An Interview with Mukunda Stiles

As the author of Structural Yoga Therapy, a classic in the field, Mukunda Stiles is considered an expert in the anatomy and physiology of asana. In this interview, he shares his insights from his study of the traditions of classical Yoga and Ayurveda, to help us understand how asana affects the body and how we may best approach our practice.

Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): What is your view of asana?

Mukunda Stiles (MS): Yoga, in classical form, is a more profound practice for spiritual life. Asana helps lessen the maya of the annamaya kosha, the physical body. The body veil—which has food as its main illusion—hides the Self. One of the big revelations to me is that Hatha Yoga is often used as therapy for the illusion, when the real issue is the diet. So, the ideal is to make good food choices which will lessen the body’s problems by 70 percent.

IYM: How should we approach asana practice?

MS: It should be guided by the ahimsa principle (Yoga Sutras, 2.33-35). If you aren’t comfortable and steady, then you aren’t practicing ahimsa. We need to follow Patanjali’s guidelines for asana (2.46-48), which include a three-step process described in sutra 2.47: relax the effort, lessen the tendency for restless breath and promote identification as your Self, living in the infinite breath. When you look at how you feel in an asana—as both the test of subjective sensitivity and the key to lessening harm—you want to feel the muscles, not the joints. Any posture where you feel the joints, will inflame pitta.

When we are sattvic, we will feel the three Ayurvedic doshas separate from each other. When we are insensitive or too filled with ama (toxins), we can’t distinguish them. The first dosha is vata which, when balanced by Patanjali’s sutras, becomes prana. The vata part of the practice is basically the warm up that gets you in touch with slow, gentle movement that expands the prana. Once that is happening, then it’s natural that pitta imbalances will reveal themselves. The pitta part of the practice is to return its warmth, or tejas, to its home in the small intestine. Then our digestive fire will help promote better food choices. The third dosha, kapha, is where we hold the poses, developing stamina, strength and endurance. This also includes practices that promote a healthy immune system through the increased production of ojas (spiritual juice). When this all comes together, the subjective experience of asana spontaneously leads to pranayama and pratyahara.

IYM: What are the challenges the structural body faces in Hatha Yoga?

MS: There are three main ones: inflexibility, inflammation and stamina. The sattvic experience of asana will result in comfortable range of motion and inflexible (tamasic) joints will become sattvic and comfort is experienced through natural body motions. Range of motion is a vata consideration, so when range of motion is too much or not enough, practices that enhance prana will restore harmony. Certain fiery practices like those done too fast, or with too much emphasis on stretching, will displace agni and cause inflammatory conditions—especially in the joints and the digestive tract. If we are experiencing inflammation we need to do a comfortable practice that encourages enthusiasm, but discerns the natural sattvic behavior.

The third challenge is to develop strength and stamina. To develop this efficiently, it is useful to do my Structural Yoga practice once a month to see if you can isolate muscle strength and test the 30 main muscles for stamina. If you examine your experience in each asana, there should be two or three distinct muscles that reveal their capacity for isolation. By doing the 24 poses in my series, you will be able to evaluate your capacity for holding a pose safely by the tone of the primary muscle. If you are unsafe, your awareness will shift to a smaller secondary muscle…


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