For most of us, the fundamental supposition of modern posture practice is that what we’re doing is more than just exercise or physical therapy, that it is something deeply meaningful and perhaps spiritual. I know when I practice, I’m a better person because of it. But what exactly is going on? To help organize my thoughts, I’ve turned again to the books on my shelf to discover what other teachers and scholars have to say about it. This is an admittedly limited and biased towards the modern survey, but a beginning into insight.
Asana hasn’t always been asana as we know it. Richard Rosen explains:
Asana literally means ‘seat’ or ‘stool,’ derived from the verb as, ‘to sit.’ It’s really a relic of distant past (at least twenty-five hundred years ago) when an asana wasn’t a pose at all but a platform or ‘steady seat’ (sthiram asanam) where the yogi sat to meditate (Rosen, p. 69).
Rosen goes on to detail the different traditions of asana as meditative seat, sometimes involving tiger skins, as instructed in the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and the Yoga Upanishads and how the physical and psychological principles of alignment for this type of asana eventually influenced modern teachers’ approach to alignment in postural yoga (in particular the upright spine, and balance of effort and ease) and the types of poses we practice today, which are quite different than the past.
Georg Feurstein, in The Yoga Tradition, references the deviation from the historical definition of asana by explaining that for Patanjali, â€œposture is essentially the immobilization of the body. The profusion of postures for therapeutic purposes belongs to a later phase in the history of Yoga (Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition, p. 248). There is an interesting if confusing history of hatha yoga and the potential development of our modern poses out of that realm, but I feel the yoga practice I teach and practice is more modern than ancient (you won’t see me instructing people to swallow rags), so I’m interested in contemporary viewpoints while recognising there is much more to explore.
Asana, as we now practice it, must be regarded through a partially modern lens to make sense of it, as its definition has expanded and through the process lost some of its clarity of language. Rosen writes that asana “now steps fully into its second role – it can be a seat for the meditating yogi; it can be a preparation for that seat; or it can serve both functions, blurring the line between meditative and physical asanas” (Rosen, p. 75).
Perhaps the easiest to comprehend is asana as a tool for physical therapy, be it strengthening, stretching, or otherwise restoring healthy bodily function. Rosen explains that the “therapeutic value [of asana], is, like the importance of alignment, widely accepted today” (Rosen, p. 75).
Timothy McCall, M.D., is perhaps the most practically minded in this idea of physical body therapeutics through asana, exploring yoga broadly as “systematic technology to improve the body, understand the mind, and free the spirit” (McCall, p. 7) and build “flexibility, strength, and balance in every area of the body” (McCall, p. 14) He goes on in the following pages to explore forty practical benefits of asana practice from anxiety relief to prevention of heart disease (McCall, pp. 30-45). If you spend some time with McCall and his well-cited claims, you’ll see that of course yoga asana is a powerful tool to affect the physical body and its variety of ailments, but there’s something more, isn’t there? For the record, McCall thinks so too.
Asana is seen by some as an opportunity to practice mindfulness or meditation in a practical and physical sphere and ultimately bridging the gap between body and mind. I always recall one of my early teachers describing her mat as a laboratory in which she could explore certain elements of her life in a safe place. My teacher, Jason Crandell, has influenced me heavily in this sphere, often saying “my orientation has shifted from using my body to do asanas to using asanas to understand my body, and, by corollary, using my body to understand my mind, my moods, my conditioning, my well everything (Crandell).
For Iyengar the “real importance” of asana is their ability to “train and discipline the mind” (Iyengar, pp 40-41) and similarly for Desikachar it is to “unify” the body, breath and mind (Desikachar, p. 17).
Donna Farhi further defines this unification:
What distinguishes an asana from a stretch or callisthenic exercise is that in asana practice we focus our mind’s attention completely in the body so that we can move as a unified whole and so we can perceive what the body has to tell us. We don’t do something to the body, we become the body. So asana practice is a reunion between the usually separated body-mind…This down-to-earth, flesh-and-bones practice is simply one of the most direct ways to meet yourself. It’s important, therefore, not to make the mistake of thinking that the perfection of the yoga asanas is the goal, or that you’ll be good at yoga only once you’ve mastered the more difficult postures. The asanas are useful maps to explore yourself, but they are not the territory. The goal of asana practice is to live in your body and to learn to perceive clearly through it (Farhi, p17).
The idea of asana as map is echoed in Erich Schiffmann, in that we can use poses as maps and tools to “deliberately explore [ourselves]” (Schiffmann, p. 38). Similarly, Leslie Kaminoff sees an asana as “container for an experience” that ultimately reflects and informs on how we live the full extent of our lives off the mat.
Each asana is a whole-body practice where we can witness how things arise, how they are sustained, and how they dissolve or are transformed. We can see how we are affected by the experience of moving into the pose, being in the pose, and moving out of the pose, and how that might affect other places in our lives where we meet change (Kaminoff & Matthews, p. 65).
Movement of Energy
In early Hatha yoga, asana was included as part of many processes used to stabilize energetic flow and purify the body (Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition, 2008, p. 390). This harnessing and movement of energy is still a large component of modern postural yoga and takes us rather boldly out of the steady ground of Western medicine and psychology and into the potentially shifting sands of subtle energetics.
For Erich Schiffmann, asana “allow[s] new energy to flush through you, nourishing undernourished areas, soothing chronic pain, and improving energy flow throughout the whole of you” (Schiffmann, p. 38). Iyengar describes that in the execution of asana, a yogi will feel “in the beating of his pulse and the rhythm of his respiration, the flow of the seasons and the throbbing of universal life. His body is a temple which houses the Divine Spark” (Iyengar, pp. 40-41).
Donna Farhi explains that the yoga asanas,”while appearing relatively static compared to other movements, are actually still dances swirling with internal motion. The form of each asana acts as a container for these subtle yet powerful internal movements. The untrained eye sees no visible movement, but on further investigation, an asana practiced in this vital way is easy to distinguish” (Farhi, p.24).
By an expanded definition, a yoga asana can be a vehicle for feeling and releasing subtle energies throughout the body and spirit.
Discovering the divine
Expanding on the exploration of energetics, and learning from it, asana can be further defined as a tool to explore the physical body to better understand the mind, spirit and the Divine, furthering the Tantric idea that “as above, so below.” Feurstein, speaking of Tantra broadly, explains “when we truly understand the body, we discover that it is the world, which in essence is divine” (Feuerstein, 1998, p. 53). Practicing postures that embody different animals, gods and goddesses, great sages, states of energy, and openness of heart, we physicalize and in some ways concretize the abstractions of a spiritual quest.
Iyengar movingly describes this journey through the universal earth-bound experience to the Divine.
Whilst performing asanas the yogi’s body assumes many forms resembling a variety of creatures. His mind is trained not to despise any creature, for he knows that throughout the whole gamut of creation, from the lowliest insect to the most perfect sage, there breathes the same Universal Spirit, which assumes innumerable forms. He knows that the highest form is that of the Formless. He finds unity in universality. True asana is that in which the thought of Brahman flows effortlessly and incessantly through the mind of the sadhaka (Iyengar, p. 42)
This movement through a diversity of asanas, Donna Farhi writes, expands our consciousness “so that regardless of the situation or form we find ourselves in, we can remain ‘comfortably seated’ in our center. Intrinsic to this practice is the uncompromising belief that every aspect of the body is pervaded by consciousness. Asana practice is a way to develop this interior awareness” (Farhi, pp 16-17).
For Seane Corn, asana practice becomes a form of spiritual communion she terms ‘body prayer.’
In our culture, we’re so physically oriented. We like the five-sense reality. We feel safe with it. When we use our bodies as an expression of prayer, it gets our minds very, very quiet. Traditional prayer is much more mind-spirit oriented. Is body prayer better? No, it’s just a different expression of it. A more activated version, just like when you see T’ai Chi or someone who’s really dancing. There is such a connection with the natural realm, in the way things move – your heart beating and the blood flowing through your veins. How more connected can you get to spirit than in your own humanity and your own body? (Cameron & Corn)
So, what is it?
Ultimately, asana is whatever you experience. You simply have to be open to its potential power and variety. If you practice long enough, you will potentially feel components of all of the above but there is no need to decide that asana must ever be strictly defined.
Cameron, M. J., & Corn, S. (n.d.). Finding Spirit: Q&A with Seane Corn. Retrieved May 2015, 13, from GaiamLife: http://life.gaiam.com/article/finding-spirit-qa-body-prayer-diva
Crandell, J. (2013, May 17). Teachasana Interview with Jason Crandell. Retrieved May 13, 2015, from Teachasana.com: http://www.teachasana.com/teachasana-interview-with-jason-crandell/
Desikachar, T. (1995). The Heart of Yoga. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions International.
Farhi, D. (2000). Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit. Dublin: Newleaf.
Feuerstein, G. (1998). Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy. London: Shambhala.
Feuerstein, G. (2008). The Yoga Tradition (3rd Edition ed.). Prescott, Arizona: Hohm Press.
Iyengar, B. (1979). Light on Yoga. New York: Schocken Books.
Kaminoff, L., & Matthews, A. (2012). Yoga Anatomy (2nd Edition ed.). Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics.
McCall, T. M. (2007). Yoga as Medicine. New York: Bantam.
Rosen, R. (2012). Original Yoga: Rediscovering Traditional Practices of Hatha Yoga. London: Shambhala.
Schiffmann, E. (1996). Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness. New York: Pocket Books.