An exploration of the levels of experience within Asana
For many years now, asana has marked the start of my day, every day. It is the ritual that keeps me grounded through my movement across continents, and the practice that for me, like so many others, has been the channel into the much greater lifestyle of yoga. For many of us, ‘doing yoga’ means getting on our mats, stretching out, strengthening our core, and relaxing in savasana. But where did this idea come from? What journeys does it present for us within? And what does it really mean to be steady and comfortable in your seat?
sthira = strong; steady; stable; motionless
sukham = comfortable; ease filled; happy; light; relaxed
āsanam = asana; posture; seated position; physical practice
Through my own personal practice, I have experienced first-hand the subtle shifts in awareness that begin with the physical form of yoga. For so many of us, the physical asana is our vehicle to be able to tap in and access different aspects of our consciousness. Through a deeper understanding of the philosophy of yoga, and through incorporating this into my practice, it has become easier to recognize the teachings that surface.
More than simply recognizing the teachings on the mat, as we get deeper into our practice, the challenge evolves into a question of how to take the teachings off the mat and into daily life. When we go back to the roots of yoga, as described in Patanjali’s Ashtanga (eight limbed path), we see that asana is described as above: sthira sukha asanam - a steady, comfortable seat.
Beyond the physical
Although Asana is commonly translated as a steady, comfortable seat, we will learn here that it is much more than just the physical seat that we are accustomed to. Asana undoubtedly affects the physical, mental, and spiritual worlds. When we physically take a seat in a specific way in order to align our structure, we also have the opportunity to access the more subtle, yet profound teachings of alignment through the philosophical and spiritual realms.
Simply stated, the term asana means ”to sit.” So let’s explore the nature of what it is to take a seat. Taking a seat prompts us to ask… how we can more comfortably sit with ourselves? Just like taking a physical seat, sitting with ourselves is a true journey through subtle shifts in awareness; from darkness to light. Seeing how we experience it through asana allows us to understand how we might experience it on other levels of our being.
First, we experience the physical discomfort of what it is to sit in alignment. Only when we take these steps and move through discomfort in our practice can we feel established and secure in our physical seat. Once our structure is secure, the discomfort in the mind often starts to surface. It is this place where we start to observe ourselves and the deep questions arise: “Who Am I?” Beyond these questions, a state arises where we are unable even to analyze with the mind at all - a state which for many can be uncomfortable - but it is here in this transcendence that the spiritual benefits start to arrive.
In all areas of yoga and shamanism we see a continuing theme of moving through our darkness - or at least noticing it - as a way of cleaning our diamond within. Asana is like a resetting, a surgery for our nervous system that allows us to find more comfort in who we are. It lets us literally sit with ourselves; the true goal of asana. It results in a more awakened state through a transformational journey from the head to the heart, arriving at our true essence.
In every posture or shape that we take in practice, we can see three shifts in awareness as we connect with the true meaning of asana meaning “to sit”. The first one deals with the physical seat, the second one is the philosophical seat, and the third is taking a seat in our soul.
I invite you to take a seat...
The Lower World: The Physical Posture
According to yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar, Padmasana is the only pose in which all four areas of the body are perfectly balanced: the feet, legs, and pelvis; the torso; the arms and hands; and the neck, throat, and head. When the body achieves perfect balance, Iyengar says, the brain can rest correctly on the spinal column and breathing comes easily. In other words, once the legs are settled in Lotus, the torso can soar upward without any effort and the diaphragm is able to expand more fully. Energetically, there is a cyclical source of energy that is not being given away, but continues to flow through us.
Why does it hurt so much? This is most likely from tightness in the hips. This is one of the benefits of the Tantric text, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, in which we find 16 seated postures, or variations of Lotus, to open the hips so that we can begin to sit with more comfort. There are safe and alternative ways to find a seat if this variation is unavailable.
Alternatives: Getting down on the floor to sit doesn’t mean forcing ourselves into Padmasana if our body doesn’t belong there. Even seasoned asana practitioners who can get into Lotus without a problem may not find it comfortable for long sits. Luckily other seated meditation poses exist and can provide many of the same benefits.
If you full Lotus doesn’t work for you, try Ardha Padmasana (Half Lotus Pose) or Sukhasana (cross legged). For people who find those postures too much on the hips, use the assistance of props (a blanket or block) to elevate the hips, so the knees are pointing down, which will allow the energy to flow more fluidly to the toes. Virasana (Hero Pose) also gives a firm foundation and can be used with props under the hips for more comfort. Sitting in a chair with the back straight is another modification that will help build postural muscles.
Challenges: When we are not used to sitting up straight, we may begin to feel soreness in our erector spinae muscles, either side of the spine, until we build strength to sit up properly. People who are overly externally rotated in the legs will find they experience tightness in the muscles around the hips, so should first internally rotate their upper thighs, to create more space. Be patient - every asana is designed to strengthen and support the seated postures, so over time, you will become more comfortable!
