Asana. Moving the body with the breath
I am standing on my own altar. The poses are my prayers.
(B.K.S. Iyengar, 1979, p. 25)
A few weeks ago, we posted the first couple of entries in a series of posts covering deeper aspects of yoga rarely discussed in studio classes today. Though we have made it our thing to touch on the philosophical, practical, and spiritual side of yoga with our entries from day one, both Jonas and I were surprised to realize that, until today, we hadn’t really made an entry on asana (yogic poses) –something as incredibly basic as it is fundamental to yoga practice.
What can we say? Often, it is the stuff that’s most essential to your everyday life that you simply take for granted, and so... it’s taken us a while to realize this was perhaps a much needed post. So, today’s entry will do the deed and explain why is asana sooooo very important and why do we twist and bend the way we do during a Hatha Yoga class.
Set, ready, FOLD!
Initially, when yoga first became a thing thousands of years ago, the discipline was predominantly meditation-based. We’ve said it before so we’ll skip that bit here today. Yoga was mainly a one-on-one method passed from teacher (or 'guru’) to student and pretty much tailor-made to the needs of each aspirant depending on their particular ‘weak spots’ or the patience and style of the master.
Though ‘shooting stars’ like Buddha, Jesus, and other enlightened ones did exist, for the most part, students lacked the discipline necessary to jumpstart directly with deeper meditation practice. This forced teachers to come up with systematic approaches to calm their mind, purify their breath and body, alleviate energetic imbalances, develop attention, and enable wannabe-yogis to attain ‘the holy grail of yoga’: enlightenment through the awakening of Kundalini Shakti and/or asamprajnata samadhi. If you don't know what either of these last two things really is, don't fret, we will be posting entries on them really soon as well. Regardless, it was the different needs of the students, paired with the very processes of trial and error of their teachers that allowed masters to come up with a multiplicity of yogic methods, styles, sequencing, and of course, asanas too.
The why of asana is actually quite simple. Think of it this way: when do you feel your best? The morning after a whole night of partying (and a few too many drinks), after you fall asleep in the couch or the hallway of your apartment? Or after a good night of sleep in a comfortable and freshly made bed? I secretly hope you choose the latter! But in case you haven't –we all know how easy it is to succumb to the allure of night life– let’s just agree that when you’re well-rested, relaxed, your body is supple and limber, and you are overall comfy, you are at your best. You think better. You move better. You sleep better. And essentially, you do life much better than otherwise too. Asanas work much like a good night of sleep in a super comfy bed. They help your body feel comfortable, your brain think faster, and generally change your attitude towards life for the best. Beyond literally removing any existing pockets of tension at the physical or musculoskeletal level, they work energetically to improve the circulation of prana through the body.
Indeed, to adequately progress down the yogic path and truly make the most of what this discipline has to offer, one of the most essential aspects to first work on is your body. In a super body-obsessed culture where yoga has been pretty much reduced to a physical practice, one has to be really careful when saying things like this. But after all of our entries on deeper and truly verily YOGIC practices for the past few months, we feel quite at ease with emphasizing body-awareness in yoga for once. So yes. Your body is a temple. This is not us speaking but classical religious thought. And though there’s one thing or two we don’t much appreciate about institutionalized religions in general, and about dualism in particular (the so-called mind/body split), this line here is pretty much on spot.
We are conscious entities. It is our consciousness and the ability to make informed decisions that has pretty much placed us at the top of the survival ladder. Still, we can't operate in this reality we all agree to call the known universe without a body. And so, for consciousness to exist and thrive –in fact, for it to evolve– you need to work both spiritually or subtly (beyond the physical body) and physically (on the body); or, put differently, ‘passively’ (through static practice) and ‘actively’ (through movement). This means that, for most of us born in the second half of the twentieth century in cultures that are all about fast movement forward, working passively and statically upfront doesn’t always come in naturally. We can't often do static all that well. This is why, working actively and physically directly on the body first –and then moving on to accessing its subtler planes– has become a must for most yogis. Only then are we truly ready for ‘passive’ yogic practice to really sink in. Hence, asana!
The energetics of asana
In a nutshell, asana is a method to help reduce the 'excesses of personality' as expressed into your particular body. I'm here speaking of things like excessive energy, anger, 'fire,' heaviness, cold, heat, lethargy, 'air,' sleep, sadness, clogging, tension, turmoil –you name it. The point is to create as much outer and inner balance as necessary through the alignment of your breath with posture for energy to flow smoothly through your physical and spiritual channels –the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and your nadis.
