Monday, June 7, 2010

Third Limb of Patanjali’s Eight Limbed Path: Asana

The third limb of Patanjali’s eight limbed path is Asana, which can be translated as “seat” or “posture.” This is where most of us step onto the yogic path, through a practice of hatha yoga. Hatha can be translated as the union (yoga) of sun (ha) and moon (tha) where ha and tha are like the Taoist words yang and yin which point to active and receptive qualities within our minds and bodies-- active and receptive always in relation to something else. Hatha yoga is the yoga of the body, in which we balance these qualities (ha and tha) by finding the mid point between effort and ease, balancing strength with flexibility, finding optimal alignment within the body, with gravity and with the larger forces within and around us.

Asana refers to the various shapes in which our bodies are stretched in every direction from every orientation including forward, backward, twisted, upside down, reclining, prone seated and standing. Hatha yoga postures are an accessible and effective way of keeping the body/mind healthy, while balancing our subtle energies (the same energies balanced by acupuncture). There are many styles of hatha yoga to choose from so that a teenager, a young adult, a middle-aged man or an elderly woman can all find a practice that supports their body at their particular stage of life. Hatha yoga asanas, practiced with awareness, are something we can do throughout our lifetime.

When we practice asana, the simple guidelines Patanjali offers are to make it steady and pleasant. While performing a posture, we allow a steady, smooth breath so that our mind can relax and stay present, merging with whatever sensations arise. We take many actions within the pose to support good physical and energetic alignment so that we can relax our effort and find the support of gravity and the larger reservoirs of energy within and around us. Proper sequencing enhances the depth with which we can enter the postures by preparing the body to open so that we go deeper within a single pose or within a particular kind of pose such as backbends or twists.

Hatha Yoga asanas stretch and strengthen the entire body, and release stress held within our organs, supporting their proper functioning, while also toning the glandular system which supports healthy bodily cycles like menstruation, menopause, our stress response and overall mood. The proper performance and regular practice of asana will support us on all of these levels and allow these good effects to take root and blossom into a balanced and harmonious body/mind/heart. An imbalance at any level affects all levels, so working through the body tension allows for a smooth flow of energy through our emotional and mental systems and vice versa.

For asana to be most effective, we have to practice with sensitivity to our internal energy, understanding ourselves enough to see how we are faring with the tensions of life. During particularly stressful times it might be best to use the yoga practice as a time to restore and renew our energy. Likewise if we are feeling stuck and immobile, a practice that gets us moving is more appropriate. Understanding our constitution and how the seasonal shifts affect us also supports our self-understanding so that we can tailor a practice that will be balancing to our body/mind rather than throwing us deeper into imbalance.

When our teacher is leading our practice, these considerations still apply. Our teachers may not always offer the practice that is appropriate to us that day, but we can be sensitive to ourselves so that we can surrender to the flow of the class while still staying connected to our energy level and any limitations that need to be considered. Our home practice allows us to tailor the practice to our needs each time, as well as supporting the integration of all we receive in class and the awakening of our inner teacher, our true guide.

So, in looking at your asana practice, notice what you are practicing, how often, and also how you are practicing (your state of mind). One helpful lens from Anusara yoga is to evaluate your asana based on action, alignment and attitude. Once we learn the proper actions that support a balanced body, we apply them each time. We learn to be sensitive to our alignment and we look at our minds. Often our mind is sleepy, distracted, trying to be good, overly striving, overly focused on the external. In practicing asana, we notice these mental patterns while bringing awareness back to the present moment breath and sensation, and tuning our awareness to go deeper within. This attention to how we are practicing, to the qualities with which we infuse our practice, whether focused, gentle, devotional, sensitive, expansive, etc. is what brings the asana to life and makes the practice more than just physical exercise.

So, this week, take a look at your asana practice. Are you finding ease and steadiness with the postures; practicing in a way that makes you feel good? If not, what blocks you from finding this? Are you competing with yourself or others? Is your mind distracted? Are you discouraged or self-critical? If so, practice coming back to your body sensations themselves, and give them your full attention. Open to whatever you find while also tuning your awareness to an attitude that is more in alignment with your deeper motivation for practice. A balanced practice will leave you feeling lighter, steadier, peaceful and more integrated on all levels. Any posture we are taking is asana, so practice awareness of the shapes you find yourself in during your work day, and around the house, and try bringing more awareness to your asana all the time!

Written by Shannon McCall
Yoga Instructor, Seattle Athletic Club Northgate

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1 comment:

  1. This is a great post, exactly what I was looking for. Thanks a lot and I have bookmarked this site.