Given that the yamas and niyamas generally align with Christian beliefs, it’s no wonder that the asanas are the first limb of yoga that Americans are generally familiar with. The interpretations of these limbs among Americans tend to vary and I could easily see how yogis are considered to be taking ideas like the yamas and niyamas overboard, but they certainly aren’t new. Neither are many of the asanas. To a lot of people I’ve known over the years, yoga is just stretching and many of the stretches are “warmups” for other exercises and sports. There is usually not much talk of actions off the mat having anything to do with those on the mat and the strength and balance to many poses aren’t even considered to be of significance.
As far as the system of yoga over millenia is concerned, the asanas weren’t even a part of it all until Patanjali included them in his 8 Limbs. He mentions them in the introduction to the Yoga Sutras as a way to prepare for sitting in meditation for long periods. I used to think of it as an exercise that conditions the body for sitting for a long time but I’m not so sure that’s what that statement even means anymore. It comes back to the poses being about what we learn on the way down. In order to sit in meditation for long periods, there are some things a person must be able to do that I only learned from doing asanas but that having nothing at all to do with the physical.
The first thing asanas do is really introduce the yogi to their breath. I know we all technically know how to breath, we do it all day, and that we can all hold our breath for different periods of time, but that isn’t at all what this is about. Prior to the point where we are learning to control our breath, we begin to use it to control movement in many classes. It determines how long a pose is held and there are different movements best done on an inhale or exhale. It reinforces little things like taking a breath before taking an action. Next, the asanas teach us to cultivate stillness. It took years for me to understand the benefits of actually staying through savasana. In stillness, we can learn to withdraw from the senses too. This is practiced when holding poses for longer than we previously thought we could.
From there, the practice of yoga exercises can teach and do so much more so long as we know our goals. This is where it helps to know the kind of class you need before walking in that day or enough asanas to create a personal practice. We also must learn to acknowledge what we learn on the way down.
Body language tells us a lot about each other but that knowledge can also be used to counter our own thoughts and shift moods. We may slouch when we feel small and insignificant, but slouching for any reason will in turn make is feel smaller and less significant while sitting up straight when we recognize this can literally change how we feel. There’s an amazing TEDtalk on the effect of simply changing your body language in order to change your actual mindset.
That said, we can revisit the entire idea that yoga isn’t about holding the pose but what you learn on the way down. Simply dealing with your own body getting into these poses teaches us a lot about the yamas and niyamas that come before it. (Also the pranayama and pratyahara that come after but we’ll get to that).
- Ustrasana reminds me to lift myself up by my heart.
- Uttanasana reminds that what I could do yesterday isn’t necessarily what I can do today but if I give it a little work, maybe I’ll be back in it.
- Virabadrasana II reminds me that I am powerful but that power comes from being grounded.
- Vrksasana reminds me to look up to the possibilities with open arms.
- Ardha Chandrasana reminds me that balance can be found by reaching higher.
- Balasana reminds to bend to higher powers and not control everything.
- Natarajasana/Dancer pose reminds me that it’s okay to fail or to fall, so does handstand (ardha mukta vrksasana), and to concentrate.
- Kapotasana and all its variations remind me that there are many ways to do things and always something new to work on or strive for.
Any time I’m struggling with a pose, I’ve grown to ask myself what it means. Most of them are in every single practice. No matter how I start a practice, I end it with the feeling that I am powerful but not all powerful, that I must be humble, to start with my heart out, that maybe I need to try a different approach or have a different goal, or just give myself a break now. All of those work for me to be ready for meditation and svasana.
Sometimes, just the act of going through all of this in one hour brings me to exactly the point I needed to be to start over again with the yamas and niyamas and try again tomorrow to get further down the path.