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 Embodying the Spirit
by Judith Lasater

All I clearly remember from my first yoga class is the ceiling. Between asanas (postures) we were instructed to lie down on our mats and rest. I don't remember much else about what we did, but I do remember that this little taste made me want more. The next morning at home I practiced all the poses I could remember, and from that day on I was hooked. Asanas became a central part of my life.

What drew me to the practice of asana was an intuitive feeling that these movements were not just “stretching”; they seemed to have some greater connection with my soul.

Now, after years of study, I believe that each asana represents an aspect of human potential and offers us a doorway inward to deeper awareness and development.

Certainly yoga asanas are virtually as ancient as civilization itself. Five thousand year-old carvings from the Indus River valley show figures sitting in the Lotus pose. But we really have little concrete information about the development of yoga asanas over the past five millennia. Tradition has it that each asana was created when a rishi spontaneously took on that posture during deep meditation (Rishi literally means "seer"; the rishis were the sages of Vedic India).

Surprisingly, the most revered yoga text of ancient India, the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, from the 2nd century BCE, barely touches on the subject. Patanjali gives no specific instructions about asana practice, and only mentions it in three of his 145 verses. Although several other premodern Indian texts like the Siva Samhita, the Gheranda Samhita, and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika provide a little more description of specific poses, traditionally many teachers have followed Patanjali's lead and taught that the main value of asanas is to prepare the body for long hours of meditation by creating a strong back and supple legs.

In our Western culture of the late 20th century, asana practice has taken on forms Patanjali would barely recognize. As this aspect of yoga has become more known and accepted it has permeated many corners of society, mostly as a therapeutic treatment for physical injuries and as an increasingly hip and popular fitness regime. Now you can find yoga asanas not just in popular health journals but also in the slickest fashion magazines, and the media quickly informs us which movie stars are practicing yoga.

But beyond its current fashionability and undeniable health and fitness benefits, I feel the practice of asana has deeper gifts to offer to the West.  More interesting to me than any specific practice techniques are two basic ideas about asana. First, I think asana practice is a spiritual practice in and of itself. Second, I think this practice can help us to bring the spiritual into our daily lives in the modern world, far from the protected ashrams and retreats of ancient India.

We Westerners may be captured at first by the lure of healing, flexibility, and strength, but we stay with the practice of yoga asanas because it is a powerful nonverbal expression of the sacred. This connection with the sacred comes from the basic nature of asana practice. To truly practice asana, you have to become present in the moment. You observe your sensations, your reactions, your sense of ease and difficulty as you stretch and bend. And this consistent willingness to be in the here and now is the basis of meditation. Thus the practice of asana is essentially a spiritual one. This is true not only because of the inherent quality of asana practice per se, but also because of the wider context in which Patanjali places asana. It is part of the whole path of yoga practice which includes ethical precepts, breathing, and practices associated with internalization of sense experience, focus and meditation.

In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali identifies steadiness and ease as the two key characteristics of asana practice. In other words, the first quality of any asana is about staying still. It's ironic that most people think of asanas as the movements of yoga; actually, asanas demand that the practitioner learn to stay still. This staying still is a powerful practice.

When you learn to hold a pose, the stillness of the body becomes a backdrop against which you can clearly see the constant movement of the mind. Because you are usually moving your body around, the movements of your mind are not so apparent. But when you learn to hold the pose and remain still, suddenly you can clearly notice how agitated the mind may be.

Through teaching you to be still, the practice of asana can be a doorway to deeper states of mediation. Yoga asanas, especially Savasana or Corpse pose, in which you can become truly still, can provide the student with yoga's most important gift: the gift of disidentification. In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali teaches that mistakenly identifying our thoughts as our Self is at the root of all misery. He further teaches that all the practices of yoga aim to dissolve this false identification.

In the stillness of savasana, you can begin to separate your Self from your thoughts. As you move more deeply through relaxation you begin to enter an altered state in which thought is experienced as a surface phenomenon, like clouds blowing through the sky high above you. You can begin to experience a little space between the thought and what is perceived as Self. A teacher of mine once said, "The problem with our thoughts is that we believe them". And the problem with believing our thoughts is that we then act on them in ways that can cause suffering in ourselves and others.

When you experience a little space between your thoughts and the consciousness which is the background for thought, thoughts begin to lose their power over you. With disidentification comes choice: you can choose to act from the thought, or to release it without action. Ultimately, this kind of choice is synonymous with true freedom.

Along with stillness, Patanjali stresses that for a position to be an asana, we must abide in it with sukam, a word usually translated as ease or comfort. For most of us, that may seem like an impossible demand. When we move into asanas, we're often aware of difficulty, tightness, and even resistance, either physical or mental. It's rare that we have a sense of ease. So what could Patanjali have meant by insisting that asanas must be marked by ease?

I've come to think that "ease" in this context refers not to the difficulty I experience in doing the pose, but instead to my interpretation of that difficulty. In other words, the pose can continue to stretch and challenge me. Perhaps that will never change. But I can become "easeful" in my interpretation of that difficulty. I can choose to remain present and allow the difficulty to be there without fighting it, reacting to it, or trying to change it.

Just as seeking ease in your asana practice doesn't mean avoiding difficult poses, the wider practice of yoga is not about arranging your life so that it is free of challenges. Rather, it is about using the discipline you find in asana practice to remain easy in the midst of difficulty. This is the true measure of freedom. When you learn to maintain this ease, then everything you say and do becomes an asana, a position of body, mind, and soul which requires the attention that brings you into the present.

© 1999 by Judith Lasater
Judith's new book, Living Your Yoga: Finding the Spiritual in Everyday Life (pub. Rodmell Press) is an excellent inspirational resource. She has also written Relax and Renew: Restful Yoga for Stressful Times. Check out her web site, www.judithlasater.com.

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