Water as the Source
Life emerges from water and it is sustained by water. Each religion contains powerful myths about the significance, divinity and power of water. It has the capacity to nurture, absolve sins and end life. Water cannot be destroyed as through the hydrologic cycle it only changes form. From evaporation and condensation through to precipitation, each stage revealing a different form, nature is unified by its existence of this one element. Water is soft and flowing. Nowhere is this attribute more deeply identified than in Taoist philosophy where its fluid adaptability is conjured as a metaphor for overcoming the twists and turns of life with unruffled persistence. It is also despite its softness, savage and wild. From the untamed waves of Piha to the Biblical floods, water has the power to punish and to end life.
Yoga, with its ties to ancient India too has a deep connection with water. The reverence and standing that water holds within Hindu religion can be found as far back as Vedic times. The Rig Veda conceives of the Universe as an uncreated and self-developing world. In its uncreated version, the Rig Veda spoke of the existence of “nothing but the bottomless, uninterrupted, limitless water” – a world consisting of water without light (Salilam apraketam; Rig Veda X.29.3). Everything which we perceive and understand as the world emanated from this primordial egg of liquid. The divinity and significance of water in the Rig is seen clearly through its identification with the gods. None more famous than the God Indra who set the waters free after the killing of Vritra, the demon of drought, an an event so auspicious it is said to have coincided with the emergence of light. It is this struggle that sees the liberation of water from the heavens thereby assuring prosperity and life for all humankind. Indeed, water dwells where Gods can be found. Everything begins and ends of water.
It is with this kind of life-affirming, and life-recycling affinity that I feel compelled to explore the significance of water in this month’s practice theme. From a personal perspective, my ascension to a half century anniversary has instigated a more reflective and personal approach towards this month’s practice. Yet, the virtues of water lend intimately to the spirit of yoga, both in the dynamic movement approaches of vinyasa as well as its philosophical underpinnings of adaptability, humility, generosity and reflectiveness.
Water is Always Flowing
Of the elements, water is most deeply identified with the teachings of Taoism, a spiritual and philosophical system of Chinese origins based on the Tao Te Ching, attributed to the sage, Lao Tzu. T’ai Chi is the movement discipline emanating from Taoism. T’ai Chi movement is marked by flowing movements done in concert with deep breathing designed to bring about inner calm. These soft, fluid, yielding movements in T’ai Chi bear a direct reference to the central importance of the nature of water in Taoism. If you are a seasoned practitioner of vinyasa yoga, these references to flow, fluidity and breathwork will seem very familiar to you.
What is vinyasa? Vinyasa is a word that has been used interchangeably in modern literature to mean anything from a flowing style of yoga practice through to an arrangement of yoga postures. Vinyasa is in actual fact the descriptive Sanskrit word for a moving and breathing system consisting of breathwork, specific focusing techniques and particular muscular engagement in support of postures. It is also a numbering system and can appropriately be used to count the number of postures in established yoga sequences such as the Surya Namaskara or Sun Salutation Series. Sun Salutation A for example consists of 9 vinyasas – 9 postures beginning and ending with Urdhva Hastasana or Upwards Salute posture. The Vinyasa system is designed to inculcate an inner focus through the fluid connection of postures supported by timed inhale-exhale patterns and focus techniques.
Vinyasa Yoga thus in the modern yoga studio has become synonymous with flowing fluid yoga sequences with cardio benefits as movements are rapid and rarely held for much more than an inhale or exhale breath, particularly within the Sun Salutation sequence which is normally integrated during the warm-up phase. The purpose of vinyasa is to strengthen, repair, rejuvenate and keep safe from disease; a form of therapy for the physical body – the gateway to the soul. The movement through the postures in concert with deliberate breathwork is said to clear the channels of the body, both gross ( muscularskeletal system consisting of blood, veins, arteries and organs ) and subtle ( nadis or astral tubes conveying Prana or your life force ). From a medical standpoint, the flowing moving nature of vinyasa encourages sweat which helps improve circulation and removal of toxins.
