Asana is perhaps the most recognized and commonly practiced of the eight limbs of yoga. The word asana means seat, which clues us into the intention of physical practice. Early asana was far more limited than the wide variety of postures we know and practice today and was intended to prepare the body for seated meditation. If our bodies are tight and aching the mind is easily distracted. When our body is relaxed and open concentration is more readily available.
Although asana is often referred to as yoga, it is only referenced a few times in the seminal text on yoga, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The only instruction given by Patanjali is sthira-sukham asana – postures should have a balance of both steadiness and ease. Perhaps this is all we need to know. Practice should be without pain or struggle. How do we know when an asana has the qualities of steadiness and ease? We have to be present and pay attention to what is happening moment to moment, which circles back to the mind-body connection.
It is easier than ever to have our mind in many different places at once. Multi-tasking has become revered in our culture, yet science has proven that it does not help performance and our drive toward achievement has left us physically and mentally stressed out. Enter asana practice. On the mat we are taught to move our bodies in coordination with the breath and bring all of our focus to the present moment. This level of presence illuminates the connection between the mind and body, and points to what yoga is all about – wholeness. As we move in a more unified way the mind becomes centered laying the foundation to naturally progress to the later limbs of yoga like concentration, meditation, and ultimately complete peace.
We invite you to join us in bringing more awareness to the practice of asana this month (and beyond). Here are a few ways to get started:
- As you practice each pose observe your breath. Is your breath easy and consistent?
- Observe your mind while in the physical practice. If your mind is wandering bring your attention back to your breath as you feel your body in the pose.
- Notice any places in your body that could use more steadiness. Practice feeling the parts of your body making contact with the earth. Engage your muscles to steady the structure of the pose.
- Notice any places in your body that could benefit from more ease. Do you tense your shoulders? Or clench your jaw? Use your exhales to relax unnecessary tension from your body.
- Remember that asana practice is a gateway to meditation. Try sitting in meditation at the end of your practice. Start with 5 minutes and see if you can build to 10.
- Honor your body and cultivate gratitude for all that it is capable of. Eat and sleep well, do your physical practice, and treat your body with love and respect.