Yoga is on the rise like a sweating lotus flower blooming to the rhythms of a Spotify playist on the surface of an Instagram feed. From 2012 to 2016 the number of US practitioners almost doubled from 20 million to 37 million. Where Yoga in India was purely spiritual, in the US it is almost purely physical. Yoga is entirely promoted through images of hyper-flexible people stretching their feet over their heads, twisting their torsos like pretzels, or standing on their hands like gymnasts. A survey conducted in 2016 by Ipsos Public Affairs solidified that Yoga is more an exercise trend than a spiritual practice as 61% of new American yoga students came to yoga to increase their flexibility. The majority of these practitioners are between the ages of 30 and 50. That’s about the age when the lubricating fluids in the joints start to decrease and connective tissues begin to show the signs of wearing down.
The physical practice of Asana (yoga poses) has gone through a few incarnations as Yoga has gained traction. From the disjointed static holds of hatha yoga, to the choreography of vinyasa, from heated classes to restorative classes to acro-yoga to intelligent-sequencing that is more rooted in physical therapy; Yoga is in a phase of transformation! But the focus is clearly the body.
The awareness and interest in this ancient practice is still very new, however, as 74% of the 37 million yogis have been practicing for 5 years or less! Once in the budding culture, the abundance of yoga products from mats to leggings, pushed by athletic-leisure clothing brands cements Yoga as a rising pop-fitness trend. In 2016 the yoga market was valued at 16.8 billion dollars. It increased by 6.1 billion in 4 years. There is money to be made and now huge brands like Nike have gotten onboard. Nike just released its first yoga clothing line earlier this year. This is all good news, however, as Yoga is by its design meditative whether the approach is physical or mental, modern or traditional. It is undoubtedly positive for the body, mind, and for those that believe, soul.
Thankfully, 80% of practitioners are aware that Yoga was historically a form of mental exercises meant to induce deeper states of meditation and 90% of practitioners feel their practice to be meditative. The seeds are there! I like to imagine long dead gurus smiling from their Hindu heaven as their practice, that was once secret and shunned, reaches out into a future world that is embracing it as they see fit. These billion dollar poses are ancient invitations to a self-induced process that can lead to something transcendent if you, the practitioner, are willing to take a few extra steps.
The Queen Strikes a Pose
As there are a mindboggling number of postures and even more variations, there are numerous forms of Yoga itself. Many, in fact, have nothing to do with poses. The variety of this practice leads many students to debate a question that you’d think was clear. “What is Yoga?” But, despite the debate of enthusiasts, there is one organizing framework, made of 8 distinct practices, that connects them all under the single intention of self-realization. The saying goes, “There are many paths up the same mountain.”
The postures are the third of these eight limbs and are designed to heal and strengthen the body so that life can be lived well. The postures have always been an ancient form of exercise but it was in the 40’s and 50’s, as Europe independently explored the effects of synchronizing breath to callisthenic exercises, that these yogic postures took a huge leap in popularity in both the West and East. It was during this new European fixation with the body and breath and perhaps because of it that Britain implemented the use of yogic postures on a state level as a means of training the wild youth of the Indian colony.
England looked into India’s cultural past as a means of bridging their Western intention of discipline with an Eastern culture looking to survive. It is easier to be tamed by a familiar hand. Perhaps, knowing that the spirit is a thing of freedom and Yoga as a process of spiritual recovery, it was Britain itself that hammered the first wedge between the poses and soul?
What is Asana?
The postures are called Asana. Asana translates as seat; a thing made for sitting and is defined with only two words. The first is stability. The second is pleasure. Each pose is the seat of what exactly? Spirit and the spirit apparently has some requests. It requests to sit upon something strong and sweet.
