The High Purpose of Asana

I think we can all agree that yoga, these days, appears a little absurd.

People carry their mats in stylish little bags and spend most of their day in pants especially designed to enhance your down dog. Great! May all our down dogs be so happy for the assistance.

Now what do those pants offer my mind? Or my heart?

The deeper practices of yoga intend to take any of us who are willing into an experience of bliss. What does that mean, actually? A quiet mind. In the stillness, your Self. The capital S indicates its importance. It’s your true nature. The resident of your heart. The eternal you that is not confined to your body or ego. The you that realizes how to move beyond suffering. It’s a spiritual thing, for sure. It’s the science of Self-realization. We are the scientists of ourselves. We use the system, experience its effects and consider the results. No one can experience it for us. And no one can tell us, really, what our bliss will be. Not your teacher. Not your mate. We can only study ourselves and find out. That’s the dance.

A neat thing about the dance is the variety of steps for your particular rhythm. You can plop down and meditate until you know the choreography, but this isn’t completely feasible for folks who have to work to pay rent and may also have some back pain. You can study the old texts a ton but the shoulder tension could distract you from that ultimate realization. Who knows?

Which is why yoga is a system. It’s got a bunch of options available to you as you progress in your practice. It also has a variety of tools to aid in the progression. And to help you understand how you should practice, Patanjali kindly offered eight steps to guide you: yama niyama asana pranayama pratyahara dharana dhyana samadhayo ‘stav agani. The eight limbs of yoga are social and personal conduct, posture, breath control, withdrawal of the senses, concentration, meditation and absorption.

Oh my gosh! Asana is in there! Long live yoga pants; long live my down dog!

In the West, most people equate yoga with asana. If people learn I’m a yoga teacher, they want to know my favorite pose. (Savasana. Duh.) To most, yoga means a form of exercise. Or, gentle yoga means a form of stretching. Or, restorative yoga means a form of napping. And, more recently, yoga therapy means a form of rehabilitation. All fine. Each of these forms are good and helpful. But there’s so much more. Taking asana to be the whole world of yoga is to take the spot where you currently sit as the whole world. Please don’t limit yourself.

Asana is just a fraction of a greater system. And the system is more vast than even Patanjali’s simplified rubric. Still, asana absolutely is part of the dance. Here’s why.

The practice of various poses will help you figure out the physical and energetic disturbances that keep your mind hurtling at mach speed. The appropriate practice of asana will balance your energy, so you can learn to settle your mind. It may be that your body requires physical purification. Certain asana, done in certain ways, are very effective for this. It may also be that your body requires greater strength to sit still. Certain asana are effective for this as well. In coordination with the asana, we also should learn to regulate our breath. This sort of integration of appropriate asana and pranayama gets us moving toward a greater understanding of our energy (and how to work with it) and how to start focusing our minds.

Another lovely aspect to asana is the familiarity it will give you with the temple housing your soul. Your body isn’t going to live forever. I’m sorry if I’m the first one to tell you. It also isn’t redeemable for a trade-in. The one you have in this life is the one you have to work with. You can look around these days and see a ton of variations on the theme of body-neglect. Folks in pain. Folks eating crap. Sedentary folks who don’t want to make the effort to let their bodies move through space. Highly active folks who don’t want to make the effort to let their bodies rest. So many people have forgotten how to be friendly and loyal to their bodies. They care more for their pets. (The reason we love down dogs so dearly?)

An appropriate asana practice can help you start to pay attention to what your body needs. That lovely body of yours is constantly sending you signals. You may be familiar with those for hunger and those for ouch. Listening in more carefully, you can hear it ask more specifically. It may ask for sunlight or a siesta. Touch or a banana. Protein or the feel of dirt under your toes. The body knows what it wants. It’s amazing how often we fail to give our bodies what they want. How we fail to provide an appropriate offering to the temple.

Finally, an appropriate asana practice is a kick in the pants for self-discipline. It’s a thing these days: we prioritize everyone and everything but ourselves. Some people even hold this habit up as an achievement. Well, it ain’t gonna get you on the shortlist for sainthood. Just suffering.

Having a short sequence of postures to do in the morning or evening will help us learn to create space and time for ourselves amidst the noise. Even to realize that the noise is not all that noisy when we learn to integrate it properly.

So. Asana. Purposeful. But not everything. Pants or no pants.

Final note: I’ve mentioned several times the word ‘appropriate.’ Yeah. Intentional. If you’d like to know more about what’s appropriate, contact me. And if you’re shy, just think about this: would you expect a 30-year old marathon runner to do the same series of movements as a 70-year with a recent hip transplant? Do you think a new mother, post-Caesarean, with barely a moment needs the same movement patterns as a 45-year old dude who works in a cubicle all day and drinks beer all night? Good. Now send me a note and let’s talk.

I love you and your yoga pants.

 

 

One Comment on “The High Purpose of Asana

  1. Very enlightening. This sure woke me up. It’s my first night in Europe and I finally had a chance to really read this. I can admit to myself that I’ve taken my practice the last six months for granted.. Maybe longer. Who knows. The important part this brought my mind back home. I look forward to working with you again

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