What Meditation Gives Me That Asana Can’t
Waking up in the everyday world usually means arising from sleep and opening your eyes. In yoga and meditation traditions, the act of awakening connotes removing the sleepiness of misperception and ignorance, allowing one to witness reality clearly. This awakening is often translated from the sanskrit word bodhi. You may recognize this word as part of other concepts, such as bodhichitta (awakened heart-mind) and bodhisattva (awakened compassionate warrior). All of these share the same root as the word buddha, which essentially translates as “awakened one.”
Various traditions offer their own distinct paths for practitioners to follow in their effort to realize bodhi. In the beginnings of my asana practice, I honestly felt it was possible to awaken through physical practice alone—that after X number of surya namaskars and savasanas, a kinder, gentler version of myself would somehow emerge. Like many others, I was amazed by the enormous benefits I experienced when I began a committed practice. Years of back pain from sports and an aggressive dance career virtually vanished. Pounds I had obsessed about when in the throes of an eating disorder began to fall away (along with the intensity of the obsession itself). I often left classes feeling buzzed and happy, acquired postures like trophies, and enthusiastically welcomed into my daily vocabulary new words like Guruji and Gita.
Various traditions offer their own distinct paths for practitioners to follow in their effort to realize bodhi. In the beginnings of my asana practice, I honestly felt it was possible to awaken through physical practice alone.
As I stepped, starry-eyed, into my first teacher training, I eagerly tried other aspects of what I now consider a holistic practice: pranayama (breath work), restorative and yin practices, and meditation. While these practices often helped me feel spacious and relaxed, they did not give me the same body buzz I experienced in the more physically demanding practices. Nor did they offer the intellectual satisfaction that the study of anatomy and alignment gave my mind. So I quietly discarded them to focus almost solely on asana.
A year after my first teacher training, I moved to New York City. There, in addition to teaching, I became deeply immersed in the business side of yoga: running everything from small neighborhood studios to large corporate centers with hundreds of teachers. As my career developed, I ascended two separate ladders—that of a teacher, and the other of a businesswoman. In many ways, I lived a double life that epitomized the modern-day chasm between traditional practices aimed at spiritual awakening, and the oxymoronic realm of commercialized yoga. In a matter of hours, I could shift from trying to fill classrooms in studio-saturated Manhattan to leading a class of heart openers in a warm candle-lit space. There was so much I loved about both roles, but I also often felt conflicted and polarized by my work. And the knowledge I gained on the business side certainly underscored many of the competitive and unhealthy traits that had initially been mitigated by my practice of asana.
From the standpoint of career and financial success in the current yoga world, I was poised for great things. But from the standpoint of awakening, I was lost at sea.
Fast forward five years. I began making a name for myself, in part through a practice I developed that combined asana with breakdance, which I had been doing since college. It caught on and spread nearly overnight. Before I could say “eka pada koundinyasana,” I was being invited to teach prime-time slots at some of the most well known yoga centers in Manhattan, traveling all over the country to share my work at studios and festivals. I was even featured in Yoga Journal, New York Magazine, and other popular national and international publications. While my dynamically postured body was plastered on the wall of the highest-grossing Lululemon store in the country (as one of their ambassadors), I was discussing public relations protocols with potential investors and negotiating contracts with national fitness chains.
As my success built, I was grateful to be able to leave my “corporate yoga” job, working solely for myself as teacher, entrepreneur, and creative director. I thought I had it all: the skills and the “look” for a mass audience (read: fit young white woman who can do cool tricks), as well as the business savvy for the organizational and financial aspect of things. From the standpoint of career and financial success in the current yoga world, I was poised for great things.
But from the standpoint of awakening, I was lost at sea. Despite my committed study and practice, I noticed that I had plateaued or even backslid in many areas that at one time had improved with asana. In some cases, my work on the mat even began to magnify my original hang-ups and blind spots. Over time, I began to deeply question whether I was on a path to awakening or toward further confusion and self-aggression.
There were many warning signs. Perhaps the first was when my back seized up while carrying groceries (presumably from overuse or a lack of self-care), and I could not walk for more than twenty-four hours. A few days later, far from healed, I was back in the studio teaching, only to re-injure myself while demonstrating a jump from down dog to crow. I continued teaching the entire 75-minute class while my back slowly froze. I then hobbled furtively to the studio’s sauna, praying I could make it out of the building without anyone knowing something was wrong. I managed to walk a few blocks to my regular budget massage in Chinatown, and the massage therapist shook her head as I nearly jumped off the table each time she touched my back, tears streaming down my face. She whispered afterward, “You need a doctor.”
From there, warning signs began to accumulate, and I can no longer remember where the breaking point came. Maybe it was when a friend painfully highlighted the fact that I was a workaholic, barely making time for a social life. Or when I found myself back in the same emotionally abusive relationship—for the fifth or eighth or tenth time. Maybe it was when I didn’t get invited back to teach at a major yoga festival (when I thought I had been incredibly successful), or when my trending signature class didn’t survive at a popular Manhattan studio. I had many great successes, but each failure felt like the end of my career. And depression would set in, sometimes for weeks.
