All I remember of my first
asana (posture) class is the ceiling. Between movements we would be instructed
to lie down on our mat and rest. I do not remember very much about what
we did, but I do remember I wanted more. The next morning at home I practiced
what I did remember; I was hooked and asana became a central part of my
What drew me to the practice of asana was an intuitive feeling that these
movements were not just “stretching”; they seemed to have some greater
connection with my soul. It was only later after years of training that
I began to learn the deep symbolism each asana represents. I now believe
that each asana
represents an aspect of myself and as such offers me a powerful doorway
inward. Thus for many people the practice of asana can become more than
a physical act; it can be a form of moving meditation.
The word “asana” is Sanskrit and is actually the plural form; the correct
word for one pose is “asan”. However in English we tend to use “asana”
as singular and “asanas” as plural even though this word does not exist
in Sanskrit. Whichever word we use, asana are virtually as ancient as civilization
itself. In fact, there are carvings dated from 3000 BCE which show figures
sitting in the lotus
pose.(1) It is sometimes reported that
each asana was created or “emerged” when a “rishi” or “wise forest dweller”
spontaneously moved into an asana during deep meditation. Asana both reflect
and are named for animals and objects as well as being named after sages
from the Hindu tradition. Instructions for the practice of specific asana
can be found in such ancient Indian source books such as the Siva Samhita
and the Gheranda Samhita as well as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
Paradoxically, in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, generally considered the
most well-known source book on the wider practice of yoga, no specifics
of practice are given and asana is only mentioned in three verses, chapter
II v. 29, v. 46 and v 47. Patanjali presents asana as the third step
or rung in his ladder of practice after the ethical precepts (yama) and
prescribed practices (niyama), and apparently
expects the disciple to explore more about asana on his/her own. More interesting
to me than specific practice techniques however, are two other ideas about
asana. First, that asana is both a spiritual practice all its own and secondly,
that the practice of asana can beneficially effect our relationship to
living a spiritual life in the modern world, far from the protected ashrams
and retreats of ancient India.
In our Western culture of the late twentieth century asana has taken on
a different face from what Patanjali would probably recognize. As asana
practice has become more known and accepted it has permeated many corners
of society. Yoga asana can be seen in the slickest fashion magazines as
well as in popular health magazines, and the media quickly informs us which
movie stars are now practicing
yoga. Asana has become a popular form of exercise for those suffering from
over-doing strenuous physical fitness techniques. Asana is therefore being
used as a palliative and therapeutic for physical injury.
Traditionally many teachers have taught that the main value of asana is
to prepare the body for meditation by creating a strong back and supple
legs so that the disciple can sit still for long periods of time. From
this teaching comes the belief that asanas are “lower” or not as “spiritual”
as meditation. But I feel the practice of asana has an even greater potential
in the West. We may be captured at first by the lure of flexibility and
strength, but we stay for another reason. Scientists are continuing to
“discover” the pathways of connection between mind and body; in fact, some
even say there is virtually no separation. (2)
Yogis were aware, I believe, of this connection thousands of years ago
and the asanas honor this connection. When we practice asana we honor that
connection as well. But in the end we stay with the practice of yoga asana
because it is a powerful non-verbal expression of the sacred. And practicing
and living the sacred part of life is often sadly lacking for many people
in the West today.
The expression of this sacredness has to do with the nature of asana practice
itself. No matter how many times one has practiced a certain asana, when
it is practiced now it is absolutely new. When one practices an asana that
particular asana has never been practiced before; each asana is absolutely
of this moment. Thus the practice of asana is a living artistic creation
that has never existed before
and will never exist again, just as this moment is fresh. When we practice
asana we have a chance to become present in this very moment. When
we practice asana we have the chance to bring our attention to here and
now, to the sensations and awareness we are feeling. We can observe our
reaction, both positive and negative, to the pose; we can observe the sensations
of ease and difficulty that arise as we stretch and bend. This is what
meditation is, the consistent willingness to be in the here and now without
being lost in our thoughts about the here and now.
The practice of asana, and especially savasana or corpse pose, is meditative.
It can be the doorway to deeper states of meditation and gives the student
the most important gift that can be given. This gift is called dis- identification.
In Chapter I of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali discusses the false identification
of thoughts and Self. He teaches that this false identification is at the
root of all misery. He further teaches that the practices of yoga are about
dissolving this false identification. The great gift of savasana, for example,
is that the student can begin to separate from his/her thoughts. As one
moves more deeply through relaxation one begins to enter another state
in which thought is experienced a surface phenomenon. Then one can begin
to experience a little space between the thought and what is perceived
as Self. One teacher has said, “The problem with our thoughts is that we
believe them.” The problem with believing our thoughts is that we then
act from them in a way that can cause suffering in ourselves and others.
When a little space is experienced between one’s thoughts and the consciousness
which is the background for thought, then thought does not have the same
power. Thus with this dis-identification comes choice. When one dis-identifies
with the thought one can chose to act from that thought or not; it no longer
has as much power to control.
When one can act from choice this leads to freedom. The gift of beginning
to understand the process of dis-identification is arguably the most powerful
gift there is to receive. Another immediate gift that one can gain
from asana has to do with the contrast between movement and stillness that
each asana represents. In verse 46 Patanjali defines asana by writing,
“Staying with ease is asana”. This means that asana has two main components.
First, an asana is about staying still.
word that Patanjali uses is translated as “abiding”. It is ironic that
most people think of asana as the “movements” of yoga when actually asana
represents the ability of the practitioner to stay still. And this staying
still is a powerful practice. When one learns to hold the pose one learns
to let the stillness
of the body become a backdrop for the constant movement of the mind.
This art of consciously staying still begins to teach the art of meditation.
To explain further, during normal waking time, we tend to move the body
around; we rarely sit still. I can remember the torture of my early years
at school. I abhorred sitting still in my desk for hours at a time. Because
we are normally moving our body around the movements of the mind are not
so apparent. But when we learn to hold the pose and remain still, suddenly
we notice clearly how agitated
the mind is. This “noticing” is at the heart of a meditation practice.
When we notice something we then have choice, we have the choice to continue
with that agitation or not. The second point that Patanjali makes about
the definition of asana is that not only is it about being still but it
has another. Patanjali teaches us that in order for a position to be an
asana we must abide there with “sukham”, or ease. This is the most challenging
of ideas. It is usually true for most of us that when we move into an asana
we are at first most aware of the difficulty, the tightness and even the
resistance we are feeling at that moment. It is rare that we have a sense
of ease. So what can Patanjali mean by the use of the word “ease: in relationship
to asana? One way I have come to interpret this “ease” has to do
with my willingness to be in the pose. The ease then comes in my interpretation
of the difficulty, not in the difficulty itself. In other words, the pose
can continue to stretch and challenge me; perhaps that will never change.
But I can become “easeful” in my interpretation of that difficulty. I can
choose to remain present and allow the difficulty to be there without fighting
it, reacting to it or trying to change it.
The wider practice of yoga is not about arranging our life so that it is
perfect and easy and non-challenging. Rather it is about using the discipline
we find in asana practice (and in the other practices of yoga as well)
to be able to remain “easy” in the midst of difficulty. That is the true
measure of freedom. When we learn this then everything we do and everything
we say becomes an“asana”, a position of body, mind and soul which requires
the attention that brings us into the present.
(1) Barbara Stoler Miller. Yoga: Discipline of Freedom. New York City,
New York: Bantam Books, 1995. Page 8 back
New York Times. “Complex and Hidden Brain in the Gut Makes Cramps, Butterflies
and Valium”. January 23, 1996. Page B-5 and B-10. back