Most of us have gone out for a fun evening of finger food, canapés, or tapas, and then suddenly realized that we never ate an actual meal. Asana can be like that, too. Sometimes we fill up on the "snacks" and leave no room for the main course—meditation.
Much has been written about the West’s obsession with asana, and, honestly, isn’t it true? If you have a daily sadhana (spiritual practice), you well know that it often takes so much precious time to engage in stretches to "untie your knots," rehearse that tricky arm balance, or rebuild injured muscle that you end up putting off breath work and meditation until there’s no time to nurture the reason yoga exists in the first place—your own evolution.
Much has been written about the West’s obsession with asana, and, honestly, isn’t it true?
As a yoga therapist and teacher, I would never minimize the importance of getting to your mat or your practice chair regularly, but maybe it’s time to look at practice ratio as well, to pay attention to how you divide up yoga time. Yoga time is a commitment, and not all of us have two to three hours per day (think young parents and caregivers, for example) for the same type of practice we might enjoy during a yoga retreat. I encourage you to take a look at what your day holds, and also to begin as early as possible so the day doesn’t eat up your practice before you get a taste.
In the beginning, everyone needs some vigor. Most of us are not equipped to come right to our practice space or yoga class and relax RIGHT NOW. We come with our crunchy shoulders and crackly ankles, our gritty thoughts and ragged breath, and it takes some heat to iron that out. So, here comes another definition of tapas (in this case pronounced tuh-pus): heat. When we build a fire, particularly in the abdomen, we are ready to process the causes of our crunchy, crackly, gritty raggedness and ameliorate them. Vigor differs profoundly from day to day, age to age, and person to person, but heat hydrates and liquefies the connective tissue known as fascia, and a sense of suppleness and comfort ensues. My preference is to build heat internally and in moderation with standing work, flowing movement, kriyas (outward actions, or exercises, to awaken kundalini energy), and practices.
Once the body is less needy, then we can more fully apply ourselves to the latter limbs of yoga, and this is where another definition of tapas comes into play. In Sanskrit, tapas means "deep meditation, effort to achieve self-realization." In the Tantric tradition that I study, which holds very true to Patanjali’s system, meditation is linked to the practice of diaphragmatic breathing. Through this linkage of breath to mind, attention moves inward, which means that diaphragmatic breathing is a direct route to the ability to withdraw the senses. The power gained from this unplugging from the outer gives us the potential to focus our minds. Then, when the unplugged senses are plugged into a worthy point of focus (for instance, mantra, mindfulness, or inspirational passage), the result is meditation. The clarity that arises from this practice is our birthright, and with sustained effort serves as a working pathway to the full realization of the Self. This aim should remind us to take the time we have and divide it, so we don’t fill up on snacks.
Once the body is less needy, then we can more fully apply ourselves to the latter limbs of yoga, and this is where another definition of tapas comes into play.
A very wise teacher once said that sadhana in our youth is to be 80% asana (including savasana) and 20% seated practices. And while it's true that some dedicated young people take right to the path of meditation, more often than not asana is the aroma that baits them to the table—I mean mat. (Though I’ve seen young people practice asana anywhere, tables not excluded.) Yet, after age 40, we gradually begin reversing that percentage. The hope here is that some mastery and comfort has been achieved at the physical level and we can begin to devote more time to healing issues of the mind—though if we are just coming to yoga at 60 with an injury or two, obviously extra time with asana is needed to help us heal physically.
The importance of the breath practices (pranayama) increases as we age, so the amount of time seated is used to great benefit for growth on the energetic level. Those alternate nostril breath practices, which might have seemed boring in our twenties, reveal their subtlety in a mature practitioner. So, while starting the practice may taste like eating your less-than-favorite vegetables, soon the brussels sprouts and asparagus become your favorite part of the meal. The same is true with understanding the nourishment provided by the various breath practices. Each practice has its unique flavors, textures, and nutrients for your mind.
So, take a look at the block of time you allot to deeper practice and remind yourself that while the appetizers are delicious, there’s a magnificent entrée on the way!