Despite my intensive training in everything from yoga therapy to safety in alignment, my body was breaking down. Despite my involvement in a practice that touted balance and self-care and community, my personal life was in tatters and each work failure emotionally devastating. Despite my clear knowledge of the system and business side of yoga, it was painfully clear that my strategies were not always working. Despite my inspired beginnings in asana, I eventually discovered that the physical asana practice, while incredibly beneficial on many levels, fell flat when it came to pushing me—a classic Type A individual, competitive and physically oriented—toward honest self-awareness.
Where, then, is the bodhi? I would argue that for many like me who are naturally drawn to physical practices, asana is far from adequate as a path to awakening. Western culture is also filled with reminders that physical prowess and beauty are among the most desirable traits a person can attain; as is sharp intellect, with little room allowed for intuition and feeling. It is no wonder that a physically focused and intellectually stimulating practice gives only more fodder for ignorance—particularly with the current commercialized yoga climate emphasizing some of this confusion. From my own journey, I can offer one thing that has cut through misperceptions and given me real glimpses of bodhi. It is meditation—basic, honest, straightforward meditation. Sometimes very average, sleepy, or boring. Insanely simple, and yet insanely difficult. Just-sit-down-and-follow-your-breath meditation.
While things progressively deteriorated at the apparent height of my career, I used to carry around Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart like a threadbare blanky, pulling it out of my backpack whenever a particularly challenging situation needed her direct and reassuring words. At some point, I realized that I could no longer ignore my circumstances. So, after years of trying and discarding sitting practices, I finally stepped into my first official intro-to-meditation class at Shambhala NYC, following Chödrön’s lead to a center associated with her own teacher, the enigmatic and occasionally controversial Chögyam Trungpa. I entered class, plopped myself down on a cushion, began to watch my breath, and waited for the magic to happen.
Here’s the thing: Sitting has never once given me the physical gratification I can get from asana, or the precise intellectual “answers” I may find in anatomy or alignment studies. The magic doesn’t usually just “happen,” but instead evolves out of boredom and sleepiness and endless daydreaming. It coalesces after months of watching my breath and one day recognizing that I am no longer so reactive in triggering situations. It ebbs and flows and surprises me with my own tender heart, or my ability to listen deeply. Perhaps the primary reason why sitting practice was initially a hurdle, and occasionally remains so, is this complete lack of immediate result.
Stillness and subtle listening have replaced the “do more” mentality that used to mean going deeper in postures.
However, it stands for me as one of the most important things I can do for myself, my family and loved ones, my students, and the world. I still reap great satisfaction from uncovering the body’s truths and the corresponding challenges for my mind, but my asana practice has shifted tremendously in its tone. Where there was once subtle aggression in the form of strict alignment and perfection, there is now more space to play. Stillness and subtle listening have replaced the “do more” mentality that used to mean going deeper in postures. Self-care and quality time with my loved ones surpasses gaining popularity on social media or teaching six classes a day, seven days a week. I am also more aware of the places I get stuck—whether it’s a disagreement with my husband or challenges with students or colleagues—and how the weight of the world can leave me feeling despondent and shut down. The mindfulness I build in meditation allows me to see myself and reality with less fixation and more clarity. This is the bedrock of awakening.
Beneath the reality of the world’s watching eye, the studio’s bottom line, and your own personal confusion and misperceptions lies a deep need to foster self-awareness and integrity. Perhaps this is needed most in an industry wrought with inferred rights and wrongs, products and branding juxtaposed with ethics, and teachings that are often expected to be accepted at face value. Meditation offers a connection to the self precisely because it exists in no other place but your own awareness. There is no sudden achievement of samatha (calming of the mind or peaceful abiding) meditation, the way you might experience achievement in handstand. You cannot Instagram the selfie of a quiet(er) mind. No business savvy is needed to market compassion to your own heart. And in the end, there is no one but you who can witness your own mind.
In my mind, I’ve witnessed that I no longer feel (or live) like a trending phenomenon, nor am I as popular. And while my competitive side still struggles with this at times, I continue to make peace with it through my practice of mindfulness and compassion. I also no longer care as much about my appearance when teaching as I care about offering my students clear and compassionate glimpses into themselves on their own paths. I am sure that on some level this is a result of maturity as a human being and as a professional. But I am equally clear that meditation has given me access to a softer and quieter part of myself that exists beyond the sold-out class or viral Instagram pic. I awaken each day realizing that a gentler and kinder version of me is always possible—and is, in fact, here right now. Even when I don’t always make it to my cushion, the work I have already done serves as the roots of my every action.
I can see clearly that meditation offers me bodhi, the potential of awakening, in any given moment. No rising kundalini or years of solitude in the mountains. No world tour or hundred thousand followers. Just me, my breath, and my mind.
Anya’s interest in yoga began in college as a tandem to her studies in dance and plant biology. She embarked upon a teaching career in 2005 after a dance injury propelled her to deepen her knowledge of the therapeutic applications of asana and other facets of the practice. In 2010 she developed Breakti® which explores the intersections of asana, breakdance, and functional movement and she has had the honor of teaching at a number of the most well-known studios in NYC as well as major... Read more>>