Well, we’ve arrived at Week 3 of our eight-part series on Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga, and I’m willing to bet that this is the one a lot of you have been waiting for. After spending the last two weeks discussing quite a few foreign Sanskrit terms, we’re finally going to talk about the physical postures: Asana.
Because we’re so constantly saturated with images and information from the Internet (particularly social media), I think that a lot of us think of yoga poses as these nearly unattainable bendy positions that a normal human’s body could never come close to emulating. While a lot of those poses are actually very attainable with years of discipline and practice, the essential thing for us to remember is that the postures themselves are categorically not the point of Asana. The word Asana itself literally means “seat”, and it refers to a seat you’d take for meditation. Now, I don’t think a lot of us are going to be closing our eyes and meditating while holding a handstand for 30 minutes, so how exactly are those twisty postures related to enlightenment?
While the first two limbs (Yama and Niyama, just to refresh your memory) deal with conduct, lifestyle, and social interaction, Asana deals with one’s physical body. Most simply, the physical postures of yoga were used to keep the body healthy, strong, and relaxed so that one would be physically prepared to enter into a state of meditation. It makes a lot of sense; it’s hard to sit in meditation if your hips are tight, your spine is hunched, and your knees are killing you. However, because the goal of yoga is to bring together all parts of one’s being (body, mind, and soul), it also makes sense that taking good care of the physical self and treating it as the amazing machine that it is would constitute a significant chunk of the yogic tradition. After all, your body is the place that your soul resides while it’s on this planet!
For me, Asana has also been a place where I can learn to observe my thought patterns and discover how to work through both mental and physical blockages. For example, Asana has helped me learn how to distinguish between pain and intensity in my body, which has, in turn, helped me to differentiate between the two in my mind and heart. When I was working on a particularly intense posture, my teacher at home in Nebraska, Jenny Bindrum, used to say, “Is there pain? Is it sharp, electric, or damaging? Or is it just intense?” If what I’m feeling is intensity or discomfort, I stay with the pose, breathing through it and accepting the discomfort. However, I have also learned that if there is any sort of pain that is not integrating and will not serve me, it’s important that I back off or come out of the pose. Learning to listen to your body and give it what it needs instead of what your mind wants for it will really help you to get a grip on your ego fast!
Sometimes the line between discomfort and harmful sensations is pretty fuzzy, and I would recommend erring on the side of caution. The same is true off the mat, outside of the physical realm. Sometimes we force ourselves into situations and relationships that are damaging to our wellbeing, not at all integrating, and quite frankly dangerous. On the flipside, sometimes we get scared of a particular situation and try to avoid it when really, it’s just uncomfortable and valuable experience could be attained by staying the course. I’ll admit that it’s not always easy to differentiate between the things that will nourish us (both physically and spiritually), but my yoga practice has helped me more than I can even put into words.
Of course, practicing Asana will also allow you to reap the more tangible physical benefits of bodily strength, endurance, flexibility, mobility, and even weight loss. Contrary to what a lot of people think, Asana can most definitely be a workout (Ashtanga, anyone?). Even if the workout is the only thing that brings a student to the mat at the beginning of their yoga journey, it often turns out that he or she will end up coming back for all the other benefits that start to seep in.
So, now that you’re a little more in the know about this third limb of the yoga tradition, I’m challenging you to go unroll your mat and spend even just ten minutes on it. If you don’t have a mat, put down a towel or a blanket. You can sit, you can stand, you can handstand, but whatever you do, just allow yourself to feel what it’s like to be in your body. That feeling? That linkage? That’s Asana.