A student recently asked if yoga could help her both attain peace of mind and get in touch with her body.
From its very inception, yoga has focused primarily upon attaining peace of mind as its goal. Indeed, Patanjali, the compiler of the ca. 200 B.C. Yoga Sutras, summarized it in the second and third sutras: “Yoga is the resolution of the agitations of the mind. All else is not yoga.”
However, for most practitioners calming the mind has proven to be quite elusive. The road to peace of mind sometimes must take surprising twists and turns.
“Peace in the body brings poise to the mind,” stated yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar. This maxim is an interesting juxtaposition of terms: Whereas we often associate peace with the mind, here it is used to describe a state of the body. Because the body is concrete and everyone identifies with his body to some degree, the yoga asanas (poses) are used as a convenient device to access the mind. Similarly, poise refers not to carriage but to the mental state.
The yogi uses his body as a playground to teach himself, and to cultivate a stable mind with a benevolent spirit.
For example, in the Iyengar method we always start by teaching the standing poses to properly stretch the arms and legs to free the spine. We use three things to put the body into a position that brings peace of mind: the principles of alignment, the ability to discriminate, and effort.
And then, amidst the difficulties of practice, every so often we get a glimpse of understanding, a correlation that explains the fruit of our actions: “If I move my leg this way, my back stops hurting and I can breathe more easily. My head feels clearer, less clogged. My brain feels less confused.” The result is poise, denoted by stability and equanimity — the very terms Patanjali used to describe the mastery of asana.
So, in a step by step manner, the poses are used to train the mind to discriminate, to make wise choices. This discrimination is not only limited to an understanding of the body, but also encompasses the ethics (yamas) and disciplines (niyamas) of yoga that are similar to the Ten Commandments. Applying the ethics, such as non violence, truthfulness and lack of greed, to our practice cultivates the disciplines of purity and contentment:
In the midst of practice you should ask yourself, “Am I being truthful in thinking that I have straightened my knee, or have I merely mistakenly assumed that it was straight? Have I neglected aligning my knee correctly, thus inadvertently causing myself harm and violating the precept of non violence? Am I actually observing and adjusting, or am I being lazy, greedy, or expecting the results to come without any effort?” These are the challenges of yoga that each student must face.
The path of yoga requires a discriminating and devoted practice to still the mind. When the sages of old were asked to describe liberation from the agitations, mere words would not suffice. They could only utter, “Neti, neti!” — “Not this! Not this!”
In liberation the agitations are no longer able to root in the soil of the mind. Deprived of sustenance, they then wither and die. Like the sun breaking through the clouds, so does the sunshine of the soul illuminate the yogi when the clouds of the agitations have been lifted.
Patanjali Yoga Sutra I.2 Yoga is the cessation of the movements (vrttis) in the consciousness (citta).
PYS I.4 At other times the seer (soul) appears to identify with the (citta) vrttis.
 B.K.S. Iyengar, Iyengar, His Life and Work, Spokane: Timeless Books, 1987. P. 533
 PYS II.46 Perfection in asana means firmness in body, steadiness in intelligence and benevolence in consciousness.
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad II.3.6: Brahman is described as neti, neti. Circa 8th c. BCE.
As the renowned yogi B.K.S. Iyengar often proclaimed, “There is no ‘Iyengar’ Yoga.” He explains that yoga, as a divine art and science, cannot be “branded” for commercial gain. Rather, “Iyengar” yoga is better described as the “Iyengar method” of yoga, following the teachings of B.K.S. Iyengar of Pune, India.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (ca. 200 BCE) define yoga as “stillness of mind.” The Iyengar method embraces three unique aspects to obtain that stillness in asana (posture) and pranayama (breathing): “intricacies, sequencing and timing.” As in meditation, the intricacies, or detailed techniques such as precise alignment, are necessary to penetrate the mind that lies beyond the frontier of the outer, physical body.
