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    « The Niyamas -- The Observances of Yoga | Main | Germ-free kids may risk more adult illnesses »
    Friday
    Dec112009

    Asana, Understanding Yoga

    This is the third in an ongoing series of articles on Yoga. The first two articles, Yama and Niyama, can be found by clicking on "Yoga" in the subject listing on the left-hand side of the page.

    Yoga is more than a physical fitness regimen. Yoga is a broad set of understandings, a practical philosophy that, when practiced, allows us to bring our total being into alignment, which, in turn, allows us to live in harmony with the world around us.

    The principles of yoga are practiced through the body, through the mind, but most of all through the heart. Learning physical poses and movements is one aspect of yoga, but the mental poses and emotional poses are far more important.

    Yoga, in its essence, means reducing internal conflicts. It means releasing resistance, allowing flow.

    It means living in harmony with Nature, and enjoying a state of optimal health, sanity and well being.

    Freedom, peace, happiness and lightness of being are evidence of the practice of yoga. Tension and resistance or a sense of needing to force or control are the evidence of a need to practice yoga.

    Yoga feels easy. Yoga needs no effort, requires no discipline or strategy. Yoga is effortless -- if what you're doing feels like an effort, feels like a strain -- its not yoga.

    Again, yoga is a practical philosophy, concerned with the everyday practice of living in harmony with oneself and the larger world. And so long as a person lives and breathes, there must be a continuous process of realignment and readjustment -- there is no state of Yoga that is permanent, no enlightenment that is absolute.

    Our experience of being in "Yoga," or alignment with ourselves, will always be a relative value -- Yoga is about the relationship between you and you.meaning our experience of alignment will vary, from moment to moment, from situation to situation, depending on whether we're able to enjoy the flow of life in that particular situation.

    When we're enjoying ourselves we're more or less in a state of Yoga. Happiness is an indicator of Yoga.

    When we're happy, it means our energies are flowing more harmoniously, and that means we're going to enjoy a greater measure of health and well-being.

    When we're unhappy, it means we're at cross-purposes with ourselves, and we feel tense and stressed as a result.

    Yoga means being at ease within yourself, being true to yourself in a way that feels good to you, and when that is the case, even the most difficult circumstances tend to resolve themselves. You enjoy a sense of strength, of resilience, even in the midst of difficulties.

    The concepts and ideals of Yoga are not rules or commandments. They are not truths or tenets. They are pointers, tips, suggestions -- ideas that can guide us to an experience of alignment, peace and freedom, but only if we put them into practice.

    Yoga as a practice is a commitment to a better way of life -- but before the concepts of Yoga can be put into practice, they must be firmly understood. One cannot practice Yoga successfully without right understanding of what alignment is and is not, for this framework of understanding is the foundation of practice.

    Having such a foundation for the practice of Yoga is called asana.

    Asana

    "Asana (one's seat) should be steady and comfortable." -- Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

    It's interesting to note that the above sutra is Maharishi Patanjali's entire teaching on asana.

    The word asana, in Sanskrit means "seat." The ancients used this word to point to the need for a seat, or platform, from which to practice yoga.

    Asana, "one's seat of understanding," is the third limb of Patanjali's Yoga. Patanjali devotes just one line to the subject -- the one quoted above -- and says only one thing -- that our seat, meaning, the place we're coming from in our practice of realignment, must be steady and comfortable in order to be useful.

    Learning and practicing the asanas of yoga is the basis of the practice of Yoga.

    In conventional Yoga practice, asanas are physical postures, or poses, with names like down dog and child's pose, and they are often linked together into a vinyasa, a steady dynamic flow of connected yoga asanas linked in a continuous movement.

    Practicing these physical poses, or asanas, is useful in that it allows us to discover where we are misaligned in our posture and in the way we move. We physically feel ourselves in or out of alignment, first in relation to gravity, secondly in relation to the ideal example of the pose, and thirdly in relation to ourselves and our intentions.

    But asana is much more than the practice of physical postures.1

    Asana is the seat of one's entire practice of Yoga. Asana is our overall attitude or approach or "standing" relative to our experience. It is how we "posture" or position ourselves on every level -- physically, mentally and emotionally. Every moment is an asana, and our flow of thought and feeling and consciousness from moment to moment is a vinyasa -- so our day begins with the "waking up in bed" asana, and flows into the "stumbling into the bathroom" vinyasa.

    Then there's the "thinking about my day" asana, and the "how I feel about traffic" asana.

    Every position, every stance in life, can be seen an asana, something to be worked with. In Yoga practice we are intentionally using our experience of living to find our way back into alignment, and asana is our right here, right now experience of living.

