The Secret Life of Asana
At its deepest level, asana practice leads us on a journey toward self-discovery by revealing the unknown depths of mind and connecting us to a purer sense of the divine within us.
A few years ago, a Jeep ad cleverly presented “The Nine Principal Postures for Achieving Greater Relaxation and Self-Discovery.” Along with eight traditional yoga postures, it included the newly conceived Jeep Grand Cherokee pose. While jeep pose is unlikely to yield the kind of greater relaxation or self-discovery yogis had in mind, the ad does reveal how deeply asana practice has penetrated modern culture.
These days, most people know that asana wasn’t hatched in their local gym as a way of attaining a tighter, leaner body that would look great behind the wheel, or in their physical therapist’s office as an adjunct treatment for a bum shoulder. But they may not know that asana is actually a spiritual practice—part of the greater path of hatha yoga. From this ancient tradition’s perspective, stress reduction and a good workout are admirable fringe benefits, but they’re certainly not the highest goal. Instead, hatha yoga takes us on an inward journey toward self-discovery—well beyond the physical.
Along with asana, hatha yoga uses an amalgam of techniques—pranayama, mudras (hand gestures), bandhas (locks), and various kriyas (cleansing practices)—to purify the body and mind and awaken latent spiritual energy. Together, these approaches can become a stairway to or a support for other paths of yoga (particularly raja, or classical yoga) that are meditation based. They can also develop into a complete path of transformation and awakening on their own. The course we choose depends greatly on our natural proclivities, but certainly hatha yoga can be an integral part of any spiritual endeavor.
According to yoga philosophy, our minds tend to focus exclusively on the view through the windshield of the jeep—on what is directly in front of us—and that poses a problem for most of us. Even when we look through our rearview mirror, we see only what we are conditioned to see; the past looks much like the future, and vice versa. This myopic worldview is a trap we cannot intellectualize our way out of, and we certainly can’t move beyond it using our usual life-management strategies. We need a clear and calm mind.
Asana practice, combined with the other aspects of hatha yoga, can put us directly in touch with more tranquil states of being—states that fly under the radar of our busy and poorly trained minds. Understanding the potential of our practice can help us read the road signs and avoid dead ends and potholes as we drive that Jeep.
In hatha yoga, investments of prana shakti—the form of energy actively at work in the body/mind—are used to awaken kundalini shakti, a deeply empowering and healing spiritual energy that largely lies dormant within us.
All this is possible because hatha yoga and asana work, not just with the body, but also with deeper layers of the self. The physical body is sustained by an underlying source of energy, the pranic (or subtle) body, which in turn is configured by mental energies, resting ultimately in pure consciousness. In the tantric context from which hatha yoga developed, the human body is the most visible form of this consciousness in the physical world. It is both an expression of pure consciousness and a means for experiencing and knowing it. As we shall see, the body is also the crucible in which transformation occurs. In hatha yoga, investments of prana shakti—the form of energy actively at work in the body/mind—are used to awaken kundalini shakti, a deeply empowering and healing spiritual energy that largely lies dormant within us.
The various layers of the self are shaped by two things: by instinctive drives characteristic of all living beings (self-preservation, hunger, sleep, and sex), and by forces anchored within us in the form of our personal history, habits, and unconscious inclinations. This potent mixture largely defines our view of ourselves and of the world. The objective of hatha yoga is to train and transform these inner forces to connect to a purer sense of the divine within us. By awakening and reorganizing inner life, hatha yoga gives us the experience of being independent of—and free from—the knots in our psyches. Repeated practice and conscious awareness stabilize this experience of freedom and make it an increasingly more influential part of our being. As a result, we gradually restructure how we live our lives, including what we eat, what we find pleasure in, and how we treat our children. This must be an active, ongoing process; otherwise, the deeply rutted road grabs the wheels, throwing us back to old and painful ways of being and the loneliness of alienation from our inner Self.
Shifting the Focus
At some point, we need to shift away from focusing on the position of the back foot—or finding more stretch in our side body—toward an inner activation and global awareness of the whole body.
In asana practice, the transformative power of hatha yoga begins with alignment. First we work to develop the strength and flexibility we need to perform the poses. We compare ourselves to an image to approximate the form of the pose, and then we take advantage of instructions to call attention to any unconscious habits and misalignments and adjust ourselves accordingly. Remember your first experiences in trikonasana (triangle pose)? No doubt you found your hips and the back of your legs resisting and had trouble figuring out if your top arm and your head were in the right place. And what about the ribs? It takes time, experience, and practice to find confidence and comfort in the pose. However, at some point, we need to shift away from focusing on the position of the back foot—or finding more stretch in our side body—toward an inner activation and global awareness of the whole body. We often miss this transition because we keep trying to recreate our previous experiences in the posture. Indeed, without understanding the need to change direction and focus, we may linger on the threshold, continuing to push for more strength or flexibility (a particular pitfall in trikonasana), instead of shifting to the subtler awakening of the intelligence of the body.
In order to shift to an inner focus, we need to cultivate sensory awareness of the whole body. Asana works directly with the sense of touch, activating touch receptors to define our spatial reality and to ground us in the body. Asana puts us in touch with ourselves, connects the driver with the vehicle, and establishes our sense of identity and reality. We become conscious of who we are through our contact with the body; the sensory information we glean from movement and our contact with the world around us provide an accurate, fleshed-out image of our body and ourselves. To be “out of touch with reality” is a description not only of misperception, but also of mistaken identity—even insanity. On the other hand, paying attention to physical sensations in asana, without judgment or commentary, anchors our sense of identity beyond the disturbances of the personality and the opinions of others.
Let’s go back to our example of trikonasana. As you move into the pose, bring awareness to all your joints, particularly the balls of the big and little toes; the ankles, knees, hips, sacroiliac joints, the joint between the top of the sacrum and the spine, and all the vertebrae of the spine; the connection of the collarbones to the sternum and the shoulder joints; the elbows, wrists, fingers; the base of the neck and the base of the skull; and the articulation of the jaw with the skull. If you can be aware of all your joints at the same time, you’ll get a sense of the relationship between them and experience the intimate connection between all the parts of your body. You may then find yourself intuitively refining your alignment—softening a rigid knee, drawing in the lower belly and lifting the pelvis off the hip joints, drawing the arm into the center of the shoulder joint, lengthening the back of the neck—without thinking about it, just to bring yourself into a sense of spacious wholeness and completeness. Your focus has now shifted to an integrated sensory awareness of yourself.
Making Right Effort
After adjusting your alignment, the ability to shift your awareness inward will depend on the quality of effort you bring to the posture. If you try too hard, the pose becomes rigid and the flow of energy is blocked; too lax—or without the discipline of containment and right alignment—the pose (and your connection to it) falls apart and energy spills, destabilizing the structural integrity of the body. In either case, the mind, divorced from the inner experience of the pose, either wanders off (I wonder what’s for dinner tonight?) or begins to nitpick and question the experience (Is my arm in the right place? How do I look? Am I doing as well as the person next to me?). When that happens, you are looking in from the outside and have not fully embodied the posture.
Right effort means activating the pose from the inside and relaxing superficial effort.
Right effort means activating the pose from the inside and relaxing superficial effort. Energetically, this involves employing the bandhas (locks) and engaging the navel center—the pranic hub of the body centered in the pelvis and governed by the manipura chakra. The bandhas activate the posture by stabilizing spinal alignment and plugging into the navel center to direct the flow of prana.
To understand how this works, come back into trikonasana with your hands on your hips and your head in neutral alignment. Press your feet into the floor, draw your lower belly in, and lift and tilt your pelvis. Now bring your attention to your joints to refine the pose further. With your hands still on your hips and the lower belly firm, press the feet into the floor and draw up through the legs into the pelvic floor and all the way up the front of the spine. Relax the upper abdomen to keep your breathing free and easy, but gently squeeze the lower belly in and up to rotate and lengthen the entire torso around its axis. You’ll find the pelvic floor pulls up naturally, the front of the throat draws in gently, and the back of the neck lengthens as the shoulder blades draw down the back and the collarbones broaden. Eventually, the pose will feel completely and effortlessly supported by this inner energetic scaffolding anchored in the pelvis.
The pranic energy field that animates the body/mind is organized around an axis that runs through the physical and psychic core of our being. In the physical body, the spine and spinal cord express this core, and, not surprisingly, much asana work centers on stabilizing and integrating the different segments of the spine—particularly the base of the spine in the pelvic floor, the lumbar spine (lower back), and the cervical spine. The subtler aspects of asana practice include both energetic and mental engagement (the bandhas) in these three areas to stabilize and direct the flow of prana through this axis.
With right alignment, right effort, and the activation of the navel center and the bandhas, awareness shifts from muscle, bone, and effort to energy, breath, and relationship, creating inner connection and unimpeded flow. You can then get a sense of the whole body all at once. Look for a feeling of the pose itself, not just the tight hamstrings or the stiff hip.
Opening the Inner Eye
Being able to experience the whole body simultaneously happens most easily in poses you know really well, the ones where the details don’t demand so much concentrated attention. However, if you’re new to the pose—or if it simply doesn’t settle easily into place—you’ll have a more difficult time, which brings us to perhaps the most powerful tool for refining inner sensitivity, a tool readily and always available—the breath.
When the alignment and activation of a posture become automatic and effortlessly supported, the oscillations of the breath quiet down and you can easily drop into a tranquil flow of calm awareness and experience the inner sense of Self.
