What are Yoga Asanas and Why Practice Them?

Given the central importance of the yamas and niyamas, one might wonder why it would be necessary to practice the other limbs of yoga. Would it not be enough to be compassionate, truthful, and content? Why would it be important to take the time to stretch our backs or to listen to our breath? If not for the tremendous importance of grounding spirituality in the body, it’s unlikely that the great sages would have listed asana practice as the second limb. This is why I have chosen to focus in such detail on this dimension of
practice. What is asana practice all about?


The word asana is usually translated
as “pose” or “posture,” but its more literal
meaning is “comfortable seat.” Through their observations
of nature, the yogis discovered a vast repertoire of energetic expressions,
strong physical effect on the body but also a concomitant psychological effect.
Each movement demands that we hone some aspect of our consciousness and use
ourselves in a new way. The vast diversity of asanas is no accident, for
through
exploring both familiar and unfamiliar
postures we are also expanding our consciousness, so that regardless of the
situation or form we find ourselves in, we can remain “comfortably seated” in
our center. Intrinsic to this practice is the uncompromising belief that every
aspect of the body is pervaded by consciousness. Asana practice is a way
to develop this interior awareness.


While a dancer’s or athlete’s internal impulses
result in movement that takes him into space, in asana practice our
internal impulses are contained inside the dynamic form of the posture. When you
witness a yoga practitioner skilled in this dynamic internal dance, you have the
sense that the body is in continuous subtle
motion. What distinguishes an asana from a stretch
or calisthenic exercise is that in
asana practice we
focus our mind’s attention completely in the body so that we can

move as a unified whole and so we can perceive what
the body has to tell us. We don’t do something to the body, we become the
body. In the West we rarely do this.
We watch TV while we stretch; we read a book while we climb
the StairMaster; we think about our problems while we take a walk, all the time
living a short distance from the body. So asana practice is a reunion
between the usually separated body-mind.


Apart from the vibrant health, flexibility, and
stamina this unified body-mind brings us, living in the body is also an
integral aspect of spiritual practice. The most tangible way that we can know
what it means to be compassionate or not grasping is directly through the
cellular experience of the body. The most direct way that we can learn what it
means to let go is through the body. When we have a self-destructive
addiction–the impulse to overeat or to take drugs–this happens through the
entrenchment of neurological and physiological patterns in our bodies. And on a
more basic level, it’s hard to feel focused and purposeful when our bodies are
full of aches and pains or burdened with illness and disease.


While I have given the practice of asanas
great emphasis in this book, it is not because the perfection of the body or of
yoga postures is the goal of yoga practice. This down-to-earth, flesh-and-bones
practice is simply one of the most direct and expedient ways to meet yourself.
It is a good place to begin. Whether you meet yourself through standing on your
feet or standing on your head is irrelevant. It’s important, therefore, not to
make the mistake of thinking that the perfection of the
yoga asanas is the goal, or that you’ll be good at
yoga only once you’ve mastered the more difficult postures. The asanas
are useful maps to explore yourself, but they are not the territory. The
goal of asana practice is to live in your body and to learn to perceive
clearly through it. If you can master the Four Noble Acts, as I like to call
them, of sitting, standing, walking, and lying down with ease, you will have
mastered the basics of living an embodied spiritual life. This book gives you
the tools to do this and to go further if you wish.


The emphasis on asana practice is also specific to the
age we live in, for we live
in a time of
extreme dissociation from bodily experience. When we are not in our bodies we
are dissociated from our instincts, intuitions, feelings and insights, and
it
becomes possible to dissociate ourselves
from other people’s feelings, and other
people’s suffering. The insidious ways in which we become
numb to our bodily
experience and the feelings
and perceptions that arise from them leave us powerless to know who we are, what
we believe in, and what kind of world we wish to create. If we do not know when
we are breathing in and when we are breathing out, when we are unable to
perceive gross levels of tension, how then can we possibly know how to create a
balanced world? Every violent impulse begins in a body filled with tension;
every failure to reach out to someone in need begins in a body that has
forgotten how to feel. There has never been a back problem or a mental problem
that didn’t have a body attached to it. This limb of yoga practice reattaches us
to our body. In reattaching ourselves to our bodies we reattach ourselves to the
responsibility of living a life guided by the undeniable wisdom of our
body.


PRACTICING WITH JOYFULNESS

When we begin practice, we may feel far from happy
within ourselves. In fact, even the semblance of happiness may seem as remote to
us as winning the lottery. We may feel utterly confused, buried in
self-destructive habits, and encumbered by difficulties, whether emotional,
physical, or material, that appear insurmountable. Our bodies may feel as stiff
and knotted as an old tree, and our minds a jumble of worries and neuroses.
Platitudes about the peace and happiness available to us right now sound empty
in the face of our very real pain. Most of us begin like this, and even those
who feel some sense of inner balance often find that underneath the thin veneer
of appearances, there is much work to be done.