The techniques we use vary according to the purpose of practice, whether it be to learn, refine, or consolidate; to generate energy, to relax or recuperate; or to devote yourself to God. The techniques also vary according to the emphasis of the class — to prepare for inversions, backbends, or pranayama, etc.
Just as the Bhagavad Gita defines yoga as “skill in action,” there are three types of action in asana: doing (i.e., lift the sternum), non-doing (i.e., don’t tense the brain), and un-doing (i.e., undo clenching the jaw, or holding the breath).
Similarly, each asana is a series of these same three stages: the initiation of the pose by doing, the holding of the completed pose by non-doing, and the conclusion of the pose by un-doing.
For example, only after we stretch the legs, open the sternum, relax the brain, and breathe in Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), can steadiness, or the non-doing stage, begin. This is easier said than done.
When first learning a pose, we expend a disproportionate effort — a lot of sweat — for a very small result. But once this coordination of body, mind, and senses has been mastered, much less effort is necessary to retain that steadiness of the body, and to keep the mind calm, like a “still lake.” The ability to remain placid, though doing, is “skill in action.”
Sequencing goes hand in hand with the detailed techniques to increase the stillness of mind. There are many ways to sequence a practice. Appropriate sequencing augments the mental and physical penetration and reinforces the purpose of practice.
The “timing,” an Indian term for how long a pose is held, not only builds physical and emotional endurance, but also multiplies the benefits to the physiological organs, the circulation, the nerves, and, most importantly, the mind.
The Iyengar method is not entirely transparent. B.K.S. Iyengar developed a “user friendly interface” to make it attractive for the beginner.
Deeply embedded in his language and teaching methods (of which alignment is but one of his innovations) are the very precepts of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Patanjali’s overall goal of practice is to still and stabilize the mind. In fact, “stable” is one of only two words that Patanjali uses to define asana. B.K.S. Iyengar applies “stable” to the mind as well, calling it “steadiness in intelligence.”
When the body and mind become stable, it results in Patanjali’s second word in the definition of asana, “pleasant.” Iyengar applies this to the mind, too, calling it “benevolence in consciousness.” This benevolence, or goodwill that comes as a result of perfection of asana, picks up the theme of the mind remaining serene and diffused like a calm lake.
To foster this stability and serenity, we sequence class by doing the stimulating poses first, and then end with calming poses, such as Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) and Savasana (Corpse Pose).
At the same time, there is also a sequence of learning from one class to the next. We first learn the fundamental actions in the simple introductory poses, such as how to raise the arms overhead in Urdhva Hastasana.
In subsequent classes we introduce those arm actions in a more complex pose, Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose). And further on down the road, in advanced classes, we use these very same actions in backbends, such as Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose). When you learn systematically, one step at a time, you feel physically less shaky, mentally more steady, and emotionally more content.
In summary, it is not just about doing more, but, rather, doing it more intelligently. When, through the intricacies of practice, sequencing and timing, the intelligence penetrates each and every cell of the body, asana practice becomes internal, with “steadiness in intelligence and benevolence in consciousness.”
This “skill in action” allows you to move towards your center — your soul — which leads you to stillness of mind.
 B.K.S Iyengar, Astanga Yoga and Iyengar Yoga,” 2005 Yoga Intensive at Estes Park, Berkeley: Yoga Journal, 2005. 9-27-05 AM: “There is no Iyengar Yoga at all. I don’t know why people call it this. I learned from Krishnamacharya. There is no division in yoga. I took one path, Pattabhi Jois [another student of Krishnamacharya took] another path. No division! Pattabhi Jois teaches Vinyasana, yoga of motion. Iyengar teaches yoga of action. It’s all the same yoga, just different branches. We all have the same roots.… Don’t think of [separate] branches. Think of where the branches meet!” <https://youtu.be/CYsn2H26hkE?list=UUNytdnT7Csc58—tyj6jPg>
Patanjali Yoga Sutra I.2 Yoga is the cessation of the movements (vrttis) in the consciousness (citta).
