By Catherine L. Schweig
The most tangible, consistent relationship that we participate in throughout our lives is our relationship with our own minds and bodies—the two are very intimately linked.
It’s no wonder then that asana practice has become the most popular limb from Patanjali’s eight-limbed system outlined in the Yoga Sutra, as asana practice most directly engages us with our bodies.
At one point or another in our lives, statistics show that many of us didn’t have a very friendly relationship with our body. We may go through phases of disliking specific characteristics of our physical form, resist the natural aging process, struggle with weight or gender, wish we were more attractive, or belonged to a different race even, etc.
Asana practice is an ancient way to honor and embrace whichever temporary body we inhabit as a perfect vehicle through which to further our connection with everything that rests beyond our bodies. This is why, in yoga, we focus instead on cultivating a positive sense of self—or being—that goes deeper than the body.
Ironically enough, asanas help us transcend the limits of the body, through cultivating a deeper, more mature relationship with our bodies. We do this through the use of specific postures yogis have been engaging for ions: ones that honor the powerful body-mind connection with which we’re all born.
To one degree or another, we have all acquired less than friendly ways of relating to the bodies we are in now, either consciously or unconsciously.
In asana practice, we learn to enter into a friendly, cooperative relationship with our bodies. We commit to gently breaking habits of feeling disgusted with our bodies, obsessing over them, neglecting them, disassociating from them or desensitizing them.
A healthy asana practice is designed to free us from such heavy conditioning, so we feel lighter. Since the genesis of such conditioning rests in our minds, we start with our awareness: we bring our mind’s focus to our bodies.
This begins with our breath.
If you are lucky enough to have found an asana teacher that belongs to one of the ancient yoga lineages—or even a guide who is very intuitive—you will likely be asked first to notice your breath. The breath is the bridge that will connect you to your body. As the forth limb in the ashtanga yoga system, breath naturally works in synchrony with asana, (the third limb), to still our minds.
There is so much stored in your body, on various physical and subtle dimensions, that when you really allow your breath to connect you with your body, the monkey mind—so habituated to jumping here and there—will eventually follow, settling into listening to what the body has to say.
At the start of the Bhagavad Gita—one of yoga’s foundational texts—we hear the protagonist, Arjuna (representing all yoga practitioners), begin to describe his state of mind, by first tuning into his physical body: Arjuna brings his awareness to his limp limbs, his dry mouth, his lack of balance, the way he’s trembling. The hopelessness in his body reflects the hopelessness within himself.
Most of us have observed the way specific body language reflects specific moods.
For example, we slouch when feeling deflated, and often express triumph and joy by raising both arms above our head. These same spontaneous gestures are observed in humans all around the world—even in blind people, who had never witnessed any other person make such gestures—as it is simply the body responding to the energetic flow within it.
Similarly, asanas work within these natural energy fields to move our bodies into postures specifically designed to connect us with dormant parts of us we need to awaken. The more parts of us awaken, the more easily we’ll be able to tune into what our bodies are saying.
Because each of our bodies will have their own unique narratives, it’s critical that we not compare our asana practice to that of others. Rather, we honor whatever it is that our own practice brings to the surface by allowing it to emerge, without judgement. In turn, we “sit” with it. Asana is thus derived from a Sanskrit verb root meaning “to sit,” “to stay,” or “to be established in a particular posture or position.”
When we stay, or “sit”, with whatever comes up for us, we give ourselves the opportunity to grow familiar with it and, in turn, tend to it as needed so that it may soften, open, deepen, and awaken. This concentrated practice is described in the sixth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita: learning to sit still and alert in one’s body—regardless of whatever else is going on around us—as a means to still the mind.
A stilled mind doesn’t necessarily mean the cessation of thoughts.
During your asana practice, you will likely notice thoughts coming and going, much like shifting winds playing with a kite. After all, unless we live in a vacuum, our lives fill us with all kinds of potential stimulation for such thoughts on a daily basis— sometimes we experience them as big gusts of wind, and other times, as gentle breezes. When thoughts blow in, we may gently remind ourselves that we are not the kite. Instead, we are the person on the ground, holding the kite’s string, observing its movements from afar.
At the beginning of the Bhagavad Gita, we see Krishna encouraging the protagonist, Arjuna to do the same.
Though Arjuna’s breathing is fast and his mind is restless, he is not advised to invalidate his thoughts by ignoring them, repressing them, or beating himself up for having them. Instead, with Krishna’s compassionate help, Arjuna learns to observe his thoughts, acknowledge the distress they bring him, and then gradually shift his attention back to the task at hand: that of being a warrior. The winds may blow, but they can’t stop the yogi’s chariot from moving forward.
One of the ways we allow asanas to move us forward on our own yoga journey is through learning to be present with whatever rises to the surface during our practice. Learning to sit with uncomfortable emotions are a valuable part of yoga practice. The Gita calls this kind of yoga, “the yoga of despair” or Vishada Yoga. It is the first yoga that appears in this text, catalyzing the rest.
Distress can be a great catalyst for deepening one’s yoga practice.
It is not uncommon for repressed emotions to release while we are in an asana, as these physical postures were designed to stimulate seven different energy centers, or chakras, in our bodies corresponding to different ways of being—and their defining psychological states.
Like human antennas, moving our bodies into certain asana positions can increase our receptivity to the information we’ve stored in us as a result of the many different experiences we’ve had in our lives.
Experiences that leave emotional impressions in our beings are called samskaras.
Whether they were experiences in which us feeling safe or unsafe, confident or insecure, loved or unloved, trustful or mistrustful, the samskaras they left behind will affect our belief system. A deep, steady asana practice will flex and relax our belief system, alongside our muscles.
Experienced yoga teachers will be able to recommend asanas that address the specific beliefs that are holding you back in your life. Since asanas are traditionally regarded as physical representations of various states of awareness, there are specific qualitative components of consciousness to be unlocked in each asana.
Specific asanas can, therefore, connect us with specific emotions, helping us become more aware of what we’ve been resisting in life, and giving us opportunities to give them the attention they need, while engaging them in our practice. Often, becoming deeply aware of the kind of relationship we have with our bodies can lead us straight into the parts of our beings that require the most attention.
The essence behind asana practice permeates all yoga texts: to know and feel where our consciousness rests—what the quality of our awareness is.
In deepening our awareness of the body, and all the wisdom stored within it, we lay the foundation for deeper levels of awakening. Because bodies are often the most tangible instruments we have at our disposal, asana makes full use of the body to connect us with the depth of our beings that rest beyond the body.
For in the yoga tradition, we understand that the body holds many secrets in it, and asana practice is the key that will unlock them for us.
Catherine L. Schweig has practiced yoga in the Bhakti tradition since 1986. In 2012 she started an online sisterhood dedicated to inspiring women to honor their voices through poetry. From it emerged four award winning anthologies, the latest titled “GODDESS: When She Rules” (Golden Dragonfly Press, 2018). Catherine is also the editor of “Bhakti Blossoms”, the first poetry collection featuring the voices of contemporary women in the Bkakti tradition. As co-founder of The Secret Yoga Institute, with her life partner, Graham, Catherine designs yoga workshops and publishes in various venues. She lives in Virginia where she practices a vegan lifestyle and mentors yoga practitioners. You may connect with her on Facebook, email her or visit her website: catherineschweig.com.
Editor: Dana Gornall