As we practice asanas with awareness, we not only feel better but we are also better able to feel – that is, we become more sensitive to everything in our lives. As our sensitivity deepens and widens, we begin to practice asanas in such a way that we are practicing the larger yoga: the discovery of our Self and our Dharma (our true purpose) and the overcoming of the obstacles that impede this journey.
In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali explains the five main kleshas (obstacles) on the yogic path. They are avidya, ignorance; asmita, ego; raga, attachment to pleasure; dvesha, aversion to pain; and abhinivesha, the fear of death. Although there are many yogic methods for dealing with the kleshas, asana practice – both the poses we explore and the manner in which we work in them – it can be one of the most powerful of yoga’s tools for helping us overcome these afflictions.
Among the asanas, backbends are especially useful in this process, since they require strong concentration and open the chest and heart center. Let us then take a look at the ways in which backbends – and specifically one of the most common backbends, Urdhva Mukha Shvanasana (Upward Facing Dog Pose) – can help us face the kleshas and overcome them.
Arching over Obstacles
In the epic poem Savitri, the Indian sage Sri Aurobindo writes, “Where ignorance is, there suffering too must come.” Avidya in our physical body also manifests in the mind, which becomes unable to pay attention or retain and recall information. If we are to dispel our ignorance, we must cultivate the ability to focus our attention as well as the ability to calm our minds. Indeed, an unfocused brain cannot be calm. Thus, the ability to focus is a precursor to learning how to make the brain quiet. Because they demand such focus, backbends are extremely powerful tools for overcoming ignorance. Backbends also help us overcome the obstacle of asmita, the ego, because they open the heart center, the seat of our connection with our higher self. Asmita is the mistaken identification of the small, individual self with the universal, supreme Self. The ego believes it knows everything and thinks that the universe revolves around it. As the ego grows, consciousness moves away from the heart and into the brain. Over time the connection between the mind and the heart – the smaller self and the larger Self – is lost. Backbends bring us back to this connection.
The chest and heart events provided by backbends also counteract the last three of the five kleshas: raga, dvesha, and abhinivesha. Raga, our attachment to pleasure, is a futile grasping of the ephemeral – we clutch what is only transient. In doing so, we close our chest and shut down the heart center. Dvesha, aversion to pain, also closes the door to our hearts. When we cover up pain, we cover up our shadows, the parts of ourselves that we repress because they do not please the ego. As with raga, our aversion is not expressed with open, wide arms but with a clutching, defensive posture. And abhinivesha, the fear of death, is the father of all fear, the primal cause for all shrinking of the chest, hunching of the spell, and pulling back into our small selves.
For these obstacles, hatha yoga has a powerful remedy: backbends. And since Urdhva Mukha Svanasana appears in Suryanamaskar (Sun Salutation), it provides an excellent opportunity for yogis to learn to use asana practice to combat ignorance, ego, attachment to pleasure, aversion to pain, and fear of death.
© 2008 Aadil Palkhivala