 Prashant S. Iyengar, “The Three Important Aspects in our System,” in “A Class after Class,” Yoga Rahasya, Mumbai: YOG, January 2000. Prashant referenced his 1998 Guru Purnima lecture.
 Prashant S. Iyengar, “Learning and Consolidating,” in “A Class after Class,” Yoga Rahasya, Mumbai: YOG, January 2000.
Prashant S. Iyengar, “80th Birthday Celebration,” Yoga Rahasya, Mumbai: YOG, Dec. 2000, p. 4- 33.
 BG II.50 Imbued with this evenness of mind (buddhiyuktas), one frees oneself in this life, alike from vice and virtue. Therefore yoke yourself to this Yoga. Yoga is skill in action.
 Prashant S. Iyengar, “Do, Un-Do, Non-Do,” in “A Class after Class,” Yoga Rahasya, Mumbai: YOG, January 2000.
 PYS I.33 Through cultivation (bhavanatah) of maitri (friendliness), karuna (compassion), mudita (joy), and upeksha (indifference) respectively towards sukha (pleasure), duhkha (pain), punya (virtue) and apunya (vice), the citta (consciousness) becomes prasadana (serene, benevolent and diffused like a calm lake).
 PYS II.46 Perfection in asana means firmness in body, steadiness in intelligence and benevolence in consciousness [sukham].
“The path of yoga cultures the body and senses, refines the mind, civilizes the intelligence and takes rest in the soul.”
The entire purpose of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is to provide a practical guide to alleviate suffering. Pain, anger, confusion — these are just the most salient features of a life characterized by our identification with an unsteady, agitated mind, the cittavrtti.
An example of such mistaken identification is when one declares, “I am in pain” in lieu of “the knee pains.” Even if not so obvious, physical and emotional pains may also remain buried deep, like seeds just waiting to sprout.
However, according to Patanjali, only when the ability to discriminate between the soul and the cittavrtti has been attained, does suffering completely vanish. Then there is no longer any need to identify with the cittavrtti. The Yoga Sutras define this state as samadhi. In fact, according to Patanjali, yoga is samadhi — when the mind, citta, has achieved complete stability, devoid of the agitations, the vrttis, allowing the light of the soul to pervade the entire body.
One often hears the truism that yoga is “good for the body, mind, and soul.” This is a Western misinterpretation of the Yoga Sutras, which hold that the soul is eternally perfect — “ever wise, ever pure and ever free,” that it has no form and that it requires nothing be done for it. The soul animates the body, mind and intellect, which, in turn, serve the soul. The ancient tradition describes the soul as a fragment of the Cosmic Being, of the eternally perfect God. While practice can benefit the body, mind, and intellect, it cannot logically benefit the soul. “Spiritual” practice, therefore, is a misnomer.
Although the soul is pure, the mind is not. Both the citta and the intellect are tainted by the vrttis, which impair the power of discrimination.
The “dirty mirror” analogy was devised to explain how the intellect could misperceive that the soul could be impure and require improvement: Just as when someone with a clean face mistakes it for unclean when his face is reflected in a dirty mirror, so does the intellect, tainted by the dirt of the agitations (vrttis), arrogantly mistake the impure agitations of the mind (cittavrttis) for the ever pure soul. Thus, the goal of yoga is to purify the mind and remove the vrttis to bring about a state of samadhi.
Yoga practice employs the body, mind, and intellect to clean and polish the mirror to improve discrimination. The novice student perceives the physical effects of asana practice — stretching and strengthening — as “good for the body.” Upon polishing the mirror of the intellect a little more, the student is able to discern that asana practice is “good for the mind” by fostering tranquillity, like the peace of mind one might feel after shoulderstand.
But the goal is more than peace of mind: B.K.S. Iyengar states, “Asana should be performed in such a way as to lead the mind from attachment to the body towards the light of the soul so that the practitioner may dwell in the abode of the soul.”
