Asana: The Third Limb of Yoga
If someone were to ask you to depict what a yoga class looks like they might describe an area filled with fit and healthy yogis doing challenging postures, head stands and/or holding the standing pose - bird of paradise. In today's day, this does exist and it can be slightly intimidating.
In Patanjali's Yoga Sutras (his writing on yoga philosophy), he describes yoga (meaning to yoke or unite - mind, body, & spirit) as an eight-limbed path. At first I was surprised that the asana (yoga poses) are not the first, nor the second limb on Patanjali's eight-limb path.
Asana actually follows after both the first limb, the yamas and the second limb, the niyamas. So if one were to approach yoga from a linear perspective, it might seem difficult to practice without mastering all ten yamas and niyamas. The first Yamas is ahimsa, non violence and the second is satya, truthfulness in everything.
I remember being in a hot yoga class just a few months ago really struggling because I couldn't do some of the poses, and I realized that I was internally beating myself up. My yogi sisters, and I had to share a journal entry for one of our Yoga Teacher Training assignments, and I recall writing about this very moment because I caught myself doing this and immediately changed my thinking to ... at least I'm here, in this class, trying to do something about it. Then I distinctly remember letting it go and moving forward.
In my experience, I have found that practicing the asana (postures) and pranayama (breath) even though they come after the first and second limbs of yoga they actually help me to practice patience and to be honest with myself.
Patanjali’s only mention of asana is in Yoga Sutra 2:46 sthira sukham asanam; in Sanskrit translates to sthira meaning “steadiness” and sukha meaning “ease.” In essence, Sutra 2.46 translates as “the seated posture should be steady and comfortable.” Advice to the yogi to strike a balance between determination and ease within each asana.
The ultimate goal of asana is not to perfect our physical form, but rather to move beyond the mere physical to achieve integration. Once you discover how to gracefully move along that fine line that divides sthira and sukha, you might reach a state of equanimity (also my word for 2020). Patanjali goes on to say in Sutra 2.47 that when you’ve found the place in the asana that embodies steadiness and comfort, “all effort relaxes and coalescence arises, revealing that the body and the infinite universe are indivisible.”
If you’re newer to yoga, the idea of relaxing within a pose might sound completely crazy. Some have been practicing for a while and have never come close to tranquility in downward dog. It can take a while to find that place within each pose where things align and you're not working so hard that you relax into the posture. That's why we get on our mats and practice, over and over, however many times a week, year after year. It takes time, patience and perseverance to fully embrace and embody the steadiness and comfort Patanjali describes. Sooner or later, you do have that moment when you come into that pose you've been struggling with and suddenly it all comes together and you find your breathe with ease. You begin to feel spacious, open, aligned, empowered and free.
The physical postures, breathing, and meditation are vehicles to help you reach a state of bliss that goes far beyond anything we can experience by standing on our head. The best part is that it's available to anyone and everyone, even if you think you're not flexible and you can’t touch your toes.
If you're looking to get away book an overnight stay at Harbor Shores in Lake Geneva where I'll be teaching a restorative yoga class by the outdoor pool on Saturday & Sunday mornings! DM me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.