    In formal Hatha Yoga practice, as on the Yoga mat, we use our bodies and the physical experience of asana to come into a state of alignment. In other kinds of Yoga, such as Jnana, or Bhakti or Karma Yoga, we would work with breath or mind or feelings to do the same thing.

    Every physical, mental, and emotional position can be understood as an asana to be perfected in the practice of yoga.

    And our alignment, in every moment, could be read as the sense of comfort or ease we have in each asana, in each vinyasa.

    The asanas of hatha yoga are challenging and useful in that they point out the places where we are out of harmony on a physical level. But it would be a mistake to limit one's practice of asana to whether or not we had achieved full extension or perfect grace and steadiness on a physical level alone. If that were the case, most gymnasts, dancers or acrobats would be yogis, and they are not. Yoga is not about achieving control of the body or the breath or of body movement.

    The practice of asana in yoga class is like a physical laboratory where we work on our alignment, first in physical terms, then in subtler terms. We learn a certain set of physical poses and flows of movementwhich we practice and make familiar. And as we release our resistance to our own intention to hold and flow the poses, we gain strength and balance and grace. But the perfection of yoga is the ease of freedom and joy we come to feel in the asana -- not whether or not we look good in the mirror, and not whether or we have flexibility like a pretzel.

    The physical practice of asana, on the yoga mat, serves as a kind of focus, a lens, to help focus the mind, and our thoughts are lenses that help focus the spirit. When body and mind are aligned with one another, the energy gates open, and spirit flows through the mind into the body, refreshing and cleansing and nourishing us and our world.

    The flexibility we seek in yoga is more in the mind and in our consciousness, and not just in the body. Becoming more flexible in the body may open the mind a little, but becoming more flexible in the mind is the true goal of yoga, and it will do far more to help the flexibility and health of the body.

    Yoga is about achieving moksha, freedom -- inside and out, and Yoga needs to take place on the mental and emotional levels as well as the physical levels in order to be really useful, really liberating.

    Yoga says we live in five bodies -- we have a physical body, a breath body, a mind body, an emotional, or wisdom body, and a spirit or happiness body. Asana takes place in each body. Asana would be steady alignment of body, breath, mind, heart and spirit, every moment of every day.

    Patanjali defined yoga as the elimination of resistance in our experience. We can practice the elimination of stress and conflict on a physical level, learning to relax and be open physically, but its also important to do the work to achieve the perfection of the asana on the mental, emotional, and energy levels as well. Releasing emotional stress is probably the most important release of resistance.

    So the word asana has meaning on many levels. 1

    The first meaning of asana, in this sense, would be one's understanding of yoga, our "understanding" asana, for without that platform, without that seat of understanding, nothing else would be possible.

    In the West, we call asana our "standing," as in having "a place to stand." Remember Archimedes' famous quote? "If I had a lever long enough and a place to stand, I could move the world," -- a statement that is very true to the spirit of asana. The East is more oriented around sitting than it is around standing. If yoga had arisen in Europe, the word "standing," as in one's standing or one's understanding, may have taken the place of "seat." The meaning is the same even if the nuance is different.

    A correct understanding of Yoga is the first asana of Yoga. It is the foundation for one's practice.

    Remember: all of the teachings of Yoga are pointers to the correct understanding of Yoga -- understanding Yoga as alignment with self. Everything we do in the practice of Yoga is for this purpose -- that we eliminate conflict and stress and resistance, bring all into harmony -- first within ourselves, and then in the world around us.

    The Power of Here and Now

    All of our lives take place in the present moment. It is always now. It was now when you were born, it has been now whenever anything happened to you, and it will be now when you finally leave this world.

    And all of our lives take place here. Right here, right now. All of our understandings, all of our clarity, all of our choices and decisions take place here and now.

    Asana is us, focused here and now -- right here, right now. All of our power, all of our life is always focused here and now, because here and now is where we live -- the only place where we can focus and decide, the culmination of all that has come before, and the platform for what is to come.

    All other places and times are stories we tell in the here and now.

    When we sense and know ourselves as this presence that fills this here and now, and come to see all the ups and downs of life as stories that pass before our minds in the eternity of here and now, this is the beginning of freedom, this is the foundation, the platform, the asana of Yoga.

    The practice of yoga is focusing all of our being into the here and now, without resistance or backflow.

    Russian Dolls

    Yoga is a yoking, a joining, of all parts of ourselves, in alignment and harmony.

    Central to this concept is the idea that all the parts work together while each retain their essential differences -- they simply work together in harmony instead of fighting among themselves.

    A person exists on many levels.

    From a material standpoint, there is the whole body, the body-taken-as-a-whole, then the organ-function layer, the cellular layer, the chemistry within the cells layer, and so on. Layer after layer, nested like the Russian dolls that you open to find another doll, smaller, and then another, and another, and so on, all the way down.

    Deep within the cells of the body, we find molecules and energy structures. This is the realm of the abstract bodies -- ourselves as mind and experience. Thinking doesn't happen with the brain or at the gross level of the physical nervous system. It happens within the realms of experience deep inside the energy structures of our molecules themselves. Thinking happens on an electronic level, on the energy level, deep within our chemistry. This is the realm of what are called the belief, understanding and happiness bodies in yoga. This is where they are located.

    Yoga teaches that we live in five sheaths, five "bodies," five koshas, each nested within the other, like Russian dolls. Each sheath refers to a different level of being, and asana occurs at each level.

    Asana happens on the level of the physical body as posture, as annamaya kosha.

    Asana happens as breathing on the level of the breathing body, pranamaya kosha.

    Asana happens as belief in the mental body, called manamaya kosha.

    Asana happens as understanding on the vijnanamaya kosha, the wisdom body.

    Asana happens as happiness in the bliss body, the anandamayakosha.

    When we come into alignment, the happiness of the bliss body shines through our understanding body, into our thought body, is reflected in our breathing and the circulation of energies body and our health in the physical body, and so our total self shows up as us in the world. When we are aligned, or in yoga, we are the physical expression of the happiness body.

    When the koshas or bodies are aligned in yoga, the energy systems of the subtle bodies can flow freely and nourish all the physical parts of us. The practice of yoga supports the health of mind and body not through exercise, but through alignment -- it is alignment that allows the pranas (life energies) to flow, and almost all of the health benefits of yoga arise as a result of this flow of subtle energies, similar to what is described as the flow of qi in qigongand acupuncture in Chinese medicine.

    When our asana, or "position" is tense, constricted, our bodies are misaligned and weakened and uncomfortable, our breathing is shallow and disturbed, our minds are troubled, our hearts are uneasy, and our spirit and energy cannot flow. Releasing the tension, the kinks in the hose, the constrictions in body, breathing, mind, heart open us up again and restores us to health.

    Yoga releases the constrictions, restores the alignment and allows the energy to flow.

    The physical movements of vinyasa are there to help us relax and release tension and resistance on all levels, and the anti-aging and restorative and life-giving benefits of yoga occur spontaneously as a result of this alignment. The circuitry of the body is restored in the absence of resistance, and the life force, prana, can flow once again from within.

    In yoga, we become the physical location, the physical expression, asana, vinyasa, of happiness. We are abstract life made physical, made real, and life can flow, and flow abundantly. Happiness and peace are the surest signs of yoga, of a healthy asana, a healthy flow.

    Rock Candy

    When I was in the fifth grade we did a science experiment -- we made rock candy.

    Making rock candy is simple and easy to do -- you dissolve a huge amount of sugar in boiling water, dip a string in the solution, remove it and allow it to dry. Then you suspend the string in the sugar water, wait about a week or so, and come back to find that great big sugar crystals formed in clusters along the string.

    Three different processes helped the rock candy to form:

    The first process is called precipitation. Heating the water allows you dissolve a great deal of sugar in it, creating what is called a supersaturated solution. As the solution cools, the excess sugar comes back out of the water and once again forms crystals. This process is called precipitation -- sugar in a liquid state assembles into crystals and becomes solid once again.

    The string serves as a place for the crystals to form. Dipping the string in the solution and then drying it allows small, "seed" crystals to form on the string. When you put the string back in the solution, millions of sugar molecules un-dissolve themselves, and attach to the "seed" crystals already on the string, forming large rock candy cubes.

    The second process is evaporation. As the water evaporates, the ratio of sugar to water increases, and sugar continues to come "out" of the water as rock candy.

    The whole process is a good metaphor for asana.

    Sat-chit-ananda, consciousness-being-happiness, the larger self, exists as full, complete, whole and undifferentiated, and needs to be focused and defined in a narrow, limited, incomplete and differentiated context in order to be appreciated and understood, in order to grow and evolve.

    In theological terms, God becomes us in order to know itself and evolve into further expressions of itself.

    The part of us that is broader and larger and more abstract, that contains the sum total of all we are, is like the great mass of an iceberg -- it can't be seen because its below the surface, but it supports and sustains and upholds the small portion of visible ice we see floating above.

