Asana classes are fun ways to move, stretch, breathe, relax and they make you feel good about taking care of yourself. We come in for our weekly, or twice weekly sessions, restore ourselves in an hour and half, and leave with a bit more knowledge of where we are, how we work, and what is going on inside our bodies and minds. We continue through our week, our work, our stresses and our forgetting about our bodies and everything we store in them, and start all over again the next time we make it up to the studio or, for some, onto our mats at home.
For this reason, asana is important: it helps us remember our bodies, and helps us calm our minds, and all this makes us more productive and happier people.
There is more to do in asana, though, then just have someone lead you through an experience of your body. Asana is part of a larger process that in Indian philosophy is a spiritual pursuit leading to elevated states of consciousness. Whilst I practice meditation and am quite enamoured with the pursuit of elevated states of consciousness (and Indian philosophy), I cannot say that I personally practice asana for the sake of Self-realization.
When I practice, though, I do it to learn. When I have the opportunity to take classes, I am brought through a range of experiences of my body; when I have a chance to take a workshop, I have the opportunity to understand and name the experiences I am having. When I take a flow class, my muscles open, my breath changes, I observe my thoughts, and I discover new feelings of strength and release. When I take a workshop, I am given the time to pause and understand and move into these experiences more deeply, allowing new levels of insight into my own thoughts and feeling, accessing deeper tensions that might be the cause of more superficial aches and working away at older and more powerful inhibitions. At the same time, with a knowledgeable teacher, I am given a vocabulary that teaches me how to understand the range the experiences I am having in my body and mind, and most importantly, what I am doing to create them and what I can do to release them. As I say to my trainees, a powerful asana practice is not about doing certain things with your body, it is about learning how to use your body in specific ways, making it a medium that you have control over and can create with.
It’s like learning how to paint. To make a painting, I could take a handful of paint and rub it onto a canvas and call it a symbolic representation of an object or feeling; but to actually make a picture look how I want it to look, I need to learn a few things about my medium. Learning how to identify different parts of the body by feel, is like learning to separate out colours and organize our brushes; learning how to use different muscle groups and create certain movements and alignment on command, is like knowing how each brush works to create different effects and how each colour will sit on the canvas. To have focus and presence of mind, an ability to isolate and combine movements, is like knowing how to mix and apply paint with care and precision to make a picture. By learning how to breathe in a pose and generate a receptive, inquisitive, meditative mindset, it is like taking a step back from the canvas to see what we are making, what to fix and where we harmonize.
As she practices, an artist become more adept at manipulating her medium, becoming able not only to depict her vision with accuracy, but also communicate with more depth of feeling. As a yogi becomes adept at asana, she learns to work with her body at increasing levels of subtlety and precision, starting with arms and legs and moving into the infinite recessions of the core, the subtle power of the breath, sculpting with emotions to generate positive behaviour and relationships. In yoga, we are learning to depict our vision and our values with accuracy through our movements, getting to know our medium and learning how to use it. We all struggle with the conflict of having something to say and not knowing how to say it, of believing in certain definitions of good and discovering how difficult it is can be to act in accordance with what we believe. The practice of yoga, beginning with asana and the body, and deepening into pranayama, meditation and the mind, is learning how to use your body (including your mind) as your medium, sculpting and crafting the moments of your life accurately to your intentions and vision.