Beyond googleable charts that tell you which asana to perform so as to work on a particular area of the body or chakra, the energetics of asana encompass all aspects of yoga practice: from the way you breathe, to the way you move and sit, the way you think, what you eat, and subtler planes of reality and consciousness too. Which is why speaking only of chakras as the 'energetics of asana' doesn't really cut it. To speak of yogic energetics, you need to know about the characteristics of the panchakosha or five sheaths, the vayus and the nadis, and how prana operates in and out and up and down through them; of Ayurvedic types, doshas, or constitutions, and how what you eat or how you sleep truly affect your energy levels; of the workings of consciousness and the mind beyond the brain and how both pranayama and meditation can alter, modify, or completely transform the way you think; and most importantly, about prana and how to properly increase it, store it, and channel it to bear the fruits you need.
Similarly, it is also important to bear in mind a person's age. It isn't the same to practice asana in your twenties as doing so at the age of 70. Some of our past entries have superficially touched on these topics, but to avoid making this post all about keyword dropping, let's just say that the true energetics of asana lies with the ability to think holistically about all of this; with an ability to understand the capacity of asana to simultaneously affect our bodies, their senses, and through these, consciousness.
So, what do we do asana for and how to properly perform it?
Perhaps, the best way to go about the real energetics of asana is to first determine what are you turning to asana for and what is your baseline. Asking questions like are you young or perhaps a bit more seasoned, are you naturally elastic or flexible, or do you feel compression and tension in certain areas and spots can help rule out specific sequences, yoga styles, or poses from the very beginning (perhaps even permanently) because of technical and/or physical difficulty. The next set of questions to ask should look a bit into your inner state: What am I trying to accomplish here? Do I turn to yoga for clarity and quietness, to increase my energy and drive, to connect with love and compassion, or to develop greater awareness and concentration? What is my overall state of mind? What is the overall state of my life? We are not speaking here of having the expectation of results, but rather, of being able to determine with greater accuracy what might be the particular style, method, or combination of techniques to look for when thinking of asana in yoga. Another very important thing to consider is if you can breathe evenly into a pose, or else, hold your breath for 6, 8, or 12 seconds at a time? Does it strain you? Do your movements and overall alignment as you get in and out of a pose flow naturally? Are there hiccups, cuts, moments were you totally lose it? All of these answers must be noted. It is in the answers to these inquiries that the true 'ground 0' of your asana routine will lie.
And, as we've said already in previous entries, we are often quite mislead when it comes to judging what we really need; thus, the styles of yoga we often choose are not necessarily the ones we should be practicing. By knowing the answers to the questions above you will be better equipped to determine if your practice at particular point in life, season, and time of the day should be energizing or relaxing, amplifying or grounding; if what you need are inversions coupled with gentle and slow practice, intense inhalations with a lot of seated poses, or combinations of twists and backbends...
There is no one-method fits all when it comes to yoga, which is why the most important aspect of your asana practice will always be the breath. As the Hatha Yoga Pradipika clearly states: "The air should be expelled with proper tact and should be filled in skillfully; and when it has been kept confined properly it brings success" (Swatmarama 2013, ch. 2, sutra 18). This seemingly straight-forward couple lines here is truly much more complex than it sounds.
It is the breath, this life-giving, oxygen-infused master tool that should power all of our movements, both in asana and in life. Moving in and out of poses with the breath, and allowing your breath to determine movement instead of otherwise is the true secret of a sound yoga practice and of the proper arrangement and practice of asana too. Sutra 2.46 of 'The Yoga Sutra' puts it: sthira sukham asanam. Asana is to be practiced with steadiness of the body and calmness of the mind. The great master Patanjali requests ‘a loosening of effort, while meditating on that which is infinite.’
So forget about the asana of physical prowess and IG, and think more of what 'an asana of the heart' might look like. I know this sounds a bit too poetic, but poetry really has it in it to convey the type of meaning that saying something like 'now connect your breath with your movement' requires. Yoga ain't just a bunch of mechanical instructions for you to breath in as you go into Warrior I and exhale as you come out. Asana, as most things in yoga, is also, truly, highly metaphoric. We mentioned this already when speaking of Yantra a few weeks ago. And so, asana really speaks of movement or its lack as qualities inherent in our experience of the world. It is that movement of the body with the breath when we can forget both about breathing and about thinking of what we are doing; when we can truly inhabit (and thus become) what we are instead.