Asana in today’s nomenclature and today’s popular practice is different from the traditional use of asana in classic yoga. I will be addressing asana from a perspective of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. We will not cover the validity or place of the “modern posture practice” that is prevalent for the past several generations of teachers.
Please refer to the second pada (chapter) in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (YS 2.46-48). Here asana is defined in the YS 2.46. The next sutra describes how to perfect the asana. The last one here describes the result of accomplishing the asana.
Sthira-sukam ãsanam YS 2.46 (Asana is Steady and Easeful)
Isn’t it interesting that the asana is described and defined in terms of stability and ease. On one level these terms relate to proprioception and kinesthesia. Both of these relate to sensations of the awareness of the effects of position and movement. Note that the Sutra does not describe how to do something. It describes or states the “feeling” sense one is left with or the awareness of the qualities of this asana.
Again to emphasize–it is the sensory part not the doing part that is the definition. Asana is not the bodies position in space or on the floor. Asana here is the mind’s awareness that settles in this body. The body is just this lump of clay. It is only in relationship to the mind and breath that asana exists.
Asana must emphasize and come from this sense of flow of information. This flow is the awareness that pervades both the body, breath and mind. In Traditional Yoga, we speak of these flows as prana. Pranic flows exist throughout the body, breath and mind and even beyond (taking one to atma and beyond). So now let’s look at the basic concepts and principles that will help us come into our asana.
These steps are all preparatory to asana. Many practitioners have been skipping these critical steps. They have mistakenly assumed that the end point was the beginning point of their practice. It never is but is often romantically envisioned by early enthusiasm. Much hard work is needed to prepare us to begin. This discussion is only a part of the preparations that are needed.
Anatomy as a Map
We often start with the body (conceptually it is easy to relate to in a simple way). Here we start looking at the anatomy of the body. Again we need to expand our perspective of the anatomy of the body.
The anatomy is a Map of Energy Flows. Here we are referring to Yoga Philosophy that speaks to the gross body as a manifestation of the subtle body and flows. Our embryological development is derived from the coded instructions embedded in our DNA. Yoga just talks of Prana. I will consider them to be similar enough for this presentation. Now back to a bit more familiar territory.
There are three areas of the anatomy that we can look at in organizing our movements to arrive at a stable asana.
- Head, neck and trunk
- Shoulder Girdle
- Pelvic/Hip Girdle
We will look at these three areas to develop some of our principles of movement.
Principles of Movement
In arranging an asana/posture we are talking about moving. Posturing is all about movement and it’s organization. Asana/Posture is not static in this sense. It is a dynamic relationship to sensing and doing.
In a modified standing Tadasana/Mountain Pose, let’s say we reach our hands over our head towards the ceiling. Now we need to ask two questions:
- What is Moving
- Where is the Movement occurring
As we sense/observe this reaching in students, we can see that what is moving in general might be the same for many. It is instructive then to notice that WHERE they are moving from is often different and done at different timings.
In this example of reaching, some people will have more mobility of their shoulders. Others with stiffer shoulders will begin to use their back/spines to complete the task of reaching overhead. Using the back (to early and too much) to move the arms overhead changes the patterns of activation and stability. Often when we think (not feel) that we are stretching our shoulders we are really over using our backs.
What we feel is what we feel. Our feelings are not wrong. They are just misinterpreted in this case. For those with tight shoulders we often do not notice that we are using our back and not emphasizing mainly our shoulders and chest, etc.
We use this same lack of awareness or misplaced awareness in sitting for meditation. Often people are just doing a movement of straightening the spine to sit from their favorite place in their back. This lack of sensory training cannot be learned from reading and thinking about this material. This type of sensorial based learning takes a lot of practice on developing the sensory cues and questions to lay down the new information (pranic) pathways that have been atrophied over many years of poor movement patterns.
Again just learning to do the posture is no where close to coming into an asana. Just doing something and not really experiencing the sensations that we cannot currently feel is inadequate. We may “think” we look “right”. Only thinking and visualizing is limiting ones perception and knowing. The asana is not the mental-visual picture of the bodies organization.
Most reading this statement above will understand it conceptually in the familiar thinking aspect of the mind. Many of us will miss that it is not a mental appreciation of knowing. It is a sensorial based, atrophied awareness that takes much training and practice to re-discover. The lack of feeling cannot be accomplished by just thinking and understanding.
This mental appreciation of thinking is over-rated in asanas. Then once people understand this concept of needing to feel–they then set too high of a task by repeatedly asking themselves to feel, feel, etc. That is the same thing as trying to do what you cannot do. Just asking yourself to do it repeatedly will not allow you accomplish this task.
