Last month I asked you to reflect on your practice and I was overwhelmed by all that I heard in response. I am so happy to be part of a reflective community that takes the practice of yoga seriously. I thought I would follow up last months newsletter with some thoughts on an important sutra about the physical postures of yoga.
The practice of yoga has been handed down to us through the ancient text the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. In the sutras we are told that yoga is an 8-limbed path. Asana, the postures of yoga, is the third limb and by far the most practiced in the west. Out of 195 sutras, only 3 have to do with asana. From Edwin F. Bryant’s translation they read:
II.46: sthira-sukham asanam
Posture should be steady and comfortable
[Such posture should be attained] by the relaxation of effort and by absorption in the infinite.
I would like to focus here on sthira-sukham asanam. Such a simple sounding instruction! Our postures should be steady and comfortable. Anyone who has spent much time on the mat, however, understands this instruction to be anything but simple. Our muscles shake, our minds move in a million directions and our breath is often frayed. However, anyone who has spent much time on the mat also knows that rare moments of true stillness–of steady comfort–do arise. And this is why we practice.
The word asana literally translates into “seat.” An asana is a seat. Ultimately, the practice of yoga is working toward controlling one’s mind, of stopping the constant stream of ever-changing thoughts long enough to connect with our true identity, our True Self. However, in order to sit in meditation and do this deep work, our bodies must not be a distraction. We must have a steady and comfortable seat. So we practice asana to keep our bodies healthy and our spines strong so that we can sit.
My teacher Gary Kraftsow, in his book Yoga for Wellness offers an ancient story to help us understand this sutra:
“The essential qualities of asana practice are given to us by Patanjali, the ancient authority on yoga, in his Yoga Sutras. These qualities are the following:
Sthira and Sukha are symbolized by the ancient Hindu story of Ananta, the Adi Sesa, king of the Nagas, who carries the world on his head and the Lord on his lap … On a practical level, Ananta symbolized the goal of practice: the ability to take full responsibility for being a healthy human being in the context of our personal, social, and physical environment while at the same time being relaxed and at peace in our body, mind, and heart. Our asana practice should be as if we are becoming Ananta: doing our work with full attention while at the same time providing a comfortable resting place for God in our hearts.
Ask yourself if your practice is helping your body to become more stable or less stable. Ask yourself if your practice is helping clear and calm your mind or making your mind more agitated. Ask yourself if your practice is challenging you in the appropriate way. Do you need to move faster or slower? Do you need to try harder or less hard?