Body thy shrine, Yoga thy light

Birjoo Mehta

Guruji has often said- body is my temple, asanas are my prayer. He has said that the body is the bow, asanas the arrow and the target is the soul. His autobiography was named, Body thy shrine, Yoga thy light.

In this piece, I would like to present my understanding of these expressive yet enigmatic statements.

Let us analyze the first statement, the body is my temple and asanas are my prayers. In the temple resides the divinity. For the body to become a temple, the divinity has to be brought into your body. And how do you call divinity? That is through invocation, through prayer. 

I propose that the asanas are an invocation to draw the divinity into your body. Thus for the body to become a temple, the asanas are the prayer.  

Body becomes the shrine, and yoga becomes the light within that shrine that allows you to see the divinity. 

The body has to be used as an instrument, a bow, but it is the arrow that hits the target, and it is the asana that can reach to the soul. The bow has to have the right amount of tension and the body needs to be having the right tuning so that the asana can be accurately performed so that the soul can be reached. 

While others invoke the divinity (Shiva) by calling out to him – Om namah Shiva , for Guruji to invoke the divinity it was Om namah trikonasanaiah namah. -  Guruji invoked the divinity into his body by asana. And therefore he said – for me it is Om namah trikonasanaiah namah  - Om namah parsvakonasanaiah namah. So instead of just uttering the name of the Lord, he was able to invoke through his body, through his postures, by his penance, by his practice, the divinity to actually descend into his body and grace the body so that it becomes a temple.  

So, how does one get the divinity to come into the body? That is a question. Those who have directly learnt from Guruji would know that when you were practicing with Guruji, there was something which happened to you. You may not understand what happened, but there is no doubt about it that something special had happened to you in that class. Those present here may have experienced the same in Geetaji’s class. There was something special which happened within you. You may not be able to describe it as it was a new experience. But in no small manner, it touched you intensely. 

So what was it that touched you? And my proposition is, that when you practiced with Guruji, that something which happened was that you experienced the divinity within yourself, even though you may not have recognized it. 

The proposition is, that by following the instructions given by Guruji, Geetaji, and the teachers to whom you continue to go to learn yoga again and again, you get a glimpse of the divinity. There is something which happens which makes you want to come back again and again, and that makes you want to come back again is the experience of the divinity into your body. You may not be consciously aware of it, but that is what happens. 

Now, why is it that you did not know of the presence of divinity in your body? It’s because you probably did not have the cognition of the divinity in your body. I’m proposing that the divinity in your body did something to you, but you did not know that it was caused by the divinity because you do not have cognition of divinity. 

You may not know how the food which you had today provides nutrition to your body. But that shall not make the food less effective. You may not have the cognition of the cook who made the food, how they made the food. But the effect of the food would take place in your body, isn’t it? Similarly you do not have the cognition of the presence of the divinity into your body but that would not lessen its effects. And as the nourishment was experienced you want to have more of it. But you did not have the cognition of the divinity.

Now, what is divinity? How do I cognize it?  

Before we talk of cognition, you have to understand that there are two aspects of cognition. The first is perception. I recognize this man as a friend. So what does it mean?  It means, first I perceive a person. The senses give you the imprint that there is a person in front of you. But how do I recognize what I see is a friend? That is the second aspect of cognition which I call analogy.  This person looks like and is similar to the person who I know as a friend. This is like that. And therefore he is a friend. That is an analogy. He looks like so and so. So and so is a friend. Therefore he is a friend. That’s the logic. 

So for any cognition, you require two things. One is perception. The second is a concept, or analogy. Now, what is the difference between analogy and concept? A tight bundle of analogies makes a concept. And what is an abstract concept? The example which Geetaji gave yesterday, that four bananas and three bananas makes it seven bananas. So that is a concept. Four bananas that you can see, and three bananas that you can see put together makes seven so seven bananas is easily a concept. But we don’t count. We don’t count and say three bananas, four bananas, we say four plus three is seven, right? So that’s an abstract concept. 

Why am I speaking of concepts and abstract concepts? Because if you have to cognize the divinity within you, you first have to perceive the divinity, and you certainly have done that else you would not be here coming back again and again. Secondly, to cognize the divinity, you have to have a concept of what is divinity. You have to be able to say, this feeling is like the feeling I had when I was in class and therefore this is the divinity. 

