This week in class we have been talking about asana. Asana means yoga posture, and although it seems that asana IS yoga, it is only one piece of the story...
Asana makes up the third limb of Patanjali's 8 Limbs of Yoga ( Ashtanga yoga). If we were looking at it from that book - asana simply means to be grounded in presence, stable, and at ease. There is a sutra given, Sthira Sukam Asanam which has been translated as "the posture (asana) [should be] stable (sthira) and comfortable (sukha). Apart from this instruction, there is not a whole lot of attention to what the postures are, their correct alignments, or even mention of their Sanskrit names in Patajanli's book. There are records of yoga postures being practiced, but most of them were the poses to assume meditation. This was actually the entire purpose of yoga to Patanjali himself, attaining samadhi or that enlightened state, not to attain a headstand, a toned booty, or flexible hamstrings.
The yoga postures started to be discussed further in future books such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Yoga Upanishads, Gheranda Samhita, Goraksha Samhita, and many more that followed. These are the texts in which we derive many of the asanas we know today, but things evolve with time and new poses are added to the repetuar as yoga weaves its way into modern culture and society.
One point all of these ancients texts have in common is that asana is merely a vehicle that we yogis use to deliver us to our final destination - that supreme sense of inner peace
(Samadhi). However, I feel that what I observe from much of the way modern yoga is practiced is that these yoga postures are used often solely as a means to themselves. The spiritual makeup up the pose is diluted with the vanity of achieving something in the physical body primarily. Just search yoga on YouTube and you will get many search results of classes described as 'yoga for abs, full-body yoga workout, yoga burn, etc etc.. and hey, I am not judging. There was a time when I was also using those yoga burn classes to help me keep in shape and I was definitely drawn to yoga for its body toning effects. This is also a vehicle to get us started, a nice way to draw us in, and once we are here, we start to uncover that these shapes we are creating can bring us so much more.
All we have to remember is that asana is the container. It is the outer shape we are creating that holds the inner experience. What we should be striving for in asana isn't the most aesthetically pleasing shape, but the one that creates, as Patanjali says, a stable base from where we can experience peace. Is that realistic all the time? Probably not. If attaining peace and stability in ourselves was easy, why would we need to practice it? It is something that we have to commit to finding, do the preparation, and sometimes put in the hard work, but it is through these efforts that we can eventually reap the sweet reward yoga brings.
I think we get lost and overly focused on what the physical body is doing when we forget the initial intention of the practice. It is most definitely true that we need some basic structure and understanding of the shapes we are making to make them safe. We have to apply certain muscles to make them stable and we follow certain general rules of alignment to make space in the body. In order to sit in meditation for a long period of time, we have to cultivate a certain amount of mobility and flexibility in the hips and release the spine of the bad postural habits we adopt from our sedentry lifestyles. All of this can be done through our yoga sequencing, but we must continue to ask ourselves what is our intention here? What is the purpose of our practice? Is being flexible enough to do the splits going to make life easier and more peaceful for us? Or is being free from discomfort in the body, free from the discomfort of the mind actually going to bring us closer to ease? I have yet to meet anyone who became enlightened once they were able to get their head closer to their knees in a forward fold.
This brings me to my next point. I also believe that we may wrongly idolise those original images of what the yoga postures 'should' look like, as if the shapes posses some sort of magical power if achieved precisely as the ancient yogis did. Well, the ancient yogis didn't sit in a chair most of their day. In fact, I would bet they didn't sit in chairs at all. The climate in India is warmer. Aren't your joints and muscles looser in warmer weather, too? The fact is, these postures were shapes made up by probably already flexible people. Of course their discipline and committed practice also made for some pretty amazing physical displays, like a gymnast who trains their entire life for the Olympics, but there also could just be a different starting point. Did you know that some people are just born more flexible than others? It's true! Sometimes, people have hypermobility in their joints making their bodies bend and flex to sometimes even extreme limits. So a pose where you put your leg behind your head is easy for these folks, touching the floor with straight legs, no problem. Is this what we are aspiring too? I would hope not.
I often say in my class to ease those who may be feeling inadequate in their flexibility, especially if their mat is next to a graceful ballerina esc yogi, that flexibility isn't as great as it's cracked up to be. Infact, for the very flexible, this 'gift' can be more of a curse if anything. Those who are hypermobile, or naturally very flexible, are more prone to injury, destabilisation of joints, i.e that shoulder that pops out all the time, and chronic pain. The reason is that they have too much mobility in the joints, and not enough strength ( usually ) for stability. There is a general rule in anatomy that the more mobile a joint is, the less stable it is, and vice versa. For instance, the shoulder is a very mobile joint. It has a wide range of movement, but due to this, there is less stability. We don't often weight bear on the shoulders, unless you are intentionally doing so like in plank pose, so the joint was designed to be more about movement than support and strength. On the other hand, the sacro illiac joint at the back of your pelvis is designed to have very very little mobility but there is a whole lot of stability. This is the case because this joint transfer the entire weight of the upper body to the lower body. It needs to be stable. If you have ever been unfortunate to have a more mobile sacral illiac joint, you know that that mobility can cause alot of discomfort. When the focus leans too much to creating flexibility we can loose the attention to stability and cause more problems for ourselves. Balance is truly the key to life, not to loose, not too tight - somewhere in the middle is just right.
Going back to the top, Sthira Sukam Asanam, tells us that what we should be looking for from the shape we are making is that it is bringing us to a place of stability, groundedness, ease and peace, not to just replicate something we have seen in a book or on Instagram - unless of course, this does infact brings us to this place.
The question I would like to pose from this sutra is; does stability lead to the peace, or does peace lead us to the stability, or do they need to be cultivated together, effort and ease? We recently explored this in class. I started by sharing the phrase "peace through strength" which is a common phrase used in the military. It implies that peace can only be gained through power/ control/ force / compliance. Now, judging from the militaries track record of trying to 'force' peace in certain parts of the world, I don't feel confident in this approach. What if we instead focused on "strength through peace"? There have been many extraordinary movements and great leaders in the world who have made big changes through developing peace and harmony first, then negotiating and gaining respect and cooperation. Taking this onto the mat - what works best for you in a pose? To 'force' your way in with as much effort as possible, then hope to find peace through the hard work? Or does starting off connecting to a place of ease, comfort and peace allow more sense of stability, of feeling more grounded, of feeling more willingness from the body?
As you can see, there is so much to think about when we are making these shapes with our bodies. invite you to explore these concepts in your practice, and indeed in your life. How can you create a more stable, grounded and peaceful seat within yourself both on and off the mat?
Thank you for reading 🙏