    Our present moment personality is a small, focused part of us that sticks out of the larger abstraction of who we are and who we have been, in order to reach for who we can be. This is the vinyasa of life, the flow of evolution and creation.

    We contain multitudes -- any person is a range of possibilities from kind to cruel, happy to sad, effective to ineffective, smart to dumb. We see only a few facets at a time. Asana is the focus, the platform, that allows us to bring all parts of us into alignment.

    Another way to think about it: when we look around a room, all the different things in the room are always there, chairs and desks and lamps and pictures, but we can only focus on one part at a time. We can sit in this chair, or turn on this lamp. Asana is the way we are in the room -- our free access to all parts of the room.

    Another metaphor -- a salad bar contains lots of different things to eat -- probably no one could eat all of them at any one meal. But for any given meal, we make one plate of salad. (And no two plates of salad would ever be exactly the same, even though they're all plates of salad.) Asana is the salad we're making right now -- the meal we're going to eat.

    Life exists broadly, as all possibilities, but we only live narrowly, as one set of possibilities at any given time. When we mind our focus, and take care to have a balanced, healthy, life-aligned and sustainable asana, we live the best of all possible lives.

    Asana is how we have crystallized out of the sea of all possibilites in the present moment, and the flow of asana, and then another asana, and then another asana, is the vinyasa, the flow of life. Vinyasa practice, asana practice on the mat, is a microcosm, a metaphor, an example of that larger flow of life itself. We use formal yoga practice to practice releasing resistance to our best and most balanced flow.

    In the rock candy analogy, our larger being is the sugar dissolved in the water -- invisible, but there nonetheless, and it precipitates out of solution into a particular set of forms, as we precipitate out of the vast possibilities of existence as a specific kind of person. And we continue to do so -- we aren't born at birth and then get bigger -- we recreate ourselves over and over and over again, as an evolving and growing being, continuously, throughout our lives. Our form emerges out of our energy continuously streaming forth as ever-newer versions of us. This is the real meaning of vinyasa.

    Asana is the precipitation. And the asanas we practice in yoga, whether it is a yama like non-stealing, or a physical pose, like child's pose, or an emotional asana, like contentment, are like the seed crystals in the string that the crystals form around.

    We are continuously precipitating out of the solution into form, and our present focus of mind is like the string, in that it serves as an organizing principle, a set of seeds that attract energy and allow it to crystallize as form.

    Our disposition in any given moment -- physically, emotionally, mentally and circumstantially -- operates as a seed platform, that attracts the energy that is continually becoming us and our lives and circumstances. This is asana. This is the platform of who we are becoming.

    When we practice asana and vinyasa on the mat, we do well to remember this, and to find harmony, first in our body, then in our breath, then in our mind, and then in our heart. Our spirit is always in harmony.

    This is yoga. This is the joining of the bodies -- body, breath, mind, heart and spirit, in asana.

    1 From "The Science of Yoga," by I.K. Taimni -- a commentary on the Yoga Sutras:

    Sutra #46. Asana (should be) steady and comfortable.

    Taimni's Commentary:

    The students of Yoga are generally familiar with the practices which are denoted by the word Asana. In fact, many people who do not know anything about Yoga confuse it with these physical exercises. It is, however, necessary even for the student of Yogic philosophy to understand clearly the place and purpose of Asanas in Raja-Yoga, for in Hatha-Yoga and certain systems of physical culture their purpose is very different.

    In Hatha-Yoga the subject of Asanas is treated at great length and there areat least 84 Asanas which are described in detail, very specific and sometimes exaggerated results being attributed to many of them. There is no doubt that many of these Asanas, by affecting the endocrine glands and Pranic currents, tend to bring about very marked changes in the body and if practised correctly and for a sufficiently long time, promote health in a remarkable manner.

    Hatha-Yoga is based on the principle that changes in consciousness can be brought about by setting in motion currents of certain kinds of subtler forces (Prana, Kundalini) in the physical body. The first step in contacting the deeper levels of consciousness is, therefore, to make the physical body perfectly healthy and fit for the influx and manipulation of these forces. That is why such a strong emphasis is laid on the preparation of the physical body and the Sadhaka is required to go through different kinds of physical exercises which are dealt with in treatises on Hatha-Yoga.

    In Raja-Yoga, however, the method adopted for bringing about changes in consciousness is, based essentially on the control of the mind and by the gradual suppression of the Citta-Vrttis. The technique of Raja-Yoga is, therefore, directed towards the elimination of all sources of disturbance to the mind, whether these sources are external or internal. Modern psychology recognizes the close connection between the mind and the body and how they act and react on each other all the time.

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