Musings on the 8 Limbs: Asana
Patanjali's eight steps or limbs leading to liberation brings us to number three: Asana. We all think we understand asana. Many great teachers have outlined various yoga poses that can provide physical, mental and spiritual benefits. When I first began my yoga studies, I researched Iyengar's Light on Yoga as if it were a yogic bible. (And if you haven't read this book and are interested in yoga, I highly recommend it.)
If I were to give you MY definition of asana, I would define it as a posture that creates an energetic shift in the body. Being a sensitive person, I feel energy very profoundly and can attest that holding your body in a certain way DOES create a shift. Not only can the postures shift the way you breathe and react on a very physical level, but they affect the 72,000 energetic nadis that carry prana or life force to every cell in the body. I like to imagine that a yoga practice helps bring my cells into harmony, and I'll often ask students to visualize this as well. Every pose, every movement we make -- whether choreographed or not -- is affecting your energy. If you've taken a Yin class with me, you'll often hear me talking about how certain poses or sequences will enhance organ function in subtle or deep ways. And I can attest to this not only in my own body, but in the responses from students when they tell me about the healing effects.
The classic definition of asana as outlined in the Yoga Sutras and other ancient texts is simply a "seat." And this is incredibly important and intentional. In order to achieve liberation from a yogic perspective, you must be positioned in a way that allows energy to flow. Once we journey to the subsequent limbs, such as Pranayama, it will be clear that these practices are more effective when the body is appropriately prepared.
In many of the ancient yogic traditions, the sequencing of poses was designed to achieve comfort in a steady seat for meditation. My teacher, Lucy Cimini, often talks about how the early yogis watched the movement of animals to see how they achieved comfort for long periods of time, and then they created or adapted similar poses. Again, this is all about energy. If you're in a seated position for a long period of time, and you feel uncomfortable, where is your energy going? The discomfort is created from energy, the reaction creates more energy, and your thoughts are then directed towards that energy. The yoga poses help us prepare the body for a steady flow of energy so we can achieve a sense of liberation.
I have experienced and witnessed many accounts of people feeling intense releases in yoga poses, surfacing emotions, uncovering stuck trauma, or experiencing that sensation of pranic release for the first time. The poses are POWERFUL in the ways they shift or free energy in the body. And the ancient yogis considered the body a physical representation of our soul, and revered it as a temple that must be taken care of and presented in the image of divinity.
Since I was a child, I have been determined to take care of my body and maintain health. Partly because I want to be 90 years old and still doing handstands in my kitchen and hiking up mountains, but also because I want to feel good at all times. I don't want to be uncomfortable in my body. I want to live life to the fullest. That is my liberation.
I would also encourage people to view asana from the energetic perspective and be curious about different yoga practices. I know that if I do the same poses in the same way every day, energy can stagnate in other parts of the body. I also know that feelings of resistance about certain poses can often mean that I need to practice those the most. And the same goes for fast-paced versus slow-paced, flow versus stillness. And FEEL the shift in your body after a pose. When you become more aware of energy and the resonance of a yoga postures, you will fall in love with the practice all over again.
I fall back in love with it every day. :)