What is the point of yoga poses?
Flowing Tree Pose
Recently I read this fantastic explanation of yoga postures or asana, in Deepak Chopra’s book “The seven spiritual laws of yoga” :
“The word asana means “seat” or “position”. When people consider yoga, they usually think of this branch, which refers to the postures people enter into to achieve physical flexibility & tone. At a deeper level, asana means the full expression of mind-body integration, in which you become consciously aware of the flow of life energy in your body. Performing asanas with full awareness is practice for performing action in life with awareness.”
This set my mind thinking about why and how we practice yoga. Chopra makes an interesting point that it is the physical aspect of yoga that has taken on in the west, but there are many more facets, or limbs as we actually call them, to yoga. There are 8 limbs of yoga and the practice of asana is actually the 3rd limb, but is probably a good place to start as it’s the one we are probably most familiar with. Asana practice is also the first part of Hatha yoga, which on a basic level just means physical yoga.
Discovering that various aches and pains, and dis-ease within the physical body was stopping them from meditating, the ancient yogis developed asanas to help them to sit longer without the distractions of the physical body. Written in the 15th century, there are just 12 original postures documented in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which may come as a surprise as we now have a couple of hundred asanas and variations to choose from! First and foremost then, yoga postures are a way of keeping the body healthy, flexible, strong and pain free to allow the spiritual seeker to sit in stillness, and that’s it. The ultimate goal of asanas is to bring the mind, body and soul into a perfectly balanced still point. They are a very useful tool, a means to an end, but not the whole point of yoga. They are certainly not about involving the ego, showcasing how flexible we may be or what contortions we can manouevre our bodies into.
Apart from the physical, asanas give us the opportunity to explore the deeper layers of our being. This for me is where yoga gets interesting and is absolutely why I have never lost interest in nearly 25 years of practicing. You can practice the same movement time and time again, it will always be different and always have something new to teach us. Let’s take the Tree posture for example, this is one of the first postures you will probably be taught in a Dru Yoga class, and at first we’ll be focusing on getting the physical movements correct, our alignments (where each body part is, in relation to the others). Once your body has an idea of where it is going, you can then start to think about how the breath flows in your body, then perhaps what emotions it brings up, what thoughts run through your mind, notice how the thoughts and emotions effect your balance, until finally you might find a still point. We can go on like this exploring a posture ad infinitum, there is always something to learn, always something to discover. It is so much more than just getting the body into a physical position. I’m going to explore these layers of being in upcoming blogs.
Yoga is a holistic practice, when we use a posture to help ease an ache or a pain, we can also choose to look deeper within. In my experience there is always an emotion, a thought pattern or something the mind is throwing up that is contributing to or not helping the problem. In class, when we give out the benefits of a posture we often include some of ways it effects our mind or emotions or our energetic body, not just all the many physical benefits of practicing. This is alluded to in the quote at the top.
When we move in Dru Yoga we always try to do it with awareness, just last night at class as I was teaching a breathing practice I was reminding the group to coordinate the breath with the movement, to feel the expansion in the rib cage. It wasn’t about just flinging the arms about and wondering how long we were going to be doing this for 🙂 The final line in Chopra’s quote says “Performing asanas with full awareness is practice for performing action in life with awareness.” This to me is one of the most amazing gifts of yoga. Treat your yoga practice as a philosophy for living, not an exercise programme to complete, “learn” and then move onto the next.
Whatever your shape, size or ability, I promise you that yoga asana have something to offer you. It can be very off putting to look at pictures on social media of beautiful, slim models posing in postures we can only dream of (I’m counting myself in this too!), but please don’t let it stop you practicing or coming to class. You will get more from the journey of getting into postures, from the depth and stillness than from forcing yourself into a posture that isn’t right for you.
Let’s go back to our tree posture as an example. You will get much more out of the posture by being balanced and still with the foot resting on the floor, than by lifting the leg higher and wobbling the whole time. You will also get so much more out of a posture by being honest with yourself. If your foot will not move up your leg without you having to use your hands to put it there, then it shouldn’t be in that position! You will be compromising your hip alignment, again, better to ease back, rest where you can, feel the comfort and the joy there, then work at building strength and flexibility in the hips each time to practice. You may be able to move the leg higher very quickly or it may never happen, either way there will be plenty of teachings in the practice if you give it chance.
I hope that this has given you a feel for more traditional yoga asana practice. Let me know your thoughts on the subject. Ix