E is for Ekagrata

EKĀGRATĀ

Eka means ONE. Grata means pointedness. The full word – ekāgratā – means one-pointedness. This is essentially another term for concentration. The yogi is ever trying to cultivate single-mindedness in his/her practice whether that is within the asana (physical postures) or during dharana practices (concentration practices). One-pointedness can be likened to the idea of flow¹ both at the physical and mental levels.

In our daily life we are constantly distracted on the mental level. In Patanjali’s yoga sutras 1:30 he states the following disturbances keep us from the mental peace of ekāgratā.

Disease, dullness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, sensuality, false perception, failure to reach firm ground and slipping from the ground gained – these distractions of the mind-stuff are the obstacles.

Satchidananda (1987)⁴

We also tend to be distracted at the physical level and this is where the postures of yoga come to our aid in preparing the firm ground for gaining mental peace.

All yogic postures are an effort to unify or simplify our somatic existence. They are as it were one-pointedness (ekāgratā) at the level of the body. Ordinarily we are as distracted on the physical level as we are on the mental level.

Feuerstein³ (2003)

Concentration on a single point in asana can involve focusing on an aspect of the body such as the space between the eyebrows, the tip of the nose, the big toe, the thumb. These points are known as drishti.

In Dharana activities the single object can be a candle flame (tratak) or any object from nature, or an image of a spiritual master. The object can also be mental e.g. a thought, a word, mantra or prayer. It could be a visualisation of a spiritual person.

The immediate result of ekāgratā, concentration on a single point, is prompt and lucid censorship of all the distractions and automatisms that dominate – or, properly speaking, compose – profane consciousness. … A yogin can obtain discontinuity of consciousness at will … It goes without saying that ekāgratā can be obtained only through the practice of numerous exercises and techniques …

Mircea Eliade (1969)²

So why would we aspire to cultivating such one-pointedness in our lives? What benefit does it have?

One-pointedness certainly helps us experience ‘flow’ in our lives. Read ¹Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1992) for a comprehensive explanation of how flow can be experienced. The main aim of ekāgratā is to calm down the flux of our everyday consciousness thus lessening the effect of fragmentation in the mental and physical spheres. By doing so, we begin to make ourselves whole, reintegrating all the diverse aspects of ourselves and unifying with something larger than ourselves. With ekāgratā we join with or tune into the rhythm of the cosmos. This is the first phase. In the long term yogis are aiming to gain liberation or samādhi. That is a subject for a future blog post.

Through samadhi, the yogin transcends opposites and, in a unique experience, unites emptiness and superabundance, life and death, being and nonbeing. Nor is this all. Like all paradoxical states, samadhi is equivalent to a reintegration of the different modalities of the real in a single modality – the undifferentiated completeness of procreation, the primordial Unity.

Mircea Eliade (1969)²
Mandala detail 2017 – eye of one-pointedness/ekāgratā © Sanandi-jacq

This A-Z series of blogs focuses on unpacking the Sanskrit terms used in yoga.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

¹Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1992) Flow, The Psychology of Happiness, Random Century Group

²Eliade, Mircea (1969) YOGA – Immortality and Freedom, Princeton Bollingen, Chapter 2

³Feuerstein, Georg (2003) The Deeper Dimension of Yoga, Theory and Practice, Shambhala

⁴Satchidanananda, Sri Swami (1987, second edition 1990) The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Integral Yoga Publications

B is for Bandha

BANDHA

Bandha is a psychomuscular energy lock in the body which redirects the flow of energy and locks it in a particular area. Muscles and organs are contracted and controlled. There are three main bandhas in the human body.

Moola Bandha means perineum contraction and is probably the most well known of the bandhas. This bandha is a contraction of muscles in the pelvic floor. In men the area between the anus and testes is contracted whereas in women the area contracted is behind the cervix where the uterus meets the vagina. There are numerous benefits from performing moola bandha including:

  • stimulates the nervous system in the pelvic area
  • tones the excretory system and urino-genital system
  • relieves constipation and piles and may have a positive effect on the prostate gland
  • lessens the impact of depression by realigning mind, body and spirit

Uddiyana Bandha is an abdominal contraction. To be effective it needs to be practised on an empty stomach and ideally the practitioner needs to have empty bowels. Contraction of this Bandha is an advanced technique and should be practised under guidance. The benefits are many including:

  • relieves abdominal and stomach disturbances such as constipation, indigestion and diabetes.
  • tones the abdominal organs
  • stimulates blood circulation in the abdominal area.
  • stimulates the solar plexus around the centre of the belly.
  • When engaged the Uddiyana Bandha can help the practitioner lift up in a controlled jump in Ashtanga Yoga practice thus giving a sense of lightness to the body as though flying up into a jump. Uddiyana literally means ‘flying up’.

