It’s fitting that a series on the A to Z of Yoga would start with asana. Because for many practitioners today, yoga = asana. Whilst the practice of yoga is so much more than that, it’s usually where most people start, myself included.
The meaning of asana
The Sanskrit word asana means seat, or posture. When we talk of asana today, we are talking about the poses, the physical practice. However, in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one of the yogic texts heavily referred to when studying yoga, asana is barely mentioned. And where it is, it is only in reference to taking a seat (or a posture) in which to meditate. Because the original purpose of yoga was to prepare the body for being able to sit in (hours of) meditation.
Yoga is more than asana, but it’s ok if it isn’t
It's no wonder why the physical practice of yoga asanas has become popular. There are so many physical and mental benefits to be gained, such as:
greater mobility, agility, ease and strength in the body
better awareness and understanding of your body, mind, breath, behaviour, thoughts and so on
greater discipline over your internal reactions
a calmer mind and nervous system
an opportunity to pause and connect with yourself
an awareness of the interconnected nature of life
and so many more!
Think of asana as the gateway to a yoga practice: it doesn’t need to stop there. But it’s perfectly fine if it does. Over the 23+ years that I have been practicing, the role of asana has waxed and waned depending on my needs at the time. I first started yoga as a means to quieten my constantly chattering mind. At other times it is my main form of physical exercise. (Quite frankly, I hate physical exercise, so there has to be more in it for me than just exercise for the purpose of strength or fitness). But the biggest thing I get out of my physical practice is awareness of my internal narrative, stories, beliefs and self-imposed limitations. The physical benefits are a bonus.
Different lineages have different names and different approaches
If you practice in enough places and with different teachers, schools and studios, you will soon notice that there are not only different names for the same pose, but also very different approaches. So, it is important to try different classes until you find the right one for you.
Some have stricter rules and protocols around alignment, technique and sequencing (such as Ashtanga, Iyenger and Bikram) whereas others will be much more fluid and diverse (such as Yin, especially those following the Paul Grilley method). However there has been a shift in recent years towards less rigidity around poses, which leads me to the next point.
Fixation on posture and alignment is changing
As yoga became more popular, and spread from East to West, it became more systematized (many would say diluted), perhaps in order to distil the knowledge. It went through a wave of very fixed rules on alignment within the poses, dogma about how it should be practiced, when and in what sequence. Many of these rules were designed to suit a small group of practitioners and based on one person’s personal beliefs and body type. And without the modern understanding we can access about anatomy these days.
Thankfully, more and more schools and teachers are starting to recognize that there is no perfect alignment and that yoga poses must adapt and be varied to accommodate different bodies rather than bodies being forced into exact shapes. Which leads me to a final point on asana – that it should be for every body.
Asana is for everybody – or at least it should be
When we accept that the old rules of how to do a pose no longer applies, we recognize that it doesn’t matter what your version of a shape looks like. There are many teachers doing wonderful work on making yoga accessible for all people, those differently abled, those who don’t fit the stereotype, those who don’t see themselves as “yoga people”. So if you’ve been curious about yoga but were afraid to try it because of perceptions about what it is, who it is for, and how to do it, I encourage you to give it a try. You might just become (A is for) addicted.