Asana implies steadiness and comfort.
It requires relaxation and meditation on the immovable.
Then opposing sensations cease to torment.
In the whole of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras these are the only three that address Asana. Amazing. Just three sutras to deal with what for many is what Yoga is. Three sutras that challenge you to rethink and reconsider Asana – its meaning, practice and purpose.
To begin with, for Patanjali Asana has nothing to do with movement or exercise. He’s talking about posture – the literal meaning of Asana – not a ‘pose,’ but the physical state of being completely steady and comfortable. Which implies alignment and groundedness – in a word – balance.
Patanjali says that Asana – balance – requires relaxation – not flexibility, not strength, not effort – but ease. And not the ease of letting-it-all-go in corpse pose, but a dynamic state of maintaining balance with no effort whatsoever. When you’re completely relaxed, he says, only then, can your focus become so steady as to be immovable – you are meditating.
Then he tells you why.
Evidently, quieting the mind, the goal of all Yoga, goes way deeper than stopping thought. Even the unconscious, non-verbal, automatically functioning part of your brain that monitors breathing and balance – the opposing energies of in/out, up/down, right/left – must come to rest. This part of your brain operates way below, and independent of, your rational, thinking mind. Only your wordless, speechless body can access it. And only when you are in a state of total physical comfort and ease – perfect Asana – can this mental watchdog lie down and rest – because there is nothing to monitor. All opposing energies have come to center. Your ‘Asana’ is perfect.
And how does this expanded definition of Asana impact your practice?
Ask yourself: how much effort to do you put into each pose- and how much of that effort creates tension? Consider: maybe it isn’t necessary – maybe, even, it has an adverse effect on practice. Experiment: refuse to ‘make an effort.’ And while you’re at it, rethink the idea of ‘holding’ a pose – and all the effort it implies. Instead, find that point of balance where there’s no need to ‘hold’ anything – where left/right, up/down, inhale/exhale come together – and spend some pleasant time in a state of ease, comfort, and stability.
As for meditation – I’ve been nowhere near the state of absolute balance that Patanjali is talking about – and probably won’t in this lifetime. But I have experienced times when my spine is tension-free, and my head rests on my neck with no feeling of weight or being ‘held up.’ At those times I have a sense of vast physical expansion. Thoughts I was not even aware of harboring float up and vanish into space, and I feel myself at the threshold of an infinite quiet.
Well, it’s a beginning. And everyday I begin again.
Asana practice is an unending process – and the process itself is the only goal.
*Sutras 46, 47 & 48 from Chapter II of “The Yoga Aphorisms of Bhagwan Sri Patanjali” translated by Sri Purohit Swami . I use this translation continually because of its easy, almost casual, terseness and clarity. J.T.