So in fact, the characteristics of water and vinyasa share a number of parallels and in our practice this month, we will integrate more flowing fluid sequences inspired by the nature of water and explore how this fluidity ties in with anatomical aspects of our body. Take the structure of our spine for instance. Our spine – the central and major connecting piece of the human body, consists of a number of curves from the neck down to the coccyx. Nowhere are the curves of the spine more poetically expressed in yoga than in the cat cow breathing position. The switching of the spine between anterior and posterior pelvic tilt breathes life into every bone and all the spaces in between of the spine when we work in cat cow breathing. Additionally our inspiration will lead us to explore aspects of T’ai Chi movement arts and its affinity with water. One difference between T’ai Chi and yoga is the prevalence of arm related movements. The arms are treated like the rotors of the machine (body), the constant circulation and movement of which helps generate speed and heat in the body through standing postures. This resonates deeply with the spirit and purpose of vinyasa which is also to create heat and improve circulation at every level and kosha of the body.
I have always been an open- minded and curious student. Throughout my life and from a very young age, I was exposed to a number of movement arts beginning with Chinese martial arts or what is also known as Kung-Fu. Back home in Malaysia, my father made our backyard available to a friend of his who was a Wushu instructor. This friend of his, whom I only knew as Uncle Robert would conduct martial arts classes right in our backyard which my parents had converted from lawn to a vast concrete pad so these men would be able to practice their craft. Thus a couple of times a week, the sight of men in adidas trackpants making their way past our front gate to the back of house at dusk for a couple of hours of Kung-Fu training is embedded deeply within childhood memories. I also explored T’ai Chi at some point in my life and much to my regret, for only a short while. Thus my curiosity and interest in this movement discipline remains. The sequences we explore this month will be a reflection of the experiences led by my cultural heritage whilst respecting the core principles of vinyasa.
“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but just adjust to the object, and you shall find a way round or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves” ~ Bruce Lee
Bruce Lee’s artistry in the martial arts discipline was legendary. His approach to life was underpinned by his connection with Taoist philosophy which shone through as both grace and strength in his art. “Be more like water”, Bruce Lee is often quoted as saying. The Taoist wisdom of finding ways around obstacles like the constant uninterrupted flow of a river cascading, gushing and surging past rocks and boulders without struggle, is nature at harmony with itself. This inherent energy always moving towards its rightful destination allows for a constant unfolding and renewal at will, but without purposeful force. The cascading and flowing river gives generously to those who cross its path. This unplanned coincidence by its natural flow and design allowed civilisations attracted to it to prosper just by its very presence. These inherent ideas of contentment, non-evasive action and generosity all sit comfortably with the values of yoga within the eight-fold pathway. Ahimsa or the precept of non- violence, and one of the Yamas ( one of the eight limbs of Ashtanga ), resonates with the wisdom of non-evasive action in Tao as seen through the nature of water. Santosa or the virtue of the cultivation of contentment is another within the rules of conduct known as Niyama ( second limb of the eight limbs of Ashtanga ). A person who cultivates this virtue is equanimous and this inner state of contentment allows one to be free of superfluous of desires and thus encourages other virtues such as generosity and to only take what is needed, just as nature intended, without excess.
Of Dhyana, the 7th limb of yoga, Iyengar had this to say:
”When oil is poured from one vessel to another, one can observe the steady constant flow. When the flow of concentration is uninterrupted, the state that arises is dhyana (meditation)….His body, breath, senses, mind, reason and ego are all integrated in the object of his contemplation – the Universal Spirit. He remains in a state of consciousness which has no qualification whatsoever”
This meditative state is one of the high points of the sadhaka’s ( a spiritual seeker who practices yoga in order to seek knowledge and liberation ) quest. At the peak of this meditative state, the sadhaka returns to a state of oneness, transcending consciousness where the body and senses remain at rest. Iyengar describes this state known as Samadhi as a space where there is no longer a duality between the knower and the known; only the experience of truth, consciousness and joy. This idea of oneness and the destruction of duality also has parallels with Taoism. Through its observation of duality in nature – night and day, moon and sun, rain and shine, it becomes apparent that polarities are fundamental to the journey to the centre. When balance exists, harmony exists, as in nature and therein lies true bliss – the state experienced in Samadhi – the highest state of yoga.