Problem of Doing and Not Feeling Proprioceptively
Our feeling/sensory pathways have atrophied just like a skeletal muscle has atrophied. One is not going to be able to feel it anymore than one could lift 200 pounds off the floor at the beginning.
Say you where an average Hatha practitioner. Never lifting heavy weights. You now wanted to be able to lift that 200 pounds off the floor. So everyday you practice to grab it and try lifting it. Well nothing happens the first day or first week, right. Well you just keep trying and someday in the future you can lift it, right?
Wrong! Trying to do something without the proper preparation and training is a good set up for failure. The nervous system and neuromuscular system, etc needs a proper slow progression to establish pathways that can gradually help you attain your goal. This means training at lifting with say 15 pounds and slowly and incrementally increasing every third or fourth session or whatever increment is needed. So that in months and years you will be able to pick up 200 pounds because you have not started with the end task but have built a program that leads you to the end task.
The sensory system is no different. In training to feel what we don’t feel, we often ask it to do an end task. This end task represents the 200 pound lift in the previous example. One has to develop a progressive program that goes step by step to slowly build up ones ability to feel. We are not understanding this idea. We mentally understand it but not in our own sensory experience. We constantly cognitively confuse the two.
You cannot easily feel what you cannot feel. We think we can. That is the point. You cannot necessarily think yourself into feeling something. Although it sometimes does work that way. It is still a poor design for ones training program. As this cognitive/thinking style of feeling really misses the pathways of sensorially appreciating the stimuli/information.
In a workshop, these principles are easier to see. Again it takes more work in unfamiliar areas than most people realize. Training to place the mind to feel by merely moving the minds attention in some generalized pattern will never train this capacity. The mistake I often see is that people then say feel everything and note all the places that you are moving at. Again you can only note and be aware of what you feel. Remember the problem is “atrophy” of our feeling senses. Just like atrophy of our lifting muscles. It is not there!! So you cannot ask “it” to help out here. It has to be acquired over skillful training time.
The particular of sensory based learning will not be covered in detail here. We use a lot of contrasting of movement directions. We use a lot of exaggeration of movements in order to feel things that normally are not that available. We us lots of time for exploration of similar and different directions, etc to help sensitize our feeling system.
After hearing this discussion many of you may still feel you understand and can do this feeling/sensory training. I would caution you that ideally you would take workshops that would explore this sensory based training. One system that handles this type of learning well is the Awareness Through Movement lessons that the Feldenkrais practitioners teach.
Importance of Direction and Pranic Flows
Asana represents (in part) the organization of the body/breath and mind. Remember though that it comes from the organization of the subtler flows. Here the flow of information is called prana.
The asana is often shown as an end position. We then have a visual image and memory that represents to us what it is. This image is very incomplete and inadequate.
Most people are teaching asana from this “picture” that represents the asana. It seems like a static pose. This asana is a dynamic representation of all the flows of energy in a particular direction with ones very specific intention and attention.
Let’s look at direction first. If we are doing a side bending asana like a simple konasana, the direction is let’s say to the left. We are side bending left. Sometimes we inadvertently add other directions like turning or rotation. In a simple side bending there should be no overt rotation of the trunk, shoulder or pelvic girdles. The energy is mainly in side bending to the left. The rotation bleeds or leaks the energy in this other plane of movement.
Also commonly seen in konasana is too much extension of the trunk. Often this hyperextension is in the lower rib spine or thoracolumbar area. Again we are using another plane of movement (extension here) to substitute for a lack of side bending to the left.
Also we can see flexion in a konasana when a student “tries” to DO the asana. They are not so flexible in side bending and then try to get as low as they see the picture of the asana as demonstrated. The mistake again is in focusing on doing vs feeling the flows of the side bending energies or forces. This will be addressed again later.
This over extension (as well as the other planes) of the trunk distorts the pranic flow from being fairly “sattvic” that blends/integrates the right and left side bending energies–into being fairly “rajasic”.
- Trunk extension is more activating and arousing–rajasic
- Trunk flexion is more relaxing and calming–tamasic
- Trunk side bending and rotation is more blending and integrating–sattvic
Of course ones intent and application can change any of the above planes of movements and their proposed correlatives. For example some rotations can be very enlivening and activating or rajasic as well as the opposite.
Depth and Flexibility in Asana
Let’s stay with a konasana. If our intention is to bend and reach our hand down our leg as far as the instructor/picture, we will compensate in our areas of immobility and instability as previously described.