How do we go about doing this work without
becoming discouraged by the enormity of the task? Unless we can find a way to
practice with joyfulness, working with our difficulties rather than against,
them, practice will be an experience of
frustration and disappointment. Unless we can find a way to
enjoy what we are doing right now, yoga practice will become a negative time,
and ultimately we’ll develop a strong resistance even to stepping onto
the mat.


A story may help you to understand what I mean.
Many years ago I moved into a derelict house. The back door was nailed shut and
had not been opened for fifteen years; once pried open it revealed a six-foot
wall of seemingly impenetrable blackberry bushes, vines, and crabgrass. I wanted
a garden. For many months I looked in despair through the window of the back
door. The task seemed too large and. too difficult. Then I decided upon a
strategy that my mind could grasp. I decided that I would divide the project
into four-foot increments. Every week I
would
clear a four-foot patch of garden. The backyard was sixty-five feet long! As I
would begin to dig and root, cutting and pulling my tiny patch, I resolved that
I would focus my attention only on the four-foot patch. I would not even look at
the other sixty-one feet of garden left to clear. Within minutes of beginning I
would become completely absorbed in the insects, the tiny plants uncovered, and
the pleasure of digging my hands into the brown earth. Each four-foot patch took
about three hours because the crabgrass had to be dug out completely and
the
earth was rock hard. But three hours a
week was an easily manageable commitment. When I was finished with the patch, I
would step back and admire my good work, never allowing myself to consider the
chaotic mess left remaining. How wonderful it looked! Each four-foot patch was a
unique wonder. Pathways buried two feet under emerged. A lawn mower, enveloped
by grass (proof of the law of karma), was discovered. Not only was the task
challenging, it became an adventure, and I eagerly anticipated what I might find
each week. Within a year I had a beautiful lawn, an herb garden, and a patch of
flowers to enjoy. But, more important, I enjoyed the process of transforming an
inhospitable patch of ground into an urban paradise.


When you begin to practice, you may feel very
bound in your body and mind, not unlike the densely woven crabgrass of my
garden. You can choose to fight with yourself, pulling and tugging on yourself
as a way to force your own metamorphosis. If you’ve ever encountered a weed with
deep roots, you know the futility of pulling at the stem knowing full well some
digging is in order! There’s a moment
when you
can cheerfully accept the task and set to it with full vigor, or turn sour and
miserable in the face of such work. There’s a moment when you can resign
yourself to the patient work ahead or give in to the impulse to pull on the stem
before the ground has been dug deep enough. The first step is accepting that
some deep work needs to be done and then deciding to make this a positive,
uplifting
experience.


In yoga practice you can do this by dividing your
experience into incremental breaths and taking care of only that which arises in
one breath cycle and no more. In this way almost any difficulty becomes
manageable. Rather than focusing on how much further you wish you could go, or
comparing your meager efforts with those of someone who is more adept, you can
choose to focus on what you are accomplishing in each breath. Maybe today you
open your hip five millimeters farther, or you manage to sit comfortably in
meditation for the first time. As you investigate the tightness around your hip
you discover ways to release it; as you sit for five more minutes you discover
that those “urgent” matters were really not so urgent. It is only through these
tiny, slow, and progressive openings that deep, profound change occurs. It is
your choice to take pleasure in these small awakenings
or to disregard your efforts as insignificant in the face
of how much further you have to go. You can choose to have a sense of humor
about your dilemma or fester in negativity. Whom would you like to garden
with?


When we make practice a joyful time, it is also
much more likely that we are
growing more
deeply within our spiritual life. When we get hooked into striving toward where
we think we should be and how far we ought to be able to go, in truth we are
somewhere else all the time. We are in our fantasy, our ideas, our concepts, and
our judgments. There’s not much room in there to perceive and appreciate what’s
actually happening. Even when we feel pain, even when we face great difficulty,
we can take refuge in our practice. There will inevitably be times when progress
is slow, when injury or illness or life circumstances limit our ability to do
the outward forms. But this doesn’t limit our ability to plumb the depths of our
inner life.


Each day as you step onto your mat, make a
decision to enjoy just where you are right now. Take a few moments, too, to
contemplate how fortunate you are to be practicing this wonderful art. A casual
glance at the morning paper is proof enough of the vast suffering, poverty,
violence, and homelessness that is the lot of so many human beings. If you are
standing on a yoga mat and have the time to practice even fifteen minutes, you
are a fortunate person. If you have a yoga teacher, you have an invaluable gift
and life tool available to very few people. In the spirit of this gratefulness,
let your practice begin.


Copyright © 2000 Donna
Farhi


Donna Farhi Written by Donna Farhi

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