Breaking Down Asana
In Hindu mythology, Lord Ganesha represents new beginnings and the removal of obstacles. He sits comfortably in the half Lotus as a symbol of transformation. Unlike Ganesha’s easy seat, our body can be one of our biggest obstacles when it comes to feeling like we are ‘achieving’ in our practice.
One of the most common expressions I hear from people I meet is “I’m not flexible enough to do yoga.” Ironically this flexibility is sometimes absent in their mind rather than body! Yoga is for everyone regardless of how easy it is or isn’t to touch your toes.
The word asana comes from the root ‘as’ – which in Sanskrit means ‘to be’. Yoga postures were developed thousands of years ago to reduce suffering – in body and mind. Underlying this is a fairly basic understanding.
When we hold suffering or pain in the physical body it can quickly become our focus. The mind can become consumed by it until we are stuck in a rut, pattern or negative way of thinking about our self (or that part of the body). What if modern medicine can’t come to our aid with a quick fix, then where to next?
Through movement based practices like yoga we begin to decrease this physical suffering (dukham).
And as suffering decreases our happiness begins to increase! Replacing something negative with something positive. Our outlook on life can be transformed.
As a student we make the effort to come to class, get on the mat despite how we are often feeling on the day because we know it can be good for us. Long term the benefits will be reaped. That forward bend (uttanasana) might be challenging today yet as we attempt it we prepare our body (and our mind) for the next time we try it… an accumulative effect.
Building on muscle memory, flexibility of thought to experience without judging and starting to understand what suits our body and what doesn’t. We begin to learn about our self – the person in life with whom we have the closest relationship!
This is the path to yoga empowering you to become your own teacher. We live in a society that has a tendency to search outside of our self for the ‘answers’ when most of them are already in us. Uncovering them is the challenge.
Yoga is often referred to as ‘a mind centred discipline’ rather than ‘a body centred approach’. The mind needs to be focused in some way to even take the step onto the mat!
However asana is still the starting point when you begin yoga and here is why…
Yoga is an unusual position for the body.
During yoga the parts of our body are placed in a special or unfamiliar way. This is done to produce a certain physical and mental effect. Many asanas were designed with special meaning behind them. Identify with that meaning in order to create an effect in the body.
For example, warrior pose (virabhadrasana) – become the warrior, strong, steady, ready to overcome obstacles.
Mountain pose (tadasana) – stand steady and solid, nothing disturbing you.
The beauty of the design of asana means that you don’t necessarily need to know the meaning to receive the effect – just having the experience of the asana can often be enough.
During asana we place attention on our body and its habits.
Yoga is an experience – we have to do it to know it – we cannot intellectualise it. When we place attention on our body we begin to understand it and when we understand we can take appropriate action. One of the most common realisations through asana practice is that we don’t use our body evenly. Another might be that we have tight hamstrings from sitting too often. Everyone has imbalance. When we realise this we can create steps to adjust how we move, sit, stand etc.
During asana we create a new and positive body pattern (samskara).
The body can become stuck in physical patterns because of our lifestyle – rounded shoulders, tilted pelvis from poor posture, sitting with crossed legs – things we are not even aware of but may begin to cause discomfort. Some of the simplest postures in yoga can start to address these patterns and even reverse them over time and consistent practice. Most times we are not even aware of these habits until they cause pain. We may visit an osteopath or physiotherapist to alleviate it but we don’t have one of those on hand every day so it becomes our own responsibility to maintain what we have. (A side note to this is using the body appropriately and with careful judgement – injuries in yoga often occur because we wrongly believe we have the capacity to do more than we should. Our yoga experience should create a new and positive body pattern, not a negative one.)
Next time you take your body into the yoga studio, remember that asana is your first foundation for the yoga practice – the tip of the iceberg. Before you dive deep below spend some time at the surface and create awareness around what you have at this moment on the physical layer – be grateful for it!
And find joy in the practice!