(Peter Hersnack led a four-day retreat at Launde Abbey in Leicestershire in September and in this article explains how seeing and being are linked to the breath in asana)
Seeing and being in the Yoga Sutra
The Yoga Sutra suggests two lines of investigation that are interwoven all along its text. One concerns seeing, the other concerns being, and both of these are deeply linked to the breath.
The first chapter of the Yoga Sutra, the samâdhi pâda, deals with seeing, with the possibility of a deepened perception in which life in us directly sees what is. The principal key, which is suggested, is abhyâsa-vairâgya, the double movement of practice and detachment. Abhyâsa is taking a step forward into being and vairâgya is taking a step backward into seeing. The order of these two words is very important: to deepen our seeing we have to deepen our being.
The second chapter, sâdhana pâda, deals with being and especially the problems of confused being, the problem of samyoga. Samyoga is a state of being in the world in which our seeing limits our being and our being limits our seeing. Mistaking the form that life takes as life itself creates samyoga, and our state of samyoga in turn limits our seeing. Seeing and being then embrace each other in a way that limits the expression of life in us. The key to step out of samyoga and into yoga is viveka, which is the point of view of the living.
The third chapter, vibhûti pâda, shows how in a very deep way seeing can open up our being and how a new state of being can free our seeing. This becomes possible by samyama, a continuously deepened state of meditation. When we meditate a long time on a chosen support, not only the support reveals itself, but also some of the qualities of the support are revealed within us. Meditation opens seeing and as well as being, and it frees the relationship between the two.
The fourth chapter, kaivalya pâda, introduces the possibility of being in the world, in which seeing and being coincide in freedom: seeing then is being and being is seeing. Life in us, which is really what sees, is fully incarnated. The person is then able, with what he is, to be in direct relation with ‘what is’. This is the ultimate goal of yoga – that life in us can be completely ‘at home’ in the world.
The role of âsana
Âsana is introduced in the second chapter as one of the means of moving towards viveka and to reduce samyoga. Âsana aims at incarnation; it aims at a state in which the body become a place where what is deep in us can live and express itself consciously. Âsana is life stepping into the world, becoming conscious of what we are and where we are.
Like the other seven members of yoga leading to viveka (yama, niyama, prânâyâma, pratyâhâra, dhâranâ, dhyâna and samâdhi), âsana examines the relationship between seeing and being from within their interaction. The relationship, which is being explored in âsana, is the interaction between body and breath. Freeing this relationship, so that the body is supported from the inside by the breath, and the breath is supported from the outside by the body, opens our perception and our being in the world.
In our tradition of yoga, great importance is given to the co-ordination of breath and movement as well as a deep and slow breathing in static postures. The challenge we have to face is how to avoid this interaction between body and breath becoming mechanical, thus reinforcing a confused relationship. To open up a creative interaction between body and breath, we need to examine the role of the inhalation and the role of the exhalation.
Breathing in is, in its essence, an opening from deep inside and out to the world. When a baby takes its first breath, it is not just to allow something of the world to come inside his or her body; it is a radical acceptance of coming into the world. The inhalation opens a space in us, a space for being and perceiving. When the breath circulates in the body, our senses come to life. The space that the inhale opens is a space for allowing a deeper energy to work in us, and this space should not be occupied by an effort of inhaling.
Breathing out is in a deep sense a process of undoing, an unravelling that, if allowed to do its work, will clear an inner space in us for a new beginning in the present. The exhalation can allow this inner clearing work on the condition that the body does not fold onto itself in a simple reversal of the inhalation, and does not either close up in effort. When the exhalation doesn’t cut us off from the inside, it reveals the body as it is. If the space opened by the inhalation can be kept open during the exhalation, the exhalation will have a deep cleansing effect. This in turn allows the body to be available for the nourishing action of the inhalation.
Using the breath to work with the body thus demands that we find an inhalation that doesn’t occupy the space, and an exhalation that does not close it up. On the other hand, looking from the point of view of the body, we need to develop sensitivity to the workings of the breath. The breath acts beyond the field defined by our doing. Even though it is positive when the breath can open up a posture and flow between its supports and directions, we need to look beyond the immediate effect of our action. When the body opens to the breath we can step back and ask how and where this breath is touching us. Not only will this change our perception of the body, it will change the interaction itself between breath and body. If we see the posture as a way of putting into place a riverbed, we should not just verify if the breath flows there, but we should open our perception and be aware of the whole field of the river.
Prâna and breath
The breath is a mediator between the inside and the outside. It is a visible and palpable expression of what is called prâna. Prâna, in the large sense of this word, is life reflected in the body and beyond the body. Prâna is the source of all living relationships, and it is what makes us whole as one person. For prâna to circulate freely, it needs space and support. When the breath is conscious and free, it becomes intimately linked to prâna, and the inhalation opens the space while the exhalation clears the support. The breath becomes conscious, in the sense that it can be perceived from inside and outside at the same time, and relating to the breath then becomes an act of viveka.
Prâna circulating freely manifests in us in a threefold way as being, consciousness and joy (sat, cit and ânanda). Prâna brings being and seeing into the world in circulating between the two. Sat and cit can then be seen as the two ends of prâna, and ânanda as the overflow in the middle, between sat and cit. When ‘being opens our seeing’ and ‘seeing opens our being’, a totally new space for life opens up, a space of freedom in which prâna overflows as ânanda, the pure joy of being and being conscious of being. Ânanda is the overflowing of life in the middle of ‘what is’.
The practice of âsana aims at freeing the samyoga between body and breath. Âsana is a means for developing viveka in the way we link to both of them. Viveka then allows prâna to circulate freely, and the body becomes a fitting support for the expression of being, consciousness and joy.