Jalandhara Bandha is a contraction of the throat area. It is a lock that stimulates the blood vessels and nerves of the neck. The head is bent forward so that the chin presses on the neck or throat pit. The practice once again is best done under the guidance of a yogic practitioner. The benefits include:

  • gives a feeling of relaxation
  • relieves stress and anxiety.
  • stimulates and balances the thyroid glands
  • regulates metabolism.

For details on how to perform the bandhas see entry 3 in the Bibliography below. It is best to find a qualified teacher to explain and demonstrate exactly how the locks are to be made.

This A-Z series of blogs focuses on unpacking the Sanskrit terms used in yoga.

Bibliography

1 Hewitt, James, (1977, 1983), The Complete Yoga Book, Cresset Press

2 Long, Ray, (2006), The Key Muscles of Hatha Yoga, Scientific Keys Volume 1

3 Saraswati, Satyananda, (2005 reprint) Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha, Yoga Publications Trust, Bihar, India

Ashtanga, Ahimsa & Asana

ASHTANGA

The general yogic term ashtanga literally means ‘eight limbs’. All yoga styles follow the eight limbs set out by Patanjali¹, author of the Yoga Sutras¹. He named the eight limbs of yoga as follows: Yama = ethical disciplines; Niyama = self observation; Asana = posture; Pranayama = breath control; Pratyahara = sense withdrawal; Dharana = concentration; Dhyana = meditation; Samadhi = a state of joy and peace

There is a style of yoga called ‘Ashtanga Yoga’ which is a dynamic form of yoga founded by K. Pattabhi Jois consisting of set sequences which are grouped into series. The whole style integrates vinyasa – which literally means movement between poses accompanied by regulated breathing (ujjayi breath).

AHIMSA

Ahimsa is one of the ethical disciplines of yoga. It is the first principle of the Yamas and as such is the first principle of yoga. It translates as ‘non-harm’. This principle of non-harming is to be applied to the body as well as everything in life. In terms of the body it means that it is important to be aware of the body when practising the yoga postures and to modify the poses and practices based on the individual’s particular needs and any underlying health conditions. Everyone can practice yoga from the youngest to the oldest but because every body is different it is necessary to engage with ahimsa to ensure safe practice. When practising yoga it is worth remembering the ethical guideline of ahimsa:

  1. The whole ethos of yoga is about self-exploration which means that there should never be an emphasis on doing a posture perfectly or competing with yourself or others.
  2. As our bodies are all different shapes and sizes with genetics giving us varying lengths of bones, etc., not all yoga poses will be accessible and therefore modifications will be necessary.
  3. Don’t do anything that hurts or increases pain. STOP what you are doing at once.
  4. Be aware of how your body is responding to a posture.
  5. If you are injured or have had an operation, give yourself time to heal before re-starting your yoga practice.
  6. The secret to ahimsa in yoga practice is tuning in and listening to body, mind and spirit and not acting in any way that can cause harm.

ASANA

Asana, is the third limb of yoga and in Sanskrit it literally means ‘posture’. The quality of the posture is also established in the meaning of the word. A yoga posture is intended to bring steadiness to the body and calmness to the mind.

In the ancient yogic texts Patanjali describes ‘asana’ as follows:

Posture (asana) is to be seated in a position which is firm but relaxed.

Chapter 2 Sutra 46 The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali¹

Not all yoga postures are seated but still the aim of all yoga postures is to get oneself into a state of mind for stillness and meditation. Any yoga posture should allow for the free flow of energy and vitality throughout the body without restriction from tension and other obstacles of the mind and body. Ultimately the body and mind should be so stress-free that the yogi can meditate.

The postures or asanas we all know have many shapes and include standing, sitting and lying poses. There are forward bends, backbends, side bends, inversions, twists and balances.

In the explanation of Patanjali’s sutra 2:46 Prabhavananda & Isherwood¹ state: ‘Asana means two things: the place on which the yogi sits, and the manner in which he sits there.’¹

All of the postures or poses we all know are leading towards the ultimate sitting posture in stillness with an erect spine – steady and calm with our focus on the infinite.

Posture becomes firm and relaxed through control of the natural tendencies of the body, and through meditation on the infinite.

Chapter 2 Sutra 47 The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali¹

Bibliography

1 Prabhavananda, Swami and Christopher Isherwood. (1969) How to Know God, The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali. New York: New American Library (translation and commentary). pp.159-161

This A-Z series of blogs focuses on unpacking the Sanskrit terms used in yoga.