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What is the real purpose of an Asana

Many years ago, one of the things that inspired me to take up Yoga was the possibility of standing on my head. I found the idea of a full body inversion really cool.

In my first few years of attempting Yoga, I could barely touch my toes in forward bends, or sit in Dandasana (Staff Pose) with a straight back. I had zero flexibility, and close to zilch core strength. Naukasana (Boat Pose) always got me cursing and swearing silently, and when I hear ‘Uktasana (Chair Pose)’, I would actually shudder with dread.

Ironically, I did my first Yoga Teachers’ Training at the age of 31. It was one of the major shifting points of my life –  I could assume a freestyle Sirashasana (Head Stand), and it was so empowering. Besides the cool fact that I could see inverted perspectives of life that were hidden when upright, holding free style inversions erases fear, self doubt, builds self confidence, and deepens the connection between inner child and Spirit.

The floodgates opened after that; I became intrigued with Asanas! The subsequent years saw me exploring various other major Yoga traditions including Ashtanga Vinyasa and Iyengar. I loved Asanas so much that I would practice upon waking, before sleep, in the lift, and just simply about anywhere where nobody was watching.

Holding an Asana, refining it, tuning into the body, isolating the sense of body muscles, sweet pain and agony, sweat pouring out from my head, and heat from inside the core that feels like an erupting volcano – that sweaty feeling of bliss at the end of every practice, I was addicted to all of that because it made me felt alive. Maybe I still am.

The first few years after my first Teachers’ Training, I had what I called the Asana OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). I moved into deeper back bends and arm balances. Training for any new Asana is always challenging. With my OCD I trained non-stop like a mad woman, sometimes 5 hours a day, and although I managed to assume the difficult poses, I did some damage to my wrists (which totally defeated the original purpose of Yoga in the first place). Not pretty!

Like they always say, it takes one minute of realization to see through years of folly. In one Ashtanga workshop that I participated, I met a Canadian guy whose arms were as strong as his legs. Let’s call him Mr Macho Arms. He could push effortlessly into a handstand, and walk around the hall on them. I was super jealous because I had to train like mad to stand on my arms; and he just made it look eating cake.

When he sat down next to me, I had to ask him – “How long did you have to train to get here?”

He looked at me and said – “I had a car accident when I was 17 and my lower body is mostly metal. To compensate for my legs I had to train to make my upper body stronger. My dream is to be able to sit still in lotus.” Then he paused and said “If I can sit like you, I will give up hand stands anytime.”

I looked down at my legs and realized I was sitting in half lotus. It had been such a natural thing for me that I sometimes don’t even notice the stability of my seat. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with what felt like a combination of embarrassment and gratitude.

Based on the most ancient teachings of Yoga, the whole point of performing Asanas is to prepare the body to be able to sit still, and prepare the mind for meditation. Asanas is but a small fraction in the whole system of Yoga.

And for the purpose of shining more light on how Yoga could possibly have been misunderstood by the masses today, the word Ashtanga actually means a 8-fold path towards self realization. The Himalayan Tradition expounded Ashtanga Yoga as a Royal path towards Samadhi. When you say the word Ashtanga today, people think lots of jumping and human pretzels; but the real meaning as taught in the Yoga Sutras is not that.

In fact, sacred Yogic texts taught that once a Yogi can assume Siddhasana (a meditation pose), all other Asanas become quite redundant.

Challenging Asanas like Sirashasana, and any other inversions for that matter, serves the purpose of directing kundalini from root to crown chakra, integrating the 2 major dualistic-natured energies (Sun and Moon, Male and Female) of a human being, activating the central channel along spine, in order that individual consciousness (Jiva) can unite with ultimate consciousness (Atma). This can only happen when both body and mind are absolutely still.

Of course, Sirashanasana brings with it many other benefits – decompression of spine, reversal of gravity and aging, full body strengthening, enhanced senses and so on. Is it a good Asana? Yes, definitely! Why else would it be called the “King of Asana”.

Is it a compulsory pose for enlightenment? Is it a sign of spirituality? Heavens no! This is where the line gets clear between the practice of Yoga and Gymnastics/Acrobatics. In Yoga, we train the body in order to get to mind, and then beyond. With the other sports, it mostly stops at the body.

Back to that afternoon with Mr Macho Arms, I was embarrassed because I realized I was already at the door – the sweet spot of Yoga. And yet my mind was still going after new Asanas like boys chasing after pretty girls. I began to laugh at myself – my Karmaindriyas (the 5 outer senses) are in overdrive, always lusting and greedy for more experiences, more achievements. Totally guilty.

As for gratitude, it was towards the deep rooted training I had in Integral Yoga – giving me flexibility in hips and legs within such a short time. I was also grateful for a chance to understand Yoga from the Himalayan tradition – whose teachings originate from one the most ancient and untainted source of Tantra.

There is a huge difference between practicing Yoga as it was handed down in totality compared to practicing its components in isolation. You start to see the human being as a multidimensional organism, a micro reflection of the macro cosmos, how we are continuously driven by our external senses, the mind as a diverse and fickle structure; and how to tackle and unite these separated entities within oneself to achieve stillness and congruence in life.

Last but not least, perhaps the most important of all, from my own experience, is how to remain this material world with all its temptations (which are really enjoyable by the way, so please enjoy them responsibly!) without forgetting our truest essence, and still practice stillness.

 

“Understanding without practice is better than practice without understanding.

Understanding with practice is better than understanding without practice.

Residing in your true nature is better than understanding or practice.”   Upanishads

(C) Copyright Linda Loo

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