What are we actually doing in asana?

Last month, I attended a weekend workshop with Matthew Remski and Daniel Clement called Light & Shadow – What are We Actually Doing in Asana?

I started learning about the history of our current day yoga practices. Particularly the ‘need to make the body a certain shape’ as opposed to honouring each body’s ability. “The modern yoga movement emerges out of a homosocial educational context rife with corporal punishment. The context assumed the teacher’s ownership of mastery over the body. Its assumptions about intervention, corrections and consent linger.” (source: Matthew Remski)

The founder of our modern yoga practice, T. Krishnamacharya, was quite violent when adjusting his students, and his students B.K.S. Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois continued this violent teaching practice which has filtered down into some current yoga classes. (source: Matthew Remski) We teach how we know, right? It is very difficult to break the pattern of abuse. 

I’ve continued learning about modern yoga with an informative book about modern yoga. The information in it created an existential crisis in me which is good because I think we should always be examining what we’re doing and why we’re doing it to retain a strong sense of purpose. I needed to answer the question ‘What are we actually doing in asana?’ for myself.

In a nutshell: Modern yoga is not so much derived from ancient practices… even the hallowed surya namaskar practiced in most studios is only a few hundred years old, modified from a Brahmin sun worship ritual, “mistakenly thought to be adapted from yoga postures… probably developed as preparation for strength exhibitions, sports (especially wrestling) or military training.” Most of the poses that we practice in a yoga class aren’t actually yoga asana – they’re modified from gymnastics routines and other forms of ritual worship. (source: The Path of Modern Yoga by Elliott Goldberg) 

So if we’re not doing yoga what are we doing? The answer I came up with is that the shapes we’re making are what is providing access to the real yoga… the real yoga is happening inside.

I had to look back at why I started doing yoga (Bikram yoga every other day for a workout) and what it did for me physically and mentally. Physically, it made me stronger and more toned. Mentally, the fully guided classes provided a structure that was lacking in my life and it was a great relief to me to know exactly what to expect for 1h30m of that day. I found a sense of peace that I had been sorely lacking. The discipline required wasn’t the best for my ‘set myself on fire’ personality – there are no props and modifications are not allowed – so I did a lot of forcing my body into certain shapes which wasn’t the best thing for my knees or my back.

When I left Bikram yoga to attend regular Hatha, Hatha Flow, and Vinyasa classes I found the variety bewildering at first and if the instructor struggled with cues, I didn’t like the feeling of not knowing what I was doing – I was looking for a sense of security in that class whether it was 1h or 1h15m. Yin and Restorative classes were my first experiences of finding what works for my body and it changed my experience of yoga: I was being supported literally *and* physically. Honoring my body went a long way to provide much needed physical healing.

My first Yin teacher was the first person I heard say: “We don’t use our body to get into a pose; we use the pose to get into our body.” (This quotation is attributed to Bernie Clark but he says that he is not the original source – he cannot remember whom he heard it from and he would dearly love to acknowledge the source.) I tell my students that if my suggestions do not work for their body to move in a way that does work for their body. I do not provide hands-on adjustments because I think it is very dangerous for me to move them in a way that is not natural for their body. I’m learning about providing hands-on assists which helps support their body’s movement – the difference being that I am supporting the student as they are instead of moving them into a different shape. I still prefer hands-off assists such as offering the use of a prop & suggesting where to place the prop for support.

I looked back at Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, particularly the 8 limbs of yoga. At the end of the article linked here, are the words: Yogas chitta vritti nirodah / Tadah drastuh svarupe vasthanam which means: “Yoga is stilling the fluctuations of the mind. Then one abides in their own true nature.”

In conversation with a yoga studio owner the other day, I was reminded that some students need a dynamic practice to get out of their own head and some students need a static practice; that is why yoga studios need to provide a full range of Hatha classes (every postural class at the yoga studio is a Hatha class, from Power to Restorative). A meditation class is Raja yoga. Offering to clean the studio in exchange for a studio membership is Karma yoga. A Kirtan at a studio is Bhakti yoga. Jnana (wisdom or knowing) yoga can be accessed via Hatha, Raja, Karma or Bhakti yoga.

This led me back to Marion Mugs McConnell’s book Letters from the Yoga Masters: “…I feel that one comes to all yoga practice with ‘yoga’ first and not ‘practice.’ The goal is yoga – to discover the already underlying unity of all things. With this ‘as long as’ [doing a practice as long as the student is comfortable], the emphasis is on the yogi and not the technique, as otherwise, one can become a good specialist. In yoga, specialization is not the best thing, as specialization is the work of the ego. With ‘as long as’ – the onus is on the yogi, and [s]he can keep in mind why [s]he is doing this in the first place – yoga.” (source: Swami Suryadevananda in Letters from Yoga Masters)

“[The] progression from Hatha yoga [any yoga practice with physical asanas] to raja yoga [meditation] is to be expected… Hatha yoga can help us only up to the level of concentrated mind and aspiring mind… Then we have to work for purifying the mind, and this process for purifying the mind [is the] chief aim of Raja yoga, Jnana yoga, Bhakti yoga, and Karma yoga, etc.” (source: Swami Saraswati in Letters from the Yoga Masters)

It *is* possible that a student is just “Attending a push-up class at the local studio” (source: Matthew Remski) BUT another student in the same class could be doing yoga. It depends on what is happening inside, because: