When people think of yoga, what first comes to mind are the perceived pretzel-like postures, weird Indian music, or sitting for hours with an absolutely empty mind. For years, medical doctors have been suggesting that people aged 50 and older begin a yoga practice as a way to keep limber, do gentle exercise, keep joints moveable, and manage weight. None of these perceptions are particularly incorrect. They are all reasons why people come to yoga. If they stay, they will find a great deal more.
Asana is the Sanskrit word used to describe the physical poses. All of the Sanskrit words that yoga teachers and many yoga students know for each pose contain the word “asana”: balasana (child’s pose), virabhadrasana (warrior), etc. All the benefits that medical doctors spout as to why people should turn to a yoga practice are correct. An asana practice will help one manage weight, keep one limber, improve balance, increase circulation, and if one chooses, makes them happy.
I always instruct my beginning students about the physical benefits of an asana practice, and then invite them to take what they learn off the mat and out into the ‘real world’. The physical practice will confront us on our judgements and criticisms of ourselves and others, our fears (my personal ones are inversions), and physical limitations. By following the teacher’s instructions and moving into and out of postures, we have ample opportunity to practice ‘yoga’, which is the union of body, mind, and spirit. There are no ‘perfect’ poses and there are some poses some people may never be able to do because of body proportions or permanent physical limitations (like balancing on a prosthesis). Just stepping on the mat means that one is on the road to the pose.
To execute asana without injury, we must pay attention to alignment, move into the pose to their ability, then relax with how it shows up. Easy to say, not always so simple to do. Beginners often have no proprioception, meaning they aren’t aware of their left foot, their pinky finger on their right hand, or the length of their spine. It takes time and attention to know where one’s body is in space. Will and surrender, what I wrote of in my last post as an example of yoga’s seeming paradoxes, are used in asana. Will is used to move the body into the posture, then the mind is asked to surrender how the pose shows up. We think that we should be able to bend over and touch our toes. If our hamstrings are tight, then we are physically limited. We cloud (sometimes ruin) our experience by the litany of the monkey mind: “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you touch the floor? Look, the person next you can, the teacher can, of course, she can. You’re the only one in class who can’t. Sheesh, the teacher will simply ask that you not return, or maybe take the Intro class over again. Gosh, you’re such a loser…” And so the monologue continues. That’s fine, if that’s what one chooses to do with their time in the pose. But there is another way.
Any yoga practice is a personal one. It is all about us when we’re on the mat. It matters not what others are doing in the class, except the instructor and following their directions, taking modifications if offered, or doing our own once we know how to keep ourselves safe in the poses. If we move slowly into and out of the poses, then we are offered an opportunity to pay attention to all the nuances of the physical body. We willfully move into the posture, to our capacity. Then we accept what shows up when we get there-tight hamstrings, fear, uncomfortableness, the thoughts of the mind-and breathe, feel what is happening within the body, notice the thoughts of the mind and then let them go, close our eyes so the experience is an internal one and we’re less likely to look at or compare our pose to the one in front of us.
All of this leads to meditation in motion. On the mat, we begin to move from posture to posture with complete attentiveness. The mind is quiet, we’re in the present moment with no agenda, we recognize what shows up and take right action, whether that is moving out of the pose or deeper, taking a modification, or allowing emotions and thoughts to arise and dissipate. The same is true for practicing asana off the mat.
Most don’t realize that each situation we’re in is a posture. Holding the door open for someone with a baby stroller and a toddler, waiting while an elderly person crosses the street, letting a car in front of us because construction has closed a lane, dealing with a difficult project at work, our boss being upset, ill children, and the list goes on. In each one of these ‘postures off the mat’, we can use will and surrender, moving ‘into’ the pose then accepting how things are showing up. The waiting, the yelling, the worry…and then breathing, noticing the thoughts and letting them go, accepting what is happening at the moment and taking the next right action, moving with deliberate consciousness from pose to pose, and being present in each one. Our experience in each of those examples could be peaceful or full of annoyance, depending on how we accept what is happening in that moment or how much we listen to the mind and it’s ‘non-acceptance’ of the moment. All of this leads to ‘stillness in motion’, moving through the various circumstances (postures) in our lives without being swayed greatly from the quiet, watchful center.
How do you practice asana? If you’re a yoga teacher, how much of this do you explain to your students? Share your experience in the comments.
I’ve included a poem about asana in my project titled Yogis All: A Journey of Transformation, Volume I that can be viewed on my website: www.myjoyenterprises.com