Asana is a tool for transformation, a transformation that can take place at the level of the action itself (the body) or at even deeper levels. But when asana becomes a synonym for physical exercise—as it has for many of the twelve million people said to be “practicing yoga” in the United States today—it limits its power to transform. Asana is not simply an exercise routine, it is also an opportunity to refine our awareness through self-observation.
Asana is a tool for transformation, a transformation that can take place at the level of the action itself (the body) or at even deeper levels.
This becomes clear when we turn to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a powerful text that can be used to guide our understanding of asana and connect it to the wider concept of yoga.
There are countless translations and commentaries. Here I am using that of T. K. V. Desikachar, as set forth in his book Patanjali’s Yogasutras: An Introduction. A succinct definition of yoga is found in the second sutra:
Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distraction. (1.2)
This definition provides us with a framework for practice and self-observation. The word “yoga” itself comes from the root yuj, which means to “bind” or “link,” and the idea of two objects or qualities coming together underlies all of the various forms of yoga. In the case of asana, these two qualities are stability and ease.
Patanjali addresses asana in only 3 of the 193 sutras that comprise the four chapters of his treatise. These are sutras 2.46–48. Sutra 2.46 sets forth the two principles or qualities that define asana: Sthira sukham asanam. Sthira means “alert, stable” and sukha means “relaxation, ease.” Asana becomes yoga when we experience the union of alert stability and relaxed ease.
Asana must have the dual qualities of alertness and relaxation. (2.46)
Joining stability and ease does not happen automatically. It requires a conscious intention. Unless we direct the mind toward uniting steadiness and ease, our asana practice will tend to favor one quality over the other or it will alternate between the two. When we practice with the clear intention of joining these two qualities, we establish a parameter for self-observation. Then, instead of refining our asana based on an external idea of form, the refinement emerges from within, from our direct experience of our body and breath.
Joining stability and ease does not happen automatically. It requires a conscious intention.
These qualities can be achieved by recognizing and observing the reactions of the body and the breath to the various postures that comprise asana practice. Once known, these reactions can be controlled step by step. (2.47)
Here, according to Desikachar’s translation and commentary, Patanjali makes clear the importance of observation in the union of sthira and sukha. In other words, observing our own response in asana can be a bridge to self-understanding.
I know this to be true in my own practice. As I work with postures, I have found that I learn about myself as my responses to the limitations and achievements of asana practice are registered moment by moment in body and breath by an observant mind. Some asanas demand a high degree of strength, balance, or flexibility. Practicing these postures may be challenging, uncomfortable, even painful. Can I sustain ease in body, breath, and mind? If not, what is my response? Other postures will not be physically demanding. Can I maintain alertness and learn from such postures?
Whether the posture is difficult or easy, it is the openness to observe our responses that will provide the direction on how to proceed. We might make an analogy to a driver who is on the road to reach a given destination. He steers not by a map but by the roadway itself. The driver’s moment-to-moment adjustments, made to keep the vehicle on the road, are determined by the changing conditions of the road and by the driver, who is on the road in order to arrive at a given destination. What then is the destination or goal of asana practice? As Desikachar states, “When these principles are correctly followed, asana practice will help a person endure and even minimize the external influences on the body such as age, climate, diet, and work.” (2.48)
Through asana practice I learn to adapt to the changing conditions of life. As I make an effort to balance stability and ease, my practice progresses in stages and in a manner suited to my individual circumstances. I begin to move toward the goal of meeting life’s challenges more skillfully, with more stability and ease. This occurs not from mere emulation of external forms, or even from a faithful observance of physical routine, but from the close and careful observation of self—both in the actions of asana practice and, by gradual extension, in the activities of daily living.
Let’s examine alertness and ease by combining movement with staying in a posture. Moving in and out of a pose prepares the body to stay, while staying in a posture promotes strength and flexibility. In each posture, begin your observation of sthira and sukha before proceeding with the described movements. Take a few breaths while observing the base of the posture. What is the distribution of weight throughout the base? Observe your balance. Observe your breath.
Let’s examine alertness and ease by combining movement with staying in a posture.
The breath is an important feedback mechanism for many aspects of practice and it can be a gauge for sthira and sukha. If I notice that I have stopped breathing, or that I can’t catch my breath, it may be an indication that I am straining to overcome resistance. In fact any change in the quality of the breath can indicate the presence or absence of sthira and sukha.
By beginning your breath slightly before you begin each posture and completing your breath slightly after you complete the movement, you allow the breath to guide the movement. There is a natural but distinct pause (approximately two seconds) at the top of each inhalation and at the bottom of each exhalation. Observe it. If you become breathless, stop and take a few relaxed breaths and begin again as you feel ready.
Asana Sequence Instructions
Watch the qualities of movement and breath as a means of observing stability and ease. Notice if your usual way of practicing encourages one quality over another.