Let me take an example, many of you, go to parties.  And in the parties, someone will introduce you to someone. That is the job that Guruji has done. He has introduced you to divinity. But we don’t remember it. Next time he comes, again he has to say to you, this is divinity. But we never build a relationship with the divinity because we don’t’ have the concept of divinity. We perceive, but we don’t conceive it. Because we don’t conceive it, we do not cognize it. Because when we don’t cognize it, we don’t’ know what to do with it. And therefore concept is very important.

Let us delve further on cognition. In the Yoga Sutras, what is perceived directly it is called “pratyaksha”. If you perceive by inference it is called “anumana”. A child may perceive his father has come home because he heard the sound of his car entering the driveway. Concepts arising out of spiritual and other texts are called agamas. All these interactions are stored in the memory which is called “smriti”. When the perception matches with the “smriti”, connections are made and you say I recognize this. I understand this. All these things that happen in a split second, are actually a lot of complicated things happening in your brain. So when you see something which is familiar, certain numbers of neurons start to fire, make connections, and you get to cognize, what that is. All this falls in the realm of the consciousness, which the yoga sutras call “chitta”.

Incidentally, many feel that study of the consciousness is beyond the understanding of modern science. That modern science has no definition of consciousness let alone any instruments to measure consciousness. However this is far from truth. Modern Science has instruments that can gauge the level of consciousness by measuring the pattern of electrical activity in the brain that follows an electrical stimulus. 

It is simple to understand what they do. They stimulate the subject through electrodes to activate one part of the brain. Then they observe the complex brain pattern that ensues. When they stimulate one part of the brain, if the person is asleep or in coma, that corresponding part of the brain registers high electrical activity, and soon the signal dies down. It’s like damp fire crackers, they splutter for a few seconds and then dies down. Like that, the signals in your brain sparkle for a few seconds and then dies down. That is a brain with less amount of consciousness. 

But in a brain that has a high level of consciousness, it starts to sparkle all over the place and the nerves in the brain start to trigger and fire all over. And depending on the complexity of the pattern of the firing of the brain and how long it lasts, you can actually determine the level of consciousness in the person. That is very useful when you need to know that a person under anesthesia is truly unconscious and not in a state where he can feel but not respond – a condition called locked in state -and therefore feel the pain while undergoing surgery.

While it is called the measure of the consciousness, what the instrument actually measures is the activity of the consciousness or what the Yoga Sutras call “chitta vriti”. Therefore it is quite likely that if the instrument was used on Guruji in an asana, because he is in “chitta vritti nirodha” (consciousness in an undisturbed state) there would not be any activity registered and the instrument may say that he was not in a conscious state. You too would have experienced such state during the Pranayama session in the morning, and if such instrument had been deployed it would have measured you as having a low level of consciousness. Whereas it has actually detected suppressed activity or “vritti” of the consciousness. 

Coming back to the subject, to appreciate the concept, you need to have an analogy. I shall give you an analogy that hopefully all of you will understand. Divinity (paramatma in Sanskrit) as we all understand is omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient. Whereas we as individuals (jivatma in Sanskrit) are limited by space, time, power and knowledge. I will give you an analogy that will give a cleared understating of the two. 

Let us take an example of a river. There is a cloud burst resulting in a lot of rain upstream. So what happens to the river? The river breaks its banks and covers the surrounding fields. In the submerged field there would be some ditches which too would be filled with water. When the water recedes the field would be clear of water but the ditches would still hold the water. The water in the river and the water in the ditches is the same. But now you identify the water in the ditch, as a pond.  The ditch has now become a pond. You can identify the pond as distinct from the river. If the river is a metaphor for the divinity, the pond is the individual. In this manner universal consciousness becomes individual consciousness because of circumstances which are completely unrelated to its essential nature. And not only will there be a clearly identifiable body of water which we call a pond, we can also identify it by saying this is a pond next to the mill, and that is a pond next to the temple. In this manner the identity of the pond is build, whereas its essence is still the same as the river.

Now, what happens next? As the water level of the pond goes down, the shape also changes.  But do you think its identity changes? It remains the same. Similarly your body undergoes change. You are a young child, you grow, you become older, yet you still have that same identity. 

So the essence of the jivatma or individual consciousness is the same as the parmatma or the divinity, but due to circumstances, it appears that they are two distinct and different thingss. And what happens? The jivatma assumes an identity. And that identity is called the ego (ahamkar is Sanskrit). I’m not using the word ego as pride, I’m using the word ego to signify something that has a distinct identity and attributes.

