In the Western World, yoga is often reduced to the third limb of yoga: asana. But, asana is only one of the eight limbs of yoga. I have always tried to find ways to understand yoga from a context informed by its ancient roots. One practice that has helped me dive deeper into the philosophy of yoga is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
How Jiu-Jitsu Helped me Embody Asana
In the texts passed down to us, asana is defined as simply posture. The first asanas were all very simple, and in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, only 15 classical poses were listed. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, asana is even less complicated. It is defined as a position that is “steady and comfortable.” This contrasts with mainstream yoga practices, where we often see advanced asana as something to aspire to.
Since I have been practicing Jiu-Jitsu, I have gained a deeper understanding of steadiness and comfort. When performing specific moves as a beginner in Jiu-Jitsu, it is important to be comfortable and rooted in order to execute the move. Without these two preconditions, it’s incredibly difficult to maintain calm efficiency during practice. Since beginning Jiu-Jitsu, I have noticed that my body has had a tendency to contract during asana and that diminishes the efficiency and power of my meditations. This observation has given me such an embodied understanding on the importance of asana in the context of the eightfold path. Now, I constantly remind myself that asana is not restricted or limited to the normalized version of what we see today in mainstream yoga. Instead, asana’s actual purpose is to simply prepare the body for long sessions of seated meditation.
The Myth of the “Yoga Body”
In Hatha Yoga, it is said that there are as many postures as humans on the planet. This idea shifts our perspective of what a “yoga body” is. We see the focus in yoga is never on appearance, but rather experience. Asana is essential because it creates a healthy, strong, and flexible body that opens the gateways to accessing the last five limbs of yoga.
I like to envision yoga as a tree: each limb a branch higher than the other. Jiu-jitsu helps me get a deeper understanding of these concepts as well. A more “advanced” pose does not translate to “better.” Instead, postures are like a ladder, with multiple rungs. In Jiu-Jitsu, when I do not attend to the lower rung of a move, I can’t move up to the next one. This is the same with our asana practice, in which the yamas and niyamas are prerequisites. These limbs belong together. When we discipline our attitude and establish an ethical code, we can stabilize our posture by unifying all the parts of ourselves at once.
Mastering the Art of Self-Control
Yoga seeks to attune us to how to control behavior, breath, the mind, and physical posture. Only through this control, can union occur. This is where my practice of Jiu-Jitsu converges with my yoga practice again. While practicing, I have noticed a shift in what the idea of control means for me.
My ideas of control throughout my life have been informed by oppressive systems that permeate the culture I was raised in. Jiu-Jitsu is revealing to me, in an embodied way, that true control is not about power. Instead, control is about understanding and mastery. Through this new lens of control, I am finding the capacity to navigate crisis, anger, and hardships with more stability and ease. When we truly embody the practice of yoga—or any movement practice for that matter—we find new awareness that serves us off the mat too.
Cameron Allen is one of Yoga Journal’s Live Be Yoga Tour Ambassadors. This year, the Live Be Yoga Tour—our annual roadtrip—is going virtual. We are calling it The Decompression. Recently, we’ve all been asked to journey inward, to take moments of pause and stillness, and to slow down, rest, and prioritize the things we value. Follow the Live Be Yoga 2020 series here, stay connected with us at @livebeyoga on social, and join the movement to find beauty in stillness.