What is the Purpose of Asana?

September 16, 2015    BY Pandit Rajmani Tigunait

Q: I have taken yoga classes with many teachers. They all teach basically the same exercises and say they are teaching hatha yoga or asana. Most of them give the impression that in addition to being good for the body, asanas are also a means for inner unfoldment; some even claim that asanas can help you awaken your kundalini. I don’t see any relationship between these postures and spirituality. What am I missing? How can asana help us grow spiritually?
There is a vast difference between the way asanas were thought of and taught originally and how they are taught now. In ancient times, meditation was the goal and asanas were a means of enhancing the capacity of the body and mind so that a person could sit in meditation for long periods with as few distractions as possible. Only when the body is healthy and the mind one-pointed and inward does a person have a chance to discover the inner dimensions of life. This self-discovery is the essence of spiritual practice.

Yoga is the path of union, and yoga practices help you come to the realization that there is a connection among the different aspects of ourselves.

In the process of self-discovery an aspirant begins to see the connecting link between body and breath, breath and mind, mind and soul. But today, people often go to “yoga” classes to enhance their physical fitness, and in most classes asanas are taught as a means of addressing the concerns of the body, with little or no attention given to cultivating this inner connection between body, breath, mind, and soul. Yoga is the path of union, and yoga practices help you come to the realization that there is a connection among the different aspects of ourselves. The physical level of asana practice is not yoga and does little to help you grow spiritually.

For example, the practice of pranayama (control of the breath) is said to be one of the surest ways to attain mastery over the modifications of the mind, making the mind one-pointed and inward. Separating the asanas from breathing practice is a modern invention. Nowhere in the scriptures are asanas taught without pranayama. In spite of this, many modern teachers do not include the discipline of pranayama when they teach asana, yet they call what they teach hatha yoga. While this kind of asana practice may promote health, it will fail to increase clarity of mind and cannot therefore engender spiritual awakening.

In other words, the classes you describe are not hatha yoga classes. According to the scriptures, hatha yoga is a complete path leading to physical health, mental clarity, and spiritual illumination. Hatha yoga practices combine asanas (physical postures), pranayama (breathing exercises), concentration, and meditation. The word hatha is itself an indication of the goals and objectives of this practice: ha means “sun,” and tha means “moon.” Thus, “hatha yoga” is the practice that enables a practitioner to balance his or her solar and lunar energies. Hatha yoga practices create a state of harmony in body and mind by balancing the solar and lunar, masculine and feminine, active and passive aspects of oneself. Unless you combine the disciplines associated with breathing and meditation with the physical postures, you cannot expect to achieve this harmonious state. And without this inner harmony, we waste a great deal of our time and energy fighting the distractions and disturbances arising from both the inner and outer worlds.

Q: I have always thought asana was a synonym for yoga and that meditation was a separate discipline. But you are saying that asana is only one component of hatha yoga and that unless asana practice is accompanied by pranayama and meditation it is not hatha yoga. Why is there no connection between asana and meditation in the modern world?
I come from a background in which yoga pervaded every part of our lives. We didn’t think of it as a distinct path or discipline—it was a way of life. I grew up practicing yoga, but it was only when I came to the United States at the age of twenty-six that I realized what I was doing. When people first asked what kind of yoga I practiced, I didn’t know what they meant. To me, yoga was yoga. I wasn’t familiar with the technique of isolating one component from a comprehensive body of knowledge and focusing exclusively on that. Another thing that took me by surprise was the focus on the physical postures—I had always practiced the postures in conjunction with pranayama and meditation.

I come from a background in which yoga pervaded every part of our lives. We didn’t think of it as a distinct path or discipline—it was a way of life.

Spending an hour or more systematically stretching the body is both calming and energizing. The results are immediate and unmistakable. The result of working with the breath and the flow of energy throughout the body, which is one of the benefits of pranayama, takes longer to manifest; although these benefits are powerful, they are more subtle. Subtler still are the fruits of meditation. When yoga was introduced in the West, the postures were easy to popularize—people readily understand the concept of working with the body. But they are not as receptive to the concept of working with the breath and mind. Therefore, asana practice has been easy to market, while the subtler practices of pranayama and meditation are not nearly as marketable. Thus the practice of asana has been divorced from the practice of meditation and cultivated for its own sake, and “asana” has become synonymous with “yoga” in the minds of most people. They have no idea that meditation is the essential technique of yoga.

Thinking that there is any difference between yoga and meditation is a form of ignorance. In the scriptures you will not ever find them described as separate practices. In fact, the Yoga Sutra, the most authoritative text of yoga, defines “yoga” as mastery over the modifications of the mind; the techniques that enable an aspirant to achieve that mastery are the techniques of yoga. And according to all the commentators, both the perfectly balanced state of mind and the path leading to that state are “yoga.”

Q: In practice, what makes hatha yoga spiritual?
Including the yamas and niyamas in your daily life is the first step in transforming hatha yoga into a spiritual path. The yamas are the practice of non-violence, truthfulness, non-indulgence, non-stealing, and non possessiveness. These five principles help you restrain yourself from living in an unhealthy way. The niyamas are a set of five observances—purity, contentment, self-discipline, self-study, and surrender to the Divine—that help you make a commitment to living a healthy life. By practicing these ten principles along with asana and pranayama, you begin to transform yourself from inside out and outside in.

Including the yamas and niyamas in your daily life is the first step in transforming hatha yoga into a spiritual path.

Meditation on sacred sounds and sacred symbols is the next step in transforming hatha yoga into a spiritual path. This helps you connect yourself with the Divine. It is only when a practice is undertaken with a spiritual end in view that it becomes spiritual. Meditating on a spiritual object is a spiritual practice; meditation that aims only at cultivating a one-pointed mind or psychic powers is not. To achieve a spiritual goal, one has to use spiritual means.

The asana component of hatha yoga can introduce you to your body. Pranayama can help you gain access to your energy sheath. The technique of concentration can help you cultivate a one-pointed mind. But none of these disciplines necessarily initiates a process of spiritual awakening.

Not all forms of meditation are spiritual. You can meditate on water and thereby cultivate a calm and one-pointed mind. You can meditate on fire and cultivate a vibrant mind and improve your energy level. You can meditate on certain mantras that can help you gain extraordinary powers, such as clairvoyance or the ability to heal others. But even though you have gained these extraordinary abilities through your yoga practice, you may still be far away from your inner self.

Turning the mind inward is not easy. The charms and temptations of the world are powerful and the mind has formed a habit of running from one object to another. Even when it has cultivated one-pointedness, it does not see a reason to go inward and seek the Divine within.

Turning the mind inward is not easy.

You have to convince the mind that worldly experiences and the objects of the world are short-lived, while the Lord of Life residing within is eternal. The relationship with that Divine Being is eternal, and the joy that we receive from embracing the Divine within supersedes all sensory pleasures. Only this understanding can inspire us to turn our mind inward. Meditation with that motive not only helps us cultivate a one-pointed mind, it also helps us turn that mind inward. That is how the inward journey begins—a journey that is rewarding at every step.

Pandit Rajmani Tigunait
Spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute, Pandit Tigunait is the successor of Swami Rama of the Himalayas. Lecturing and teaching worldwide for more than a quarter of a century, he is the author of fourteen books, including his recently-released The Secret of the Yoga Sutra, and his autobiography Touched by Fire: The Ongoing Journey of a Spiritual Seeker. Pandit Tigunait holds two doctorates: one in Sanskrit from the University of Allahabad in India, and another in Oriental Studies from the... Read more>>