What is Alignment? Transcending Duality Through Asana


[photo: Shiva Nataraja, 12th c. Chola Empire, St. Louis Art Museum. Photo by Bruce M. Roger, 2010.]

©2012 Bruce M. Roger

We are all bound by duality. We express likes and dislikes, we seek pleasure to avoid pain, and we perceive the body and mind as separate entities. In the Bhagavad Gita, before going into battle, Lord Krishna advises the warrior Arjuna to remain detached and not succumb to duality, else it will bind him to impermanence and impurity:

Treating alike pleasure and pain, gain and loss, victory and defeat, then get ready for battle. You will not lack merit.[1] [Bhagavad Gita II.38]

Although Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras state that the dualities cease when the asana is mastered [PYS II.48], only when I started practicing the Iyengar method was I able to reconcile how correctly practicing asana could transcend duality. B.K.S. Iyengar’s description of the joy of practice gave a voice to my feelings:

“In some postures, we lose the sense of duality and we live in peace, in a joy we cannot express in words. Even if we have to struggle for the rest of our lives to feed that joy once more, it is worth doing.”[2]

As I continued to study Iyengar yoga, I began to understand that the physical techniques of asana and pranayama served a greater intention. A building’s structure is not an end in of itself, but serves its architecture; likewise, physical alignment serves the ultimate the goal of Self-realization — every Indian’s goal.

How does the Iyengar method make this connection? In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna defines yoga as samatvam, equanimity or eveness of mind:

Being steadfast in yoga, Dhananjaya,[3] perform actions, having abandoned attachment, and having become balanced in success and failure. This samatvam (eveness of mind in regard to success and failure) is known as yoga. [Bhagavad Gita II.48]

 Since the Bhagavad Gita defines yoga as even-minded and balanced, B.K.S. Iyengar questioned why — in the spirit of uniting body and mind — these qualities could not also apply to asana practice. His unique contribution is including the body without forsaking the mind:

“Eveness is yoga. In gross alignment, the bone is in the center of the body, Measure the width and length of the muscle from the bone to create equal expansion. As flesh forms bone, bone takes the shape of the flesh [in, for example, the development of knock knees].”[4]

What lies beyond physical alignment? Patanjali states that samadhi leads to prajna, perfect knowledge and awareness, in seven spheres [PYS II.27]. Guruji Iyengar has interpreted that mastery of these stages roughly corresponds to integration of the koshas: integration of sharira (body) and indriya (senses), prana (energetic or physiological body), manas (mind), buddhi (intellect), chitta (consciousness), and atma (soul).[5]

So gross practice must become increasingly more subtle: To prevent my senses from leading my mind astray, I have found that if, following Iyengar’s instruction, I withdraw my jnanendriyas (senses of perception), to coordinate them with my karmendriyas (organs of action), not only does it quiet my mind, it also channels more sthirata (stability and strength) into the pose.

This leads us to the next task: balancing the prana, energy:

“Have you ever thought of aligning the energy? Suppose you are doing Tadasana… and you are very strong on your right leg — the energy is vibrating in the right leg — but the left leg is a little dull. Then you have to align the energy, don’t you? Nobody speaks of that. They only say, ‘Align your body with…’ whatever they think.”[6]

Manas and buddhi are grosser and subtler aspects, respectively, of the mind. The manas (mind, or intellect of the head) acquires knowledge; the buddhi (intelligence of the heart) evaluates the pros and cons of action. Manas oscillates but the buddhi does not. They must work together to coordinate the prana (energy) and prajna (awareness) in asana.

In the following verse Lord Krishna elaborates on eveness of mind, describing it as buddhi-yuktas, “intelligence-yoked.”

Imbued with this eveness of mind (buddhi-yuktas), one frees oneself in this life, alike from vice and virtue. Therefore yoke yourself to this yoga. Yoga is skill in action (karmasu kausalam). [Bhagavad Gita II.50]

Reminding myself to be detached, or to be even-minded, has proven to be a futile expression of duality. However, I find that when I can skillfully engage my body, mind, and breath, it is possible to become even-minded. Then, my even-mindedness is the result of the correct physical positioning of the muscles, bones, joints and energy with the mind, intelligence, and awareness in each asana. And, no, it doesn’t happen very often! This effect is in concert with Patanjali’s sukham (benevolence) and prayatna shaithilya (effortless effort), that come as a result of mastering asana [PYS II.46-47].