The literal lesson in this definition for your practice is that you should hold every pose at a certain decibel of intensity that is at once challenging but not overwhelming. To not try or to try too much both come from an egoic mind that is either grasping or resisting the posture itself. That is the antithesis of spirit. Striking a balance between intensity and comfort will ensure steady awareness. Awareness being the tool necessary to recognize soul. When you’re in your postures observe the body meticulously. If arms and legs start to tremble to the point that your mind snarls and screams you are pushing too hard. Your awareness has shifted into panic and you will more than likely lose your mental center. If you are not challenging yourself enough the mind wanders and distracts itself with all sorts of thoughts. There is a perfect cruising speed in your practice. Find that speed. Hold that edge. Practice there. Remember Asana is about awareness.
The bigger idea is this; when you get to a point where you are naturally moving and holding postures from a space that is stable and sweet, rather than forced or competitive, you are practicing from a state of connection. The more time you practice within connection the more connected you become as a person. Connected to what exactly? Your body. Then your environment. Then your life. Then the world. Within the world there is a truth. Life is heaven!
Your Poses Live and Die
When we are in our classes, flowing through postures, every pose is a new seat for such a connection to happen. Every pose is a distinct attempt to remember that life is the only thing to embrace and it is to be held by consciousness. I think of every pose as a life. It is born. It matures. It passes. As it runs through its lifecycle I run through its lifecycle. Within a single yoga class I am born and reborn a hundred times. Practice enough and the connection ceases to fade on or off the mat. At this point every moment is an experience of connection and reconnection, a tumbling sense of unity, bouncing against oneness.
To see your poses, or better your sequences, as a chain of interconnected lives instills an appreciation for change. Dealing with change, especially when it is unwanted, is one of the great stressors of our lives. A yogi doesn’t identify to that which changes, which is everything. They identify to that which doesn’t, which is arguably non-existent because all things change. This philosophical conundrum is solved through constantly practicing postures as a yogi realizes “While the poses change I stay the same.” Therefore the practice is not the posture, which changes, but that stillpoint the postures expose. That unchanging “I” is the point of every pose. Asana is the seat of that unchanging “I”, self, or soul. To further clarify the mountain metaphor, the “I” is the mountain’s summit that all 8 practices of Yoga lead to.
To make soul a bit more familiar, to yogis soul is literally your personal consciousness. When you are actively aware of what you are doing in any capacity you are sitting closer to the soul. The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh is committed to the simplest of meditations. The way he can see the abundance of the divine in the utterly basic is a sign of his spiritual genius! As you breathe in repeat “I am breathing in.” As you breathe out repeat, “I am breathing out.” That is his go-to mantra. Take this to your poses and repeat something like, “I am in my pose. I am leaving my pose.” These phrases that only narrate the obvious empower you as the witness of your life. To become more of a witness involves taking a more expansive view of what is happening. Yoga encourages positive disassociation from the self so that the yogi can become a witness of their own being.
You are not your body. Not your name. Not your gender. The practice is reductive. You and Yoga are not the pose. That’s why it is so often said that the poses lead to meditation. All the movement leads to non-movement. It becomes a literal seat!
The seat is the body held consciously, whether sitting well, walking, or posing. Asana, the third limb of Yoga is a process in realizing the Self. It is not just exercise but a time devoted to becoming more aware that your body is the vessel of awareness. That simple nuance defines Yoga as something more than exercise and to know its actual intention and practice it takes nothing from the exercise element of your practice. It only adds depth. Repeat in your poses, “I am not my body.” That negating mantra creates psychological space. It’s like walking a mile away from a mountain to get an all-encompassing glimpse of the mountain from base to peak.
What To Do About It?
Once we are aware that the poses are about harnessing awareness we are supposed to feel! “I am feeling this body,” is another useful phrase to repeat. From time to time, especially in middle school, I’d look at my hand as if I were searching for an extra finger. I’d analyze it. I’d open and close it. I’d flip my palm to face me and then away from me. I know I am the one controlling my hand but my hand seems to move before I’m even aware of the command to move it! I would try to follow the nerve signal from its launching point somewhere deep in my brain to my hand. Futile effort! The conversation between our minds and our bodies are lightning quick. Almost faster than instant! The more you feel your body the more present to this lightning quick conversation you’ll be. This is the brilliance of “the seat of consciousness”. Our bodies as instruments of a conscious mind are an unparalleled piece of living technology. To be born human, no matter the caste, in Hindu thought is the prize of many lifetimes of growth because a human being can will itself to change and grow for the better versus animals and plants who are tethered to encoded behaviors.
