In the second chapter of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali says that every asana is intended to encompass two aspects: Posture is mastered by relaxation of effort and concentration on the 'Endless'.
prayatna-shaithilya-ananta-samapatti-bhyam || 47 ||
We hear a lot about effort in yoga classes, but in this Sutra softness, shaitilya, is emphasized. Prayatna means effort. Shaithilya, on the other hand, is the softness. So translated, we should go into the effort of Asana practice with softness. This softness can be found in the quality of the breath, in our intention for practice and the way we move in our asanas.
When I first started teaching, about 20 years ago, I gave a class on effort. I remember giving a dharma talk and saying things like, 'there is always deeper to go... There is always more effort that you can use... In every pose, you can always move deeper, bend the knee more, engage more...'. Then I taught a class based on this idea. It was, perhaps, a very exhausting experience! After the class, my teaching mentor sat me down and thanked me for class. She told me that she liked many aspects of the teaching, but there was one fundamental missing link. She said I would understand over time if I practiced consistently. She told me that at a certain point, we need to stop doing, and start softening. There is a point where abide in the experience rather than constantly trying to create it.
I took her wisdom to heart and started to practice differently. I began to very consciously soften the breath in asana practice. Even in the midst of incredibly challenging postures I found that releasing effort, a sense of steadiness and relaxation came to my body. The control of the body seemed to transfer from the conscious to the subconscious mind. I began to experience asana as moving meditation.
The second part of the sutra is very powerful. Samapatti is the focus of the mind. Ananta is the object of our concentration. Ananta is often translated as "endless" or "boundless". It is also Ananta is one of the names of Ādiśeṣa , king of the Nagas. Nagas are godlike beings in serpent form. In India, Nagas are worshipped as the gods of the air. Srivasta Ramaswami writes, 'the hissing sound of a snake is a symbol of the air. In Ananta we find the root word ana , which means breathing. We also find this root in the 5 winds of the Tantra philosophy: prāṇa , apāna , vāna , ... Translated from this background Ananta Samapatti teaches us to focus on the serpentine hiss of our breath in the practice of asana."
All of this beautiful and rich imagery boils down to two focal points in practice:
1. Focus on the softening of breath
2. Focus on the serpentine hiss of the breath
September 5, 2019