The Essence of Asana

Cory General Leave a Comment

We are engulfed by a turbulent and fast-paced culture wherein constant movement – sometimes mind, sometimes body, sometimes both – has become the norm. Most of us exist somewhere within and between where we’ve been and where we’re going, with seemingly very limited opportunity to just be. We’ve always got to be “doing” something. Modern yoga culture is often an extension on this theme – feeding this need for movement – for doing.

“Yoga is not something you DO, it’s something you ARE.”

― David Life, Jivamukti Yoga

Vinyasa is a word borrowed from the Sanskrit language and like all words from this ancient vibrational root language it is steeped in context and requires some consideration to unpack. At its essence it means to place in a special – mindful, purposeful, conscious –  way.

“Action is movement with intelligence. The world is filled with movement.

What the world needs is more conscious movement, more action.”

― B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life

To make it conscious there needs to be an element of stillness – of arrival to a destination, even if just for a moment. Without some recognition and understanding of this concept (arrival = destination = stillness), a critical piece of the vinyasa practice is missing and it is exactly what many struggle with most – stillness.

One doesn’t have to dig all that deep to find guidance on this topic from the great sage and authority on the practice of yoga – Patanjali. The Yoga Sutras are organized into four padas (or chapters) containing individual short sutras (aphorisms) that lend themselves to deep conjecture and meditation.

Below is a collection of sutras that I have specifically chosen because I feel that they deftly lay out the connection between the movement practice (asana) and the stillness practice (meditation: dharana, dhyana) it is intended to cultivate. Commonly we compartmentalize these two aspects of practice. It is my hope that this discussion will enable and deepen the integration of asana and meditation within your experience on the mat.

2.46  sthira sukham āsanam

Meditation begins when the posture (asana) becomes steady, stable, still

and lends itself to a sense of ease and awareness within (comfort).

This is the first of three sutras that specifically call out asana – the third of the eight limbs of yoga. Asana postures are akin to the Buddha striking the immovable spot under the Bodhi tree wherein enlightenment came to him. As stated by Mary Reilly Nichols, asana practice involves “symmetrically moving your body in such a way as to apprehend the unity behind duality”. We humans are constantly vacillating between poles – what we like and don’t like, want and don’t want, hot and cold, up and down, hungry and full, and so on…. As Ms. Nichols notes, this concept of duality shows up on the mat as well. We can make use of this by engaging the end points (or opposite poles – dvandvas) of duality within the body in order to transcend the opposites and settle into the middle or bindu – seed of stability and ease.

Asana means seat or connection to the earth. When one develops a sound connection to the earth the intention of this sutra is realized and it becomes much easier to explore the meditative end of our 8-limb spectrum. And even though most Buddhists don’t ascribe to yoga asana as a practice, there is strong correlation between this sutra and the Buddha dharma. Chokyni Rinpoche, in his book “Open Heart, Open Mind”, includes a section titled “Posture” wherein he writes “One way (to start minding our bodies) is to begin practice by assuming, if we’re able to, a physical posture that is comfortable and stable.” I often tell students that a main reason for doing the asana practice is to develop and maintain that ability to enter into such a physical posture. And one incredibly useful way to elevate the asana practice is to begin to bring that ability into each asana as we move through a vinyasa practice. Find the dhyana wherever and whenever we can.

2.47  prayatna shaithilya ananta samapattibhyam

By relaxing or loosening of effort and allowing attention to merge with the

infinite consciousness asana is perfected.

It is through our repeated, devoted commitment to comprehend the subtle movements of our body and breath that we gain the ability to let go and settle into our energetic, emotional, intellectual and ultimately spirit bodies (koshas). Again, Ms. Nichols put it well when she said, “Samadhi is a profound cessation of tension (emotional, psychological).”

So often we may wonder, have I experienced samadhi? Not an easy question to answer; however, if we consider Ms. Nichols definition, it seems quite possible that this is exactly what happens when we’re able to settle into the rhythm of vinyasa and truly link movement with moments of cessation and breath. It may very well be that unknown glimpses of the samadhi state are what keep us coming back. This may be especially true in the mid-stages of the development of one’s practice. Once we start to understand what’s happening within us, then we want to go deeper.

2.48  tatah dvandva anabhighata

From the attainment of that perfected posture, there arises an unassailable, unimpeded freedom from suffering that is otherwise caused

by the pairs of opposites (such as heat and cold, good and bad, or pain and pleasure) that exist in our material world.

The opposites reflect the ends of our experience we seek to balance in all aspects of our lives. Otherwise we vacillate continuously between the grasping for pleasure (raga) and the running from pain (dveśa). The processes represented here through establishment of seat, relaxation of effort and relinquishment of suffering, open the door toward cessation of thought and equanimity of mind. This applies on a continuum of experience from gross to subtle. It’s near impossible to do any of these things when the mind and body are wrapped in suffering, hence the importance of asana to develop and maintain an able body. And not just that, but also to work through suffering and gain a more equanimous view on suffering itself. Asana practice is not without pain — and with a discerning mind, one can learn to navigate the pain to avoid causing one’s self harm, while at the same time lessening the grip that suffering has on mind and body.

3.1  deśah bandhah chittasya dharana

Concentration (dharana) is the process of holding or fixing the attention of mind onto one

object or place, and is the sixth of the eight limbs of Yoga.

That one object or place can reside within our body. The dvandvas created by our bodies may serve as fertile ground for steadying our attention through the focus on posture, breath, bandhas, and drishti (looking place or gaze) — drawing inward toward the midpoint, the bindu, the immovable spot. Once we’re there, the trick becomes staying there….

3.2  tatra pratyaya ekatanata dhyanam

The repeated continuation, or uninterrupted stream of that one point of focus is called meditation (dhyana),

and is the seventh of the eight limbs.

Repeatedly coming back to the focal point, be it the state of the asana, the breath, the bandhas, or some merging of them all, meditation is awareness in motion. We don’t have to parse out the limbs, we can bring them all together into the thing many of us love most – breath and purposeful movement – vinyasa.

 

Mary Reilly Nichols, 2017. Podcast. http://www.fivetattvas.com/chitheads1/mary-reilly-nichols

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