Remembering the Purpose of Asana

March 17, 2017    BY Anna Withrow

For many of us, asana was the start of our love affair with yoga. We noticed how it changed our bodies and how good we felt during and after practice. And it was exciting. As we began to perceive more subtle effects and came to know the poses better (as well as ourselves), we began to pursue a deeper understanding of the fullness of yoga. Then, as with many love affairs, we took the magic for granted, and asana became “just asana.” As in: “I’m a real yogi. I want to do more than just asana.”

Even if our expanded understanding of yoga surpasses what we initially imagined yoga to be, it still seems a shame to relegate asana to just asana. We can try reigniting the spark with the help of a dynamic teacher, or by taking on more challenging, athletic poses—but that’s not for everyone, and its allure can be short-lived. What we really need might be a fresh perspective that reminds us how asana is connected to the more subtle limbs of yoga, and how it teaches us to examine ourselves and thrive in our daily lives.

Yoga poses have an intrinsic intelligence and purpose. When we practice in a way that aligns with that intelligence, we begin to cultivate the specific benefits acquired through asana. For example, we can use backbending poses to cultivate energy and courage, or twisting poses to move toward clarity and balance. Focusing on the purpose or function of the pose, rather than the outer form, allows us to experience asana in a way that touches the different layers of the self, or the koshas. We work physically (annamaya kosha), but also energetically (pranamaya kosha). And that gives us access to a deeper knowledge of ourselves.

Modifying to Explore Purpose

The outer form of paschimottanasana (seated forward fold), for example, is traditionally expressed as the torso bent over straight legs (perhaps with the forehead resting on the shins). As a yoga teacher, I don’t see it go down like that in very many bodies. Nevertheless, when a student, whose body can’t express the ideal of that form, strives for it by grabbing the feet and forcefully pulling the body forward and down—overly rounding the spine and putting hamstrings at risk—the purpose is lost.

The physical purpose of the pose is a stretch of the muscles along the entire back side of the body. Forcing the stretch is likely to overtax the hamstrings, and it could even expose the low back and some tendons to injury (even at the level of serious injury to the spinal discs). Energetically, paschimottanasana has amazing potential for helping us ground ourselves, find stability, and develop the ability to turn inward—while striving and overstretching encourage just the opposite. With some modifications, however, we can move toward the purpose of the pose.

An advanced practice, in my book, doesn’t mean fewer modifications—it means employing the curiosity and tenacity necessary to keep experimenting with modifications until the practitioner begins to align with the intelligence of the pose.

In paschimottanasana, or any other pose, there is no one right modification for everyone. For me, sitting on the edge of a blanket with a slight flex in my knees distributes the stretch most evenly and allows the back to stay long. Then I can settle into the pose with the balance necessary to feel grounded. Others may want to place a bolster under the knees to support even more flexion there. I even encourage some students to place their feet flat on the ground (creating even a 90-degree bend in the knees), and then to fold forward. An advanced practice, in my book, doesn’t mean fewer modifications—it means employing the curiosity and tenacity necessary to keep experimenting with modifications until the practitioner begins to align with the intelligence of the pose. When I look at asana with that mindset, it gives me the opportunity to revisit some basic poses, with the potential of falling in love with them, and my practice, all over again.

Using Purpose and Form for Self-inquiry

One reason asana is such a great teacher is that what we do on the mat is a reflection of what we do off that mat. Over years of less than attentive practice, I developed some impressive-looking asanas that weren’t well supported from within. Using my natural advantages (and beating up my joints), I “cheated” in order to look like everyone else without having to put in the effort required or expose some of my weaker points. I didn’t even know I was doing it or why, by the way, until I began studying with compassionate teachers who didn’t care at all what my poses looked like. Those teachers also encouraged me to study myself on the mat.

My most famous cheat was in bhujangasana (cobra pose). Today, I often show students (very briefly) how, by using my fantastically long arms and flexible back, I can create what looks like a perfect bhujangasana and at the same time sing a song, loudly. Not cheating, however (which includes bending the elbows and hugging in with the upper arms), does not allow me to rely on my flexy spine, but requires me to use the deep muscles of the abdomen and spine that are supposed to support the pose. It’s not as pretty, and I sure can’t sing a song. But more importantly, I can access the energetic feeling of both support and expansiveness. What’s more, I can notice my reactions to that experience, and I become more comfortable with deeper expressions of it in my life.

I see the same tendency off the mat to make the outer form “right” at the expense of authentic experience. I recall one super-unfortunate trip to Disneyworld with my then five-year-old. My most vivid memory of a perfectly planned trip was of her painting her dad’s toenails in the middle of the night, while he slept—and me waking up and screaming at her like a moused-out maniac. In that case, the stress over the “outer form” overshadowed my greater purpose, which was to share an enjoyable experience with my family. Ten years later, I think painting my husband’s toenails is hilarious. But I’m not allowed a do-over. I now can just remember my purpose to be a great, approachable mom to an increasingly independent teenager, without worrying what it looks like to the neighbors or the scrapbook. Blessedly, there simply is no longer any scrapbook.

Now, when I notice my tendency on the mat—whether it’s cheating to create the outer form, moving too quickly and avoiding the purpose of a pose, or anything else similar—I welcome the opportunity for self-inquiry. How is that same tendency reflected in my life? How might it be sabotaging my practice of the other limbs of yoga—most importantly for me, my meditation practice?

In the moment, without the conscious recall of purpose, I can still be tempted to want to make it “look right.” But at the end of the day, I’d much prefer the calm and stability that flows from paschimottanasana’s influence in my life over some super-stretchy hamstrings. Even more importantly, I know that if I can build capacity for stability and calm, I can meditate and begin to open up the even deeper promise of yoga.

So I continue to embrace asana—all the while modifying, inquiring, and welcoming the opportunity to grow a deeper and more mature love affair with the practice.

Anna Withrow
Anna Withrow teaches traditional yoga with a focus on becoming more stable in body and mind. In addition to teaching, she is a perpetual student and spends as much time as her schedule allows learning from her teachers. She is the Director of Yoga Bird in Fort Myers, FL, which she owns along with her husband, Chip. At Yoga Bird, she oversees a schedule of over fifty classes per week, weekly workshops that explore the deeper aspects of yoga, and a 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training program.

Yoga Anywhere, Anytime. JOIN FREE FOR A MONTH