Support or Anchor in Yoga Practice
Throughout the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali uses a term called "Aalambana" (आलम्बना). It means support or anchor in Sanskrit. Patanjali says that the end goal of yoga is stilling the mind by reducing the Chitta Vrittis, the fluctuations or disturbances of the mind. This he says is brought about quite effectively by Dhyana (meditation) in sutra 2.11 (shown below), especially when the Vrittis are rampant.
The mind, however, is restless and very difficult to restrain, according to Shri Krishna, in the Bhagavad Gita. It very quickly wanders hither and thither. That is why Patanjali suggests various anchors or supports for meditation. These can be found in this article titled "By whatever means possible ....". He says that by whatever support or anchor one is able to attain a meditative state is a valid support for meditation.
Though Patanjali talks about the concept of the use of anchors for meditation, these are equally valid for other limbs of yoga as well including asana practice. In fact, it is one of the most important concepts in asana practice. If one is to sustain one's yoga asana practice day after day for years, then one needs to be able to find a sense of rest and connection to oneself in various poses. This is done by tuning into the subtle sensations in the body. By focusing on the joyful sensations of touch, relaxation or the energetic flow of energy, the mind is able to have an anchor to focus on. This gives it the much needed rest instead of running everywhere and dissipating nervous energy.
This is also the reason why the Buddha taught mindfulness of the body first. The body is a tool to observe the mind. S.N. Goenka the pioneer of the now popular Vipassana meditation retreats, describes this phenomenon in this video. He says that mind and body are like two sides of a coin.
So what kinds of anchors can one use in asana practice ? This is for an individual to explore and find out what works well for one. Nevertheless there are certain techniques that are commonly used in asana practice to create this anchor.
1) Mudras - Mudras are described in this article, are similar to asanas except that there is an upsurge of energy through the use of bandhas and pressing various parts of the body. One can then anchor the mind using this upsurge of energy and emotions in the body.
2) Bandhas- Bandhas are described in this article. By restricting unwanted motion of the body that not only squanders the energy but also the mental attention, bandhas are able to offer an anchor for the mind. The asana in the picture above is called Bakasana, the crane pose. It uses a Kaksha (कक्षः) bandha . Kaksha refers to the armpit. By locking the knees into the armpit one is able to balance and this balancing act holds the mind in focus. The armpit is also a sensitive part of the body and the feelings that are evoked when in this position also anchor the mind.
3) The Breath - Needless to say, one almost always can anchor the mind using long inhales and exhales.
Conclusion: A few techniques used in yoga asana practice to anchor the mind are described above. The asana practice makes the body a playground to experiment with these anchors for the mind and as Patanjali says in the Yoga Sutras, "Any means that settles the mind is a valid yoga practice" .
Tatra Stithau yathnau Abhyasah
That effort which results in steadiness of the mind is a valid yoga practice.