When I describe my Yoga practice I generally am referring to my asana practice. The word asana translates as ‘seat’ although refers to a Yoga posture. The reason it is called a seat is to enable you to sit in peace and comfort for hours, meditating, not distracted by aches and pains. This is one of the latter stages of Patanjali’s eight limbs (although I also like to call it the eight step programme…). My ability to sit still has never been the best. I’ve always had so much energy, walking for miles on my own every day as if I don’t exercise quite intensely I get overtaken by this feeling of dullness which I just can’t stand. So for the past ten years I’ve been pretty keen on the gym too.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons I am drawn to Ashtanga- I like to challenge myself physically. I’m like a puppy chewing on a never ending bone that just won’t soften and yield… I get glimpses of softening and opening within the practice- usually when I have got frustrated and had to take a deep breath, re-dedicate the practice to one of devotion rather than me doing monkey tricks, and sometimes it begins to feel very different.
A lot of people believe that asana is not Yoga. I remember spending an entire weekend doing Raja Yoga eleven years ago and the only posture was a seated one. It was wonderful, elevational, even frightening. But asana practice to me can be meditation too. That is why it is so important to treat it as a ritual and let go of your everyday self and pray before you begin, not starting the practice as your everyday self, that collection of conditioned responses that you have developed over time to maintain whatever status quo, but to start the practice as a vessel, ready to accept whatever may happen.
In the classic ‘Light on Yoga’, Iyengar expands on this beautifully. He writes ‘Where does the body end and the mind begin? Where does the mind end and the spirit begin? They cannot be divided as they are inter-related and but different aspects of the same all-pervading divine consciousness. To the yogi the body is not an impediment to his spiritual liberation nor is it the cause of its fall, but is an instrument of attainment. He seeks a body as strong as a thunderbolt, healthy and free from suffering so as to dedicate it to the service of the lord for which it is intended#’. So here, Iyengar points out that in Yoga, the mind is regarded as part of prakrti (physical nature) in as much as the body is. In asana practice they meld into one another.
The groundwork of yama and niyama has prepared the body for asana practice, and then the body and the mind work together, carrying one another to new heights- just as the mind can teach the body, the body can also teach the mind.
From my own experience of asana practice, I know that when I have managed a posture that I have previously found challenging for whatever reason, it seems to change something in my mind, whether that is a fear barrier or just that I needed to re-think my approach. The development is not ‘linear’ but more ‘circular’. A feeling of ‘lightness and strength’ does indeed develop.
And, just like other areas of life, it often feels that when one develops in one field, or gains something precious, something else will fall away- and so yes, there is sacrifice too. I have a story about headstand. For a couple of years I was trying and trying to get into it. Nada. It was just not accessible and I kept thinking about it. Then one day after I had split up with someone I loved dearly, I was sitting in my class wondering if perhaps I should throw a brick through his window when the teacher told me to go into headstand. Without even thinking about it up I went. Because I was no longer attached to wanting it so badly. And headstand began to fill the gap. Sometimes you have to lose to gain…
The body to me, in Yoga, is our tool of meditation. This is why we should be kind to it, feed and water it well and not give it away too easily or let it be a channel for demons but thats not always easy either… The body is often our teacher, and asana practice is a real journey. It is not necessarily about perfect posture either. It is our approach to the posture which matters, which creates the integrity of the practice whether or not we can touch our toes. In fact, sometimes I think the stiffer you are the better- you have more to work with, more to learn.
Asana practice is a wonderful lesson in changing cycles, like observing a garden through the seasons. It helps us to understand our physical nature. And understanding that is the key to accepting that. And accepting that is the key to letting go of that.