Srivatsa Ramaswami on the Fundamental Intentions of Yoga
In August of 2018, I had the rare opportunity to talk with Srivatsa Ramaswami, long-time student of T. Krishnamacharya and now a well-known and loved teacher in his own right. In addition to translating the book mentioned below, Ramaswami has authored Basic Tenets of Patanjala Yoga, The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga, and Yoga for the Three Stages of Life. Originally from Chennai, India, he has the unique perspective born of 30 years of dedicated, continuous study with his guru.
In a timely discussion, Ramaswami shared his thoughts on yoga teaching and the way yoga therapy is practiced today. Do we miss something essential when we apply yoga as therapy, ending up with at best a sketched outline of the possibilities for reduced suffering?
Following is an excerpt from our conversation. It has been lightly edited for ease of reading. —Laurie Hyland Robertson
Laurie: I’d love to hear about Sri Krishnamacharya’s lesser known ideas about yoga as therapy.
Ramaswami: In one of Krishnamacharya’s books, Nathamuni’s Yoga Rahasya, in the first chapter, he refers to six koshas. The body is called the shatkoshtika sharira— shat means six, kosha means a bag or a sack. Your body is made of six important sacks or bags, organs in the body. Krishnamacharya referred to the six organs slightly differently during my studies with him. Two koshas are there in the thoracic cavity, vaksha sthala. They are the hridaya kosha—hridaya means heart, the heart bag, you see, and actually the heart is contained in a bag, the pericardium. It’s a self-contained unit, a lot of things are happening inside, but it is virtually sealed from its environment.
Likewise, you’ve got another important kosha in this area called the svasa kosha. Svasa means breathing, so the lungs are the breathing bag. Then when you come down, in the abdomen, we’ve got the anna kosha, “food bag,” which is the stomach. Then farther down, in the pelvic area, we’ve got three more koshas. One is known as the mala kosha, the large intestines. They’re also a bag—these are tubular koshas. Then we also have mutra kosha. Mutra is urine, so the mutra kosha is the bladder, also a bag. Then we have the garba kosha. Garba means the fetus, so garba kosha means the fetus bag, or the uterus. These are the six koshas referred to by Krishnamacharya.
Then each one of them maintains a subsystem. The hridaya kosha is responsible for maintaining rakta sanchara. Rakta means blood, sanchara means movement, so this kosha is responsible for maintaining blood circulation all through the body. Then you’ve got the lungs, the svasa kosha, they are responsible for maintaining respiration all through the body. Then we’ve got the anna kosha to digest the food and mala kosha for the elimination process. Then we’ve got the mutra kosha—the urinary system. And then finally we’ve got the garba kosha. These are the six important organs. Each one maintains an important function. One of the views is that yoga specifically targets these six koshas and tries to maintain the health of these organs. Towards that, there are a number of yogic exercises which can be used to specifically target these six important organs. There are certain procedures that are available to work with the heart, some with the lungs, some with the stomach, and some more with the pelvic organs—the uterus and others. That is why we’ve got so many procedures other than asanas in yoga. We’ve got pranayama mainly to take care of the two important organs in the chest—the heart and the lungs. Breathing affects not only the lungs, it also very much affects the heart; modern physiology explains that breathing is responsible for the venous return of the blood. Then we get to the stomach, and there are certain important abdominal exercises that you find in yoga. Then the pelvic organs are there— again, different procedures are available. Krishnamacharya used to stress these a lot. He would say that if you are able to take care of these six important koshas, then you will be able to maintain health for a much, much longer period of time.
Another view he used to express is that the six important koshas have got to maintain their positional integrity. Each one has got a definite position in the body, and the center of these organs should be kept at the same position as far as possible. As we get older, because of postural deficiencies, the muscle tone weakens— the heart loses muscle tone, for example, and the supporting musculature also starts losing muscle tone. Over a period of time, the organs tend to get displaced from their original positions. This phenomenon you find especially with the pelvic organs—prolapse of the uterus, prolapse of the rectum, and all that.
Taking all these factors into consideration, you would say that asanas are good, but not good enough. That is why in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika we don’t have only asanas—the second chapter is completely on pranayama kumbhaka [breath-holding], and the third chapter is completely on various mudras [seals], which help us to access many of the internal koshas. In those ways, we are able to maintain health for a longer period of time. The whole idea is that a yoga practice should not be confined only to asanas, but it should be extended to a fair amount of pranayama practice and also proper use of the mudras. Mudras include even inversions. Inversions are