Take a Seat
The third limb of the 8-limbed yogic path is “Asana” which means “seat.” “Asana” is the word we use to refer to physical postures in yoga, and the ways we inhabit our body. Yoga is unique among all forms of physical exercise. You can do it any time, anywhere-- no need for equipment or even shoes! People of all fitness levels can have a yoga practice because there are modifications to accommodate all bodies and ages. By virtue of the fact that we only use our body weight as resistance, and that we move slowly and hold pauses to focus on form, we can remain safe and free from injury. As an added bonus, yoga is the only type of exercise in which you don’t need to take a rest day!
Hatha Yoga is the name for yoga that involves physical postures. Yoga is a tradition that originated in 2000 BCE, yet Hatha yoga didn’t come on the scene until 500CE. So what did Asana refer to before physical yoga became a thing? Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras, says “Posture is an attitude in which the body is kept steady while producing a feeling of ease.” So Asana is also the ability to hold the body motionless in preparation for meditation. Once the body is still, the mind can become still.
So although Hatha yoga is good for your health, that is not the end all/ be all of yoga. The postures are getting us ready to be still. In yoga class, we open up blocked energy flows, release toxins and get all our wiggles and tension out so that when we finally rest in savasana or a seated pose, our body can be at ease, and our mind can follow. Yoga also leads to good physical health, which helps us to be clearer and better able to walk on our spiritual path. If we are privileged enough to live a long, healthy life, we can awaken and love more, and are better able to be of service.
In addition to the physical postures of yoga, “Asana” is about fully inhabiting our body-- becoming aware of the sensations that are continually taking place inside us. Henry David Thoreau said ”Dwell as near as possible to the channel in which your life flows.” Tara Brach, in Radical Acceptance, explains that when we experience a sensation we immediately label it pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. We either grasp for the sensation, run from the sensation, or turn our attention elsewhere. The best way to get out of this unconscious cycle, is to return to the immediate sensory experience. What happens to pain when we don’t label it as such? Perhaps we feel pressure, or an ache, heat or tightness, a throbbing or a sudden shooting sensation. We also can see the pain changing, moving, rising and diminishing. (Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance) No feeling, physical or otherwise, lasts forever.
Tara Brach also explains that pain often precedes loss, so it makes sense that we begin to associate the two and end up believing that all pain means “something is wrong.” However, pain doesn’t have to lead to suffering. Childbirth is a great example of productive pain! Also, we do have some control over the stories we tell ourselves that add to our pain, and our reactions. We obsess about our pain -- what caused it, what it will deprive us of, the chaos it will cause in our life. These stories only end up creating new layers of pain and suffering.
In order to protect ourselves and keep ourselves safe, sometimes it may be necessary to contract away from unbearable physical or emotional pain. Later, when we are ready, we can heal by reconnecting with the places in our body where the pain is stored. When we feel and release past pain held in our body, we can get in touch with our present moment and our kind and tender heart. As Rumi wrote “The cure for the pain is the pain.” Through this process we may even begin to notice our triggers and fears and begin to separate from the stories we tell ourselves.
Our “Asana” or “seat” is also our perspective-- the perspective from which we see the world. First, for purposes of empathy and connection, we must acknowledge that everyone has a different “seat.” We must not presume to understand another person unless we have walked a mile in their shoes. Additionally, how we see things can be different in different moments and on different days: This depends on how we are feeling. Are we sick or well? Are we tired or rested? What has happened to us, and how much were we affected? It is important to acknowledge that our “seat” and the “seats” of others will vary depending on circumstances, and have compassion and understanding for ourselves and others.
Our perspective is not fixed-- it can evolve with us. We may see the world now through the filters of our conditioning and culture and underlying beliefs. One of the goals of yoga is to peel the layers back and see if they actually serve us, and if not, let them go. We are encouraged to look at life with a “beginner’s mind”. Whenever I hear someone suggest to “get curious”, like a beginner, I feel the stress and tension of a situation melt away. I remember back when I was dating, before I was married, I read the book If the Buddha Dated by Charlotte Kasl. It suggested that rather than going on a first date with expectations and measuring sticks, to bring your curiosity-- a desire to learn about another being, no matter where the encounter leads. This took so much of the pressure off for me! Another example is a reminder from my sister who is very conscious about how her choices affect the environment. I was talking about all the steps I “should” be taking to consume less plastic, as I felt my guilt and stress rising. Then, she suggested to “get curious” about the available alternatives to plastic, and enjoy the process of the search! Again, this reminder was like a breath of fresh air.
If our goal is to be open, and always to be learning, and to develop connections, the very best way is to have a beginner’s mind. Instead of being presumptuous, or being closed off because we think we know the “right” answer, we will get to know other people’s perspectives… their “seats”, and we might learn something in the process! Also, by setting aside our pride and ego in this way, it stings less when we make a mistake and there is no shame in asking questions, because we are beginners!
Not only are we beginners, but we are essentially good. Not only are we good, but in the words of Anthon St. Maarten, “You are a deity in jeans and a t-shirt, and within you dwells the infinite wisdom of the ages and the sacred creative force of all that is, will be and ever was.” Some people choose to assume the “seat” or “perspective” of a sinner who is unworthy of love and belonging. If we adopt this outlook, we must overcome our flaws by controlling our bodies, controlling our emotions, controlling our natural surroundings, controlling other people. We must strive tirelessly -” working, acquiring, consuming, achieving, emailing, overcommitting and rushing - in a never-ending quest to prove ourselves once and for all.” (Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance) By contrast, Buddha taught that this human birth is a precious gift because it gives us the opportunity to realize the love and awareness that are our true nature. We all have Buddha nature. Spiritual awakening is the process of recognizing our essential goodness, our natural wisdom and compassion. (Start Where you Are, Pema Chodron)
So if we are divine creatures, inherently good, full of curiosity, and aware that our sensations are always changing so therefore able to stay in contact with what we are feeling -- is yoga anymore just about physical exercise? No-- our “Asana” is about so much more. Yoga is not about sculpting your body to conform to society’s standards, or a quest for perfection. “Yoga is not a work-out, it is a work-in. And this is the point of spiritual practice; to make us teachable; to open up our hearts and focus our awareness so that we can know what we already know and be who we already are.” -Rolf Gates
* (For further reading, check out “Start Where You Are” by Pema Chodron, and “Radical Acceptance” by Tara Brach and “If the Buddha Dated” by Charlotte Kasl, Much of the content of this essay was taken from or inspired by these insightful works.)