Why You Need Asana
“If yoga is about the mind, why do we need to bother doing poses?”
Interestingly, I often receive this question from students whom are NOT beginners. I believe this is because yoga is intoxicating at the start. You feel great and want more of it. As you deepen your practice we will undoubtedly hit an obstacle, which makes the warm and fuzzy feelings wear off. This is when the questioning starts.
“Well, if yoga is about my mind, focus, and clarity, I’m just going to do the seated stuff.”
“ I’ve gone far enough with my poses. I’m just going to do meditation.”
“I’m just going to do chanting practices.”
Don’t get me wrong, you need all of these components. I incorporate them each into my daily practice. However, your poses are important, and just because yoga deals with cleaning out our mind doesn’t mean we can neglect the physical piece.
Let’s dive right into this hot topic, shall we?
The first reason you include the practice of poses (asana in Sanskrit) into your yoga practice is because your goal in yoga is to free the mind from distraction, to be able to focus on one object for an extended period of time no matter what’s happening around you, or within you. If your physical body is not healthy, it’s going to be a constant source of distractions. Think about it. You are constantly surrounded by outside distractions such as noise and visual stimuli. But how distracting is it when you’re sneezing all the time? Or when your lower back hurts? Or when you feel nauseous? How many nights of sleep have you lost, tossing and turning, due to discomfort? Physical ailments, no matter how big or small, are fully consuming. You need the practice of poses in order to keep your body healthy, strong, flexible and able to be the container for a quiet mind. If your body is unhealthy in the tiniest way, your mind will only have yet another thing to dwell on instead of finding a state of clarity and peace.
Physical health is the roadway towards mental health. You cannot neglect that fact. Your asana practice provides a vehicle for cleansing your physical body, healing it, strengthening your musculature, organs, immune system, and making you less susceptible to diseases and injuries. This is an unavoidable necessity on the path to yoga. Especially as you age, you can do a lot of preventative work in keeping our bodies strong, and not allowing typical ailments that come as you get older to take over.
Let’s not forget that asana is the third limb in the eight limbs of yoga, as discussed in the yoga sutra. This ancient text reminds us that ALL LIMBS ARE EQUALLY IMPORTANT and all must be practiced actively. This means we can’t choose to practice only what we like or what comes easily and expect to receive all the benefits of being on a yogic path. Thus, if we want to practice the ancient science of yoga in an authentic way, we must practice asana.
Additionally, if you are doing a correct and authentic asana practice, it should be quite meditative. There are specific tools which are intended to make this happen, and they’re often overlooked.
One of them is your drishti, your focal point. In Ashtanga yoga, every single pose which we do has a specific focal point. When you practice your focal point as intensely as you work your breathing and poses, you are able to hone your focus to a much deeper level. Each pose you’re doing becomes quite meditative. However, if your eyes are darting around the room, your mind will follow them down the path to distraction.
As a teacher I see students begin with focus, but lose the connection to the drishti as their mental endurance wanes. When they hear the door open they’ll turn their gaze to the door to see who’s coming in and out. If they hear a sound they’ll look in the direction of the sound, etc. These temptations of the senses are what we are strengthening our mind against. We want to be able to allow these distractions to happen, and not look in their direction. The visual distractions and the use of the focal point can be a HUGE teacher for us. This is a very important way you can use your practice of poses to make our mind much stronger, and the result will be a much more centered, meditative, asana practice.
Plus, is it important to only feel meditative when you are sitting and meditating? NO! The entire point is to breed those feelings of centeredness as life ebbs and flows. So why not become really good at it while moving?
Mula bandha, your root lock, is another technique which creates deep states of concentration. In fact, practicing it for a sustained period of time is impossible if you’re not focused on the task at hand. It is THAT complex! The ancient teachings of yoga say that when mula bandha is perfectly achieved, mind control is automatic. That’s how much concentration it takes to engage your pelvic floor lock, pull that energy (prana) upward, and maintain it for the entire duration of your yoga practice. Most often, what happens is you connect with your physical and energetic locks at the start of your practice, hold it for a little while, and then let it go. Part of your practice is learning to reconnect to this energy lock over, and over, and over again. Concentration much? Keeping it strong and steady will allow your mind to get into a very meditative place. Much like using a focal point, mula bandha does not allow your mind to go other places, because if your mind leaves your mat these techniques cannot happen effectively. You have to apply them to the fullest degree in order to keep your mind involved in what you’re doing. The definition of meditation, per the yoga sutras, is sustained concentration for an extended period of time, to such a degree that you release your attachment to all things around you, resulting in a deep state of connectedness with yourselves and with all things.
In the context of the eight limbs of yoga, concentration (dharana) is the sixth limb and meditation (dhyana) is the seventh. Which means you can’t meditate if you can’t first learn to concentrate. You have to learn to concentrate first, then you can meditate. I hate to burst your bubble but when you sit in “meditation” you’re actually practicing the skill of concentration. You’re not meditating from start to finish. You’re practicing bringing your mind back to the present moment time and again, no matter where it wanders off to. Whether you use a mantra or the breath to redirect the mind, this practice of concentration is training your mind the same way you would train your muscles. You have to do bicep curls repeatedly each day if you want stronger biceps. In the same way, you have to redirect your mind back to your point of focus repeatedly until your mind learns to stay there for longer periods of time. When it does, you will achieve a state of meditation. If you’ve ever experienced a true state of meditation, you’ll know it’s almost an indescribable feeling. It’s hard to properly articulate what that deep state of connectedness, or oneness, feels like. You’ll probably have little glimpses of it before you have it for an extended period of time. So, keep practicing concentration! In time, meditation will happen automatically.
Certainly, when you are practicing your poses, it takes a lot of concentration to do it without getting distracted, checking your phone, finishing early because you’re hungry, or avoiding it altogether to get work done. Your mind will jump to all of those ways out. What you’re doing with your asana practice is teaching it to stay in place, even when it’s uncomfortable. This is exactly what a sitting practice, or a meditation practice, or a chanting practice will also do. They teach us to stay where we are and weather the ebbs and flows of life. All are equally important.
I hope today’s blog has driven home the fact that yes, your physical practice can have meditative qualities, and doing more of it will make you a better meditator. You’ll be more comfortable. You’ll be able to sit for a longer period of time. Your mind will be less distracted. I practice both meditation and asana myself and find them indispensable. If you need help with both of these techniques, I give key instruction in my audio bundle, which is intended for those wanting to go deeper. Thank you so much for tuning in and have a wonderful day. Namaste.