Friday, September 12, 2008

Yoga Asanas -- What's the point?

Lately I've been questioning the usefulness of asanas. When a teacher, usually in the Anusara style, says to "open your hamstrings in order to let the divine in" I (sort of) want to puke. (I must disclose here, that I studied Anusara--and received my hatha yoga certification from Todd Norian--for 2-3 years.)

There are plenty of people out there that can forward bend and place their head between their legs and there's nothing divine about them. Let me rephrase; their egos are so huge that their actions and words are far from divine. Yes, we're all divine--I really believe that. But some of us hide it better than others.

These same teachers--that tout being a better person by opening your hips--speak frequently of "taking it to the next level." I'd like to think that means growing closer to self-actualization, but unfortunately they are usually referring to a more difficult pose. Perhaps these folks heard it from their teacher and something was lost in the translation--or maybe the teachers of the teachers have gotten so caught up in the "glamor" of beautiful poses that they themselves have forgotten why we do them at all.

In the west countless people associate yoga with asana, which is almost laughable. There are many types of yoga that don't even consider postures, such as the yoga of devotion, chanting, or self-less actions. Hatha yoga is a subset of yoga as a whole, and this subset includes the use of body movements and positions. Yet, even here the intention is to take the "path of the higher life" (Lectures on Yoga by Swami Rama, pg 12). Let's be honest, that doesn't mean to get your feet behind your head! Really, will that bring you closer to God or a deeper knowing of the authentic self? Admittedly, you might just get those feet back there along the way, but it's NOT THE GOAL. Not only that, from personal experience I can say some of us are not meant to do such challenging poses.

On the other hand, when I began hatha yoga just over 10 years ago, if the teacher had sat us all down and said, "Close your eyes and we'll begin with a 20 minute chant. Focus on the Om sound and simply let your thoughts drift by," I would have been out that door so fast no one would even know I had been there at all. For starters I couldn't sit still for 20 seconds, let alone 20 minutes! Now I enjoy, even relish, in the quiet solitude of meditation; but it's taken a number of years to get to this point. In the silence I commune with God, higher consciousness, or a deeper awareness of what is (whatever you want to label it). This has become a valuable, if not necessary, part of my daily life.
Did asana help me get to this point? Most definitely. I remember the first time a teacher had us lie in savasana for over 5 minutes. I wondered when he was going to finally let us get up. "Antsy-ness" was setting in. It took almost two years of practice until I could remain relaxed in comfort for 10 minutes or more. Perhaps a slow learner, but as mentioned earlier I couldn't even sit still for 20 seconds! So, 10 minutes without moving was pretty amazing stuff.

Upon honest reflection, my beef with asana is not asanas fault. It's a wonderful tool when used correctly. Just as a hammer is great to drive a nail into wood; thus connecting items together. However that same hammer may be used to harm another human being or animal. It's powerful, but how you use that power is more important than the tool itself. Asana may be used to embody your breath and mind, to bring awareness within and quiet all the distractions of everyday life. Used inappropriately it is nothing more than a means to cause more separation from everyone else and to enhance your ego. "Yoga" literally means to yoke or bring together. So you see, anything that separates us from each other is NOT yoga!
Aadil Palkhivala put it beautifully last week in Chicago,
"Yoga must use asana--if at all--to uncover and then live dharma. Otherwise asana is at best an exercise and at worst a means off your path."
So, to asana or not to asana? That is the question. Only you can decide what works for you, but most importantly be willing to change that answer! If the answer never changes, you are not growing. And to live is to grow. And to practice yoga is to live.
Speaking for myself, 3 years ago asana was a big part of my practice. Sometimes to feel fully alive I would do 2-3 hours of asana and 30-45 minutes of pranayama and meditation; I did this 5-7 days a week.
Today is different; I begin and end every day with meditation. Sometimes pranayama finds its way into this set aside "connection" time. Asanas for about 1 hour 3 days a week, and that's mainly because I teach asana I feel a responsibility to keep up with it. More walks outside and tennis with my family. The body thanks me for this. The mind enjoys being on the mat and the energy pulsing through the body is wonderful, but the body complains and some of the ligaments have been compromised over the years. To honer what is, I work more on integration and strength building than opening. This is today. I cannot say what will be tomorrow. Yoga brings awareness, if you let it. So, tomorrow I will listen and hopefully respond to my body, my mind, and my soul with or without asana.

Love Much,


Today is the first day of the rest of your life!


Brenda P. said...

Iyengar yoga doesn't let you move on from asana to pranayama for a couple of year, at first. To me, that suggests the really hard stuff is learning how to sit still and listen to your breath...not doing arm balances or whatever.

Physical exertion=easy; calming the fluctuation of the mind=hard.

Nadine Fawell said...

Oh, GREAT post!

I feel so similar to you: compromised ligaments, more interest these days in the breahting and meditating....
But I still practice asana daily, it's just that they are different than the ones I chose two years ago...
But a fancy arm balance is not going to take you deeper to Self. This I know. Because I have done them, and they didn't.

Total Health Yoga - Kris said...

I so agree with both of you! And oddly enough the folks that claim a complex pose moves them closer to enlightenment--I find are actually moving closer to ego. With that said, we have bodies so it only makes sense to take care of them and get them moving :-)