An Interview with Dr. David Frawley (Pandit Vamadeva Shastri)

Ayurveda and Yoga are sister sciences. In this interview, Dr. Frawley addresses their complementarity and where asana fits into both of these ancient systems from a holistic perspective. He also clarifies the intent of asana and the broader goal of Yoga from a classical view, drawing from the Yoga Sutras and Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): How does Ayurveda incorporate asana?

David Frawley (DF): Ayurveda usually prescribes asana either for a healthy lifestyle or as part of certain therapies. A healthy lifestyle should include exercise and asana is ideal because of its spiritual dimension. The main health problem in life comes from gravity and aging. If you do inverted poses you are improving your longevity so it’s relevant to everyone. Then there are asanas that are part of the doshic model. Ayurveda takes into account the dosha and the structural condition of people. Ayurveda says the whole purpose of Yoga practice as far as health goes is to eliminate excesses in the doshas, which means to develop stillness and relaxation. To be a healthy person you don’t have to be capable of a perfect pose.

IYM: What is the distinction between asana and exercise in Ayurveda?

DF: Exercise has its place and asana has another. In Ayurveda, we have a separate word for exercise: vyayama. Asana means “the seat” in Sanskrit and implies a sitting pose, unless it’s further defined. That means that you had to be in that pose for some time to apply the term “asana.” It was only much later that people added sequences and movements to asana practice.

Yoga in general and asana as a part of Yoga, implies a movement from rajas (activity) to sattva (stillness, balance). Essentially what people call a workout is a movement from tamas (inertia) to rajas, but it is not Yoga if we define it in the classical sense. To qualify as Yoga, it would require an additional level of calming, balancing, stillness and introversion. If sattva guna isn’t brought in, then its vyayama. The simplest way to understand this is in relation to the three gunas (qualities of nature). As a general principle, the body has a tendency has a tendency toward tamas, the prana toward rajas and the mind toward sattva. The body tends to develop inertia, waste materials, sleep, and so on. The body is part of the earth and has a heavy quality. In the Ayurvedic system, exercise—which we all need to some degree—is utilized to remove tamas at a physical level.

IYM: Are you concerned about how asana is practiced today?

DF: The new formula is asana plus kirtan. I always joke that the LA definition of Yoga is asana plus shopping! [Laughs]. Asana is becoming like a youth movement: Yoga on the beach with music and a barbeque. If you go to Thailand you see this. But as we age, exercise must become more gentle, easeful and restorative and that’s the more classical approach to the asana. Asanas should exercise the body sufficiently, but need not train the body athletically. There’s nothing wrong in becoming a gymnast or excelling at difficult asanas, but it gives the wrong idea as to what asana is all about. You don’t want people to feel bad if they can’t do athletic asanas or bend into pretzel shapes, particularly if they want to do Yoga for healing.

The fact is that Yoga in the USA is business driven, like any other business, by the demands of the market. I’m not criticizing this; it’s just what it has become. The demands of a business are very different than a focus on a spiritual practice. Because we live in a media age, we tend to identify those with the largest classes and those teaching the most celebrities as being the Yoga stars and best teachers. But, we don’t say the best physicist is the one with the most celebrities or the biggest classes. So we need to recognize the difference between the one doing cutting edge research and the media-popularized one…

Read the rest of this article in the Summer 2010 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.