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Asanas - The purpose or means?

“Remember, the practices of hatha yoga, asanas and pranayama are ultimately meant to develop the quality of the human consciousness, and not just the qualities of the body and mind."

Swami Saraswati

A person comes to the first yoga practice, stands on the mat, stretches, bends, tenses and relaxes - for the first time performs unusual gymnastic exercises, which the teacher calls “asanas”. The practice is over: there is a pleasant fatigue in the body and peace and tranquility in mind. The person goes home. For them yoga remains only an interesting and attractive kind of fitness. Headstand, the lotus posture, intricate balances and flexible body - perfecting the practice of asanas becomes the ultimate goal for the practitioner. This is false...

So what are hatha yoga asanas? Why is there a need for physical self-improvement? How and why does one need to get to know and tame one’s body? Let us try to clarify this concept so that the practice of all beginner yogis and yoginis becomes a bit deeper and more conscious.

According to the classical approach to yoga, known as “Eight-limb” yoga of Patanjali (II century B.C.), asana is a steady and comfortable sitting posture. Together with yama, niyama, and pranayama, asana is part of the so-called external branch of Raja Yoga. Raja Yoga, in turn, aims to control the mind through meditation, awareness of the difference between reality and illusion, and the attainment of liberation.

Thus, after mastering the vows of yama and niyama, a person can use asanas to help prepare the body and along with pranayama take the first step to deep meditative practices in which they will be able to understand their inner world and move up the steps of self-development until samadhi. Therefore, of the many hatha yoga asanas in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, much attention is paid only to the meditative postures, such as padmasana and siddhasana.

The ancient text "Hatha Yoga Pradipika,” written in the XV century by Swami Svātmārāma, represents asana as the first part of hatha yoga. In sloka 17 it is stated, “by practicing asana, the person gets the stability of body and mind, freedom from diseases, flexibility of the limbs and ease of the body." Asana is viewed here as a special body position, which opens the energy channels and psychic centers.

Therefore, during hatha yoga practice, there is cleansing of the body and acquiring of control over it which happens by means of changing the prana flow. The practice of asanas is presented here as the most important part of hatha yoga, as building control over body eventually allows one to gain control over mind.

Despite a thorough description and a detailed study of asanas, in sloka 67 Svatvarama reminds us "asanas and other enlightening means should be practiced in the system of hatha yoga until one achieves the desired result in raja yoga." Thus, Hatha Yoga is a dynamic and preparatory basis for the highest raja yoga.

Studying the original sources, we see that hatha yoga asanas and one’s progress in them are seen not as an end in itself nor as a wellness practice, but as a self-development step which precedes the long journey of a person into their inner world and meaningful perception of reality. Asana practice allows one to experience three levels of self-development - external level, which makes the body stronger; internal level, which allows the mind to be stable; and finally a deep level, which strengthens and transforms the spirit.

The external level. The physical aspect of asanas

Modern people separated the body from the mind, and threw the soul away from the everyday life, forgetting that only the unity of the trio gives them health and ability to develop. Hatha Yoga allows one to bring attention back to the body. During the yoga practice people understand that health cannot be bought or attained by taking some pills - it is earned by sweat, work, respect and discipline. Through the practice of asanas, health is presented in a new light - not as a finished result, but as an ongoing and continuous process.

Interest in the asanas for the sake of health, body maintenance and development of flexibility are the eternal reasons to do yoga. But this beneficial effect is not limited by the anatomical and external effects. Strong body is only a decent foundation of yoga, but not the end of the path. In yoga, health is considered as an opportunity to freely engage in spiritual quest. The body appears as a tool and resource which we have been provided with on our path towards achieving inner freedom. After all, until a person has found health, their mind will be doomed to remain in the power of the body, and thus, it cannot develop and calm the mind. Buddha said: "In an untamed body there is an untamed mind, the power over the body gives the power of the mind."

However, taming of the body is not an easy task. When practicing asanas and strengthening the body, a person inevitably faces pain. Pain is caused not by the yoga itself. Pain is always present in the body, but it is simply hidden. People live throughout the years and almost never become aware of their body. When a class begins, pain simultaneously resurfaces. Weakened muscles which we are trying to develop, suddenly begin to loudly declare themselves. It is important to understand that pain in yoga is a teacher. Asanas help develop tolerance in the body and mind so that it would be easier for us to tolerate tension in life. Backbends allow us to develop courage and fortitude, balance asanas teach us patience, stretching develops flexibility, twisting and inverted asanas teach us to look at the world from a different angle.

