Asanas, a “physical” aspect of yoga, is what first comes to our minds when we think of “yoga” at all. We envision lean skinny bodies (though let me shaken this yoga body stereotype), legs behind heads and an endless “OM” sound pouring out of a blissful yogi’s chest. Yoga images might inspire us or make us uncomfortable, but they rarely leave us indifferent.
Yoga has long ago become a status symbol in the West, a necessity for any health-focused individual who is striving to live consciously, and wants to make it visible – for me, it is a wonderful trend, despite all the critique of yoga commercialisation and the loss of its core. I myself was attracted to yoga because of its physical benefits and because I was desperately looking for ways to calm my mind. I didn’t think of it as a way of life and being then – and if I did, I would have probably never started.
Life, however, has a surprising ability to modify its course, and from a struggling occasional class visitor I started turning into a dedicated practitioner. Those who found themselves on this path know how it feels – like a spiral. Not like a negative, Dante-syle hell spiral, but like a Universe, where each level reveals the eternity of space and opportunities. Through your search, and curiosity, and lots of sweat you keep moving towards the heart of the spiral aka knowledge, at least you think so, but you only find yourself facing more questions, to which the answers are not to be found.
The question that comes from time to time is “what is yoga” and “am I doing it right”. It often comes when we are tired or feel weak and in fact we question ourselves. May be we even look for an excuse of why things are going so hard for us.
There are many yoga definitions that are exchanged carelessly and without a context:
“Asanas are not yoga” – this phrase is thrown around by both aspiring and experienced yoga practitioners without any further explanations. What it usually means is “asana is only one part [limb] of yoga”, but the shortened wording conceals the real meaning. “Yoga” means union, which implies that there is more than one dimension, yet it is typical for a human mind to look for what is “THE most important part”, as if even a balance involves some kind of hierarchy.
“Yoga is about your mind” – nobody can oppose this truth, but the mind does not exist on its own. Most of us will spend our entire lives to reach the essence of yoga, without realization, that the path was the yoga itself.
Some mornings I open my eyes and instead of starting my morning routine I start thinking. I’m listening to every cell of my body trying to find a confirmation that I’m tired or not well, only to venture into tough and endless negotiations with myself. My laziness and lack of will are doing their best to mask themselves behind tiredness, and at those moments I especially enjoy to entertain the thought that asanas, to my luck, are not real yoga.
I allow myself to slowly crawl out of bed, splash a handful of ice cold water on my face and place my sluggish limbs on a yoga mat, only to close my eyes again. Instead of overcoming my physical laziness I choose to meditate and think that this way I’m finally doing the real yoga – but very often, I merely continue my dreamy state that wasn’t completely left in bed.
“So now today, close your eyes, sit for meditation. Nobody knows, so whether they are doing meditation or they are going to sleep or in somatic state, semi-somatic state. Whereas in asanas, you need to bring your attention totally, with awareness to each and every cell of your part, which needs a tremendous discipline.”
– this is how BKS Iyengar put it in his last interview. Asanas, as any strenuous physical work are not easy. During the practice we often go beyond what is comfortable, face our fears and traumas, learn how to get rid of our ego and forget the words “I can” and “I can’t”, subject ourselves to the wonders of discipline and exercise daily both devotion and dedication. Through living every single cell of our body and filling it with full concentration and attention we learn how to reach the subtle areas of our being, and as we are the children of the Earthy world, this is not the stage we can skip.
I’ve been questioning the role of asanas in the search for “real yoga” for years and struggled to give my understanding a sufficient ground – until I heard what BKS Iyengar had to say about it:
“Many people say yoga asana is not yoga at all. It is all neo philosophers who talk on easy chair sitting and giving talks. In olden days it was not so. Everybody were made to do asanas, which all the historical background will tell you that it was compulsory for everyone. So even at the age of five & seven, when they take the Sankalpa, they say: “asana, Pranayama, Dhyan. That means take a correct position, and do Pranayama, in order to do the Japa of the Gayatri. That means Asana and Pranayama were there from time immemorial without deviation or division whether they follow a Karmic path, or a Gyanic Path, or a Yogi Path, or a Bhakti Path …”
You can see the full interview and hear for yourself here: