Yoga asanas… are they as painful as they sometimes look?
… And why do we have to do them anyway?
My first introduction to Yoga asanas came as a child, back in the 1970s. At that time there was a popular American television show called “That’s Incredible”… a sort of understated American version of “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” I suppose. I don’t remember much about it, except one episode that stuck firmly in my child-mind and remains to this day.
This particular installment of the show featured a man, referred to as “Yogi Something-or-other” (I don’t remember his name, except for that strange word “yogi,” which I had never heard before). Well, to make a long story short, this “Mr. Yogi Something-or-other” proceeded to fold himself up, limb by limb, piece by piece, inch by unbelievable inch, into a small wooden box no bigger than a piece of standard carry-on luggage. When he finished, the audience shouted the show’s tag line, “That’s Incredible!”
…. Indeed it was! And forever etched in my mind were these mysterious “yogis,” who could twist and contort themselves into unimaginable states.
Where did “Mr. Yogi Something-or-other” come from?
… India of course.
What was he doing?
… Who knows really… But he most certainly was displaying an immense amount of body control.
How did he achieve that?
… Through the practice of Yoga asanas…
So, What Are Asanas?
All those twisty, bendy, balancing, stretching straining positions you’ve seen glossing the cover of the latest health magazine? Yep, those are asanas. Well, they’re supposed to represent asanas anyhow. But honestly, quite often they are just a beautiful model in a cool-looking pose to get your attention.
You see, Yoga asanas have come to be seen as twisty bendy, balancing, stretching, straining positions of all sorts… a plethora of unimaginable bodily contortions that are the mainstay of this trendy thing today called Yoga.
But Yoga asanas are not merely weird looking stretches.
… As a matter of fact, much of these modern-day “yogic exercises” don’t even come from the Yoga tradition itself. As more and more people jump on the Yoga bandwagon, we’re seeing an evolution of this ancient practice of Yoga asanas to often absurd extremes.
How did the Yoga position, as we know it today, get here? Let’s take a look at the origins of asana and their evolution to modern times.
The Evolution of Asana
Asana in Ancient Times
The Sanskrit word “asana” comes from the root “asi,” which means, “to be.” Literally, the word asana means “a state of being.”
In Vedic (ancient) times, asana simple referred to “a seat”—a special seat reserved for the Guru or someone of revered status. It also referred sometimes to the place where-upon the spiritual practitioner sat for meditative practices.
By Patanjali’s Time
Sage Patanjali, often considered the father of modern Yoga, lists asana as the third of the 8 stages of classical Ashtanga Yoga. However, the scores of physical exercises, which have become the mainstay of Yoga today, did not even figure at all in Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga system.
“STHIRA SUKHAM ASANAM”
Translation: A seated posture that is steady and comfortable is called asana. –Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Ch. 2, V. 46)
In fact, Patanjali himself only mentions the word asana a scant 4 times throughout his entire Ashtanga Yoga treatise, the Yoga Sutras. … And even so, only in reference to it being a seated and steady posture.
That’s what this “bible of Yoga” (as so many modern Yoga teachers call it) says about Yoga asanas?
Yoga-asanas: A seated, steady position! That’s it?
At any rate, Patanjali’s references are significant in the grand scheme of the evolution of asana, because here (for the first time?) we are seeing the word “asana” being used to reflect not only “place,” but “actual form.”
So why does sage Patanjali make this distinction?
Because it was clear to him that the body needed to be made healthy and able to resist strain and fatigue; to gain a fitness that is necessary for pranayama, and to develop willpower in order to withstand physical and mental distraction at the higher, meditation stages of practice.
The seated Yoga asana of Patanjali’s time, then, would be the genesis of what would eventually lead us to the modern use of the word asana.
Into the Modern Era
Nowadays, with modern lifestyles being as they are, people are simply becoming physically (and mentally) less and less capable of sitting for meditation. That’s not just true of recent years though. It’s been a process of slow mental and physical degeneration that has proceeded over many centuries now…
But the need for efforts to improve physical health has undeniably increased even more so in modern times, especially in Western societies. The average person struggles to even touch their toes, and the maintenance of a steady, comfortable, non-distracted posture for any length of time is a significant challenge for most. (Dare I say impossible?)
… So naturally, over time, the physical practices of Yoga began to develop further as well. Enter the age of the Yoga pose. Yoga asana has now evolved into many different physical positions…
* To re-create awareness…
* To re-connect the wildly distracted body, mind and emotions…
* To condition the body and mind to be able to sit for long periods of time in meditation.
In a nutshell… more conscious and varied efforts towards developing physical and mental steadiness and comfort became necessary.
The term Yoga asana today has become purely synonymous with a physical pose or Yoga position. But right from the very beginning, it is important that we consider the Yoga asanas to be more than mere gymnastics in our Yoga practice.
Sadly, however, the practice of Yoga in modern times is such that in many cases it has become a purely physical practice, whereby the primary and often only goal remains on the physical level. The asana Yoga class has taken over Yoga. As Yogacharini Meenakshi Devi Bhavanani writes in her article entitled “Yoga in Modern Times”:
“In recent times the materialistic, consumerist ethos has enveloped the ancient spiritual science of Yoga and has altered it to an almost unrecognizable extent. The science of Yoga, which was designed to free man of his body consciousness and enable him to rise above it, has now become a vehicle of [exactly the opposite], enhancing body consciousness. The ‘Cult of Flexibility’ has emerged which uses asanas as a means to produce ‘the body beautiful’. Emphases on hard physical use of the body, achievement, strength, enhanced efficiency, and sexuality, have become the goals of practice. Adrenalin surges stimulated by this hard physical work, become addictive. Yoga now has become ‘utilitarian’. … It has also become the basis of a lucrative career for some lucky few who have garnered fame as Yoga teachers.”
The Practice of Asana
There is much debate in the modern Yoga world about the Yoga asanas and their performance. There are scores of yogic asanas being practiced today and an enormous number of variations on each of those as well… enough to make your Yoga head spin!
So many so-called Yoga teachers today have made the perfection of asana the be-all and end-all of Yoga. It’s my opinion… no, my firm belief that anyone who teaches Yoga asanas, and nothing more, is not teaching Yoga. They are fitness instructors in fashionable Yoga clothes!
But I do realize that it is difficult to find good Yoga instruction these days… and by that, I’m sure you know that I mean guidance not only in the physical aspects of Yoga practice, but in all the deeper dimensions as well… along with just what it means to live a true yogic life… on all levels.
Yoga is 99% awareness! The physical practices, such as the Hatha Yoga asanas, are primary tools for developing that awareness. Besides asanas, Yoga has so much to offer. So regard your Yoga practice as a tool for transformation on all levels, and you will surely find transformation… on all levels!
By Yogacharya Michael
Yogacharya Michael is a senior teacher in the Rishiculture Ashtanga Yoga lineage of Dr. Swami Gitananda Giri Gurumaharaj, of Pondicherry India. He is the Founder and Director of International Yogalayam, an online school of Yoga, and Managing Editor of The Yoga News, a web-based monthly Yoga magazine. For more information, please visit his website: discover-yoga-online.com