“..[C]ultivating steadiness, ease, and an attentiveness .. allows each asana to become as if it is so many different windows onto the nature of our mind and the condition of our heart.” Mark Stephens, Teaching Yoga
The third limb of Patanjali’s eightfold path presented in the Yoga Sutras, enumerating guiding principles for a life of less suffering, is asana.
The term asana is commonly translated as “pose” or “posture”. Patanjali addresses asana specifically in only one sutra, which reads “sthira sukham asanam”. And this has been translated in many ways, including “the posture is firm and soft” or “the posture is steady and comfortable”. Bernard Bouanchaud, however, in The Essence of Yoga: Reflections on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali notes that the verbal root (as) of asanam is “rich with meaning”. He writes that “it is the idea of being present in one’s body – inhabiting, existing, and living in it.”
Most of us in the 20th and 21st centuries, especially in the West, have come to yoga through the practice of physical asanas. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because in many ways we have lost an intrinsic connection to our physical bodies and their innate intuition. Particularly those of us who are lucky enough to find ourselves living middle- and upper-class lifestyles. Our career paths and jobs generally don’t require us to do much physical labour. We spend most of our days sitting on chairs, hunched over a computer, looking at screens, responding to emails and scrolling through social media.
But without physical activity we become lazy in the body. Our muscles become weak, our joints lose mobility, and the other systems of the body don’t function as well. This doesn’t bode well for longevity and comfort in later life and, thanks to science and medicine, most of us can expect to live longer than our grandparents and great grandparents.
Most of our activity these days involves the mind, and even though we may not be partaking in regular physical exercise, this can lead to exhaustion, mental burnout and aggravate mental illness. This mental activity is often unconscious and automatic – habitual patterning of thought and thought processes after years being unaware of why we think the way we do and believing that we are our thoughts.
Doing something physical, especially an activity that involves conscious movement (like yoga), requires concentration and focus, and helps to root us in the present moment. This allows us to pause in the here and now, to inhabit, exist and live in the body, instead of constantly identifying with the thinking mind. When we exist only as our thoughts we are, for the most part, living in the past (which we cannot do anything about) and/or the future (which we are never able to control fully). When we become present, we create space between our thoughts and who we really are – the observer of those thoughts; the awareness that is conscious of the thinking. An essence so much greater than mere thought and beliefs.
The building of physical stamina by practicing asanas and staying with discomfort and the uncomfortable (provided it is not physically painful or doing damage to the body) – which, when we learn to lean into and breathe through, often opens a door into a greater sense of spaciousness and ease within – is a somatic experience which we can apply in a mental capacity and to the rest of our lives. Not always taking the “easy road” or shying away from what is uncomfortable or brings instant gratification, especially if it relates to personal growth and is ultimately for our own and/or other’s evolution.
Consistent practice and an openness – an awareness – of what arises as we do so can transform a merely physical activity into an exploration and settling of the emotions, a tool to calm the mind, and a recognition and palpable sensing of life (prana) within oneself. A physical yoga practice encourages us to yoke the breath, body and mind, because we have tended to see all those essential components of our whole being as separate.
But, ultimately, we move to find stillness and silence within, whether that’s in a meditative seat or savasana at the end of a yoga class. We move so we can yoke to our True Selves – a dimension within that is infinitely more vast than thought or the ego. And in so doing, “no longer will you then derive your identity, your sense of who you are, from the incessant stream of thinking that in your old consciousness you take to be yourself.” Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth
Written by: Leigh Bosch | June 2021