We need to focus on developing the proper flows of prana and information. Again it is not how far one can reach in side bending. It is about activating the system of information/prana along the designated pathways. We are activating the side bending movement and all the other areas that need to stabilize. (We will return to these concepts of mobility and stability later).
Our intention is in a particular direction. That direction is the initial design. If we move in other directions we have changed our intention (maybe we don’t even have one) and also changed our attention.
There is a complexity and sophistication to the design of the asana that many are missing. We have gotten lost in the achievement of some hyper flexible design of this mental picture. That is not asana. Asana is not a look it is a feeling. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali constantly only refer to this feeling of stability and ease. It never talks about the particulars of placing this part to that part. It never describes a visual image.
We are still mistakenly doing asana vs revealing these deeper pranic flows of information that we have blocked from our awareness by our mis-representation of a visually oriented practice.
Therefore it is not the depth that one stretches to or not. It is all about the proper activation of the nadis or currents of flows of information. Stop this stretching and exercising business.
Now let us redirect our attention along particular lines or channels of intention that follows the proper directions.
Once one comes into this feeling along these lines of proper activation, then slowly we become stable. It doesn’t happen overnight. Many more considerations need to be included.
Mobility and Stability
When you think of someone doing asana do you think of someone who is stiff or flexible. Flexibility is only a part of coming into an asana. Most people today who are doing and enjoying asana are fairly flexible in their bodies. So we easily start to emphasize this mobility aspect.
Proper movement includes both what is moving and what needs to provide stability for that movement to properly occur. This movement does exist not only for the body but includes the flow of the breath and the focus of the mind. At this time we will continue to highlight the role of the body.
If asana is not about the depth of ones pose, then flexibility is no longer a prerequisite for doing and enjoying asana!! Here we must emphasize stability. It is the stable areas of our system that allows for the proper flows. If we are not stable at the pelvis and trunk in simple side bending asana, we begin to include other planes of movement often in flexion and extension. We can easily go too far at our knees and hips because we again are stretching.
Our stable pelvis and trunk in this example allows for the proper flow of forces/prana in the orchestration of this side bending direction. It is the flow of prana that develops our stability and ease. It is not the acrobatics of the posture.
It is the depth of our flowing breath that is a result of this proper combination of stability and movement. Then as our body settles and becomes stable, the breath deepens and the mind also settles into a depth of paying attention from the inside. The depth of the mind is past the normal analysis of the proper preparation. It takes time to allow the depth of the mind to reveal itself.
Then (after years of skillful practice) we come into relaxing our effort. This type of relaxation takes much practice. It does not occur from simply commanding oneself to relax.
Activation and Relaxation
Activation and relaxation relate to a dynamic process of the neuromuscular and pranic system (very similar–like brother and sister). In the movement system, there is this interplay of facilitation and inhibition. Always there is some areas of the neuromuscular system that are ramping up or turning up (activating) their activity while other areas are turning down their activity (relaxing).
In order to perfect an asana, Patanjali states that one should loosen the effort as the first step. Often relaxation in asana is heavily emphasized. There are good reasons for this emphasis. We cannot move mindfully with great tension. Also we cannot move when we are collapsing and unstable.
If you observe an accomplished dancer, you will notice and ease and relaxation in their movements and postures. This type of relaxation and ease is not primarily practiced at the beginning (except mistakenly by beginners in asana). It takes year of long, hard, diligent, skillful practice to then arrive at this type of relaxation. Some people who start out practicing try to put the proverbial “cart before the horse”. Effort in practice comes before ease of practice. Practically even this idea is not always correct. Training is never linear in it’s expression of these concepts.
There is always a balance between what, where, when and how much we should participate in these simultaneous and integrated activities of activation and relaxation. Just remember the doing part is driven by the sensing/feeling part. (Feeling here is more the proprioceptive vs emotional context).
Patterns and Habits of Activation/Relaxation
We don’t move in isolation. You can easily experience these patterns vs isolated movement by looking at any of the cultural asanas. Here as in the centering asanas many nadis and areas are involved. We move and posture (remember posture is very dynamic, not static) often in our habitual patterns. We don’t really think about it. This habit is where our sensory apparatus has gone to sleep. It seems like we move and don’t even know it. Think about getting in your car, turning on the radio and the next thing you know you are at work, hmmmm.
Habits are not bad. Thank god we don’t have to pay attention to everything. It would cause total arrest of our sensory and motor system. Remember balance is both turning on/up of some things and turning off/down of others.
During asanas though we want to heighten our awareness to discover our deeper layers. We want to properly prepare this container of the body, breath and mind so that we can access or have revealed that which is not this material substance (as per the Samkhya Philosophy).
