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The Qualities of Being and Their Relation to Practice

Did you know that practicing the various methods of yoga systematically can bring you back to svastha, your natural state? In our previous articles, we have hinted at how we are comprised of elements that relate to specific methods of yoga practice, but what are they, and how do they relate to this state of balance? First, we must return to the triguṇa, the three qualities of nature, and understand how they relate to the elements that comprise all material existence.

First, tamas (inertia, darkness, heaviness) relates to earth, whose attributes are heavy, dull, static, dense, and hard. Sometimes in our life, we find ourselves in excess or deficiency of this element. When in excess, we feel all of earth’s qualities weighing us down and making us immovable. When in deficiency, we feel all of earth’s opposite qualities as light, sharp, mobile, liquid, soft, and subtle, which cause a feeling of spaciness, angst, and a general lack of cohesion in our whole being.

One method of working with earth is āsana, or steady postures, that either ground one down or lift one. Postures performed closer to the ground and those emphasizing the hips will create a sense of connection with the earth within and around the body. Postures executed on the arms or head, or simply further from the ground, lighten the body and lift it up and out of its earthen qualities.

Second, tamas, in combination with sattva (lightness, clarity, subtlety), relates to water, whose qualities are cool, liquid, dull, soft, oily, and slimy. When we feel dull or more timid, we might have excess water. If we feel hot, dense, sharp, hard, dry, or rough, this might be a water deficiency, and it can lead to hypersensitivity.

One method of working with water is vinyasa, or āsanas, linked together through inhales and exhales. If there is too much water, one can move more quickly or integrate more challenging posture combinations, such as arm balance transitions. If there is too little water, one needs to move more mindfully and slowly; postures should be softer and not as forced, flowing like gentle waves.

Third, rajas (activity), in combination with sattva, relates to fire, whose qualities are hot, sharp, light, dry, and subtle. When fire predominates, we are reactive, hot, and often hypercritical of ourselves and others. When fire is deficient, we are cold, dull, heavy, and oily, resulting in constriction and stagnancy.

One method of working with fire is the intensity within our practice. Intensity is relative to one’s experience with yoga methods. If there is too much fire, one should favor gentler postures and breathing exercises with closed eyes. If there is too little fire, the eyes should remain open, and the postures must present a sufficient challenge. Try to push yourself a bit to the edge of your comfort and consider postures that are more lightening and heating, such as strengthening for the legs, arms, and spine, or kaya mudrās, āsanas linked with breath retentions and a stoking of the inner fire.

Forth, sattva, in combination with rajas, relates to air whose qualities are mobile, dry, light, cold, rough, and subtle. When there is too much air, there is a feeling of nervousness, spaciness, and a generalized dis-ease in one’s circumstances. If there is too little air, one becomes static, oily, heavy, hot, and slimy, resulting in an inability to act and a generalized feeling of melancholy that spreads throughout one’s life.

One method of working with air is breath work, which can be adapted to whether there is too little or too much air element. Stoking and quick breathing exercises can increase the air element and create a sense of lightness and clarity. Breathing exercises that are more deep and slow, perhaps with slight constriction of the throat, and emphasizing exhalation calms the nervous system and deemphasizes the air element.

Finally, sattva relates to ether, whose qualities are clear, light, subtle, soft, and expansive. Too much ether heightens one’s sense perceptions, especially that of hearing, and much like the air element can impart a general feeling of dysphoria. If there is too little ether, one is cloudy, heavy, hard, and constricted, creating melancholy and confusion.

Methods of working with ether are mudrās (gestures done with the face, hands, or whole body), mantra recitation, and meditation. If there is too much ether, mantras should be done with a low tone that reaches down into the belly, mudrās should be done with the intention of grounding, and meditation should be on physical objects. If there is too little ether, mantras can elevate to a tone that emanates from the heart and take the form of seed sounds that send energy up to the throat and head, mudrās can be of any kind, and meditation can be empty of objects or focus at the heart or forehead.

In Āyurveda, there is a term prajñāparādha which is a combination of two words: prajñā + aparādha, primal wisdom + crime or offense. The term denotes a crime against primal wisdom. It references one’s choice to engage in activities that conform to or heighten their current state of being, pushing themselves out of balance. An example is when a person with an excess of fire practices intense postures or breathing exercises in a hot environment or when a person experiencing an excess of air practices forceful breathing exercises that increase their predisposition to lightness and mobility.

Everyone deals with a combination of these elements on any given day, either in excess, deficiency, or balance. Practicing these methods, from posture to flowing movements, steadily increasing intensity, working into the breath, and finally coming to more subtle practices of mudrās, mantras, and meditation, will have an incredible impact. Regarding our previous article on the Maṇḍala Practice, this sequence is repeated six times within a 90 min to three-hour class. The result is a complete abiding within the self, a return to one’s divine nature as serene and limitless.

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