Our bodies are ours, commanded by only us through partially psychic forces and experienced by only us. Their privacy makes them sacred like living temples built for only one person. No one can feel our postures. No one can feel our hunger. No one can force us on our mats. The adage rings true, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.” In your poses appreciate how easily you and you alone control your limbs. It is hardly a thought! Think the leg to lift and it is lifted. The teacher can instruct you but only you can agree to the instruction. Rejoice in the opportunity of having such an advanced piece of bio-ware that is willed without question by experimenting with it. What can it do? What is its range of motion? How much weight can it carry? How well can it balance? As you test its abilities the point is to feel the range of sensations that come through. With an unquenchable appetite for sensation, the yogi, through Asana, is refining the tactile conversation between themselves and their body. They weave their minds and bodies into a single rope. That rope is something to hold in the stream of change and challenge that is Life.
BKS Iyengar is one of the most famous yoga teachers in modern history. He was a sickly boy who was denied by a famous guru of the time because of his physical disposition. He was not fit to practice. He was a hopeless cause who should resign his desire of Yoga for the next life! Iyengar’s vigilance paid off. He was eventually taken on as a student, eventually becoming a prize student who would be chosen to display postures in front of the Maharaj (Indian King). Iyengar developed the use of props and practiced with longer holds because that is what his body needed to open. He overcame physical limitations through ferocity and classic Iyengar teachers embody this ferocity in their teaching styles to this day. He always said, “When you want to leave the pose is when the pose begins.” But Asana is defined as pleasurable and Iyengar is saying go into serious discomfort. The question all great Yogi’s learn to answer is, “What is true?” When it comes to the body a powerful question related to Asana is; Is my pain being generated from my mind or my tissues? Often the mind is generating the pain. Often the body is in relative comfort. Bhuddist monks practice what they call reverse meditations. They invite stress like in exposure therapy. Some safe ways of doing this are biting the bottom lip and meditating on the pinch. Pain is in the mind! The more a yogi learns to feel, especially pain, the more they learn the body is always in a state of bliss. The mind, which is the great distorter of divinity, corrupts what only the soul or pure awareness can perceive. Asana is not the seat of mind. Asana is not the seat of thoughts, memories, facts, or fantasies. Asana is the seat of open, non-judgmental awareness aka the soul!
There is a tale about a man looking for water in the desert. He began to dig a whole. The sunrays whipping his back made him agitated. He began to lose his patience. Fear settled into his mind. After he had dug three feet into the sand he stopped. He was convinced this was not where the ground water was. He moved and, again, started to dig. The Sun was even higher in the sky. Sweat stung his eyes. His lips began to dry, cracking at the corners. After three feet he again fell to doubt. This is not where the water is! Again and again he dug, stopped, and relocated. If only he had stayed with the first whole and dug a few more feet he would’ve found what he was looking for.
The point of this story is to sit with your pose and feel. Let the lactic acid build in your muscles. Let the carbon dioxide build in your blood. Let the muscle fibers split. As you hold the posture your body is literally becoming more acidic. That is the sense of fire, burning, and stinging. If the burning is becoming too intense lengthen your exhale to push out more carbon dioxide. Breathe out the acid! Hold, as Iyengar suggests. That is your stability. Sweetness will come when you get out of your thoughts. Keep feeling the Asana openly and all of a sudden the refreshing coolness of ground water will bubble up from within your body!
Savasana is Special
The first yoga studio I almost taught at in LA was adamantly against yogic tradition and spirituality. No Sanskrit allowed. Philosophy was blasphemy. The instruction to not mention spirit or God was never mentioned because it was so far beyond the plausible conversation. After going through a few interviews and auditions I decided to not teach there. But, despite this studios renouncing of Yoga’s authentic heart they still had time for savasana.