Modern scientists have discovered when a human being becomes aware of himself as an individual. You all know you are you, right? There is no doubt about it. But when did that ‘you are you’ come into existence?  When did you understand that ‘you are you’? That happens between the age of 18 months and 22 months, generally. 

Do you want to know how they found that out?  Well, they did a very simple thing which shows the ingenuity of the scientists. They had a child from the age of 15 months onwards go to the room with a big, long mirror.  The child saw the image in the mirror, and then started to play with that image. He did not recognize that it was a reflection of himself at all. 

Every day thereafter that child was put in front of the mirror and the child would play with the image in the mirror. And during that period of play, in between, the mother would put up a small black dot on the child’s cheek without the child knowing about it. So every day the child plays and the mother, under the guise of wiping the child’s nose, puts the dot there and again the child plays with the image and maybe even tries to remove the dot from the image in the mirror. But at a particular point in growth of the child, the child realizes that what is seen in the mirror is himself and he knows that he did not have a dot before and instead of trying to remove the black spot from the mirror, he removes it from his cheek.  That was the time that the ego developed enough for the child to identify himself and recognize the image of himself.  

Now we come to a crucially important point, do you have a memory of anything happening before 18 to 22 months, or thereabouts? We do not, as the memory starts to build simultaneously with the development of ego. 

I believe that there are only three species in the world which can pass this test of self awareness. One of them obviously is the human being. Others being chimpanzees and orangutans. 

What is the negative side of being self aware? The negative side of it is that you start identifying yourself with your body and surrounding attributes. Let us go back to our analogy. How is the water body identified? It is identified by its distinct contours. Is the shape essential to it? Is the shape of that water body essential attribute of water? No. Is it an essential factor that this pond is next to the temple? No. But what happens is that you identify that particular water body with all the incidental circumstances, but not by its essential circumstances. And that is why when someone asks ‘Who are you?’, you say ‘I am so and so, I am from this country, I work in this company, I am a yoga teacher or I am a yoga student’, and so on and so forth. None of these are essential in so much as none of these things which identified the puddle, or the pond, is essential to the nature of the water. 

We start identifying ourselves with all these things. But these things are not essential. And one other negative aspect of being conscious of yourself, is that you know that this which you identify as yourself, which you call yourself, is going to die.  That which I know as myself is going to die. That is the essential aspect of it. When you realize that you are an individual, also comes the realization that this individual is going to die. And therefore even the greatest of sages have the subtlest of all afflictions (called klesha in Yoga Sutras) which is fear of death ( called abhinivesha in Yoga Sutras)

So the identity itself is not essential, it is not material, it is just coincidental, and therefore it is not permanent. But if that identity comes, it has to die, because that is in the nature of things. But that the identity dies doesn’t mean that the essence of water changes. 

The jivatma or the individual can be identify as ‘this’, and certainly not ‘that’. It is bounded by its body contours, it is not all over. The river, on the other hand, is just flowing, unbounded.  So when the individual self that is bounded gets connected back to the universal self, like a pond getting connected to the river, although it loses its identity it gains by becoming unbounded. It gets freedom and emancipation. That water which was bounded by the periphery of the land around it, when it finds a way to come to the river, it becomes unbounded. It becomes free. It becomes emancipated. 

prayatna shaithilya ananta samapattibhyam YS II-47

The ego was never real, the ego happened due to a set of circumstances, co-incidental and non-essential. But it made you to feel that you are that, which you are not. The essence of water is water, H2O. It has nothing to do with shape, size, to which it is constrained by the land bounding it. What Guruji has been able to do is to create a channel connecting the individual self, back to its source in the universal self. And that was the connection he made. In the moments you were in an asana and when the efforts ceased, the individual consciousness made the connection with the universal consciousness, and the two became one 

tatah dvandva anabhighata  YS II-48

That is the coming of the divinity and that gave you that experience that you come back for again and again. 

Now how do you think that connection was made with the individual self and the universal self, how did the connection happen? How can you cognize it? 

Now I will try to give you another analogy to help you because you have experienced it. If you remember, on the second day, Geetaji said, that the 8th and 9th vertebrae of the dorsal spine has to penetrate inwards to go towards the sternum. But at the same time, the navel should not come to the front. Whether you are sitting or standing, just try to see what happens when you move the 9th dorsal vertebrae deep inside the body, keeping the navel back. Go on increasing that intensely. The 9th dorsal vertebrae going towards the sternum and the navel going in. Intensely. 

