My last post, Turning the Mind Upside-Down, sparked some important comments, and I feel clarification is needed as to what yoga is, what an Asana practice is, and our physical bodies in relation to yoga. Here is an excerpt from my very first yoga post from a couple of years ago: Yoga Is a Way of Life:
Huh? Many might ask: Isn’t yoga like a stretching class or a great way to get a workout in? While it is true that muscles will be lengthened, strengthened, and challenged in a typical yoga class, the physical practice of yoga, the Asana, wasn’t developed so we could burn some calories and look great in those tight fitting yoga clothes. Think of it as a type of moving meditation.
Yoga is also a spiritual philosophy. Like many spiritual philosophies, yoga teaches us how to live a good and joyful life. Probably the best known guidelines of yoga are the Eight Limbs of Yoga from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The Eight Limbs of Yoga and links to my posts on them are:
- Yama (abstinence practices): a) Ahimsa (non-violence), b) Asteya (non-stealing), c) Satya (truthfulness), d) Brahmacharya (continence/control of desire), and e) Aparigraha (non-hoarding).
- Niyama (ethical observances): a) Saucha (purity/cleanliness), b) Samtosha (contentment), c) Tapas (austerity), d) Isvara Pranidhanam (surrender/devotion to God), and e) Svadyaya (self-study).
- Asana (posture practices)
- Pranayama (breathing practices)
- Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)
- Dharana (concentration)
- Dhyana (meditation)
- Samadhi (absorption)
There are also the Four Paths of Yoga:
- Karma Yoga, the Path of Service
- Jnana Yoga, the Path of Knowledge
- Bhakti Yoga, the Path of Love
- Raja Yoga, the path of Ashtanga, or the Eight Limbs of Yoga
As we can see, the physical practice known as Asana practice is but a very small part of yoga. However, it is by far the most well-known part across the globe. An Asana class is an excellent way to strengthen the physical body and de-stress, and there are also balancing and healing benefits from an Asana practice. An Asana practice is also a form of moving meditation that can help quiet the mind and increase our awareness of our physical bodies. For those of us who sit several hours during the day, moving meditation can be a more relaxing way to quiet the mind.
One of the greatest challenges of doing an Asana practice is setting aside the mind chatter so that we can observe the physical body. By that I mean set aside the ego’s thoughts, which may be, for example: If she can do that pose I can do it too! I feel so lame I can’t stand on one foot for more than half a second! Is everyone looking at my belly bulge? Let me try to do unsupported headstand even though I’ve only done supported headstand once against the wall. It’s when we let the mind’s fears and insecurities make our decisions that we can injure our bodies. It’s one thing to go a tiny bit further into a pose, but it’s another to push oneself to injury. It’s a fine line sometimes, so each individual will need to “learn their body.”
Ahimsa, the first Yama of the first limb of yoga, is an important foundation to all the other yoga practices and for life. Ahimsa translates as non-violence, but it can also be translated as Love. During an Asana practice, for example, would attempting Halasana (plow pose) be violent or loving to a recently tweaked neck, even though you’ve done it hundreds of times before? If you answer it could be violent, sit out the pose, or choose one that would be loving to your body. Keep in mind that your Asana practice is yours, and no matter what level class of yoga you may go to, you always have the choice to modify the practice to your physical body’s needs.
One of the greatest lessons that we can learn through an Asana practice is that our physical bodies are not us, but amazing vehicles that our souls have been given to experience life on Earth. We should love, respect, nourish, take care of, and maintain these gifts we have been given as best we can. An Asana practice is also an excellent way to help maintain our vehicles. Even if all you can do is stand in Tadasana (mountain pose), sit in Virasana (hero’s pose), and lie in Shavasana (corpse pose), you are still practicing Yoga Asana.
May we all take care of our physical bodies, challenge them if we so choose, and practice non-violence and love towards ourselves and others. Namaste _/l\_
We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.
– Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit priest and philosopher
If you do not know the silence of the body, you cannot understand the silence of the mind…While doing the postures, your mind should be in an interior conscious state; that means silence, emptiness, space that can be filled with an acute awareness of the sensations given by the posture. You watch yourself from the inside. It is full silence. Maintain a detached attitude toward the body and, at the same time, do not neglect any part of the body or show haste but remain alert while doing asana.
– B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life