Q: What do the Yoga Sutras say about asana (yoga poses)?
A: According to Putanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the highest stage of enlightenment is reached in seven stages, and asana (the practice of yoga poses) is the third stage. Putanjali describes asana in three sutras:
The posture should be steady, comfortable and grounded in joy. (2.46)
When I was younger my unconscious philosophy was something like, “exercise should be recklessly fast, numbingly intense, and fueled by anger.” Exercise worked as a great coping mechanism for me. When I roller-bladed as fast as a could, I was so focused on not falling that there wasn’t room to worry about anything else. The aching in my muscles during a long run superseded aching in my heart. Exercise was something I could channel uncomfortable emotions into instead of letting them eat away at me. It was also empowering to see my body getting strong and healthy. It was a great band-aid for a while, but eventually it stopped working.
In my early twenties, I was experiencing a deeper heartbreak than I’d felt before, and no matter how vigorously and desperately I exercised, I couldn’t block it out. Then, in the midst of my suffering I discovered vinyasa yoga, and it was transformational. Through the metaphor of asana (poses), my teachers taught me to be still and notice my emotions, even if I wanted nothing more than to resist them and block them out—steadiness. They taught me that whatever was going on in my head, it was okay to be feeling was I was feeling—comfortableness. Through time and practice, I learned that my worth was defined by more than getting having a boyfriend, getting into a challenging yoga pose, or even being strong and healthy; I found out I was more than all of those labels—joy.
Posture is mastered by relaxation of effort and meditation on the unlimited. (2.47)
I tell my students that practicing asana is practicing for life. If we are able to relax our gripping, gritting, or gnashing and maintain a meditative state during a challenging pose, we are more likely to connect to that mindfulness when someone cuts us off in traffic or when our hearts get broken. In San Francisco, I teach an intermediate vinyasa class in which we practice challenging postures that Putanjali (author of the Yoga Sutras), probably wouldn’t have dreamed recommending for meditation. I constantly remind students that it’s not about the pose itself; the pose is just a construct to test your ability to relax and be mindful. In this respect, sometimes the more advanced variation of a pose is the one that challenges your strength and flexibility; sometimes it’s the one that’s physically easier, but challenges you to let go of our ego.
When posture is mastered there is a cessation of disturbances caused by dualities. (2.48)
Our minds operate by identifying opposites. It’s built into our language and logic. We understand light because we can contrast it a lack of light (dark). We understand ourselves as entities different from our environment, different from others. Sometimes we even dissociate our own body, mind, and spirit. These aren’t bad things, we need them to survive. But, they create an illusion of separation which can be a source of deep suffering.
I’ve already mentioned that through my personal asana practice lines between things I thought were separate began to blur: as I learned to practice with physical grace, I began to cope with my emotions more gracefully too. As I relaxed in the face of intensity on the mat, I was more able to handle stress and conflict off the mat. As my practice of mindfulness developed, I began to notice my profound effect on my environment, and my environment’s fundamental effect on me. The labels that used to define me and set me apart from others started to drop off. I began to think that maybe my sense of self was more of a pragmatic, survival-based construct that a metaphysical (real) one. As the edges of my identity began to dissipate, I considered that maybe there is something that has no opposite. Something that is everything. Something unlimited that connects us all; that is us all.