3 Ways to Know if Your Asana Practice is Working

April 20, 2017    BY Anna Withrow

In the entire Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, there are just three short sutras, or aphorisms, about asana. The first, sutra 2.46, is often translated as “Asana is steadiness and comfort.” That succinct phrase is so nuanced and so packed with truth that you could spend years exploring it through study and practice. My enthusiasm for understanding it more deeply was recently piqued by Chris Livanos’s excellent Yoga International article, “‘How Come I’m Not Comfortable?’ The Meaning of Sukha.” And because I was so enjoying my efforts to explore this particular sutra on the mat, it took me awhile to get curious about the next two sutras. But eventually I discovered that they are just as rich, and just as resonant.

Sutra 2.47 expounds on the previous one, saying, “By relaxing effort and fixing the mind on the Infinite, asana is mastered.” It essentially tells one how to practice. And 2.48 elucidates further, describing the result of practice: “Then one is free from the dvandvas [pairs of opposites].”

How to progress from those awkward first attempts at embodying a posture, to finally relaxing all effort and fixing the mind on the Infinite, is a lifelong journey unique to each practitioner. But 2.48 gives us the key to knowing whether we are making progress. It invites us to ask, “How do I know my asana practice is working?”

The answer? “I am free from the dvandvas,” or pairs of opposites. The dvandvas are dualities, such as hot and cold or happy and sad. Freedom from them, then, essentially implies an experience of sustained, perfect equanimity—being at peace in either hot or cold, and even being okay with whether life is happy or is delivering something we generally consider sad. I have done my fair share of asana, and I’m definitely still being pulled this way and that by my preferences. For example, I can get so irritated at being cold that it becomes something just short of ridiculous. Does that mean my practice isn’t working?

I’m guessing that for most people, perfect sustained equanimity is hard to even imagine. But remember that the sutra is a description of an ultimate state. Equanimity may be something other than all or nothing. So what signposts can we look for to indicate that we’re making progress—that we are a little more free from the tug of our preferences than we used to be? I have identified three indicators that I can readily assess in both the short and long term: the ability to find stillness, the ability to impose reasonable self-discipline, and the cultivation of a positive outlook.

I’m guessing that for most people, perfect sustained equanimity is hard to even imagine. But remember that the sutra is a description of an ultimate state.

The Ability to Find Stillness

The dvandvas can represent our interaction with the outer world. And that interaction often compels us to move. I see something I like, I move toward it. I go into the freezing cold grocery store, and I walk a little faster in order to get out of there faster. The dvandvas can also represent our interaction with our minds. I have an uncomfortable thought, and I squirm in my seat. In daily life, this movement may not be a bad thing. But to practice relaxation and meditation, we need to be able to still the body and eventually the mind. For many yogis, this is an important benefit of practicing asana.

I can look at my ability to find stillness at the end of each practice and get some idea of whether I practiced in a way that was beneficial for me—or whether I may need to make some changes to what and how I practice. In fact, as a teacher, this is how I gauge the class I just offered. If at the end of class we come to sit for meditation and there is a deep stillness in the room, I feel good about that. If the room is filled with yogis busting out neck rolls and otherwise fidgeting, I missed the mark. Cultivating the capacity for stillness is, of course, also a long-term proposition. We can assess our ability to stick with endeavors that become challenging or boring, as well as our ability to sit for long periods of meditation.

The Ability to Impose Reasonable Self-Discipline

The dvandvas can also show up as our preferences and how we interact with them. Clearly, I prefer warm to cold. I also prefer chocolate cake to quinoa. It takes a certain amount of self-discipline not to blindly indulge our preferences—and discipline implies that we are acting, at least gently, against our preferences. So I know my practice is working when I can say no to the tempting objects of the senses, like chocolate cake. I also assess my practice by examining my beneficial habits. Some—like making the bed, sticking to a budget, or exercising—I’d really rather not do. Some, like drinking water, are easy to forget when I’m doing something else that I prefer doing.

As for these particular habits, I’ve had them nailed for quite some time now, which gives me a certain degree of positive feedback about the results of my practice. But I can also easily generate a list of other habits that demonstrate my not choosing what’s best for me. Taking on a new habit to master or a new focus for self-discipline can help us assess whether our practice is on target and thriving—and of course, our practice can serve as a steadying force as we set out to improve ourselves.

The Cultivation of a Positive Outlook

Internationally renowned yoga teacher Rod Stryker often reminds students about the inevitability of change, and he suggests that our practice is working when we have the capacity to withstand change. We don’t have to wait for a life-altering event to test us and our outlook on life. We can notice how we react to a disappointing change of plans or to being served quinoa when we wanted chocolate cake. When we can begin to lean into thoughts like, “Just the right things are unfolding for me,” we are cultivating optimism. If we find that we are persistently negative or pessimistic, we may be too much at the mercy of the dvandvas, and our asana practice could be serving us better.

We don’t have to wait for a life-altering event to test us and our outlook on life.

I have to admit that at the moment, my life is pretty sweet, which can make a positive outlook come easily. I have an amazing family. I love the work I do. I even live someplace warm. But all of this is that much sweeter because my practice has helped me cultivate a deep belief that if any of these conditions were to change, I would be okay—really, truly okay.

I know that my practice helps me develop the capacity to navigate change and create positive conditions in my life, regardless of the circumstances. The result of that knowledge and of practice for me is faith. With faith, a positive outlook grows into something much deeper—a profound optimism, and the motivation to persist in 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.

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