• Eight Limbs of Yoga: Asana

    Posted on March 5th, 2013 11:30:17 AM Alice G. Walton 3 comments

    8 Limbs of Yoga: Asana

    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.


    2 responses to “Eight Limbs of Yoga: Asana” RSS icon

    • Kevin Beavers

      Dear Alice, Thank you for your contribution to the blog; I welcome the challenge that you put to asana practice and practitioners. Certainly, it should be periodically put under the microscope for reevaluation (like anything). And, William Broad’s book, which you mention, brought a lot of purifying fire to the yoga world that we should all welcome.

      However, I disagree with the characterization of asana practice as mere “Indian gymnastics.” That is a disservice to the beauty and depth of the practice today. Unfortunately, it has become common to take this line of argument reducing asana to an over-glorified preparation for the real stuff. But asana has evolved and the thinking about it has become more thoughtful and refined (read Iyengar’s Light on Life for a great example). I find it absurd to take the valuation of asana from ancient texts like the Sutras or Gita and apply it to today’s yoga. It is a type of silly yoga fundamentalism that betrays the growth and evolution from which we profit.

      I would argue that yoga practice has evolved to be more sophisticated, interesting, and useful than it probably has ever been in the past. At least to someone like myself! A few examples: the technology of alignment and sequencing has developed to make the practice richer than ever. We have a more sophisticated understanding of body mechanics now and many of the teachers here on YogaGlo are a testament to that growth. Second, we’re in the process of moving away from hierarchical model of (often manipulative) guru to instructional, thoughtful teachers who share within communities. It is a great triumph for humanity when we see one another on more equal footing. Third, the focus on health and body as part and parcel of an enlightened modern yoga is a triumph over ancient body denying ideas in yoga’s past like Patanjali’s schism of purusha and prakriti. We can all welcome that.

      Lastly, I can understand that people will have differing personal preferences between asana, pranayama, mantra recitation, and meditation. Some practices will serve more than others depending upon the person or situation. What I find objectionable are sweeping dismissals of asana based on reading of texts that never conceived of the practice that we have today. It just doesn’t fit. Also misguided, are dismissals that don’t account for the depth of mind/body/heart asana practice possible today.

      Spiritual practitioners are having incredible, life changing experiences on yoga mats. Why not celebrate that instead of trying to dismiss it or tell yogis to quit and “go take a walk in nature” as is quoted in your blog post. I welcome modern, living, asana based yoga in my life over the practice of celibate monks centuries ago. If there is an argument against asana practice, let it come from the present and let it address the practice at its highest level so that it is forced to adapt and grow. Asana may not be for everyone, but for those of us who find great fulfillment, grow more awareness from it, and lead more fulfilling lives because of it, I kindly ask people like Mr. Black and Mr. Hartman to please temper their recommendations against asana.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Kevin. I just wanted to point out first that it wasn’t me who called asana “Indian gymnastics,” it was Mr. Black. I see both sides of the argument, so tried to keep my opinions out of it. But I think both gentlemen had some very interesting thoughts about it all.

      There’s no doubt that asana and yoga in general have to evolve to fit today’s needs vs. those of practitioners two or three or four thousand years ago. That said, there’s also something to be said for the concern that asana as it is today is not actually filling the need as it should. I argued in another piece that asana had to evolve/morph to come over the this country, and to be accepted by the Western mind. And as Mr Black suggested here, we’re very physical people over here, so the changes that yoga has undergone are understandable.

      I think there is certainly an increasing number of teachers who embrace the philosophical/spiritual side of the practice, but there are also many for whom it’s a purely physical practice, and getting their students to become aware is not on their list of priorities. I happened to luck out by finding Elena Brower, who very much incorporates these elements into her teaching, but in many areas of the country, I think (from what I understand from the commentators I’ve talked to anyway) yoga is still largely seen as a sport. Maybe this will change; it probably will, as more students ask more of yoga and their teachers. And the fact that science keeps showing the brain benefits of meditation and yoga will certainly help.

      Finally, I agree with some of your points about how asana is becoming more sophisticated, interesting, and useful — particularly the last point about how it’s body-embracing rather than body-denying. I’m not sure I agree with your first point though, about the technology of alignment; I’m just not sure I see how that deepens/sophisticates the practice. Can you explain?

      Thanks again for your comments, I appreciate your opening the discussing.

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