Over a number of years, skilled practice brings increased clarity of intellect and less confusion. Yoga civilizes the intelligence by refining the intellect, elevating it from its primitive, uncultured state, and harnessing it to discern the purity of the soul.
According to Patanjali, as a result of intense practice in samadhi, when the purity of the intellect equals the purity of the soul, the citta is freed of the vrttis and, along with the intellect, both dissolve in the beacon light of the soul.
When the last vestige of the impurities of the cittavrttis are completely erased in the mirror of the intellect, the purity of the soul shines forth in its own glory and the mind (citta) merges with the soul in an indivisible state of existence.
 B.K.S. Iyengar, The Tree of Yoga, Boston: Shambhala, 1989. P. ix
Patanjali Yoga Sutra I.2 Yoga is the cessation of the movements (vrttis) in the consciousness (citta).
 PYS I.3 Then the Seer dwells in his own state.
 Vacaspati Misra, born at the end of the eight century A.D., used the “dirty mirror: analogy in the Tattva-vaisaradi (“Fundamentals Expert Exposition”), the most important commentary on Patanjali after Vyasa’s Bhasya.
 B.K.S. Iyengar, The Tree of Yoga, Boston: Shambhala, 1989. P. 56
An experienced yoga student recently expressed frustration that she would “never be able to stretch enough.” Her dilemma calls into question how the intellect affects yoga practice, the role of the teacher and the obstacles.
When a student takes up the practice of yoga, she may become frustrated in the effort to master new techniques. As she tries to do whatever the teacher requests, she may wonder, “Will I ever be able to remember everything?”
Thus, in the beginning, practice is mechanical; effort is mainly directed to learning the proper placement of the arms, legs and spine. There is little room for reflection or evaluation, only the seeking of reassurance, “Am I doing this right?” But even at this basic level of practice, proper stretching affords physical benefits.
However, what the Yoga Sutras call abhyasa, practice, is neither mechanical, nor limited to just stretching. Abhyasa is defined only in reference to attaining stillness of mind: “Practice is the steadfast effort to still and stabilize the agitations of the mind.” Then, according to the Yoga Sutras, when the mind is still and the agitations cease to exist, enlightenment dawns.
Attaining that stillness can be elusive. When the student used words such as “frustration” and “never enough” she conveyed doubt, confusion and lack of progress, signs that her mind has been “thrown off” the path of yoga. This mental state is an obstacle that all practitioners face.
At this crossroads the practitioner must choose between either confronting the obstacles in yoga or succumbing to bhoga, the path of worldly pleasure. If, when progress has been impeded, it leads the practitioner to ask herself, “What have I not understood about this pose? Where have I gone wrong?” it signifies the commencement of abhyasa through discrimination. It is a fundamentally different question than the beginner pleading, “Am I doing this right?”
Self examination is one of the subjects of the commentary on the very next sutra that describes abhyasa:
“When continued for a long time over the span of one’s life and practiced without interruption in a devoted way, with earnestness, attention, knowledge and devotion, the practice becomes firmly established. In other words, practice is not easily overpowered by agitations.”
These elements of practice are the same as the three paths to enlightenment — knowledge, action and devotion — that are described in the Bhagavad Gita. Although all three are never entirely separate, the cultivation of knowledge in yoga asana practice sets it apart from other forms of physical exercise. The pursuit of knowledge through discrimination in practice teaches us that practice is not just about doing more, but, rather, doing it more intelligently.
In the long tradition of yoga, learning how to practice intelligently has always required the guidance of a teacher. This is how I taught her:
I asked her to demonstrate Prasarita Padottanasana, a standing forward bend with legs spread wide. After observing her imbalance, I instructed her to do two things:
First, roll the weight more on the center of the right big toe bone.
Then, second, inject the left thigh bone deeper into the hip socket. This allowed her to lift the right side of her sacrum up to the level of the left.