We can start with examining our habitual patterns. We can look/feel only what we are use to looking and feeling. So we want to structure our sensory experience. Doing something perfectly is not helping us become aware.
One of the principles here in movement is to exaggerate what you are doing so you can more easily feel the information. This exaggeration should be in both directions. Let’s look at an example.
Exaggeration Principle in Learning/Refining Sensory Awareness
In standing, raise your arms overhead. Note what you feel moving and where is the movement you feel taking place. One may readily say they feel the arm at the shoulder doing the movement. Well the trunk is also involved to some extent because we move in an integrated set of patterns that are not contained only at one joint or place.
When lifting your arms/hands up the chest and spine will extend. Some times you will bend excessively backwards to raise the arms overhead. Now it is not about should you do this or that. It is about training the sensory/feeling system to awaken and become more sensitized to what you are feeling and doing.
So in this case you want to move several times in your exaggerated pattern. Use the trunk in a large enough fashion so that you can appreciate this relationship, ie feel it more easily. Then move your arms overhead again for another set of repetitions where you keep your trunk slightly flexed and very braced. This latter style prevents that movement. Your focus is on feeling the differences. Keep practicing until you can lessen the efforts in both directions until you can feel the slightest accompanying pattern of trunk extension or flexion or neutral (no trunk movement). Now you have trained your awareness vs perfected a false imitation of a posture.
There are many other ways of training the sensory system. The sequence in which you initiate, move through and then end the movement can be varied to again create more sensitivity. We will just mention one other very important one next.
All of this sensory training is coming from the overuse of the model of just doing something and thinking that it “looks” right. Awareness/sensory based training being discussed here is an adjunct and supportive method to create more balance and deeper levels of awareness than in the previous models of see and do.
It is this type of awareness training that is not emphasized enough in our practice of asana.
Differentiated and Undifferentiated Movements/Postures
Let’s look at a sitting asana for meditation. Pick your favorite from Sukhasana/Maitriasana to Siddhasana/Padmasana. (We usually don’t teach Padmansan for meditation but is used for many advanced Pranayamas). Cat and cow asana preparation is often used to prepare the spine and trunk for subsequent asanas.
Notice that the movement of the spine (that normally in neutral has three curves), is moved in an undifferentiated pattern. The whole spine is flexing or forward bending in cat pose. The whole spine is extending or backward bending in cow pose.
Now when we sit for pranayama or meditation we are actually asking our head, neck and trunk to act in a differentiated way. In sitting straight in a neutral spine (maintaining the normal curves of the neck, chest spine and lower back spine), we are often asking the chest spine to straighten without over extending the neck or lower back spine.
Now notice how we have practiced the cat/cow maneuver. Our practice has led us to a feeling of when we extend any part of the spine, every part of the spine is extending. That is not a bad thing by itself. It just becomes a popular pattern of spinal movements that feel normal. What ever you practice regularly becomes your default from which you move and posture.
You will see in many standing poses as one straightens their spine, many will over extend generally throughout the spine. Often we only need to move in one area. There are way too many people standing with an exaggerated lower back to lower thoracic spine. You can see their upper chest is often behind their pelvis. Another compensation here is the forward head.
This mal-configuration starts to feel normal and “neutral”. When do we practice separating out these directions of these movements of the spine. We really don’t practice much to differentiate or separately move one curve in the opposite direction of the other (in the Sagittal Plane).
Differentiation of the spine in the cat/cow would mean that as you extend the neck and chest spine you would also flex (forward bend) the lower back spine (and vice a versa). It is not easy to do initially because we cannot feel and control opposite movements in this sagittal plane.
This differentiation in the feeling and proper execution of this movement is needed to sit with a balance and straight spine.
There are many examples that we could explore here to expand and practice these movement principles. For now we have covered some of the basic movement principles for an introduction of some of the key concepts. Let this be a start to refining your exploration of asana in your practice.
A hands-on workshop is highly recommended. Being involved in a training practice that emphasizes the sensory exploration needed for movement and postural feedback is needed.
Then asana becomes a state and condition from the mind to the body. It is in that state of the mind that
- the body becomes still and
- the breath becomes smooth and long and
- the mind becomes deeply focused
From this condition stability and ease simply appear. They are revealed through a rigorous practice of which the fruits are stated in the Yoga Sutras (YS 2.48).
Tato dvandvãnabhi-ghãtah YS 2.48 (Then one is no longer affected by the pairs of opposites)
From this asana ones sushumna is open/the mind is singularly focused and meditation begins.