being good to others, and keeping the internal body and mind purified. External saucha refers to keeping your body, clothes, and environment clean. You should bathe before your asana practice like you would before going to temple, because it puts your mind in a clear state for asana practice which is like prayer.
Santosha, the second Niyama, means being content with what you have. Some people have everything but internally they are not happy. Santosha is a joy which can come only from the inside. Tapas means to live a strict and disciplined life. Spirituality doesn’t happen with out discipline. When the body and mind develop discipline, spirituality will come naturally.
Sharath emphasized that when the external limbs (Yama, Niyama, Asana) are practiced regularly over time, all the internal limbs will naturally come. Samadhi isn’t something you practice, it’s something that happens to you. Even the lower of the internal limbs, Dhyana, can not happen unless you give time and effort to nourishing your mind and your practice with the Yamas and Niyamas. The amount of effort is different for each student, but over time the change happens inside you. Otherwise if you try to control the mind forcefully before you are ready you can create more harm than good. When the mind is unleashed it will jump around more than before.
Ashtanga yoga is more than a practice. It is a Sadana.
Students went on to ask some questions:
*One student wanted to know why Pranayama (technically an outer limb) is not taught. Sharath replied that he teaching Pranayama but only to the students who are ready. First the asana practice must be very stable or you can cause illness.
*Another student asked about Sharath’s diet. He explained that he keeps a vegetarian diet and eats only one big meal a day. He doesn’t have a taste for western food, but he does like pizza when on tour which his children have turned him on to. He also mentioned that he reduced his eating in conjunction with his 40th birthday, siting a slowing down of metabolism as we age. Sharath warned of the danger of excess eating on the organs since they have to do extra work to process excess food.
*Students also asked about pain in the body. Sharath explained that there are different kinds of pain and you must come to understand which can heal through slow attentive practice and which need more attention. He also remarked that age is a factor. We heal more easily when we are young.
Sharath began to reminisce about his youth and playing cricket with friends. This was the catalyst for a question about engaging in sports or other physical activities like running while doing the yoga practice. Sharath answered simply that it wasn’t advisable. Running and other sports create swelling in the joints which causes excess stiffness in practice and problems later in life. Yoga is all that is needed and the only thing that makes one more active and energized in old age. Going for a swim or playing a sport once in awhile with a friend is okay, but it shouldn’t be done regularly.