When I first heard that Birjoo Mehta was going to dedicate a whole conference to working with the elements, I was elated. Along with many others, I am fascinated with the idea of how the element of water, air, earth or fire could augment or deepen my practice. I am equally aware of how the yoga marketplace can create generic templates of these ideas. New teachers seeking the latest popular or “authentic” experience often mimic the words without having the years of practice or the benefit of a good teacher to initiate them through the layers of perception that support the “deep” experience. So I was both excited and interested in how he would introduce this subtle body level of practice.
Birjoo began referring to the third pada of the Yoga Sutras, and said that “when the gross body perceives the form of the gross, it can perceive the subtle. When you have transcended the elements, you will go from the gross to the subtle body.” He dove right into the layering of perception inherent in the Samkhya system, and the backbone of the Yoga Sutras. “When you have transcended the senses, you will have a sense of the self that is not limited to the senses.”
Many yoga practitioners study the first two chapters of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which are rich with techniques to improve one’s general life style and reactivity, but somewhat general on specifics. Few study the “vinyasa,” or step by step process of internal transformation delineated in the third chapter. This is where Birjoo began his explanation of how and why we would work with the elements. But he started with the big picture. I have always admired Birjoo’s ability to put everything into a context that makes sense to me!
When the mind is involved with mundane things, you do not see the mind. When mind is involved with samvritti the mind is calm. Samvritti is awareness of consciousness not moving. – Birjoo’s commentary on Sutra III.9
The third pada begins by explaining the last three of the eight limbs in Ashtanga yoga, considered the internal limbs, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi. Together, these three are called Samvritti. Here Birjoo referred to the mind, how to tame the wild and reckless mind, how to transform a personal myth of identity and separation, the duality of seeing things as separate, into a quiet mental state. These stages and process are called Parinamah, transformation.
The senses overpower our perception, so that we think that everything we experience is what is. But the senses are only one perspective. The Gita and the Sutras say that the purpose of yoga is to conquer the senses, rather than be ruled by the senses. Observing the breath, transcending the breath, observing the mind, transcending the mind, observe consciousness, transcend the consciousness.
It is the senses which are cheating us into feeling that we are what we are. My stomach does not say that it is the stomach, nor the heart, they are part of an eco-system. Similarly, the world is an eco-system, when there is suffering in the transcendent ecosystem, there is unhappiness. When there is a sense of only presence, there is happiness. When something is taken away from us, we are unhappy, there are pieces. – Birjoo
I am reminded of how Guruji would say that our mind is in many pieces and our body is in one piece, like a block. His body is in many pieces, connecting, coordinating, but his mind is absorbed and quiet. He would focus so deeply that he could spread his awareness evenly throughout his body and breath. The fickle mind became steady. For us, the senses are in a constant state of transition, from seeing to feeling to interpreting to judging or reacting, ad infinitum. How do we invoke presence, a steady stream of awareness?
By samyama on the elements – their mass, forms, subtlety, conjunction and purposes, the yogi becomes Lord over them all. – Light on Yoga Sutras – Sutra III.45
Through Samyama upon the purpose of the conjunction of the process of knowing, the ego, and nature, there is mastery over the senses. – Light on Yoga Sutras – Sutra III.48
Birjoo described the attributes or essence of each element, the Tanmatres. It is through their qualities that we will come to understand their inherent nature, their eco system, and how they relate to one another. A wall is hard, he explained, if we hit it with our hand, we recognize sturdy. For the yogi, the quality is a subjective one; it comes from a feeling of the trait. So the hard wall is solid, it is of the earth element. When I am feeling heavy, frozen, unchanging, it is a sentiment, a feeling. Firmness, stability, or sluggishness, this is the earth element.
Water reflects volume, we can balance. When the body is energizing, that is the element of fire. A light, spacious feeling: air. And when you feel space in the joints, that is ether. If the space becomes narrow, the ether trait is absent, and when it is broad, ether is present. – Birjoo
Through our practice we are familiar with the feeling of hugging a muscle to the bone, or gripping the bone. Akin to submerging a jar in a container of water, the water will touch the jar equally everywhere. We are to hug the muscle to the bone equally, back, front, and on the sides. When the container of water is tipped, the water will maintain its level with gravity, it always finds balance. So we should with the water element.
To illustrate the earth and water element, we began in Adho Mukha Svanasana. When the heels make contact with the ground, the pose is much more stable. If our heels could not touch, Birjoo encouraged us to place support beneath them. The bones are of the element of earth. The muscles would then envelope the bones, hug them, hold them. It is interesting to note a singular instruction in Light on Yoga for Tadasana, to lift the back thighs. Generally, we think of the hamstrings as flexing the leg, they are not really an effective part of a straight leg. By hugging the muscle to the bone, contracting/lifting the back thigh, it pulls the bone into the center of the thigh, akin to the jar in water. We can do the same thing with the arms in standing poses, even if they are not in contact with the ground. Make them firm, extend through the finger joints, the bones, Birjoo said. The muscles followed suit.
Birjoo worked quite extensively with the fire element. Reminding us that the Samana Vayu abides in the abdominal area and is responsible for stoking the internal flame, Birjoo guided us through a coordination of instructions based on using the breath, the abdomen and the thoracic spine. Over time I am sure that these instructions will surface for you in some class or workshop. It is not my intention to “teach” what Birjoo presented, rather to introduce the foundation. There is no substitute to working with a good teacher!
Fire does not have a shape, it spreads. It does not spread uniformly. Consciousness will come here and there, unconnected. When things are going slowly, you need a spark. Sometimes, we might say that we are sluggish, but the attributes of the element of fire can ignite you, so you invoke the fire. – Birjoo
Fire can make the nerves “scratchy”, Birjoo said. As it is indiscriminate, it needs to be contained by the element of air. To snuff out a candle flame we remove the oxygen with a lid, or candle snuffer. We would not want to bring a hot element into the brain. He proceeded to guide us to the shoulders, the armpit and back shoulder area. You make a clamp of the armpits to contain the fire, the back shoulders move to the front and the front to the back. This instruction felt like a clamp, simple, firm, effective.
The element of ether creates equanimity, non-attachment, Birjoo said. By broadening the collarbones, the outermost corner of the collarbones, I felt a depth and quietness in my throat I rarely feel. Sirsasana felt completely different with this single instruction. In fact, one beauty of Birjoo’s teaching was the simplicity of presentation. This shift of emphasis felt like a domino effect, each element built upon and was integrated into each other quality.
By self-control on the changes that the sense-organs endure when contacting objects, and on the power of the sense of identity, and of the influence of the attributes, and the experience all these produce- one masters the senses. – Light on Yoga Sutras – Sutra III.46
In pranayama, Birjoo reminded us that the chest must remain undisturbed. Samvritta is the awareness of consciousness not moving. The impressions fed to us by the sense organs will give rise to thoughts, vrittis. When there is a reduction of these impressions, the mind becomes clear.
Children are the same, babies, they are universal, as we grow we build personality, character, attributes, arising, what makes me and you different. The water freezes, the mind and ego build. With practice, diffusing consciousness, we become universal again, water transforms to steam, which permeates everywhere. When all the elements are balanced, we are submerged in the water, the water outside the bottle and the water inside the bottle are the same, and consciousness is the same everywhere. When you are completely balanced, you will expand to become the ocean. – Birjoo
There is so much more to say, but I have probably saturated you enough for one post! Many students and teachers attended the conference, and we will each represent this material through our own lens. Another post will follow soon. Much love, practice, and share!