Mircea Eliade "From Primitives to Zen": YOGIC POSTURES


It is only with the third 'member of Yoga' (yoganga) that yogic technique, properly speaking, begins. This third 'member' is asana, a word designating the well-known yogic posture that the Yoga-sutras (11, 46) define as sthirasukham, 'stable and agreeable.' Asana is described in numerous Hatha Yoga treatises; Patanjali defines it only in outline, for asana is learned from a guru and not from descriptions. The important thing is that asana gives the body a stable rigidity, at the same time reducing physical effort to a minimum. Thus, one avoids the irritating feeling of fatigue, of enervation in certain parts of the body, one regulates the physical processes, and so allows the attention to devote itself solely to the fluid part of consciousness. At first an asana is uncomfortable and even unbearable. But after some practice, the effort of maintaining the body in the same position becomes inconsiderable. Now (and this is of the highest importance), effort must disappear, the position of meditation must become natural; only then does it further concentration. 'Posture becomes perfect when the effort to attain it disappears, so that there are no more movements in the body. In the same way, its perfection is achieved when the mind is transformed into infinity-that is, when it makes the idea of its infinity its own content' (Vyasa, ad Y.S. 11, 47.) And Vacaspatimishra, commenting on Vyasa's interpretation, writes: 'He who practices asana must employ an effort that consists in suppressing the natural efforts of the body. Otherwise this kind of ascetic posture cannot be realized.' As for 'the mind transformed into infinity,' this means a complete suspension of attention to the presence of one's own body.

Asana is one of the characteristic techniques of Indian asceticism. It is found in the Upanishads and even in Vedic literature, but allusions to it are more numerous in the Mahabharata and in the Puranas. Naturally, it is in the literature of Hatha Yoga that the asanas play an increasingly important part; the Gheranda Samhita describes thirtytwo varieties of them. Here, for example, is how one assumes one of the easiest and most common of the meditational positions, the padmasana: 'Place the right foot on the left thigh and similarly the left one on the right thigh, also cross the hands behind the back and firmly catch the great toes of the feet so crossed (the right hand on the right great toe and the left hand on the left). Place the chin on the chest and fix the gaze on the tip of the nose.' (II, 8.) Lists and descriptions of asanas are to be found in most of the tantric and Hatha-yogic treatises. The purpose of these meditational positions is always the same, 'absolute cessation of trouble from the pairs of opposites' (Yogasutras, 11, 48.) In this way one realizes a certain 'neutrality' of the senses; consciousness is no longer troubled by the 'presence of the body.' One realizes that first stage towards isolation of consciousness; the bridges that permit communication with sensory activity begin to be raised.

On the plane of the 'body,' asana is an ekagrata, a concentration on a single point; the body is 'tense,' concentrated in a single position. just as ekagrata puts an end to the fluctuation and dispersion of the states of consciousness, so asana puts an end to the mobility and disposability of the body, by reducing the infinity of possible positions to a single archetypal, iconographic posture. Refusal to move (asana), to let oneself be carried along on the rushing stream of states of consciousness (ekagrata) will be continued by a long series of refusals of every kind.

The most important-and, certainly, the most specifically yogic of these various refusals is the disciplining of respiration (pranayama) in other words, the 'refusal' to breathe like the majority of mankind, that is, nonrhythmically. Patanjali defines this refusal as follows: 'Pranayama is the arrest [viccheda] of the movements of inhalation and exhalation and it is obtained after asana has been realized. (Y.S., II, 49-) Patanjali speaks of the 'arrest,' the suspension, of respiration; however, pranayama begins with making the respiratory rhythm as slow as possible; and this is its first objective. There are a number of texts that treat of this Indian ascetic technique, but most of them do no more than repeat the traditional formulas. Although pranayama is a specifically yogic exercise, and one of great importance, Patanjali devotes only three sutras to it. He is primarily concerned with the theoretical bases of ascetic practices; technical details are found in the commentaries by Vyasa, Bhoja, and Vacaspatimishra, but especially in the Hatha-yogic treatises.

A remark of Bhoja's reveals the deeper meaning of pranayama: 'All the functions of the organs being preceded by that of respiration there being always a connection between respiration and consciousness in their respective functions-respiration, when all the functions of the organs are suspended, realizes concentration of consciousness on a single object' (ad Y.S. I, 34.). The statement that a connection always exists between respiration and mental states seems to us highly important. It contains far more than mere observation of the bare fact, for example, the respiration of a man in anger is agitated, while that of one who is concentrating (even if only provisionally and without any yogic purpose) becomes rhythmical and automatically slows down, etc. The relation connecting the rhythm of respiration with the states of consciousness mentioned by Bhoja, which has undoubtedly been observed and experienced by yogins from the earliest times-this relation has served them as an instrument for 'unifying' consciousness. The 'unification' here under consideration must be understood in the sense that, by making his- respiration rhythmical and progressively slower, the yogin can 'penetrate'-that is, he can experience, in perfect lucidity- certain states of consciousness that are inaccessible in a waking condition, particularly the states of consciousness that are peculiar to sleep. For there is no doubt that the respiratory system of a man asleep is slower than that of a man awake. By reaching this rhythm of sleep through the practice of pranayama, the yogin, without renouncing his lucidity, penetrates the states of consciousness that accompany sleep.

The Indian ascetics recognize four modalites of consciousness (beside the ecstatic 'state')- diurnal consciousness, consciousness in sleep with dreams, consciousness in sleep without dreams, and 'cataleptic consciousness.' By means of pranayama-that is, by increasingly prolonging inhalation and exhalation (the goal of this practice being to allow as long an interval as possible to pass between the two moments of respiration-the yogin can, then, penetrate all the modalities of consciousness. For the noninitiate, there is discontinuity between these several modalities; thus he passes from the state of waking to the state of sleep unconsciously. The yogin must preserve continuity of consciousness-that is, he must penetrate each of these states with' determination and lucidity.

But experience of the four modalities of consciousness (to which a particular respiratory rhythm naturally corresponds), together with unification of consciousness (resulting from the yogin's getting rid of the discontinuity between these four modalities), can only be realized after long practice. The immediate goal of pranayama is more modest. Through it one first of all acquires a 'continuous consciousness,' which alone can make yogic meditation possible. The respiration of the ordinary man is generally arrhythmic; it varies in accordance with external circumstances or with mental tension. This irregularity produces a dangerous psychic fluidity, with consequent instability and diffusion of attention. One can become attentive by making an effort to do so. But, for Yoga, effort is an exteriorization. Respiration must be made rhythmical, if not in such a way that it can be 'forgotten' entirely, at least in such a way that it no longer troubles us by discontinuity. Hence, through pranayama, one attempts to do away with the effort of respiration, rhythmic breathing must become something so automatic that the yogin can forget it.

Rhythmic respiration is obtained by harmonizing the three 'moments'; inhalation (paraka), exhalation (recaka), and retention of the inhaled air (kumbhaka). These three moments must each fill an equal space of time. Through practice the yogin becomes able to prolong them considerably, for the goal of pranayama is, as Patanjali says, to suspend respiration as long as possible; one arrives at this by progressively retarding the rhythm.

M: Eliade, Yoga, op. cit., pp. 53-8

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