Over twenty years ago I walked into my first Ashtanga yoga class, a fairly stressed-out, exhausted, toxic, and depressed individual. An hour and a half later, I walked out, feeling relaxed, energized, happy, and cleansed from the inside out. Ever since that first class I’ve been fascinated by this transformative power of the practice, what I call the alchemy of Ashtanga yoga.
The word alchemy evokes an image of a medieval conjurer murmuring incantations over a boiling cauldron, attempting to turn lead into gold. In a broader sense, alchemy refers to the process of transmuting one thing into another through the kindling of a vital transformative energy, known as Mercurius in the alchemical tradition. Turning lead into gold is a metaphor for the liberation of spirit from matter, which is the primary goal of both alchemy and yoga.
Nataraja, the King of Dancers, beautifully symbolizes the alchemy of Ashtanga yoga. Natarajas dance activates dormant vital energy (kundalini shakti) and becomes an act of both creation, symbolized by the upper right hand holding a drum, and destruction, represented by the flame held by the upper left hand. The lower right hand makes abhaya mudra, bestowing peace and protection. The second left hand points downward to the uplifted left foot, signifying release. The right foot, planted on the prostrate body of Apasmara Purusha, the demon of forgetfulness, symbolizes human ignorance of our divine nature. A ring of flames and light arises from and surrounds the dancer, representing the purifying power of the dance. Natarajas face, meanwhile, remains calm, quietly witnessing the tremendous display of his own energy with just the hint of a smile.
The first sutra of the second chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (tapaha swadhyaya ishwara pranidhanani kriya yogaha) is a recipe for alchemy on three levels physical, mental, and spiritual. This sutra describes three actions which are demonstrated by Nataraja. Tapas, literally to burn, is physical alchemy. It relates to purification in general and particularly in the practice of asana. In the figure of Nataraja, tapas is indicated by the ring of flames and the dance itself that generates the fire. Traditionally tapas is likened to the refining of gold. The gold ore is transformed from solid to liquid by heat, so the impurities can be strained off.
In the Ashtanga yoga system, asana practice begins with Suryanamaskara (Sun Salutation), which generates enough heat to transform the body into a more liquid state. The body softens and begins to sweat. Perspiration strains out the bodys impurities. The sequential movements of Suryanamaskara form the basic vinyasa, or dancelike movements that link one posture to the next breath and body moving together to liberate dormant energy and feed the fire of tapas.
Amidst the activity of asana practice, which can be thought of as a metaphor for the varied situations we encounter in life, we must develop swadhyaya, or self-observation. This is mental alchemy. Swadhyaya involves a process of acquiring self-knowledge through the ability to witness ourselves clearly and dispassionately in all situations. Swadhyaya is represented by Natarajas face, calmly witnessing the whirling dance. In the practice of Ashtanga yoga, there are three basic techniques for developing this clear and dispassionate state of mind: observation of breath, posture, and gaze. The focused attention moves the mind from distraction to attention, so we see ourselves more clearly. This practice develops our capacity for swadhyaya in other situations as well.
Ishwara pranidhana, literally bowing to God, refers to spiritual alchemy. When we transcend ego identification long enough to discover that the divine creative power of the universe is present within our own being, we are filled with joy and reverence. Our natural impulse when this happens is to give thanks. This expression of gratitude and humility becomes the doorway for divine grace to enter our lives. In the figure of Nataraja, ishwara pranidhana is indicated by the lower left hand pointing to the uplifted left foot. The message implied is that liberation can be gained by placing our devotion at the feet of God.
Traditionally, the guru is the intermediary between the student and the Divine. In Ashtanga yoga, the prayer chanted before practice begins, Vande Gurunam Charanaravinde (I bow to the lotus feet of my teacher). The expression of gratitude and humility is a prerequisite for spiritual alchemy. By touching the feet of the guru we touch the feet of God.
I recall my own first experience of this act when I met Pattabhi Jois in 1978. For several days I watched students touching Guruji’s feet after class. (The gurus feet are considered to be the repository of his shakti, or divine energy. By touching his feet the student is said to receive shaktipat, a transmission of that divine energy.) Like most Westerners, I had major resistance to doing this myself. Finally one day I touched Guruji’s feet. Immediately I was overwhelmed with emotion. Looking up into Guruji’s face, my eyes filling with tears, I saw pure love radiating from his eyes and I felt a deep sense of gratitude. Guruji smiled and touched my shoulders as a blessing. For me it was a profoundly liberating experience.
As Pattabhi Jois says, however, God is the only guru. Our true purpose in yoga is to awaken the guru within. This is what the alchemical tradition refers to as turning lead into gold.