When Ego Busting becomes Ego Boosting

Ekapada Shirashasana Symbolism.mp4

1) Introduction

In a previous article tilted "Yoga then and Now: A lighter look at this ancient inward gazing practice", we saw how the perception of a Yogi has changed from one sitting cross legged in meditation to men and women with muscular or toned bodies doing fancy poses. While asanas are certainly a part of yoga, a singular focus on asanas with the exclusion of other aspects of a yogic lifestyle like being content with less (through meditation), diet (fasting, eating less) will make the practitioner miss out on the subtler but far more powerful aspects of yoga.

2) The pressures of staying competitive in a growing "business"

Yoga is big business these days and to stay competitive, studios and teachers often have to aggressively market advanced poses. Using advanced poses to attract practitioners into the system of yoga is not a wrong practice. In fact Guruji Pattabhi Jois used to joke that the main benefit of the advanced series asanas of the Ashtanga Vinyasa system is demonstration. This is after saying that the Primary series is the foundation and it's purpose is "Yoga Chikitsa" or yoga therapy, and the Intermediate series' purpose is "Nadi Shodana" or cleanising of the Nadis, the conduits for Prana.

3) Purpose of asanas in the grand scheme of yoga

However, what is missing these days, and teachers including Sharath Rangaswamy (Jois), the person who carries Pattabhi Jois' lineage, do not talk about, is the scriptural aspects that tell why and to what extent one needs to do asanas. In a previous article I had mentioned that there is a misconception that doing more difficult asanas always gives greater rewards. In the Dhyana Bindhu Upanishad, Shiva tells Parvati that there are 8.4 million asanas, as many as the number of species of living beings, and the reason there are so many is that it may suit the constitutional needs of all individuals, from the naturally flexible and strong to those who have physical limitations (see the article on Ashtavakrasana: The perfect pose). Pattabhi Jois, himself a vedic scholar, would quote this verse from the "Mundaka Upanishad" on why to do asanas: "Nayam atma balaheenena Labhyah". It means that the atma cannot be found by a weak body. Therefore, doing asanas, was a first step to strengthen the body and settle the mind to the extent one can sit comfortably for a while to do Pranayama and meditation.

4) Injury from advanced asanas

Peter Sanson, a well known Ashtanga Yoga teacher, who is known for his gentle adjustments and approach to this practice in stark contrast to many other teachers in the system, said that many of the practitioners who practiced with him when he learned from Pattabhi jois and who did very advanced asanas, resulted in needing surgeries to fix internal organ related injuries.

5) Symbolism of leg behind the neck asanas

The Ashtanga Vinyasa advanced series of asanas is replete with leg behind the neck poses. We had seen in a previous article that the leg behind the head symbolized a sword to remind that one should not identify with the body too much (and develop an ego from the physical prowess in asanas).

In fact the yoga sutras say that the cause of all avoidable suffering is this wrong identification with the body. Yoga practice is therfore supposed to remove this identifaction with the body, or put one's ego into proper perspective.

6. Conclusion

While doing asanas, especially advanced asanas, it is important to maintain flexibility of approach and understanding of the big picture supported by scriptural knowledge. Advanced asanas do have benefit as we saw in a previous article titled "Entering the eye of the storm". Therefore it is all the more important to find a teacher who has understanding of these aspects than one who can flex their body into astonishing shapes