Dialogue with the Masters: B.K.S. Iyengar
What am I Doing?
By interweaving, I mean that all the threads and fibers of our being at every level are drawn into contact and communication with each other. This is how the body and the mind learn to work together. The skin provides our outermost layer of intelligence. At our core lies our innermost wisdom. So the knowledge from outer perception and inner wisdom should always be in contact in your postures. At that time there is no duality: you are one; you are complete. You exist without the feeling of existence. The challenge from the skin should tap the Self, our Soul, and the Self has to say: what more have I to do? The external knowledge incites the Self to act.
As I have said, while doing yoga, the body must tell one what to do, not the brain. Brain has to cooperate with the message it receives from the body. I will often say to a student, “Your brain is not in your body! That is why you can’t get the asana.” I mean of course that his intelligence is in his head and not filling his body. It may be that your brain moves faster than your body, or your body may fail to fulfill the instructions of your brain owing to lack of right guidance from your intelligence. You must learn to move the brain a bit more slowly so that it follows the body, or you have to make the body move faster to match the intelligence of the brain. Let the body be the doer, the brain the observer.
After acting, reflect on what you have done. Has the brain interpreted the action correctly? If the brain does not observe correctly, then there is confusion in action. The duty of the brain is to receive knowledge from the body and then guide the body to further refine the action. Pause and reflect between each movement. This is progression in attention. Then in the stillness you can be filled with awareness. When you ask yourself, “Has every part of me done its job?” this is self-awareness. The Self has to find out whether this has been done well or not.
Pausing to reflect on your movement does not mean that you are not reflecting throughout the movement. There should be constant analysis throughout the action, not just afterwards. This leads to true understanding. The real meaning of knowledge is that action and analysis synchronize. Slow motion allows reflective intelligence. It allows our mind to watch the movement and leads to a skillful action. The art of yoga lies in the acuity of observation.
When we ask ourselves, “What am I doing?” and “Why am I doing it?” our minds open. This is self-awareness. However, it is necessary to point out that students should be self-aware, not self-conscious. Self-consciousness is when the mind constantly worries and wonders about itself, doubting constantly and being self-absorbed. It is like having the devil and angel both sitting on your shoulders continually arguing over what you should do. When you are self-conscious, you are going to exhaust yourself. You are also going to strain the muscles unnecessarily because you are thinking about the asana and how far you want to stretch. You are not experiencing the asana and stretching according to your capacity.
Self-awareness is the opposite of self-consciousness. When you are self-aware, you are fully within yourself, not outside yourself looking in. You are aware of what you are doing without ego or pride.
When you cannot hold the body still, you cannot hold the brain still. If you do not know the silence of the body, you cannot understand the silence of the mind. Action and silence have to go together. If there is action, there must also be silence. If there is silence, there can be conscious action and not just motion. When action and silence combine like the two plates of an automobile’s clutch, it means that intelligence is in gear.
While doing the postures, your mind should be in an interior conscious state, which does not mean sleep; it means silence, emptiness, and space which can then be filled with an acute awareness of the sensations given by the posture. You watch yourself from inside. It is a full silence. Maintain a detached attitude towards the body, and at the same time, do not neglect any part of the body or show haste, but remain alert while doing the asana. Rushing saps the strength, whether you are in Delhi or New York. Do things rhythmically with a calm mind.
It is difficult to speak of bodily knowledge in words. It is much easier to discover what it feels like. It is as if the rays of light of your intelligence were shining through your body, out your arms to your fingertips and down your legs and out through the soles of your feet. As this happens, the mind becomes passive and begins to relax. This is an alert passivity and not a dull, empty one. The state of alert repose regenerates the mind and purifies the body.
As you are doing an asana, you have to recharge your intellectual awareness all the time; that means the attention flows without interruption. The moment you collapse, you do not recharge, and the attention is dispersed. Then the practice of the asana is a habit, not an invigorating creative practice. The moment you bring attention, you are creating something, and creation has life and energy. Awareness allows us to overcome tiredness and exhaustion in our poses and in our lives. Awareness in action brings back energy and rejuvenates the body and mind. Awareness brings life. Life is dynamic, and so therefore the asanas should also be.
Excerpted from Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom by B.K.S. Iyengar.
Photography by Flóra Borsi