Friday, January 25, 2013

More Ashtanga Myths: Coffee Prana and Rajasic Practice

As mentioned previously much of what is quoted by Guruji today has been taken out of context. It also has to be realized that he had quite a sense of humor! And, in addition, we have to recognize that Guruji was not a renunciate yogi sitting in a cave but a family man with his likes and dislikes and even pleasures. Guruji loved coffee as well as chocolate, gold, gems and many other material things. That is not to say he was overly attached, but though an extraordinary human being he was also an ordinary one.

I think this is one of the reasons we were attracted to him. He lived life and experienced pleasures and pain, ups and downs, but in all this he generally displayed equanimity. We saw him go through ill health, surgery and the loss of his wife Amma. During times of difficulty he always continued to teach, and this seemed to give him strength and quickly facilitated his healing. I was surprised, because I thought he was a yogi, that when his wife Amma died he seemed devastated. I thought he would show detachment, but in stead he wept for days on end. Even in class he would cry while teaching. However, after a few weeks this stopped and we experienced that somehow his love for his wife of many decades became transformed Into a greater love for his students.

So Guruji did have some attachments and one of these was coffee, Sharath also loves coffee (and so do I). But if we look at what is designated as yogic food, coffee is definitely not considered to be sattvic - rather, we have to say coffee is rajasic in nature. It is completely antagonistic to meditation and the limbs of yoga and stimulates extroverted rather than introspective activity.

The word rajasic is often used pejoratively to describe someone who is unstable, passionate and unsavory in some way, but the word rajas simply means movement or action. To understand the meaning of yoga, some familiarity with the Gunas is required. The three Gunas are principally the qualities of mind, whereas the three doshas are the qualities of the body. Rajas, tamas and sattva - these are the qualities of mind - rajas means activity or disturbance, tamas means inertia or ignorance and sattva means tranquility and intelligence.

In yoga practice we are trying to cultivate the quality of sattva to the maximum extent - that means to bring the mind into a tranquil, clear and undifferentiated state - the state described by Patanjali as chitta vritti nirodhah, or samadhi.

Yoga practice as taught by Pattabhi Jois involves a lot of activity, a lot of rajas, so it has to be said, not using the word rajas in the commonly misused way, that what we call Ashtanga Yoga is a rajasic practice. Rajas is used to counteract tamas - inertia, heaviness, morbidity - and lead us towards sattva. However if we overdo the rajasic aspect, we are left with an unstable, nervous or edgy mind. Too often we enter practice with the same approach as we take to all our other worldly activities - an intense or stressed person will practice yoga intensely - the end result may not be tranquility, which is the goal but a kind of edginess.

We can understand how, for many people, coffee would be supportive of such a practice. But ultimately coffee does not serve us at all on the path of yoga, it is only used to undo certain tamasic elements in our system - such as the inability to wake up in the morning - why do we have that problem? It would be better to undo the cause of that than to use a drug to counter other negative behaviors such as going to bed too late, consuming tamasic foods or indulging in tamasic activities such as watching tv late into the evening.

No coffee no Prana?

This was one of Gurui's humorous quips. It is a joke and not meaningful, but unfortunately has been taken up as one of his catch phrases.

There is a common misconception about Prana. Prana is not energy as we usually think about it. We do not absorb Prana from food or respiration as is commonly stated. In fact Prana is not even equated with inhalation, but rather governs exhalation. Physical energy absorbed from food is not Prana. Prana subsists on a different plane. Prana is the vehicle through which Purusa (spirit) animates the mental and bodily functions - it is the life force.

Prana enters the physical body at conception and leaves at death. It does not increase or decrease with respiration, eating or physical activity. It's actions in the body are facilitated by the qualities of the foods we eat or the actions we take but its quantity is not changed by or equivalent to the amount of food we eat or the air we breathe. Prana is subdivided according to its functions in the body and mind. The undifferentiated Prana can be equated to sattva - it's inclination is to move up or remain in the head region, whereas, when we are inclined towards extroverted activity it moves down, as does tamas - as it moves down it is called apana. Apana governs inhalation (which is a downward movement in the body) as well as elimination of waste products through urination, excretion and menstruation. For most yoga practitioners, coffee is used for the impact it has on going to the bathroom before practice. Hence rather that stimulating Prana, coffee changes Prana into apana.

As modern human beings our lives are governed by rajas and tamas - by stress and ignorance (about our true nature). While tamas can be equated with ignorance, rajas has the capacity to move in two directions: it can move us towards deeper tamas or it can move us towards sattva. A rajasic person needs to be active in order to relax, a tamasic person needs to be active in order to wake up. In general, those attracted to Pattabhi Jois' yoga are rajasic in nature - we need to be active in order to get it out of our system. As Guruji said, anyone can practice his system of yoga, except lazy people - those governed by an excess of tamas.