“Practice and all is coming.“
Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
As our meditative postures begin to grow stronger and more comfortable, we enjoy the occasional moments when sitting becomes effortless, the subtle channels of the body open, and prana flows with total freedom.
Middle World, The Mental/Philosophical
The philosophy of the Yoga Sutras suggests Asana as the 3rd limb of the eight-step approach to enlightenment, after we purify externally with the Yamas, and internally with the Niyamas. Sometimes we get lost in thinking the asana practice we experience today is how it has always been, but this is very far from the case. The asana Patanjali refers to is a seated posture; the seat intended for meditation and total absorption in the final stages of Ashtanga.
Only when the physical structure is secure can we begin to experience the rising of the philosophical teachings. As we deepen our state, the mind kicks in and tries to disrupt the steadiness and security of the posture. At this point, we have to look inside and see what comes up; we must go through it so we can get over it and lose interest in it.
But when our shadows begin to arise, how do we handle them? Here, we mentally train ourselves to lose interest in thoughts with what is known as discrimination; viveka. Discrimination is understanding what is the ego and what is the Self. We must try and remain steady and comfortable as we “sit” through the sifting and movement of the mind, so that the mind can eventually settle and relax into mental alignment.
We may experience all kinds of emotions at this level; once we are in proper alignment, the emotional body has space to experience its holdings. Allow yourself to “sit” through your thoughts and emotions, but do not identify as them. Be non-attached - a practice Patanjali calls Varaigya. We are the witness of our thoughts and emotions. Be grateful for these experiences, because without them, we cannot obtain the the key to the next realm.
Often times it’s easier to move our body out of the discomfort. From this mental realm, this can be viewed as trying to get out of a situation that we are in, rather than sitting through it; a behavior known as dvesa (avoidance). This is where the practice of sitting for meditation deepens.
How can we experience the movement of thoughts and emotions, without moving the body? We become the impartial witness, watching as the fluctuations of the mind come and go. The practice is to stay equanimous in nature. Watch as you shift states of awareness from the physical to mental.
Challenges: When things become too hard emotionally, we tend to avoid that space and suppress it further. We get stuck and allow the emotion or thought to take over, resulting in a winning mind. Other challenges may be waiting for the length of time it can take to get physically aligned and for the philosophical teachings to come through. Yet, if we allow them and even invite them to rise to the surface, the struggle can be released and eventually transcended.
The Upper World: Level of the Spiritual
Sutra 2.48 Tatah Dvandva Anabhigata Tatah
When Asana is mastered there is cessation of the disturbances caused by dualities (dvandva).
Translation by Dennis Hill
When the movement of the mind stops, so do the opposites, or dualities, cease to exist in the world. Dennis Hill continues to say, "Pain and pleasure live on one side of the coin, and bliss of Self on the other". In this third and final state, there are no longer options to choose between, but a stillness that has not existed until now: Sat Chit Ananda; eternal bliss of the Self.
This shift would not exist without first looking at the physical and mental realms, but when we find it, it is something to be present with. All dualities fade, and we bask in the essence of our true nature, untouched, yet uplifted.
In the spiritual realm of asana, we no longer experience the physical discomfort - we have transcended this level and cannot identify with the body at this realm. We conquer the mind as it settles and is retrained into concentration. We begin to access the fullness of the prana that lives inside us. We are connected and as expansive as the universe.
The mind settles here, and absorption can take place. When we are sitting in our true nature, spiritually, we experience the freedom of the body and the thoughts, and shift into a state of oneness. The teachings of Raja Yoga are working when we can feel and know asana now as more than taking a "steady comfortable seat". The full experience of asana on the spiritual realm is a shift into a higher state of awareness, where we can properly take a seat in our soul, our essence; who we are.
Challenges: It can be a challenge to build a steady practice in which we are extremely conscious as we shift through each world in our meditation and in our asana practice. Every shape we choose can result in these three shifts in awareness, starting with the physical, then mental, and into spiritual. Getting frustrated and stopping there is a common challenge. Breathe your way through your practice and find non-judgment as you play with your edges.
Revealing our True Nature
Asana is holistic in its process as it moves us into the depths of our own being. The trigger of the physical seat, or posture, will ignite a philosophical teaching. In this is a possible transcendence of all dualities, a chance to merge into the oneness that is the authentic experience of asana as intended.
Until asana is mastered, according to the teachings of Patanjali and the Ashtanga eight-step approach, we can not begin the practice of the 4th limb, Pranayama. When our posture is aligned physically, mentally, and spiritually, we are able to fully experience our own life force.
As yoga practitioners and teachers, we want to both experience this for ourselves and share this experience with others, so we do not only leave with a feeling of physical strength and relaxation, but with a teaching and a lesson we can apply to our lives off the mat. May we all take these experiences we have in our asana, hold them sacred, and allow this process to evolve and transform us so that we can properly “sit” in our true nature.
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