Getting to asana siddhi
When working on the Yoga taraṅgiṇī, one of the things I realized early on was that the Gorakṣa-paddhati is a streamlined or simplified but comprehensive haṭha-yoga-sādhana, containing the essential practices as preserved in a particular tradition. The compendia like Haṭha-yoga-pradīpikā and Gheraṇḍa-saṁhitā, among others, encourage a wide knowledge of different useful practices, coming from numerous such traditions, all of which would ultimately become subsidiary to a principal set of practices. When one follows a particular guru in a particular tradition, it is natural that instructions will be simplified and streamlined for maximum benefit, especially at the beginner level.
In Gorakṣa-paddhati it is stated that there are really only two āsanas that need to be mastered, padmāsana and siddhāsana. The other āsanas are auxiliary to the purpose of sitting in meditation for long periods of time without being disturbed by the body. Thus āsana-siddhi really only comes with samādhi-siddhi.
Actually āsana-siddhi takes place on four levels. The first is that of the physical āsana itself. The second comes with the practice of prāṇāyāma. The third comes with pratyāhāra, whereby one withdraws the senses into the mind. The fourth is when one is liberated from the body and free to enter deeper levels of meditation. In all these levels there are different achievements and one comes closer to real āsana- siddhi, which is to be solid (sthira) for long periods of time, while sukham, feeling comfortable and undisturbed by the body. In a very real sense, yoga sādhanā really only begins after āsana-siddhi.
At this stage the body itself becomes a source of sāttvika bliss that could even become a source of bondage; if it is channeled towards God, it becomes an instrument of bhakti.
In other words, āsana is the most external of the six aṅgas of haṭha-yoga sādhanas. To progress to the three most internal practices, it is more or less necessary to have āsana-siddhi.
Āsana practice includes the five basic bandhas and mudrās, as well as śakti cālana, which also has a physical aspect, a breath aspect and a mind aspect.
By a sitting practice, I mean attempting to sit in one āsana for increasing periods of time. In the beginning, because of physical discomfort and distraction caused by the body (kṣipta) or drowsiness (mūḍha), one needs to break up the practice with others that are anukūla to it.
Bandhas and mudrās
One can do most of the joints and glands series while sitting in either of the two abovementioned āsanas. Those parts that require coming out of the sitting pose are also done with the intent of supporting a return to the sitting position. Of all the joints and glands exercise, the most important is the mahā-mudrā.
In its anna-maya koṣa stage, this mudrā is great for stretching and loosing the tightened muscles of the leg that are starting to protest after a long period of sitting.
This can be ameliorated by going the level of breath, i.e., prāṇamaya koṣa.
In general, breath should be mastered through nāḍi-śodhana so that one has a minimum imbalance in the right and left nostrils. Mastery of nāḍi-śodhana means to be able to control the nasal passages by the mind alone. This can be cultivated throughout one's asana practice whenever there are left- and right- side versions of a particular pose.
The action of the nostrils is coordinated with the movement: inhalation through the nostril on the same side as the stretch, exhalation on the side that relaxes.
On the manomaya stage one experiences activation of the prāṇa energies moving through the meridiens and they themselves become an object of meditation. Through each of these steps, the position itself is enhanced and a total awareness of the gross body is attained.
The mahā-mudrā includes stimulation of the perineal area (the yoni-sthāna) with the heel, as in siddhāsana. This is an important center from which the kuṇḍalinī starts its journey skyward. Therefore accompanying this mudrā with mūla-bandha, etc., is also a way of entering into the meaning of the posture.
The spinal column and the principle nāḍī in the stretched out leg are aligned and approach one another. The energies are aligned and becoming increasingly charged by their proximity. This becomes a way of energizing the back also, which is the second great place of work in āsana.
For Gorakshanath, padmāsana means baddha-padmāsana, which includes grasping the feet by the hands, the arms being criss-crossed behind the back. This posture is only moderately useful as a meditational pose, but it has definite usage for the performance of the principal bandhas, or bandha- traya.
The fifth of the mudrās, khecarī, or rolling the tongue inward to the roof of the mouth (if one is not game for the whole cutting the ligament thing) should be considered an essential companion of the yogi. You do it all the time, except when you speak or eat or have some other use for the tongue. The spot where the tip of the tongue touches the roof of the palate is also a great dhāraṇā.
The siddhāsana, then, is the meditation posture par excellence, but you can also use it for mudrās, etc. Padmāsana without the binding is also an excellent posture for meditation, but it is best for some of the mudrā practices and śakti-cālana.
In my practice, śakti-cālana is very much based on a combination of physical and breath work.