1. Arm Raises with Balance (Tadasana)
a) Stand with your feet parallel, hip-distance apart, and your arms relaxed at your sides. Take a few breaths.
b) Inhaling, lift your heels and raise your arms to the side and over your head. As you lift the arms, bend your elbows and allow the shoulders to soften and drop. Pause at the top.
c) Exhaling, lower your arms and heels.
d) Repeat 6 times, carefully synchronizing the duration of the movements to the duration of your breath.
e) Go into the posture and stay for 1–2 breaths. Come down. Repeat once more, staying in the posture 2–4 breaths.
Suggestions: Remember that you’re moving as slowly or as quickly as you’re breathing. Allow the pace of your movement to change if the speed of your breath changes as you go along. Notice if you have more stability in the posture if you breathe all the way through the movement. When you touch your heels to the ground, are you still exhaling? Notice if steady, fixed gazing adds to your steadiness in the posture.
2. Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana)
a) Stand with your feet parallel, hip-distance apart, and your arms relaxed at your sides. Take a few breaths before proceeding.
b) Inhaling, raise your arms to the front with your elbows relaxed.
c) Exhaling, fold forward, slightly bending your elbows and knees to facilitate the lengthening of the lower back.
d) Inhaling, open your chest and lift your back as you raise your arms and come up, keeping your knees bent until the end of the movement.
e) Exhaling, lower your arms.
f) Repeat 6 times, synchronizing your movements to your breath.
g) Go into the posture and stay for 2–4 breaths.
Suggestions: Notice if stability or ease is dominant. Does the posture itself encourage one quality or the other? Is this also reflected in the quality of your breath?
3. Standing Back Arch to Asymmetrical Forward Bend (Virabhadrasana/Parshva Uttanasana Combination)
a) Stand with your left foot back (separated 3–31⁄2 feet) and your right foot forward. Turn the back foot out, keeping the right leg straight and firm throughout. Good balance and a firm base may be facilitated by some distance between the inner heels. Take a few breaths in place.
b) Inhaling, bend your right knee while reaching forward and raising your arms to the front. Lifting the torso away from the waistline, allow the ribs to expand with the breath.
c) Exhaling, bend forward, lowering the hands to the floor on either side of the right foot, ankle, or shin.
d) Inhaling, open the chest and lift the back as you raise the arms, bending the right knee and returning to the standing back arch.
e) Exhaling, lower the arms and straighten the right knee.
f) Repeat the cycle 6 times, synchronizing your movement with your breath.
Suggestions: Can you balance having a goal in asana practice with simply attending to the quality of your action, especially as the asanas become more demanding? Can you maintain ease and relaxation as the level of challenge rises? What contributes to stability and ease in the postures, and what gets in the way?
4. Kneeling Forward Bend (Chakravakasana)
a) Come onto the hands and knees, placing your wrists slightly in front of your shoulders and lining the knees up under your hips. Provide padding for the knees, if necessary. Begin with the elbows slightly bent. Inhale in place.
b) Exhaling, move the hips toward (but not onto) the heels as you bend the elbows and soften the shoulders. As the weight moves away from the hands, allow the shoulders to release.
c) Inhaling, move the chest forward and then up. The front of the torso lengthens with the breath as the weight transfers back onto the hands. The back arches slightly.
d) Repeat 6 times.
Suggestions: When you exhale, soften the muscles of the face and jaw. As you watch your breath, deliberately allow for the completion of each exhalation. Remember that stability and ease are qualities of the mind as well as the body.
5. Supine Back Arch (Dvipada Pitham)
a) Lie on your back with your feet hip-distance apart on the floor and your arms at your sides, palms down. Take a few breaths observing the back of the body before proceeding.
b) Inhaling, press through the feet and raise the hips off the floor while lifting the arms over your head to the floor behind you. Keep the elbows slightly bent and all parts of both feet firmly pressing into the floor.
c) Exhaling, lower the hips and arms to the starting position, carefully coordinating your movement to the duration of your breath.
d) Repeat 6 times.
e) Take a 1-breath stay in the posture, then come down.
f) Take a 2-breath stay in the posture, then come down, linking your movement to your breath. Proceed in this manner through a stay of 4 breaths.
Suggestions: As you observe sthira and sukha, note if dynamic movement vs. staying in a posture has an effect on either quality.
6. Knees to Chest (Apanasana)
a) Draw the knees toward the chest and place the palms of your hands on your kneecaps with the arms and legs relaxed.
b) Exhaling, draw the knees closer to your chest. The upper thighs will gently compress the lower abdomen and facilitate a complete exhalation.
c) Inhaling, feel the breath moving down as the thighs glide away from your abdomen. As the elbows begin to straighten, keep the chin in a neutral position. Pause.
7. Lying Rest (Shavasana)
Lie comfortably on your back with the legs extended and the arms at your sides, resting for 2–3 minutes.
Suggestions: You may be more comfortable with your knees bent and your feet on the floor, or with the legs draped over a blanket or bolster. Also feel free to put a small lift under your head.
A Parting Thought
In conversation, stability and ease sound so simple, and intellectually they are. However, appreciation for the profundity of Patanjali’s definition of asana cannot be acquired through the intellect. That discovery is left to each of us, through our own practice and reflection.