What happens to your eyes? Opened wide?  Now try to do that same thing with the eyes closed and see if your eyes can remain closed. Geetaji also said kick the shoulder blades inside.  Kick the shoulder blades! Kick the shoulder blades to the front! What happens to your eyes? Sharp? But what happened to your mind? Was it thinking of anything? 

So what were you doing? You were working the element of fire inside you. If you continue to do this, even at home, in any yoga pose that you want, you’ll come back and say I feel hot. I feel warm. I want the air conditioning to go on. So this is the element of fire. So you should cognize it. That when the element of fire comes on, what do you think is the sensation in the body? Is it the sense of something going outwards, or something going inwards. It appears to spread out, is it not?

What is the sensation? Do not just see the movements of the physical parts of the body. Look for something that is sensed to be spreading within the chest.  Make the navel move inside, and the dorsal vertebrae moving towards the sternum, as the sternum moves away to the front. Make this feeling stronger and stronger. Shoulders rolled back, the shoulder blades kicked inside. At home you may try this in backbend or other poses, keep the navel inside and go on intensifying it until your eyes become sharp, they become open. And with the open eyes, intensify the eyes, and see what happens. 

The moment your chest feels a spontaneous spreading, articulate what is the sensation in the frontal chest THAT is what you have to cognize. You have to cognize that which is going out. Try that again. Observe when you take the navel in, 9th dorsal vertebrae in, what is the sensation that is going out. That is the individual consciousness which is going out. If you have been able to sense “that” then it means the cognition has come. What you are cognizing is, the individual consciousness which is spreading and reaching out to the universal consciousness.

The individual consciousness which is within the boundary of the pond, is moving towards the river. So therefore, what Guruji did was that with this strong element of fire he pushed the individual consciousness out towards the divinity. He has said, when I teach, I am a warrior. He’s trying to break the banks of that pond which is keeping the water in it away from the river. And that spreading that you feel, is the one that is bringing the individual consciousness out. 

Why do I need the individual consciousness out? Because only then can the universal consciousness come in. Fresh water can come in only if the stagnated water has gone out. 

People think a yogi should be calm, serene and quite. A yogi is not disturbed, by anything, by anyone. Yogi let goes. But anyone who has an understanding of India’s history, would know that the sapt rishis – the seven great sages - all had a fiery temperament.  It is a modern misconception that yogis be mild mannered and calm. The comic books show the yogis sitting quietly, in a simple posture. But the fact of the matter is, that if you have to break the banks of the individual consciousness which is keeping it from the universal consciousness, you need to have such power. And that is what Guruji has been doing.

What are props? Props are not meant to do the asanas easily. Props are made to break the channel so that the jivatma or individual can communicate with the universal consciousness. So whenever you feel that sense of spreading inside you, know that is your individual consciousness going out. And if the individual consciousness is contained outside, you are allowing the universal consciousness to take its place. 

Now, how do we attain this in our own individual practice? It is easy to come to a class and follow the teacher as they lead you so that the individual consciousness can break its bank. But how do you do it yourself? You have to first cognize it. Once you start cognizing it, you have to start working towards that which can make that happen. If, in the postures that you are doing, if there is a sense of opening, then that’s the clue. That is why in Iyengar Yoga there is so much of focus on chest opening. Do you think, before Guruji, anyone talked of chest opening? Now, does it not make sense to you as to why there is so much attention in chest opening?  

Now, what conditions your awareness of you as you? The Yoga Sutra III-48 says:

grahana svarupa asmita anvaya arthavattva samyamad indriya jayah 

The image you have of yourself is conditioned by what you perceive and what you perceive depends on the sense organs or “indriyas” which look outwards. Thus you have an outside view of yourself. If you can understand the mechanism of how the senses create this perception of yourself, then you can navigate around the senses and ensure that the contribution from the senses towards building your outward image of yourself is discarded and what remains is your true nature untainted by the limiting impressions created by the senses. When you are able to navigate and “win” over the senses only then will you be able to make your mind truly universal.

tatah mano-javitvam vikarana-bhavah pradhana jayah YS III-49

Your awareness of what you are is due to the senses of perception that creates an image of yourself. And if you can navigate the inputs provided by the senses of perception then you can become aware of your true unlimited self. I do not use the word ‘control’, because control gives a meaning that you are lord and master of your senses of perception. You can never be master of the senses of perception because they belong to a different realm. They do not belong to that realm of consciousness, they belong to that realm of nature. You cannot be a master of that, but you can learn to navigate it. 

