Yoga Asana

by | Aug 31, 2022 | Nurturing Your Practice

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In the West, the practice of yoga tends to be associated with the physical practice, also known as asana. The sanskrit word asana can be directly translated to ‘sitting down’ or ‘seated posture’ but it is also the overarching term used to describe the physical aspect of the practice of yoga. Asana is one of the eight limbs along the eight-limbed path of yoga as put forth by Patanjali. Asana is the third limb of the eight limb path after yama and niyama. Yama and niyama are the moral and ethical codes that yogis live by to exist in harmony and balance with everything around them. Asana is the gateway into the individual experience. 

The panchamaya kosha system is the lens through which we approach the human experience in yoga. The first layer of the human experience is the physical body or the annamaya kosha. We utilize asana to move through the first layer and access the more subtle layers of the human experience that come next. The body is the conduit through which we experience this world. Asana is also the limb through which beginner yogis first come to their personal practice in the West. Asana is an extremely important aspect of the eight limb path but it is just one piece of the puzzle. We can think of the eight limbs as a wheel rather than a ladder – there is no hierarchy as we need all pieces of the path.

Asana, as we know it today, is very different from the form of yoga that was practiced by the original rishis. The original physical aspect of yoga was quite succinct and straightforward. We see in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which is estimated to be about 5,000 years old, more static and slower moving postures that were heavily focused on alignment and breathwork. It wasn’t until the last couple hundred years that asana, as we see it today in the West, became established. We began to see the emergence of practices like ashtanga yoga which was popularized in Mysore, India before being brought to the United States, and Vinyasa yoga. Ashtanga and Vinyasa yoga classes are faster-paced classes with a heavy emphasis on breath-to-movement. The postures are smoothly connected from one to the other, often referred to as flowing. These practices are more synchronous rather than still. We see movement with breath that is intended to balance the practitioner, similarly to Hatha yoga

Asana is more than just the physical movement of the body. In yoga, we are looking to find ease and balance in our experience. This is why we see movements in yoga paired with the breath. For example, you might take an inhale to stand up tall and sweep the arms over your head and exhale to bring the hands back down to the body. This breath-to-movement practice is one step to establishing balance. We can then take it a bit deeper and look at the emotion and intellectual bodies as we move through asana. What are the stories that arise or the feelings that pass through our experience when we choose to do something or not to do it. Yoga creates a safe space for non-judgemental exploration. The body is the first step into the felt experience, this is why asana is important.

Asana is a wonderful tool to begin teaching yoga practitioners the practice of self-study. Our practice that we utilize on the mat is the way that we begin to learn how to practice our yoga off the mat. The average person most likely is liking a certain level of embodiment. This means that not many people are familiar with what it feels like to be in their body, to exist as themselves. Asana assists the practitioner in learning how to check-in with themselves so that they can learn to live their lives more authentically themselves. Noticing is the first step to this process. After we notice, we can observe ways in which we might meet ourselves as we are in the moment. Afterall, we don’t practice yoga to change who we are to become ‘better’; we practice yoga so that we can be better at living our lives more authentically as ourselves. 

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