At the external development level, it is only through struggle, patience and discipline that the knowledge is gained during the asana practice. Overcoming pain, learning to find comfort in discomfort and moving through tension bring a person closer to the spiritual meaning of yoga - the attainment of inner freedom through suffering. The light of self-knowledge is seen through the practice of asana and overcoming pain.

Internal level. Asana as a lever to transform the mind.

In today's world, people use their body in such a way that they stop feeling it. Going from bed to the car, to the table, back to the car and to the bed, they stop to perceive the body consciously. Hatha Yoga teaches us to grant our movements with intelligence and turn them into action. During the execution of asanas, we are developing an acute sensitivity, learning to find the fine line between our egotistical impulses and the real potential of our body.

During practice, each cell becomes almost tangible. Inner vision, which is different from the usual visual observation, gradually develops. For example, while bending in paschimottanasana, the person does not simply see their knees and tries to reach them with their forehead, but feels tension of the smallest muscles in their legs, arms and back. Closely following the work in the asana, the yoga practitioner gets an opportunity to observe not through their visual perception, but through their awareness, connection of intelligence to understanding of their own flesh.

Only the presence of the mind and sensitivity during asanas allows the body to develop. After all, once the invisible contact between the mind and the body is lost, the asana becomes lifeless, sluggish and the stream of consciousness is extinguished.

The development of mindfulness in asana is not just concentration and acuteness of observing the hands and feet; it is, above all, the desire for harmonious interaction between the body and the mind. Mindfulness in asana is a condition in which the concept of object and subject disappears and the action and inner silence go hand in hand. Only when in the inner silence the body is recognized from the forearm to the fingertips, from the hips to the soles of the feet, from the base of the spine to the top of the head, the mind becomes passive and learns to relax. The state of alert rest in asana stops and transforms the mind and converts yoga from the physical to the spiritual practice. Freedom of the body creates a natural evolution towards freedom of the mind and then - to the highest liberation of the spirit.

It is through the development of mindfulness in asana, through the ability to stop the whirlwind of thoughts and emotions that we prepare the body for meditation and introspection. In one of his video lectures Andrey Verba says, "Asanas are needed for the person to prepare the body for internal self-knowledge. With asanas we loosen our joints, strengthen our muscles and, thus, prepare to sit in a stable position and stay seated for at least an hour with our eyes closed." The development of mindfulness on the basis of the body provides an anchor for concentration: during the meditation practice which aims to stop the excited and restless mind, persecuted by memories, judgments and fantasies, we can always turn to the physical experience and shift our attention to the bodily sensations and breath and return to the moment. Through the practice of asanas, we develop the ability to redirect our attention, dive into ourselves and remain entirely in the state of "here and now”.

Deep level. Asana as a stage of spiritual development

Persistent practice of asana and pranayama allows us to get closer to a deep level of yoga, when there comes a realization that the development of the material body is not an end in itself. It is necessary to learn and tame the body not for the sake of pleasure and narcissism. Reaching calmness in every joint and muscle is only necessary to get closer to the liberation of the soul from the shackles of materiality. When we are able to recognize our body and control our mind, we will finally have a possibility to access our inner world. Through the practice of asanas, we are gradually moving from the periphery closer to the center, from the surface of the body to the level of the heart. At a deep level, the person is practicing asanas not for selfish reasons, such as health, beauty and thrills, but for the sake of reaching the real Self and proximity to the divine essence. By undergoing suffering in asana and resisting the ego, we grow spiritually, develop consciousness from simple to complex, evolve, thus, harmonize our body with nature and express deep devotion to God. Careful work with the body helps us gradually move from the gross bodily level to the mental and spiritual and grasp our true “Self" step by step. As a famous yoga teacher B.K.S Iyengar said, “It is only through the embodied instrument of the soul - the mortal body with flesh and blood that one can realize one’s divine existential purpose.”

Written by Anastasia Kaurova

Translated by Maria Asadov