The Elements of Asana and Healthy Immunity
In preparing for the next 4-week series on “Yoga and Healthy Immunity”, I was once again overwhelmed by the amount of information and introspection that BKS Iyengar has given us on this subject of yoga.
“Health is generally understood as freedom from illness, but it is more than freedom from illness. Health is a perfect state of equilibrium and concord in the functions of joint, tissues, muscles, cells, nerves, glands, respiration, circulation, digestion, assimilation and elimination, and also a perfectly balanced disposition of mind.
Life is a combination of conscience, consciousness, intelligence, mind, senses of perception and organs of action. Health involves a tremendous communication with each and every part of man so that each cell communes with the other. This cannot be purchased in a market place. Health has to be earned with inspiration, sweat, and toil. Yoga does that.”BKS Iyengar – Ashtadala Yogamala Vol 3 – pg 98
The Ashtadala Yogamala Series, an 8 volume compilation of articles by BKS Iyengar, provides so many gems of wisdom (like the quote above) on every possible topic related to yoga. So, instead of me translating many into my own words, I decided to give a taste on this subject of yoga posture as therapy by sharing with you a portion of one article.
The below is from Ashtadala Yogamala Vol 8, Section I – On Health and Therapeutics, Page 32 section I.2 entitled “Asana-therapy”: (note, I have added some clarifying terms for easier reading).
Asana (posture) is one of the aspects of ashtanga yoga (eight-limbed path of yoga). It has a tremendous bearing in providing the sadhaka (practitioner) with health and harmony.
Asana are said to be as many as the species in the vegetable and animal kingdoms. When an afflicted person adopts asana, he pours out his energy to get into asana and feels enlivened in proportion to his involvement. His physical, psychological and mental frames rejuvenate and transform him with a sense of gladness.
Man is made of 5 elements (pancabhuta); namely earth, water, fire, air and ether, which correspond to the 5 sheaths of the body. These are structural, physiological, mental, intellectual and spiritual. These are supported by pancavayu (5 energetic “winds”), namely prana, apana, vyana, samana and udana (each corresponding to certain areas and functions of the body). This biochemical structure or the body machine (yantra) is represented by tri-dosa (3 body humors), saptadhatu (7 body tissues), and trimala (body waste). The tridosa (vatta, pitta and slesma) are the humors of the body. They are formed mainly by three elements – air, fire and water. The saptadhatu have seven ingredients: chyle is water; blood is water, fire and air; flesh is air, water and earth; fat is water and earth; bones are earth and air; bone marrow is water and fire; semen is water. The trimala are the three waste matters: feces is earth and fire; urine is water and fire; and sweat, like urine, is water and fire. The element air (vayu) is supported and made to function by 5 vital energy forces. In addition to these trimala the female body has 2 mala, namely menstrual blood of fire and water, and breast milk of water.
While performing the asana, the structure of the asana is well placed or well designed to fit into the body so that the practitioner absorbs them properly unto himself/herself. The body is considered a machine as each asana comes under various techniques; it is a tantra as it has a methodology. When one performs an asana with accuracy there occur the subtle adjustments of all the above ingredients within in him bringing the required balance in all these systems.
Man imbibes the three qualities of nature, namely illumination (sattva), vibrancy (rajas) and intertia (tamas). These qualities are activated and dynamised in asana through their motion and action so that the body, mind and self are kept in a stable state. When rhythm and comfort set in, turmoil ends, nullifying the opposing forces. If going into the asana is a mantra or a japa, rhythmic presentation is the artha (the means) and its deliverance and freedom, the felt feeling (bhavana).
The sadhaka (practitioner) has to put in place the skeleto-muscular structure, the earth element of the body. This accuracy in asana helps the organic body to remain in a healthy state palpating vibrancy. The energy of the water element flows smoothly and throws out the waste matter. The energy of the fire element burns and throws out the toxins. The air element circulates and purifies each cell of the body. The space element maintains the required intercellular space.
Different asana having different degrees of interpenetrative actions work effectively on the body and bring the required changes in the healing process. Each asana has a peculiar character of its own to work effectively on the body. So selecting of different asana, sequencing them correctly to fit into the structure of the body helps the afflicted areas to undergo the required biochemical changes for healing or curing a disease.
In each asana several actions are involved regarding the position, reposition, extension, expansion, elongation, sustenance, suspension, retraction, traction, suction, compression, fixation, contraction, rotation, relaxation, tension, stretching, pulling, pushing, rinsing, softening and hardening. A right kind of balance and timely adjustments are involved in the performance of the asana so that one establishes oneself in the asana energizing and enlivening one’s body as well as resurrecting the mind.
The body-mind or bio-mental machine is educated and trained unitedly to function uniquely and consciously. If one practices asana and pranayama (breath regulation) with correct interpenetration weaving the bio-physical and bio-chemical bodies with pancavayu (5 winds) and pancatanmatra (5 sense perceptions), these transform the infrastructure of the practitioner.
In case the diseased body does not indicate the improvement or is unable to perform or sustain and maintain the position of the body in asana, then the external support is taken with the help of props. When the body is supported with the external props, one gets courage to perform and vitalize ones body. When one cannot walk by balancing on the legs, then one uses a stick or a walker as a support.
The samkhya darsana (one eastern philosophical view) says that prakrti (our Nature) is blind and purusa (our pure consciousness) is lame. Therefore the lame sits on the shoulders of the blind and guides the blind to move in the right direction. The props do that. With the support of props, one stabilizes the body in asana and gets enlivened and charges ones body for further development. The mind opens with ease and gets illumined. The props teach one in the course of time to become independent, though at the start dependence is essential.
The practice of asana and pranayama changes and transforms the ratio-wise balance of sattva, rajas, and tamas (3 qualities of nature). The tamas is lessened and rajas is increased. The mudha (dull) and ksipta (overactive) states of mind are conquered. The mind enters the state of viksipta (oscillating). Then, if the sadhana (practice) is pursued the viksipta mind (which vibrates and oscillates) leads toward the state of ekagra (one-pointed). Up to this state, the props are required. Then the practitioner adjusts and readjusts an asana subjectively, intently, actively, sensitively, a intelligently and consciously. If one follows step by step, even the so-called incurable diseases are arrested by maintaining equi-metabolism. The ascending diseases are controlled. The patient is rehabilitated and re-educated to endure the pain and sustain his life by eliminating further regression. All these help to improve the patient to come out from the diseased body and mind to be in an at-ease state.
Then one is free from all impediments. From then on asana becomes the self and self, the asana.
My gratitude to BKS Iyengar and his teaching and all the teachers who have taught me.
Please join me in this exploration of Yoga and Healthy Immunity in the coming 4 weeks. Monday nights from 6:30-7:45pm CST. You can sign up through this link.