The book “Yoga Sutras Simplified: A Soul-Searching Experience With Patanjali” by Vasudev Murthy is the gentle elaboration of the brilliant Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
Taking the reader through Patanjali’s 196 power-packed sutras, the author explains the purpose and meaning of yoga, going beyond the popular physical aspects. He shares the steps we need to master to gain more control over our mind and, in turn, our daily life.
The author effortlessly interprets Patanjali’s profound wisdom and deep insights, simplifying the complex Sanskrit sutras in layman’s terms and answering pressing questions that we have asked through our lifetimes: Who am I? Where have I come from, and where will I go? Why must I be born again and again?
Read an excerpt from the book below.
Much has been written (and misunderstood) about asanas, the set of physical postures that are immensely popular. There are 84 defined ones seen in two major texts, the Goraksha Sataka and the 15th century Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and many practitioners (like me) innovate in their practice and enjoy mixing them up and creating our own hybrid asanas. Asana practice is recommended to keep fit and be optimally healthy. All this is true.
Patanjali, in this section of his discourse, finally speaks of asanas—the third and most well-known discipline—in a very cryptic way. He says that “the asana should be still and pleasant”.
Is this contrary to popular practice? Perhaps. But it may be useful to step back and understand why asana practice is recommended at all.
Recall that external and internal observances (yama and niyama) were the first two stages of establishing a mental rigour of sorts. Keeping in view the later practices emphasising long stretches of meditation, the perfection of asanas is logical for this reason: the need to hold steady for a prolonged period.
If the body is not fit, meditation will falter. The aspirant will be in a state of continuous discomfort, constantly adjusting his seated posture. The body has not been trained to enjoy extended periods of quiet and focused breathing (pranayama, to be discussed later) while being in a state of balance and focus.
Asanas indeed serve to train the body for calm focus. A simple principle is that if the mind is agitated, bodily balance is unachievable. Those who are otherwise used to asanas as part of their regimen will understand the point immediately. Try to stand motionless, and you will discover it is exceedingly difficult. The body totters, shakes, shivers and sways. Close your eyes and try it again and see how you almost fall.
Asana practice underlines slow and steady melding of the mind and body through steady and calm breathing. Any asana practice that causes the aspirant to inhale and exhale quickly and laboriously as though experiencing discomfort or tension is flawed.
Asanas train the body and mind to be still, impervious to distractions.
Many aspirants also close their eyes during their practice to further block out sensory distractions; I do this often. No matter how complex and strange an asana looks, it has not been mastered unless the practitioner is seen to be calm and her breathing is slow and steady.
This obviously requires extended practice and dedication. Yoga—as conventionally understood—is not a physical fitness technique but has a different goal. It may happen that extended practice results in a lithe and healthy body, but that is, in fact, incidental. The practitioner wishes to meditate for extended periods, still and calm. Without a strong physical frame that supports focus and does not find any posture uncomfortable in the least, one-point meditation is impossible. Distractions caused by the body seeking comfort will plague the mind. Each cell seems to call out for attention—scratch me here, shift me there, straighten me out and so on.
Asanas do require singular focus on various parts of the body and close attention to the state of individual muscles. Some are relaxed, some stiff, some are effectively atrophied due to disuse. One who keeps himself fit and supple through dedicated asana practice is ready for more arduous and demanding meditation sessions.
A yogi whose face radiates tranquillity while in the most demanding posture has understood the point. His breathing is slow and steady, his brow is smooth. His eyes are likely to be closed, but they are peaceful and calm if open. He has additionally surrendered to Ishwara, and therefore, asana practice may be considered a form of worship. There is no pain and no discomfort, and after some time, the mind is no longer even aware of the body.
You may have observed that when your body is in discomfort, it tends to have shallow breaths. Thus, a body in the ideal asana posture ought to be at peace and be relatively indifferent to externalities like heat and cold. Breathing is slow, deep and smooth.
My asana teacher used to ask me to “observe the pain and discomfort”. Far from being dramatic, observing pain reduces it or makes it bearable. The act of neutrally observing one’s pain is a stark example of the separation of the seer and the seen, referred to earlier.
The presence of pain is indicative of other problems that need to be investigated. As breathing becomes slow and steady, pain either effectively disappears or becomes bearable. It is not easy, as everyone’s pain threshold is different. Nevertheless, in most cases, if the focus shifts, with determination, from wincing with pain to breathing slowly and regularly, pain becomes tolerable, even if uncomfortable.
Once again, we see how the mind can be trained to be focused, a critical prerequisite to long-drawn meditative inquiry.
Every asana must be an experience of deep peace and slow and even breathing.
Excerpted with permission from Yoga Sutras Simplified, Vasudev Murthy, Jaico Publishing House. Read more about the book and buy it here.