The only instruction about āsana that Śri Patanjali has in the Yóga Sūtra is in the second chapter called Sādhana Pāda. Sūtra 46, Shithra Sukham Āsanam; states ‘that position which is steady and comfortable is āsana’. Practiced within this context, postures are meant to develop the ability to sit comfortably for long periods of time as a prerequisite for meditation. (Satyānanda)
You will not find a long list of hundred or more āsanas within various categories of forward and back bends, twists and inversions in the Yóga Sūtras. However, a few yogis discovered that certain specific body positions opened energy channels and psychic centers. Developing control of the body through these postures enabled them to control the mind and energy. Hence, āsanas as tools became the foundation necessary for the exploration of the body, breath and mind and higher states. Āsanas are elaborated in other yógic texts like the Hata Yóga Pradipika.
For most students attraction to āsana is geared towards reducing stress at work and at home. For some, it may be for healing physical or emotional suffering. For others, it may begin as a prescription from their family physician to add movement and flexibility. There are a few who realize that āsana done correctly assists in gaining strength, which is something everyone can benefit from, especially those of us who are past fifty. At the very least, practice should support any of the above intentions.
Today, you can easily find a video amongst the categories of gentle, beginners, intermediate and advanced to practice yogāsana in the comfort of your home. There are several books and blogs that offer instructions for each āsana detailing alignment principles, modifications, benefits, risks, etc. However, nothing can replace a live teacher, whose energy can support your progress, and whose encouragement will help you to practice safely and with confidence. My sincere gratitude to all the teachers who have and continue to guide my practice.
A Dozen Reminders
While there are many reminders, here are twelve for you to peruse before your next practice at a studio or at home keeping Sūtra 46 in mind.
1. Make sure you read the description of the class carefully before you take it. If it is still ambiguous, check with the teacher. Ask the questions about things that concern you. Once you feel comfortable that you have received favorable answer, then take the class. It’s better to be cautious than leave the class dissatisfied or worse – with an injury. The first impression can make or break your commitment to āsana, pose practice.
2. Please look at your teacher to show you the right way to do each āsana. Do not look at your peers, even if they seem to ‘look’ better than you. There are micro movements and adjustments that are specific for your body to achieve the steadiness and comfort in every āsana. If you are watching someone else, then you are not paying attention to how your body is responding to the pose. You will also miss any modification cues provided by your teacher.
3. Try not to judge the teacher in your very first class. Every teacher is doing her best to provide a good atmosphere where you can practice. Each one has trained in school with a specific lineage and after years of teaching, developed their own style. It’s best to take a few classes before you decide if she is a right fit for you. Having said that, I also think it is good to try different teachers and classes ever so often to get out of your comfort zone and train your mind to be interested and receptive.
4. What if the teacher introduced herself as a new graduate? Here, is a test for you. Are you willing to give her a chance? If you have been practicing regularly, you will know when to modify, breathe when you need to let go in a pose, and redirect your mind towards your practice instead of being a critic. And, out of compassion, you can graciously give her a positive nod of encouragement at the end of class. You can say something like – “I liked the way you helped us adjust the hips in Warrior 1. The other instructor does it this way….”. Now, you have given her an approval as well as a tip towards reflecting on her teaching journey.
5. Notice how a proficient teacher conducts her class. An experienced teacher will observe if you are practicing with a competitive attitude just by watching how you raise your arms and open your chest, and can catch you before you injure yourself – both body and pride. If you have been attending her class regularly, she will be knowledgeable about the way you move and place your body. She may recall comments you may have shared with her and know how to gently redirect your willful energy and soften it into gratitude. Most times, you may be unware of this transformation, but with practice, you can become watchful and consciously notice the change in your energy. By developing this awareness, you can redefine the terms beginner to intermediate to mean a gentle metamorphosis of your habituated mental patterns and cultivate a mindful practice.
6. Understand that the various postures are designed to gradually open and release different areas in your body. They are not an achievement to arrive at a strange contorted position. It may take you a while to do these poses with ease. Remember to be patient and practice with non-harming (Ahimsā). Take your time to understand the process of self-exploration and self-healing as you practice and enjoy the journey.