The breath is more sensitive and subtler than the physical body; focusing on the quality of its movement can expand your awareness of the pranic field that gives rise to the process of breathing. Furthermore, prana and the mind are like twins; if one is still, so is the other. When the alignment and activation of a posture become automatic and effortlessly supported, the oscillations of the breath quiet down and you can easily drop into a tranquil flow of calm awareness and experience the inner sense of Self. You can also develop and apply this skill in challenging or new postures—with practice. This means maintaining awareness and focus through the cycle of inhale and exhale, and intuitively allowing the body, breath, and awareness to flow together effortlessly.
Practicing asana in this way illuminates an inner space in the body in which the mind can rest, redirecting the flow of prana and attention from the outer to the inner. Of course, some postures may always be a challenge for you, and they will never lend themselves to “absorption in the infinite,” as the Yoga Sutra describes the paradoxical activating and letting go of effort in postures. In some poses you may remain much more aware of the effort than the ease, but, nevertheless, you continue to do them because they help stabilize your structure, release tension, or energize you.
It takes time and persistent practice to reach a level of mastery in asana, to patiently chip away at the inertia of the body and tame the unruly, flighty mind. Asanas can refine conscious awareness of the body, but for deeper awakening, the mind must let go of its intellectual dominance and respond to the fullness of the body, embrace the reality of the inner experience, and let go of both ambition and laziness. The mind learns to reflect the inner experience of the body, that is, the energetic pattern of the pose.
Embracing Divine Geometry
The shift from simple body awareness to the awareness of the energy field configured by the pose gives full expression to the unique and powerful energy patterns present in both the human body and the cosmos. Tantra refers to these structured patterns as yantras—expressions of various aspects of the divine energy, which are used in meditation and rituals in the same way as mantras. One of the original meanings of yantra is “machine,” which, by definition, transforms one form of energy into another. Asana as yantra transforms the subtle energy of consciousness into physical expression and conscious awareness. That energy can then be used to strengthen the energetic and structural framework of the body, or improve our golf game, our family life, our meditation practice, or our hatha practice itself. With regular practice, the gradual awakening nurtures and sustains us at every level, and eventually intensifies to create an inner stability in our being—a stability that remains independent of the outer circumstances of our lives.
Mastering the Emotions
As we reach through the physical body deeper into the energy body, we touch into the equivalent of stiffness or weakness on the mental and emotional level. If you’ve been practicing for a while, you may notice that you avoid certain poses, burst into inexplicable tears, or “forget” to practice altogether. The resistance to the awakening of inward-moving awareness is mental and emotional, as well as physical and energetic. Of course, it’s perfectly understandable to want to avoid anything unpleasant or painful on any level, and even though consistently ignoring a problem requires a huge amount of repressive energy, the body will go on resisting if the pain is overwhelming. Eventually, the relief of gradually releasing, accepting, or transforming the pain of negative experiences and unresolved inner conflicts overrides the discomfort and brings you back to the mat day after day.
Asana becomes a shelter from emotional pain—past, present, and even future, as we learn to stand firm in the face of inner and outer turmoil. Pain and pleasure, likes and dislikes, begin to loosen their grip, and they ultimately lose their power to derail us. The source of all pain, according to yoga, is ignorance and alienation from Self, and this pain is not eased by having buns of steel, a lithe and supple body, a PhD in philosophy, or the latest model Jeep, all of which could be helpful but could just as easily add to confusion and loneliness. “Hatha is a sheltering hermitage for those scorched by the heat of tapa,” the Hatha Yoga Pradipika explains. Tapa refers to a well-known triad of pains—physical, mental, and spiritual. Pain of any type is destabilizing, so, not surprisingly, the Pradipika continues, “For those constantly devoted to yoga, hatha is like the tortoise supporting the world.” In yogic lore, the tortoise symbolizes the stabilizing, sustaining power in the cosmos that maintains the physical body and its connection with consciousness. The tortoise can also withdraw its limbs, and this capacity to sustain body, prana, and the mind, and turn the limbs (and senses) either inward or outward on command, is the blessing of hatha yoga. This is the real potential of asana practice.
Asana becomes a shelter from emotional pain—past, present, and even future, as we learn to stand firm in the face of inner and outer turmoil. Pain and pleasure, likes and dislikes, begin to loosen their grip, and they ultimately lose their power to derail us.
Not everyone will find hatha yoga the best or only tool for the whole journey, but anyone who sincerely practices will find refuge from the heat of tapa and a strong foundation for all other aspects of life, by whatever means we seek greater relaxation and self-discovery.
Steady As She Goes
The theme of stabilization is described in the first of three sutras about asana in the Yoga Sutra: sthira-sukham asanam. Asana is steady and comfortable—a harmonious and stable position—a suitable locus for the Divine. Becoming more comfortable in our bodies is one of the best-known and most appreciated benefits of asana. The postures stabilize the structural support of the body by balancing range of movement (flexibility) with strength, improving alignment, and integrating the functioning of the muscular-skeletal system.