Over the next few months we’ll #GoDeep into Patanjali’s Eight Limb Path. If you’re just checking in, be sure to read our intro post on the path itself and its first limb, the yamas, and our second post on the niyamas.
Now we arrive at limb #3, asana, the practice of the poses themselves.
This limb of the path has gone undeniably main stream, resulting in more leggings and hashtags than Patanjali could have ever dreamed of, as well as increased awareness around the concept of awareness itself and practices like mindfulness, meditation and self-care.
Long before Christy Turlington graced the cover of Vogue in Calvin Klein and Upward Facing Bow, the postures associated with modern yoga arose as a way to prepare the body for long spells of seated meditation: Open hips to accommodate a cross-legged seat; a strong back to hold a straight spine; equanimity between the left and right hemispheres of the brain for clear focus. By stretching their limbs and working out their physical kinks, yogis had one less thing to worry about when they sat down to meditate, no nagging aches or distracting bodily tension.
The word asana translates as seat, and it also means shape or pose, so it’s found at the end of most every posture name: Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), Tadasana (Mountain Pose), Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog pose), etc. As the practice of asana was once understood as a way to create a comfortable seat, the poses themselves contain that seed of meditative focus. Each posture presents an opportunity to gaze inward and quiet the mind. As B.K.S. Iyengar puts it, “It is through your body that you realize you are a spark of divinity.”
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali has this to say about the practice of asana: Sthira-sukham asanam. Sthira comes from the root stha, which means to stand firm and sukha translates to joy, happiness, and ease; its component parts are good (su) and space (kha). How to apply this to our practice on the mat? Find strength and ease in your asana — cultivate a good and comfortable seat from which to move.
A regular asana practice builds strength, flexibility, balance and discipline on all dimensions — physical, emotional, mental, spiritual. We are asked to sink deeper into challenging positions, observe thoughts and reactions that arise, connect to our life-giving breath, and stay calm. Powerful on its own, asana as part of the Eight Limb Path has potential for serious transformation.