The cycle consists of
3. Recaka and kumbhaka on the recaka, with uḍḍīyana and jālandhara-mudrā.
4. Inhalation slowly and completely, first bending the head back until the chest is also full, then returning to bandha-traya kumbhaka on the pūraka.
5. One breathes normally with focus on the ājñā-cakra.
The haṭha-yoga and rāja-yoga practices delineated by Patanjali are the hardware, bhakti is the software. By this I mean that the internal means – mantras, dhyānas, etc. – should always be in line with your particular iṣṭadeva, which in my case means Vaishnavism.
All movements are accompanied by mantra. I use one mantra for long inhalations, a different one for long exhalations. Short bursts like in kapālabhāti and bhastrikā, I use Radhe on the exhale, Shyama on the inhale. One has to learn to coordinate these, but when one manages that, it adds great strength to the practice. It also gradually gives an increasing mental focus.
One should not be afraid of recognizing that the entire exercise of śakti-cālana is one that engages the sexual organs. The entire yogic practice, but particularly that of haṭha-yoga, can be seen as a redirecting of the sexual and other energies – the sexual principle being dominant over all others like an emperor over satraps. In this way, pratyahara has a physical dimension.
The exercise known as vajroli, though often dramatized, means pulling the muscles in the genital upward. This gives a certain sexual stimulation, but one that is experienced inwardly. When this has been mastered in slow motion, it can be increased in tempo followed by same cycle of recaka, kumbhaka, pūraka and kumbhaka. This is tremendously forceful in energizing the spinal column.
The spinal column
The spinal column is, as stated, the other place that has to be observed. All the other 84 lakhs of āsanas are perhaps most concerned with the strength and flexibility of the spine. For the kuṇḍalinī to rise, the spine must be free of blockages, by which I mean irregular alignment. The basic alignment in Gītā is said to be back, neck and head. This can be said to correspond to the lower back, upper back and neck, which are the loci of the granthis.
The back gets tired when we sit for long times because of incorrect alignments. The first of these is the most important, as it is situated at the kanda-sthāna.
The kanda-sthāna is in the lower back where the spine curves forward before turning upwards. It moves away from the mūlādhāra and towards the svādhiṣṭhāna, passing over the yoni sthāna, which is the seat of the kuṇḍalinī.
The kanda is also named by Goraksha as a site of the kuṇḍalinī, which I call the second stage in its rising, where it gets boosterized. When the kuṇḍalinī is awakened at the kanda-sthāna it explodes with energy and shoots upwards, but this only happens after a fairly long practice. What needs to be watched by the practitioner is that the curve of the lower back is pressed down as far as possible and can be sustained. Bhujaṅgāsana, śalabhāsana, setubandhāsana and many others are essential for working the lower back.
This then is the first place the kuṇḍalinī gets blocked (granthi). Once the posture has been corrected in the lower back, the other action of the bandhas will allow that energy impulse to carry upward.
The next spot where there is a granthi is between the shoulder blades. Without this, the neck will not be straight. Those who hunch forward are likely to feel discomfort quickly when sitting in meditation. Āsanas that work this area are shoulder and arm rotations, gomukhāsana, i.e., grabbing the two hands behind the back, one arm elbow up over the shoulder and the other coming around the lower back, and matsyāsana, i.e., lying on the back and lifting the shoulders up resting on the elbows, while curving the neck back so that the crown of the head lightly touches the floor; cobra is also good. Most of these are also very good for the neck.
The neck also has the tendency to bend forward which can cause it to get sore after a long period of sitting. One should practice the joints and glands movements for the neck, and never do jālandhara-bandha without doing the counter pose of bending the neck back and the chin up stretch which taking a deep breath.
So these are basically all exercises that you can do without getting up from your āsana. Which is precisely the point. If you want āsana-siddhi, you have to map out the time period of four hours in which to remain fixed in your āsana without getting up. Then as you master the techniques, as the back muscles and spine become both strong and flexible, the body will (a) feel so good you can't stand it (when you pay attention) and will leave your mind completely free to pursue its own activities without creating a disturbance.
The Yoga-sūtra has the following,
47: Āsana is accomplished] through relaxation of effort and coalescence with the Infinite. 48 When āsana is accomplished [all other aṅgas follow], then one is no longer impeded by pairs of opposites.The two above properties of relaxation of effort and fixing one's attention on the Infinite are related to exhalation and inhalation.
Really, āsana can only be mastered through samādhi. So whatever else one does in one's āsana practice, one has to build up the micromoments where the self is fixed in the Self.