Savasana must be familiar to you. It’s the point at the end of class where students are told to lay down on their backs and close their eyes. It means corpse’s pose and is, actually, a meditation on death. One way we will all encounter our souls, if it is real and if we believe it or not, is in the moment of physical death. It is that climactic point in all living creatures’ lives where they are forced to let go of everything they have and are. As Peter Pan said with Captain Hook kneeling on his chest, hook raised for the kill, “Ah, death the last great adventure!”
Savasana is a unique experience. Nothing like it exists in any other fitness class or exercise routine. At best you’ll stretch at the end of a crossfit session, jiujistu class, cycling class, pilates session, or swim. Maybe the instructor will lead the stretch with some intelligence and intention but more than likely you’re on your own. None come close to lying supine on the floor and essentially shutting down for 5-10 minutes.
Spirituality, meditation, and yoga poses are all geared towards finding the fabled center of oneself! The Buddha’s great contribution to a spiritual culture that was very extreme in their practices in his time was the middle path. No one has to stop eating or sleeping to become enlightened. No one has to take vows of silence or stillness to touch their peace. No one has to have their feet over their heads or hold a one armed handstand to be a master yogi! They only have to be aware of the grasping and resisting mind and learn to grasp and resist less so that balance can be achieved. Don’t push so much. Don’t pull too much. Find your “just right”. The awareness necessary to find your “just right” is the awareness necessary to sense soul!
Savasana is about learning to relax skillfully, which is challenging for many of us, as we are all riddled with ambition and enslaved to perceived responsibility. These attachments to success and survival tighten our muscles and make it very difficult to find a physical balance between tension and relaxation, stability and pleasure.
Savasana is the practice of releasing physical contraction and moving into the second defining word of Asana, sweetness. I bet your shoulders are shrugged up to your ears right now. Or your jaw is clenched. Or you brow is furrowed. Relax. That’s a huge part of Asana. Skillful contraction is what most professional athletes master and what tones our bodies into the ideal shape. It’s what we think of when we think of exercise but the muscles of the body move in two directions! Contraction, as mentioned before, is also our response to stress. Contraction is what moves the body and protects the body. Contraction is also the action that generates the stretch of every posture. The stretching muscle or agonist muscle is passively responding to the antagonist muscle.
Think about when a sprinter bursts forward. They are contracting specific muscles to generate remarkable speed. When a diver spirals through the air, they are, again, contracting specific sets of muscles at specific times to pattern their fall into something beautiful. When a “strongman” lifts a concrete ball over his head he is contracting!
What about relaxing with the same intensity? Savasana is a pose designed to teach a yogi the experience and most of all the feeling of relaxing. As the body softens the mind sinks inwardly because the sensation is innately soothing. Discernment is the ability to recognize useful differences and similarities in given situations. As a yogi studies their body relax a very particular tingling sensation arises. Sweetness. As they become more accustomed to this euphoric feeling they learn to discern that same sensation in their most intense postures. This tingling sensation is the ground water of the pose, vibrating under the surface fire of lactic acid and CO2 build up. By studying savasana a yogi finds sweetness within the heat of extraordinary stability and where others only feel the tremble of a burdensome grief a yogi authentically holds on to a subtle current of pleasure. They let go of the mind and learn to grip and let go simultaneously. Haven’t you heard your yoga teacher preach something about finding comfort in discomfort?
Letting go of mental resistance by discerning subtle euphoria entails a symbolic death. The yogi sits in the posture, reborn, as a willing experiencer. That is the spirit. And while everyone else in class is cursing the teacher for holding them in a warrior pose for far too long the students actively practicing Asana are digging deeper and deeper into their souls! Their reward is small, only a moment in a paradoxical heaven because by all logic they should be tired, angry, and uncomfortable. Still, all that comes out of them in that moment of intentional embrace is the half smile of the Buddha, an awakened one, posing from their sacred and private center, marveling at a billion-dollar view from the top of an internal mountain.