A few years ago, I traveled to practice meditation at Plum Village, a rural mindfulness community near Bordeaux, France, founded by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. I was a bit disappointed to be assigned to a remote house a 25-minute walk from the main meditation hall and housing.
At 5 each morning, my eyes were sleepy, my body ached, and my mind griped about the extra distance I had to walk in the chilly weather to get to the first meditation of the day on time. But after a few days, I realized I wasn’t experiencing the common tendency to nod off in extended meditation. My blood was already flowing, my mind awake from the steady walk in nature. My morning journey relieved the tension I had accrued overnight, easing my body and freeing my mind not just to sit in meditation, but to enjoy it.
This experience illuminated the power and purpose of yogasana, or asana—physical posturing and movement—in the path toward meditation. Whether we take a simple walk or practice an asana sequence on a yoga mat, moving the physical body helps settle the mind into presence.
See also: 40 Sanskrit Words Every Yogi Should Know
In the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, sthira-sukham asanam is translated as “Posture should be steady and comfortable.” In his translation and commentary, Swami Satchidananda explains that any pose or posture that brings comfort and steadiness is an asana. Positioning the physical body (sthula sharira) in steady asana is said to transform the sukshma sharira—the subtle body, or mind and sensory energies—into steadiness. Modern research supports this ancient wisdom: Physical exercise is a proven way to reduce mental stress and anxiety and may improve concentration.
A variety of physical yogasana practices can meet our different needs to find steady comfort. Hatha yoga is the practice of holding postures with steady breathing to generate productive heat (Tapas). According to Swami Satchidananda’s translation of the Yoga Sutra, hatha yoga was developed thousands of years ago by yogis who understood that physical pain and toxins in the body interrupt our comfort and steadiness in meditation. The twisting and folding in modern asana practice are said to massage toxins out of even deeply embedded organs while encouraging a steady presence in body and mind.
Modern ashtanga yoga is an adaptation of asana practice that is usually physically rigorous. It also involves japa, or repetition. By moving through the same postures repetitively, you train the mind to focus on body and breath, thereby moving attention away from external distraction. When you are deeply engaged in a steady practice, you may find that you lose yourself in pure, comfortable presence.
Vinyasa yoga links conscious breathing with postures to develop mental and physical strength and flexibility. I’ve found that vinyasa yoga is especially helpful for cultivating self-awareness. When you move through a flowing asana class, notice if you’re gasping for breath or generating pain just to move quickly or maneuver your body into a posture. Ask yourself: Am I providing my body what it is asking for or am I following a sequence of prescribed postures?