7. Āsana done properly is not a competition, even with yourself. It’s a matter of doing what you can at any given moment, of being aware of what you are actually doing – of building strength, flexibility and endurance. Where you are in the pose will vary each time you practice, not if you were more flexible yesterday. In what parts of your body are you struggling needlessly? Be honest (Satya) with yourself. The idea is to calmly start wherever you are and progressively work towards deepening your practice. (Bell)
8. Choose and practice a pose that you find pleasurable and one that is unpleasant. Note your response to each. Notice if you are attached to the pleasurable pose because it’s easy for you and you look ‘good’. With the unpleasant pose, are you trying to force yourself to cross the edge to prove you can do it? Try to understand why you like one and dislike the other. Practice them regularly for a month and note if your relationship with them has changed. (Bell) Again, be honest with what you observe. If you choose not to acknowledge the cause of your likes and dislikes, you are stealing (Asteya) from yourself.
9. Try not to be too attached to ‘vinyasa flow’. With vinyasa flow being a popular theme in most classes at the moment, it seems to be contradicting Śri Patanjali’s sūtra of steadiness and comfort. If you do not pause long enough to hold a pose, how are you going to know if the alignment is correct, if the muscle is stretching, and if the joint is strengthened. And most importantly are you are breathing in the pose and allowing the body and mind to connect in steadiness? Of course, you might be wondering how long is long enough. It is not the length of time that matters. Quality of breath is the key. Come into the pose and then notice the ease of your breath. You may be able to hold a pose with ease for 2-5 breaths on a good day. Then, as you transition into the next pose, watch how your breath becomes shallow as the mind fixates on the part of the body in distress. If you never stay long enough to inquire into and make peace with the discomfort, how can you expect to remain peaceful, and by extension undisturbed by difficulties in your life? Equanimity comes from stabilizing the breath. Hold each pose long enough to know the nature of discomfort while breathing through it, and gain valuable insights. This is the body-mind connection in yóga.
10. While you begin by working with the body in a āsana class, it is critical to remember that mat practice is also about training the mind. It is about noticing how rigid you are in your habits; about the music the teacher plays, your attachment to the poses chosen, the way the mats are facing, your aversion towards a new student, among other things. The mind and body are not separate entities and tend harbor tensions and knots based on your habits. Every mental knot has a corresponding physical, muscular knot and vice versa. The aim of āsana is to release these knots and harmonize the body and mind. If you don’t make an effort to observe your mind and consciously change your thought patterns, then mat practice becomes just another form of exercise. (Satyānanda)
11. Of course, it is not easy to train the mind. You need a tool and the best tool is your breath. Breath is with you always even though you don’t remember its presence. It doesn’t need to be packed and it goes wherever you go. By practicing to breathe with awareness, you can transform your breath into a tool to train your mind. Early in your practice you will end up breathing each time the teacher reminds you to breathe in class. Then, you will remind yourself to breathe during conflicting emotions to find your way back to peacefulness. You may also prompt yourself to breathe in a pose during āsana practice at home. Slowly, you will begin to observe that you are breathing peacefully when you are busy with chores. This is progress. But, this is also only the beginning. This is when you can begin to train the mind to undo the old habituated, harmful thought patterns that you operate with in daily life.
12. Ask yourself what you discovered about yourself on the yóga mat. Are you using those discoveries to live your life with mindfulness? Did mat practice prompt you to ask questions about your connection to the world? Did you recognize that there is more to yóga than just poses on the mat? If this is your reflection, then maybe it is time to explore the knowledge behind the poses through the study of yóga philosophy. You can begin by reading the books one and four listed in the references.
You may already be familiar with the above dozen. Still, it doesn’t hurt to read them periodically to check if you are actually applying them. In the years of teaching, I find the need to repeat these reminders often. It helps to stay connected to the practice and introduce them to those who are just starting on their yóga journey.
“The best way to prepare yourself for the proper practice of yóga is to think of it as a time of communion and renewal. Learn to do each pose as though it were the center of all life and of all other poses. Each pose you perform will automatically suggest the whole universe of which it is a part. Nothing exists in isolation. This is the secret of yóga.” (Schiffman)
The highest practice of yóga is ‘evenness of the mind’ and thus is ‘skill in action’ says the Gīta. By establishing yourself in ‘yóga’ – in unshakable equanimity, you will be more effective in the realm of action, in life. (Eaśvaran)
Enjoy your Āsana Abhyāsa, pose practice.
- Schiffman, Eric. 1996. Yoga: The Spirt and Practice of Moving into Stillness. Simon and Schuster, NY
- Stephens, Mark. 2010. Teaching Yoga: Essential Foundations and Techniques. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley California.
- Sarasvati, Satyānanda Swami. 1999. Revised Edition. Āsana Prāṇāyāma Mudra Bandha. Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, India.
- Bell. Charlotte. 2007. Mindful yoga Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice. Rodmell Press, Berkeley California.
- Eaśvaran, Éknāth. 1985. The Bhagavad Gīta. Nilgiri Press, Tomales, California.