In early texts on classical yoga, such as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, the Sanskrit word asana denotes a steady and comfortable seat for meditation, which was the main vehicle for Self-realization. At the time, yoga was strictly a spiritual practice and had very little (if at all) to do with the physical body. Since the time of Patanjali, the meaning of asana has undergone a significant transformation. In Roots of Yoga, scholars James Mallison and Mark Singleton point out that before the earliest hatha yoga texts appear in the first few centuries of the second millennium C.E., the primary reasons for practicing postures included creating a stable foundation for pranayama (breathwork), mantra repetition, and dhyana (meditation).
The hatha yoga texts from that point on begin to describe a number of non-seated asanas that were purported to have therapeutic benefits. The tenth-century Vimanarcanakalpa includes mayurasana (peacock pose) among the nine asanas it teaches and is the earliest text we know of to include a non-seated asana. As the number of texts grew, asana went from being the simple means of creating a seat for meditation and breath control to one of hatha yoga’s most important, complex, and well-documented practices. (The eighteenth-century Joga Pradipika devotes 314 of its 964 verses to describe 84 asanas.)
How do yoga teachers incorporate new elements in their classes while retaining the sense of sacredness that differentiates yoga from other physical disciplines?
In the contemporary approach to yoga, asana can mean innumerable physical positions—including standing, inverted, supine, and prone postures‚ as well as any movements that link them. Some of these postures and movements are believed to have developed as a way to prepare the body for seated meditation, some to build strength and stamina, and others to promote healing.
More recently, incorporating functional movements and mobility exercises that a physical therapist may use has become a growing trend in the physical practice of yoga. While this can have obvious benefits, it also awakens an old dilemma: How do yoga teachers incorporate new elements in their classes while retaining the sense of sacredness that differentiates yoga from other physical disciplines?
Well, I would argue that the addition of functional movements and mobility exercises can be important tools in preparing our bodies for pranayama and meditation so we can reap the full benefits of this sacred practice. I’m going to share the guidelines I’ve found helpful when incorporating techniques from physical therapists, chiropractors, and other movement specialists that I’ve applied to my practice and teaching in order to help keep the “feel” of yoga as sadhana (a spiritual practice).
Students often arrive to class feeling anxious, exhausted, uncomfortable, and distracted. It’s important to take some time in the beginning to help them get centered and grounded so they can transition from previous activities to their yoga practice. Begin with a posture that doesn’t take much effort and allows them to begin pratyahara (turning their senses and attention inward) so they can really notice how it feels to be in their bodies at that moment. This is also the time they may want to set an intention, or sankalpa, for their practice. Since it’s difficult for most students to be still (physically and mentally) without much preparation, spending just a minute or two on this is usually sufficient. Poses like tadasana (mountain pose), sukhasana (easy cross-legged pose), vajrasana (thunderbolt pose), or even savasana (corpse pose) are all good ways to begin class.
I’ve noticed that many classes that incorporate functional movements and mobility exercises can tend to feel choppy. To help “keep the flow,” place standing poses and standing movements early in the sequence, then systematically work your way down to the floor for rest and subtle practices like pranayama and meditation. Avoid taking your students from standing to the floor and back up too many times. Also, organize your poses by type: Standing movements, prone movements, side-lying movements, seated movements, etc. should be sequenced together.
“Through restraining the prana, thought/counter-thought is restrained and through restraint of thought/counter-thought, prana (air) is restrained.” Hatha Yoga Pradipika Ch. 4 v. 21-25
The best-known and influential text on hatha yoga, the fifteenth-century Hatha Yoga Pradipika, dedicates numerous verses to the relationship between the breath and the mind. It states that one will always affect the other. Slowing the momentum of the breath slows the momentum of thoughts, and vice versa. Being conscious of the quality of the breath and its velocity throughout a physical practice helps to cultivate the state of mind that defines yoga. When incorporating functional movements and mobility exercises into a yoga class—for example, going through a series vinyasa-style that includes both these types of movements and more traditional poses—you could try stretching the breath so it lasts just a little bit longer than the movement it is associated with. If, in the process, students’ breath becomes choppy, shallow, or quick, teachers can suggest a resting pose, where they can reconnect with their breath.
While taking joints through different ranges of motion or moving through poses “vinyasa-style” can be therapeutic, constant movement can overstimulate the nervous system and agitate the mind. Inserting moments of stillness via an active resting pose (sometimes called a “hub pose”) like tadasana, adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog pose), makarasana (crocodile pose), or vajrasana can help to maintain the pratyahara established at the beginning of class. In a dynamic practice, these moments of stillness are usually where the yoga really happens.
Once you’ve prepared your body and mind through intelligent sequencing, appropriate functional movements, and conscious use of the breath, it’s time for breathing and meditation techniques. Practitioners who were once very uncomfortable sitting for any length of time may be pleasantly surprised that with the addition of these movements and exercises, taking a seat has now become quite accessible. If seated breathwork and meditation is new to students, teachers should make sure to keep it short at first. Even 60 seconds of sitting tall in silence is a great place to start.
Change Is the Only Constant
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus is quoted as saying, “Change is the only constant in life.” The practice of yoga is no exception. It has always been in a state of flux. Since the physical practice has become synonymous with yoga, I believe it is the duty (maybe even the dharma) of yoga teachers to continue to educate ourselves about the body and be open to new approaches to movement. Incorporating functional movements and mobility exercises may not seem like “traditional yoga” to some, but may paradoxically be a more efficient way to help students get back to the roots of yoga and find that steady, comfortable seat Patanjali spoke of.