For most of us today, the third limb of yoga, asana – the poses or postures – is the essence of the practice. Asana is borne of down dogs, alignments, up dogs, chaturangas, warriors, twists, and trikonasanas. To most practitioners over the centuries, though, it’s not. And this is where the discussion really gets interesting. Instead of debating the benefits of kundalini vs. yin yoga, or trying to figure out where our heels should be for perfect warrior II, a better question might be, “Why do we do asana at all?” And even better, “Why do we think this is yoga?”
In the last series, some very clever people weighed in about the evolution of yoga, and how it had to morph itself into somewhat of a different beast, to assimilate, as it were, into the Western world. If you read Patanjali’s Sutras, though, there’ s not much discussion of asana, and certainly not much about specific poses. DevarshiSteven Hartman, who’s Dean of the Pranotthan School of Yoga and the former head of Kripalu’s School of Yoga, points out, “in the Bhagavad Gita and the Sutras, it says there are as many poses as there are manifestations of god. It sort of makes you go ‘Hmm. What’s yoga then?’ These texts don’t talk about poses or alignments. But there’s an awful lot about how to BE in a pose. And this is more to the heart of yoga.”
So why do we hang on the idea that yoga is physical, or that asana is yoga? Glenn Black, who’s taught for over 30 years at Omega Institute, was featured in the much debated New York Times article “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,” and has seen, in decades-worth of students, how yoga can, actually, wreck your body. Part of the problem, he says, is that Westerners are simply not prepared – in body or in mind – for practicing yoga, and certainly not for the rigors of the physical practice that today we call yoga. He points out that the practice we think of as yoga is really quite young, and it’s certainly not part of the millennia-old tradition that originated in India. But, physical risks of yoga aside, he still questions seriously, as hopefully more and more burgeoning yogis are beginning to, the value of a purely physical practice.
“Basically, the asana that’s taught here now is Indian gymnastics,” he says. “Americans who get into yoga are going to have a difficult time, because our bodies were never prepared to do intricate movement. I find that in most Western cultures, we’re so enamored of anything physical. And maybe it’s because of this that we tend to negate the subtler aspects of own bodies and minds. I don’t know why in the West we got so fond of the asanas. I don’t think they allow us to go into regions of ourselves that we really need to explore.”
For him, Hartman, and most of the yogis who have commented along the way, getting in touch with our awareness – some would call it mindfulness – is a step in the right direction. Black also recommends learning from a teacher how to experience yoga nidra, which is a kind of in-between consciousness – a state of deep relaxation, literally translated at yogic sleep. This, for him, is leaps and bounds more useful than asana alone.
Surprisingly, or not surprisingly, Black also recommends that people get away from yoga classes a bit. “Go to nature – a stream or a mountain – and just practice. Find two or three things, and go into them deeply. Otherwise it’s just talk. You have to attain the condition yoga nidra, so that the stress you’ve accumulated will be alleviated, and, more important, new stresses won’t gather back up.” He says one of the big challenges of yoga today is that we may feel great when we practice and shortly afterwards, but the benefits of yoga too often wear off when we find ourselves back in the real world, amongst our everyday stressors, cell phones, and other attachments. Redistributing our time, so that more is spent regularly in yoga nidra or meditation, might make a big difference to our overall mental health.
Hartman agrees that we often make strange assumptions about asana, or ask the wrong questions of it. “The real issue is, what really makes something yoga, if it’s not the asana? And the answer might be, it’s who we’re being in the asana. The physical practice is just one method, just like pranayama, or any of the yamas or niyamas. Many great yogis don’t even do asana; and they’ll be enlightened way before people who do great backbends.”
If this sounds discouraging, it shouldn’t. Like sex or pizza, even a bad yoga class is still pretty good. “Luckily,” says Hartman, “even when done poorly, when the yoga teacher doesn’t do anything but walk around barking commands, students can still gain awareness from the practice. This is the great thing about asana – it still opens the door.
“True alignment is not where toes are,” he continues. “It’s when the consciousness, the body and mind, and awareness are in alignment. That’s what it’s all about. To me, the real yoga is when you create awareness, authenticity. Asana is prayer in motion. That’s where we should be moving.”
None of this is meant to say there isn’t value in asana, but just to remind us that asana is not the centerpiece of yoga – it’s just one piece. Hartman sums it up well: “Awareness is really what makes the difference in yoga. If you’re doing a handstand with no awareness, you’re just an athlete. But the person washing the dishes with awareness – that’s a yogi.”
What are your feelings about asana? Is it the center of your practice, or do other aspects/limbs play a more principal role?
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.