16 Nov Asana (postures)
This piece was originally published in the OWY newsletter in December of 2013.
Previously I touched on the final niyama, ishvara pranidhana (non-attachment to the benefits of our actions). As a quick review the 8 limbs of yoga are:
- Yamas (external restraints)
- Niyamas (internal observances)
- Asana (postures)
- Pranayama (breath control)
- Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)
- Dharana (concentration)
- Dhyana (meditation)
- Samadhi (absorption)
Ah, asana. The public face of yoga. Most people I’ve encountered who are not familiar with yoga, think the postures are yoga in it’s entirety. It’s why when you suggest practicing yoga to people an answer you often hear is “I’m not very flexible.”
Asana is a deep topic with opinions all over the scale of styles and levels of importance. For some asana is yoga, for others asana isn’t a large part at all. For traditions like Kriya yoga of the Paramahansa Yogananda lineage asana (sometimes referred to as hatha yoga) is not a necessity to the practice. Meditation and cultivating higher levels of consciousness are the emphasis. I lean towards the latter coming into yoga through the back alley of meditation. I say that because most people seem to come to yoga as a form of exercise.
I found it interesting to learn that asana originally referred to the actual ground or seat that yogis sat on to meditate. The first postures referred to as asanas were all variations on seated poses. It isn’t certain when or how the postures we know today as asanas first came about. The Hatha Yoga Padipika (written in the 15th century CE) is one of the first classic texts which includes some poses that weren’t just seated.
Personally I have a love/hate relationship with asana. I remember when I was studying tai chi with my teacher, he always commented on how tense my muscles were. He liked to punch my arms and back to help break things up and, if I remember correctly, he or someone else made a passing suggestion of yoga at one point. My concept of yoga at the time was that it was a nice exercise for flexible people (sound familiar?), thus why mostly women practiced it. All I knew of the practice was from what I saw in various media, and that is dominated by women in pretzel poses, wrapped up in knots or bent backwards far enough for their feet to touch their head.
Over time I had started seeking out various forms of meditation, looking for something that clicked for me. I devoured free guided meditation podcasts, purchased guided meditation MP3s, bought books on Zen, and eventually came across a couple teachers who taught meditation techniques said to be from yoga. I had no idea yoga had anything to do with meditation. Or if it did meditation was simply used to master the mind to force the body into extreme postures. As I continued on I decided I would like to become a meditation teacher, which in turn led me to a yoga practice that included asana.
I love the stretching, strengthening, and opening of my body I receive from asana practice. I am not that flexible, having never been a person who stretches much and having spent over a decade at a desk for most of each day, so I don’t have an advanced posture practice (according to what more advanced asana practitioners would define it). Though my flexibility has increased over time I honestly don’t think I’ll ever strive for wrapping my legs around my head. A well-rounded yoga practice has helped bring me to a point where not only am I working on my mind and emotions, which have always been my focus, but more aware of my body and what the effects of my choices are on it.
My hate relationship with asana is that it is what is constantly presented as what yoga is. Browse bios on web pages of yoga teachers and you’ll see pictures of them in advanced poses right next to a statement that yoga is not just for the flexible, it’s for everybody (or every body). A bit of a mixed message to say the least. I understand the difficulty of explaining the aspects of yoga that aren’t as easily shown as the postures, I just think it would be an improvement to cut down on how much of the public image has to do with poses most people can’t get in.
I do love that yoga is so deep and varied. If you want to concentrate on the physical, mental, or emotional practices it is all there for you to choose. But the public facing persona of yoga is the physical practice for very flexible people. And there are yoga teachers out there who are very excited to show how much they can bend their body. Not that I think those that can should not for the sake of other people, but that it can reach the extreme of “hey, look what I can do”.
For me asana is about learning to connect and be more aware of my body as my vehicle through this life. It’s about being able to have my body in a state that allows me to be comfortable as I constantly take deeper steps in the remainder of the practices of yoga. I view yoga not as something I do to show the world my accomplishments in poses, but something I do so my worldly accomplishments can be about something more than myself.
So what is asana to you? Is yoga simply your preferred form of physical exercise? How deep is your asana practice? Does your physical practice entail something else entirely (maybe you do tai chi, qigong, cross fit, etc.)?
Continue with Pranayama.