All I clearly remember from my first yoga class is the ceiling. Between asanas, we were instructed to lie down on our mats and rest. I don’t remember much else about what we did, but I do remember that this little taste made me want more. The next morning at home, I practiced all the poses I could remember, and from that day on I was hooked. Asanas became a central part of my life.
What drew me to the practice of asana was an intuitive feeling that these movements were not just “stretching”; they seemed to have some greater connection with my soul. Now, after years of study, I believe that each asana represents an aspect of myself and as such offers a powerful doorway inward to deeper awareness. This deeper awareness occurs because when I practice a pose, I am focusing on the feelings and thoughts that arise rather than just on completing the movement. I may notice tightness in my legs or emotional resistance to certain movements. This daily intense period of focus helps to create a habit of paying attention which follows me through the rest of my day. As I pay attention to what arises, I learn to see myself and my reactions more clearly; as I see myself more clearly, I begin to understand that my reactions are habits that I can let go of. This process is at the core of spiritual practice.
The use of asanas to cultivate awareness is probably as old as Indian civilization. Archaeologists have discovered a 5,000-year-old carving from the Indus River valley that shows a cross-legged figure seated in a position yogis still use for meditation. Despite this prehistoric evidence of the ancient roots of yoga, we actually have little concrete information about the development of yoga asanas. Tradition has it that each asana was created when a rishi (literally, “seer”; the rishis were the sages of Vedic India) spontaneously took on that posture during deep meditation. Surprisingly, the most revered yoga text of ancient India—the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, from the second century A.D.—barely discusses the subject. Patanjali gives no specific instructions about asana practice, and only touches on it in four of his 145 verses (chapter two, verses 29 and 46-48). Although several other premodern Indian texts (including the Siva Samhita, the Gheranda Samhita, and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika) provide a little more description of specific poses, traditionally many teachers have followed Patanjali’s lead and taught that the main value of asanas is to prepare the body for long hours of meditation by creating a strong back and supple legs.
In Western culture of the late 20th century, asana practice has taken on forms Patanjali might not even recognize. Yoga asanas are becoming ever more widely known and accepted, mostly as therapeutic treatment for physical injuries and as an increasingly popular fitness regime. Now you can find yoga asanas not just in popular health journals, but also in the slickest fashion magazines, and the media quickly informs us which movie stars are practicing yoga.
But beyond its current fashionability and undeniable health and fitness benefits, I feel the practice of asana has deeper gifts to offer to Westerners. More interesting to me than any specific practice techniques are two basic ideas about asana. First, I think asana practice can be a spiritual practice in and of itself. Second, I think this practice can help us bring the spiritual into our daily lives in the modern world, far from the ashrams and retreats of ancient India.
We in the West may be captured at first by the lure of healing, flexibility, and strength, but we stay with the practice of yoga asanas because it is a powerful nonverbal expression of the sacred. Humankind has always sought a connection with the transcendental. We may in fact be “hardwired” to seek a source beyond our selves, and this hunger to connect with the sacred unseen can be fed with asana practice.
To truly practice asana, you have to become present in the moment. You have to observe your sensations, your reactions, your sense of ease and difficulty as you stretch and bend. And this consistent willingness to be in the here and now is the basis of meditation. Part of what makes being in the present moment so special is that we rarely do it. Most of the time our minds are fleeing toward the future or lagging in the past. We tend to live in our thoughts about reality and not in reality itself. The problem with this way of living is that it makes us miss the present—and the present is all we really have. Our frequent dissatisfaction with life comes from never fully tasting it exactly as it happens. Asana practice can help us reconnect with the sacred by requiring that we pay attention to the miracle that we are and to the wonder of creation in which we live.
In chapter two, verse 46 of the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali clearly defines steadiness and ease as the two key characteristics of asana practice. It’s ironic that most people think of asanas as the movements of yoga; actually, asanas demand that the practitioner learn to stay still. This staying still is a powerful practice. When you learn to hold a pose, the steadiness of the body becomes a backdrop against which you can clearly see the constant movement of the mind.
Through teaching you to be still, the practice of asana can be a doorway to deeper states of meditation. Yoga asanas—especially Savasana (Corpse Pose)—can provide the student with yoga’s most important gift: dis-identification. In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali teaches that mistakenly identifying your thoughts as your Self is the root of all misery. He further teaches that all the practices of yoga aim to dissolve this false identification.
In the stillness of Savasana, you can begin to separate your Self from your thoughts. As you move more deeply into relaxation, you begin to enter a state in which thought is experienced as a surface phenomenon. You can begin to experience a little space between thought and what is perceived as Self. A teacher of mine once said, “The problem with our thoughts is that we believe them”—and the problem with believing our thoughts is that we often act on them in ways that cause suffering for ourselves and others. When you experience a little space between your thoughts and the consciousness that is the background for thought, thoughts begin to lose their power over you. With dis-identification comes choice: You can choose to act from the thought, or to release it without action. Ultimately, this kind of choice is synonymous with true freedom.
Along with steadiness, Patanjali stresses that for a position to be an asana, we must abide in it with sukha, a word usually translated as ease or comfort. For most of us, that may seem like an impossible demand. When we move into asanas, we’re often aware of difficulty—tightness, weakness, mental resistance, or all three. It’s rare that we have a sense of ease. So what could Patanjali have meant by insisting that asanas must be marked by ease?
I’ve come to think that “ease” in this context refers not to the difficulty I experience in doing the pose, but rather to my interpretation of that difficulty. In other words, the pose can continue to challenge me. Perhaps that will never change. But I can become “easeful” in my interpretation of that difficulty. I can choose to remain present and allow the difficulty to be there without fighting it, reacting to it, or trying to change it.
Just as seeking ease in your asana practice doesn’t mean avoiding difficult poses, the wider practice of yoga is not about arranging your life so that it is free of challenges. Rather, it is about using the discipline you find in asana practice to remain easy in the midst of difficulty. When you learn to maintain this ease, everything you say and do can become an asana—a position that allows your body, mind, and soul to sing in harmony with the universe.