Come to Your Senses
I first learned about rasa from Mohandas Gandhi's grandson, the philosopher Ramachandra Gandhi, while studying at the University of Delhi in India. We were watching an outdoor rehearsal of the Manipuri dance troupe while sipping chai at the Triveni Art Gallery's café. I noticed the way he inhaled the graceful circular dance as if it were a natural form of prana (vital energy). At one point, he stopped talking and took in the movement with utter reverie. Silently, we digested everything that surrounded us—the wind moving through the trees, the liquid concentration pouring through the dancers, the sound of the drum with its increasing tempo, the buzz of conversation, and the smell of the jasmine growing nearby. Ramachandra said something that has lived within me ever since: "When you taste the rasa of life, you drink from a well that is never dry."
Literally translated as "juice, essence, taste, plasma, or transformational state," rasa assumes one of several meanings, depending on its context. From an Ayurvedic perspective, it refers to the concentrated essence of something, such as the sweetness of a mango, but also to the nourishing energy that infuses us with life; it is the enlivened state of a dry plant that has just been watered, or of a person newly relaxed after a massage, or of a yogi after an inspired practice. As Ayurveda teacher Robert Svoboda says, "Existence without juice is dry and tasteless. Rasa is life's fluid reality, life's juice, in every sense of the word."
Awaken to Transformation
The concept of rasa originated in India with performing artists who wanted to create a transformational state for themselves and their audiences. Like the experience Ramachandra and I had with the dance troupe, rasa is the state of complete absorption on the part of both the artist and the audience, or the one who perceives the art form (the rasika). When rasa has been cultivated, the thinking mind quiets and pure feeling pulses through the body.
Most of us have had this experience at one time or another. Maybe it happened when you were a child: the first time a piece of music really grabbed your whole being or a dance performance made you feel as though you were inside the dance. This transformational state of thoughtless awareness is a type of communion between ourselves and that which surrounds us. And it can arise during any of life's activities; we need only to feel unified with our experience—think of an amazing sunset, a rhythmic walk up a hill, or holding your beloved's hand. Rasa occurs when we feel connected to our deepest selves. The Indian philosopher Abhinavagupta describes rasa as "the self tasting the self."
Bhava: The Essential Inner Connection
In order for the rasa state to arise, we must first become aware of our bhava, or "true feeling state," which is thought of as the soil of rasa. Without being true to our feeling state, it's easy to feel as if we're going through the motions of life. A lack of connection is all too common in this fast-paced world; we sometimes find ourselves eating without tasting our food, listening without being truly present, and doing yoga without experiencing the feelings that arise in us.
This happened with my own yoga practice. For years, I worked hard to develop the witness in my mind and observed myself in action, in asanas, and in meditation. I dutifully practiced as I thought Patanjali had advised, with nonattachment to my feeling state in order to still the fluctuations of my mind. I became very good at being present to the range of sensations in my body without reacting emotionally. I was even able to translate these teachings to my life and relationships. But the whole time, I had the sense that something was missing, as if I were standing on the sidelines of my own life. As I persevered through my practice, I felt the joy and creativity—qualities associated with a "juicy" life—drying up. I was unconsciously reinforcing a divide between my mind and my heart.
I now see this tendency in my students too—they desperately want to know how to do yoga and get the poses "right." I see them thinking in earnest about the best way to "not think." By being diligent, they may excel at the physical asanas. But when we lack an inner connection to our feelings, even the sweetest achievement loses its vitality and becomes dull. If we tune in to our inner bhava and harmonize with it in the environment around us, however, we plant the seeds for rasa to emerge.
Sounds great, you're thinking. But how do I make it happen? Let's take the example of a sitar player who applies bhava and rasa to his art. When he sits down to practice or perform, he intentionally cultivates rasa. He begins by harmonizing with the energy of life around him, then he chooses which raga (melodic scale) to perform according to the muhurta (cycle) of the day—the raga he will play at dawn is different from that at sunset or midnight.
He then connects to his own bhava and chooses one of three main rasas used within music, dance, and yoga that reflect the state of being that he'd like to cultivate: vira (heroic, energetic), shanti (peace, tranquility), or sringara (love, union of masculine and feminine).
As the musician plays, he works with his bhava through notes and rhythms to invoke an emotional quality, just as a painter selects different tints of color. He might choose a vira rasa raga to summon courage and inspiration. Like the vira poses of hatha yoga—think Virabhadrasana (Warrior Pose)—vira energy stimulates inner fire, concentration, and potential; the musician in this case would explore challenging combinations of notes or rhythms.