So when you are able to reach a state of “indriya jayah”, mastery or ability to navigate the senses of perception, you attain the ability to have mastery over your mind – “mano jayah” which leads to knowing your true unlimited nature. “Asmita” the sense of yourself, comes from the senses of perception, and if you are able to navigate the senses of perception, you will be able to get away from that false impression of “asmita” - ego or that I-ness. And when that I-ness goes away, what is left? You are the universal consciousness.

Let us see what modern science has to say about the contribution of the senses in your awareness of yourself. You are very sure that you are within your own body, right?   Absolutely sure that your body is your own, right? Modern science has conducted experiments, which will make you feel that your body is outside of you. Let us try to understand what is done. They have these small display screens which are worn over your eyes like spectacles – so that you see only that which is displayed on the small screen in front of your eyes. Something like goggle glass. The feed to those displays are given by a pair of cameras which are somewhere else. And you start to experience that your own body is where the camera is.  If the camera is behind you and you see your own body through the camera, you believe that the body is someone else’s and you are actually behind your body. When the glasses are removed you feel as if “you” are sucked back into “your” own body. 

Now I will come back to the essence of the subject, that if you have to gain a mastery over your senses of perception, you need to get a mastery over the elements as they stimulate the senses. And if you want mastery over the elements, you should know and cognize the elements. And when you cognize the elements, learn their nature and learn to navigate through them so that they do not stimulate the senses only then can you unfetter your mind.  

Now I am going to have you do a small experiment. This is something that Guruji taught in Russia in 2008 when he introduced pranayama. He asked for an empty glass. Then he took a jar of water and started to pour the water into the glass. And he asked, what was in the glass previously? Empty. What is happening to the glass? It is getting full. Right? Any doubts about it? We are only stating the obvious, but we are saying something that is essential. We are observing the obvious, water has gone into the glass. But have you realized that the air has gone out of the glass? That was essential. And when we empty the glass, the water has gone out, but what has gone in? Air. But you have to have a perspective of looking at the air to say whether the glass is full or empty. So what you would normally call the glass is empty is full of air. And when the glass is full, it is empty of air. 

So when we do pranayama, what do we observe? We observe the breath. When we say inhalation, what do we observe? Something has gone in. But when something has gone in, something has gone out. And what has gone out has been felt by you in your chest. Try it. Sit there. Just one or two cycles. Take a breath. Now, what is it that is going out? A feeling of your chest spreading out? Yes? That which is spreading out is your mind – the individual consciousness. 

Now continue to breathe in and out. During inhalation if you feel something is going in, then you are observing the breath. If during inhalation you feel something is spreading out – then you are observing the mind. If you find that in exhalation something is withdrawing in then you are observing the mind.

When you start to experience that something is spreading out during inhalation and something withdrawing in during exhalation, then that something is your consciousness. That is your inner consciousness. Did you feel something coming from inside reaching out to the chest in inhalation?  How would you feel your frontal chest if your mind has not gone there? Because awareness comes with consciousness. 

So if you inhaled, and felt the touch it means consciousness moved there, otherwise you would not feel the awareness. When you exhaled, what happened to the consciousness? It went back in to the core and that’s why you did not feel the chest. Try this at your own leisure sometime. 

Now, where does the divinity come into the picture? When you inhale, your individual consciousness goes out. Now keep that individual consciousness out and let it not go in when you exhale the breath out.  Then what goes in will be the fresh consciousness and not the same consciousness that has made you what you are. Do you understand what I am saying? When you breathe in, something is going out. That which is going out should be maintained there, it should not go back in. The individual consciousness should not creep back in. It should remain there, then exhale and what comes in is the universal consciousness. If you can do this then you have got the connection to the universal consciousness. You will then get a feeling of something different. 

The Iyengar method demands that we keep the chest open. Don’t lose that opening of the chest when you exhale. Keep that individual consciousness out and let the universal consciousness come in so that the body becomes a temple. 

When the universal consciousness comes in and the body becomes a temple you experience a state that you want to experience again and again. It is for this that you come back again and again to the classes. 

With that, I say thank you to all. 

Birjoo Mehta is an advanced senior practitioner. He has studied yoga with B.K.S. Iyengar throughout his entire life.