Even-mindedness is but a small first step in yoga. The deeper meaning of “skill in action” conveys that the enlightened yogin’s actions are so ethically pure that they do not accrue negative reactions in the doer — or in any being. The fruit of the action is unable to leave a vasana (impression) in the mind of the doer because he is detached, and, thus, unbound. When intelligence is united with action, and performed without motive, it becomes colorless, losing all character of vice or virtue. Typical motives include fear of punishment for committing vice and expectation of reward for doing virtuous work. Buddhi-yuktas is an aspect of this skill. It literally means “intelligence-yoked,” and is interpreted as “disciplined in intelligence,” or “intelligence united with the Self” — which is one step closer to Self-realization.

Then the buddhi must penetrate to spread prana (energy) and prajna (awareness) into the most remote spaces of the mind and body:[7]

“Each and every fiber, each and every cell, each and every capillary has to be connected to the Self. That is alignment in the asana — of the Self with the body, and the body with the Self…. So, when the Self engulfs the entire body, without neglecting one part, it is alignment… [and] there is no division between body, mind and intelligence.”[8]

The Self (with a capital “S”) is the soul. It is our task to purify the body, mind, and intelligence so that the buddhi may accurately reflect the light of the soul throughout. Then duality ceases to exist.

Sources for Bhagavad Gita:

A. Parthasarathy, Srimad Bhagavad Gita Vols. 1 – 3, Self published, Bombay, 1992.

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on the Bhagavad Gita, Arkana, New York, 1990.

 Swami Swarupananda, Srimad Bhagavad Gita, Advaita Ashrama, 1926.

Winthrop Sargeant, The Bhagavad Gita, SUNY Press, Albany, 1984.

[1]     Some translate papam as “sin” or “evil.” However, papam does not convey something forbidden by God, or something that God “hates.” Rather, it is based on the misperception of our dharma — as when we mistakenly perceive that our face is dirty when looking at it in a dirty mirror — which prevents us from fulfilling it. Reference: Nirmalananda Giri, A Commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, Atma Jyoti Ashram, 2008. p. 58-69 Accessed online 5-20-12.

[2]     B.K.S. Iyengar, Sparks of Divinity, edited by Noelle Perez-Christiaens, Institut de Yoga B.K.S. Iyengar, Paris, 1976. P.70 Recently republished in a revised and expanded edition:

      B.K.S. Iyengar, Sparks of Divinity: The Teachings of B.K.S. Iyengar from 1959 to 1975, Rodmell Press, 2012.

[3]     Dhananjaya, meaning “conqueror of wealth” is an epithet for Arjuna.

[4]     B.K.S. Iyengar, Symmetry in Asana, Q & A 9-29-05 AM Class, author transcription. B.K.S. Iyengar often employs a river bank analogy: the inner and outer banks must run parallel. Align the feet to bring life to the inner calf in Tadasana so that the river of prana touches the banks of both the outer and inner calves.

[5]     B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the YogaSutras of Patanjali, HarperCollins, San Francisco, 1993. P.131 Table 10.

[6]     B.K.S. Iyengar, Alignment of the Intelligence & Self, Asana 9-27-05 AM Class, author transcription.

[7]     B.K.S. Iyengar, Alignment & Historical Stages of Guruji’s Sadhana: Keynote Address 9-29-05 at Yoga Journal Conference, Estes Park, CO. Originally published as “Sadhana”, Yoga Rahasya vol 13, #1; 2006; p 3-19.

      B.K.S. Iyengar compares the buddhi coming into uniform contact with the remote parts of the body to how water evenly touches every part of the inner wall of a jar. See: B.K.S. Iyengar, “Guruji Iyengar on how he evolved the concept of alignment, “ Yoga Rahasya vol 19, #2; 2012; p 19.

[8]     B.K.S. Iyengar, Alignment of the Intelligence & Self, Asana 9-27-05 AM Class, author transcription.


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