If he's seeking quiet, he'll play a shanti rasa raga with a slower, more meditative rhythm. Like a yoga practice that finishes with Savasana (Corpse Pose), most ragas end in a state of shanti. Finally, if the musician is feeling openhearted, a sringara rasa raga might emerge in the form of ascending and descending melodies, representing the interplay of the lover and the beloved. Yogis might understand sringara rasa by visualizing the breath connecting the base of the spine with the crown of the head.
Just like the sitar player with his music, we can apply the three rasas directly to our yoga practice. When we invoke vira rasa, we commit to exploring the power that lies within us—realizing the power, dignity, and wakefulness that is inherent in all of us. In yoga, vira is activated through sequences that cultivate embodied concentration, sustain power through alignment, and challenge our potential strength, flexibility, and inner presence. Virabhadrasana I, II, and III, arm balances, and standing balances all encourage vira.
Shanti rasa is a conscious cultivation of inner balance, equilibrium, wisdom, and serenity; it is the fruit of living yoga. Establishing and maintaining a steady, even breath and a meditative rhythm throughout the practice is key. Frequent, reflective pauses through postures such as Balasana (Child's Pose), Vajrasana (Thunderbolt Pose), Tadasana (Mountain Pose), and Savasana allow the nervous system to unwind, the fluctuations of the mind to relax, and the internal equilibrium to deepen. But shanti rasa can be applied to all asanas and in life when a relaxed, nonaggressive approach is taken. The asanas associated with shanti rasa are forward bends, hip openers, inversions, and meditation. pPranayama (breathwork) techniques that encourage shanti rasa are Nadi Shodhana Pranayama (alternate-nostril breathing), Sama Vritti Ujjayi Pranayama (Equal Breathing), and Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath) with an emphasis on increasing the exhalation for relaxation.
Sringara rasa is best represented by the archetypal union of male and female, but it can be seen in the union of other opposites as well: sun and moon, stillness and dynamic movement, inhalation and exhalation. It is a cultivation of the heart and sensuality of yoga that helps us feel and generate loving energy toward ourselves, others, and ultimately the Divine. You can invoke sringara rasa during any asana by visualizing the communion of opposite poles of the body. Instead of simply breathing, drink in the breath and allow it to travel from the base of the spine to the heart or to the crown of the head. Another breathwork technique is Viloma Pranayama (Interval Breath), which requires you to inhale and exhale in stages. Chanting can also help lengthen the exhalation and awaken the heart center.
Balance Your Bhava
We all have the ability to cultivate bhava-rasa as a way of connecting to the inherent energy of life. The next time you step on your mat, try experimenting with bhava-rasa. Begin by observing the natural energy of the season, the time of day, the weather, or other influential aspects of the environment around you. Become aware of the current state of your body-mind-heart, your own inner bhava. Without getting lost in the sea of your emotions, simply ask yourself how you feel: lively, agitated, lethargic, stressed, light, grounded, open, distracted, joyous, content?
After getting a sense of the bhava both within and around you, choose how to balance or enhance your energy. Your bhava can inform your choice of rasa—vira, shanti, or sringara—to tap into. The rasa, in turn, will affect your choice of asanas, pranayama, sequencing, lighting in the room, and music to play, all of which will form your own energetic approach to the practice.
Let's say you're going through a period in which you are getting enough sleep but still feel sluggish and heavy. Instead of downing cup after cup of java and struggling through each day, you could recognize this state and work with it directly. For example, you could practice during a bright time of day in a well-lit space, play invigorating music, and wear bright colors. Focus on a cleansing and stimulating pranayama like Kapalabhati Pranayama (Shining Skull Breath) and choose poses and sequences that create circulation. This is a vira approach that awakens the courage to transform your lethargy in a way that is empowering and satisfying—as opposed to pushing yourself into a powerful practice out of a sense of duty. You can take the same balancing approach to other moods. When you are feeling the effects of stress, you might cultivate shanti rasa; when you're feeling emotionally shut down, try developing sringara rasa.
When you understand rasa, your yoga practice can become the field in which to explore the interconnection of thinking, feeling, and action rather than a place to deny your feeling state. Once I started to incorporate rasa into my practice, I placed less importance on what I thought I should do and tuned in to where the juice is. It is now an essential part of my practice and my life. It not only has nourished my love of yoga, it has given me a way to practice throughout all the moments of my day.
Shiva Rea teaches vinyasa flow yoga worldwide. Her studies in the Krishnamacharya lineage, Tantra, Ayurveda, and art infuse her approach to living yoga.