When I ask Iriness’ yoga practitioners what the word ‘asana’ means to them, I hear a myriad of answers: posture, physical practice, ability to synchronise breath with the physical practice, asana is stillness; asana is meditation, asana is pain… Everyone seems to perceive this concise word rather differently. In this assay I’d like to summarise the original intended meaning of the word ‘asana’ as defined by the sage Patanjali in ‘Yoga Sutra’, one of the major yogic scriptures. Certainly, its my take on it and not the authority, just a suggestion for contemplation.
Out of 196 sutras (verses) of “Yoga Sutra”, three are dedicated to the definition of asana. In addition, asana is one of the 8 limbs of Ashtanga yoga.
The second verse (II.47) says that in asana the effort ceases and meditation on the infinite begins or, another version of Bhavani Maki: ‘In asana release the tension born of your effort and fuse yourself with the current of life force within’. Even though our muscles are engaged to keep the body steady, the intention is for the mind, breath and body to keep inner stillness and equanimity. With daily practice for the extended period of time, muscles strengthen and lengthen, physicality of the yoga asana becomes more familiar and easier, and effort can be slacken. From my perspective, the pain in asana practice should be avoided as well as the forced and loud breathing. I look at pain as the body’s call for self-compassion, for stepping back and trying to understand how to keep body happy. And when we learn to listen to our body and to our breath with respect and compassion, – we open ourselves to kinder living with the whole of the universe. And this is where yoga guides us to.
The third sutra (II.48) advises us that when our asana is steady and easy; when the effort ceases and meditation begins, then ‘the yogi is no longer affected by the pulls of opposites’*. This is the state when we are able to draw our energy into the middle channel or to the neutrality within. When we are no more disturbed by the game of the duality and not pulled by the forces of pain and pleasure, joy and sorrow, love and hatred etc. Then we can abide in the joy of being in our own centre, our essence or our heart… To reach this state, we are called to look closely and fearlessly into both light and shadow sides of our personality or our involuntary tendencies, otherwise ‘we oscillate between the extremes of being self-deprecating and self-congratulatory’*.
This is a very brief introduction to the three verses from Yoga Sutra related to asana. As you have noticed, it is far beyond the word ‘posture’ only. If you are curious to deepen your understanding, I’d recommend two books: Gregor’s Maehle Ashtanga Yoga: philosophy and practice and Bhavani Maki’s The yogi’s roadmap.
Namaste and serene asana practice to all,
*The yogi’s roadmap – Bhavani Maki
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