I am always stating that Yoga Practice is much more than Asana, and that Asana is but one limb of the eight limbs of Yoga Practice. In this post I’m going to expand a little bit on Asana and focus in on it’s principles; in the views of T.K.V. Desikachar and B.K.S Iyengar with respect to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
Asana, in it’s physical aspect, is primarily what people see as yoga. Rarely will they notice how one breathes, feels that breath and co-ordinates that breath with the physical movement. If we look beyond the flexibility and suppleness of the body, we will notice something much more important than that outer manifestation. We will notice the way one feels the postures and the breath.
Asana translates as posture. It is derived from the Sanskrit root as which means “to stay,” “to be,” “to sit” or “to be established.” Patanjali’s Yoga sutras describes asana as having two important qualities: sthira and sukha. Both qualities should be present to equal degree in a pose.
Sthira: to be conscious, alert, present, firm, stable.
Sukha: to be relaxed, comfortable, at ease without pain or agitation.
“Even if we achieve the steadiness and alertness of sthira there must also be the comfort and lightness of sukha, and both must be present for a certain length of time. Without both these qualities there is no asana.” – T.K.V.Desikachar
Even before understanding sthira and sukha we need to understand where we are and begin from there. We need to gain awareness of our body’s restrictions and then make peace with those restrictions. It is only possible to achieve the qualities that are essential to asana if you recognize and learn to accept your starting point.
With that said, learning to accurately assess your present condition involves looking at what is really happening in your body. For example, you may be able to accomplish the form of a pose perfectly, but miss the potential benefits and even neglect the potential harm of the pose. At times we are so focused on the form of the posture that we overlook the function – posing the form – function problem. This is a big problem in asana practice because “the true value of these postures lies in their functional benefit to our own body, not in the objective character of their classical pose.” (Gary Kraftsow, Yoga For Wellness)
Beyond what I have already mentioned, on a very general level, there is a far greater purpose of asana practice. Asana first has to have the backing of yama and niyama (the first and second stages in the path of yoga) and then, once it is mastered, we are to move forward from it to Pranayama (the fourth stage in the path of yoga). According to Iyengar “practice of asanas without the backing of yama and niyama is mere acrobatics.”
Whether or not we are on the path to enlightenment, asana practice, in its nature, promotes structural stability, physiological immunity, and emotional health. This is a great reason to practice the poses, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we are engaging in true asana practice.
I’ll leave you with words that truly put asana practice in perspective for me:
“Though the yogi does not underrate his body, he does not think merely of its perfection but of his senses, mind, intellect and soul. The yogi conquers the body by practice of asanas and make it a fit vehicle for the spirit. A soul without a body is like a bird deprived of its power to fly.” – B.K.S. Iyenger
Asana image via Shutterstock