The effect was dramatic: she was then able to stretch her left hamstring muscles with ease, and to release the gripping of her abdomen, as her struggle gave way to equanimity.
By simply bringing the intelligence into her feet and legs to stretch both sides evenly, she was able to overcome the obstacle of “failure to gain ground”. The result of just the right mixture of effort and understanding made her tranquil, as written in the Yoga Sutras:
“Tranquillity that is experienced by the mind through reverential faith sustains a yogi like a loving mother. This kind of faith brings vigor to a seeker of discriminative knowledge, which brings mindfulness, making the mind undisturbed and collected, and conducive to concentration. Then the light of discrimination dawns, bringing wisdom.”
 PYS I.13 Practice is the steadfast effort to still and stabilize (sthiti) (the fluctuations [vrittis] of the mind).
 VB I.14 Continued for a long time and practiced without interruption in a devoted way, with earnestness (tapas), attention (brahmacarya), knowledge (vidya) and devotion (sraddha), it (the effort, practice, or foundation) becomes firmly established. In other words, (practice) is not easily overpowered by any latent impressions (samskaras) of the fluctuating (vyutthana) state.
Recently a new student asked, “Why do you use props in yoga? I’ve practiced for a long time and never used them.”
When I began the practice of yoga over thirty-five years ago, we never used props. We didn’t even have mats — just bare feet on a bare floor. For more difficult poses we consulted B.K.S. Iyengar’s, Light on Yoga, first published in 1965, which showed nary a mat nor a blanket.
When BKS Iyengar opened his own yoga institute in 1975, he built his first yoga props to help his pupils learn how to do the poses correctly. Not only did the brick pavers evolve into milled wooden blocks, but he also designed specialized benches that could support students to relieve the strain of holding up each individual student by himself. The yoga mat was carpet underlayment used by a pupil who slipped on the bare floor because of her dry feet.
Yoga props are like any other tools of the trade. Craftsmen often cite “the right tool for the job” as the key to working more efficiently. Just as the right use of a wrench helps loosen a frozen pipe joint, so does the correct use of a yoga belt mobilize a stiff hip joint in Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Big Toe Pose). In addition to increasing hip mobility, it also frees the spine and calms the mind.
The judicious use of props furthers our understanding of the direction of the pose. For example, although many students use a brick to support the hand in Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), few understand that the way the fingers touch the brick provides helpful feedback to learn the correct leg action in the pose:
If you push the thumb down just a little more, you can lift the inner knee, and open the chest. Like Supta Padangusthasana, it calms the mind.
The brick is transformed from a mere crutch for a stiff body into a tool that prompts you to perform the pose more skillfully.
Quoting the Bhagavad Gita, B.K.S. Iyengar described the effects of this skill, “Yoga is equanimity. Yoga is skillfulness in action. Unless and until there is skillfulness in action, there can be no equanimity.”
When I think of skillfulness, I recall how much I enjoy watching craftsmen work. Just as the skilled plumber uses his wrench and his body leverage to unscrew the pipe joint with the least effort, the yogin uses the brick in Trikonasana to both extend his leg and to lever open his chest, resulting in a heightened equanimity — if only because he can now breathe more freely.
The brick in Trikonasana acts like training wheels for your consciousness. It gives you the time to penetrate so that you can feel the direction of the pose — just as training wheels teach you how much you need to pedal your bike to stay balanced. Once you’ve learned that direction, the brick, like the training wheels, may be discarded. Then your actions bring peace of mind.
To quote B.K.S. Iyengar again, who wrote at age 95, “props… can be used to better one’s practice” and “provide the right sense of direction” even “in old age.”
 B.K.S. Iyengar, Pune Intensive Asana Class 12-11-2004, quoting Bhagavad Gita II.48-50
 Arun H.S., Experiment & Experience On the Chair: The Yoga Way, Bangalore: Prashant Yogashraya, 2014.