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Asana as the Foundation of Higher Living

In last month's article, we discussed how to teach your students to purify and calm their minds. This month, we look at the ways in which asana practice in particular can help your students grow spiritually.

By Dr. Swami Shankardev Saraswati

We all know that we feel better after stretching during an asana class. Asanas have the wonderful ability to sooth tensions, release trapped energy, and improve our sense of well-being. Proper asana practice can be used for more than health and fitness, however; it can become the basis of psychological and spiritual growth. As teachers, once we have taught the basics of asana, we can instruct our students to use the energy and well-being generated by their practice to power their self-development.

We use breath and mental muscle to lift asana to a higher level. We use the breath to enhance prana and vitality. We engage the mind to prevent distraction and to cultivate a positive creative process. We create the context for this by encouraging an attitude of self-acceptance. The student should accept where he or she is, in life and in yoga practice. Authentic and meaningful progress cannot be made without self-acceptance.

Breath Awareness
We know that the breath is both a major body pump and a doorway for vitality to enter our being. The breath is also the most easily accessed and manipulated form of prana. By manipulating the breath, we act on all of the internal organs and systems of the body, as well as on our subtle vital energy. Yoga literature states that the quality of one's breath and prana determines the quality of one's mind. A calm breath creates a calm mind, and vice versa.

To lift asana practice to a higher level, instruct your students to direct their awareness to the breath. Give instructions that challenge students to focus on their level of self-awareness, such as, "What do you feel? Use your breath to relax more, to tune into your inner strength, to create positive change." Encourage them to recognize the positive and powerful inner changes they can create through this practice. This will keep their minds as well as their bodies engaged.

Engage the Mind
One of the great definitions of yoga is union of body and mind. To be successful in yoga, the body and mind must be engaged, aligned, and connected. However, it is not uncommon for people to try to perfect a form of an asana while their mind is distracted. We tend to mentally drift, or to become caught up in such self-defeating states as competitiveness, trying too hard, lack of self-confidence, emotional turmoil, worry, or conflicting desires. Students need to be reminded that if their minds are distracted, then they are not really practicing asana. They are simply stretching muscles and ligaments, and missing important spiritual and psychological benefits.

It is not physical tension and general body stiffness that block success so much as it is the mental state and the attitude of the student. Therefore, when you teach asana, engage your students' minds in the present moment with something positive and uplifting. There are a number of instructions we can give to guide the student into this positive yoga experience.

The First Step: Reflection
The first step is to use the time prior to teaching asana to prepare your students' minds. For example, tell them to sit quietly and reflect inwardly for a moment. Encourage them to contemplate their strengths and weaknesses and to identify their needs. Then encourage them to contemplate how they could modify or rectify their weakness or problem. Can they use existing strengths, or do they need to cultivate new ones? For example, if someone lacks confidence, they may need to cultivate courage. If someone struggles with anger, then they may need to cultivate self-control and a cooler mind.

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