In modern times, asana is the most practiced step in the system of Raja Yoga. So much so that the yoga became synonymous with practice of asanas(poses) of yoga! No doubt, practicing asana is necessary. But, it is not sufficient. In fact, the great Guru(master) of the Raja Yoga, Maharishi Patanjali himself explains asanas only in a couple of sutras(aphorisms). That says it all!
Unfortunately, many fashionable fitness exercises utilize the term yoga for their systems and have emphasized the erroneous simplistic view of yoga, i.e. yoga means practicing asanas. These methods focus on physical benefits (whatever they are!) and may not provide any spiritual benefits that are offered by traditional yoga. It is important to know the real meaning of yoga ourselves and spread this knowledge to benefit one and all.
With this slight digression, let us understand what our great master Shri Patanjali Maharishi has to say on asana. He defines asana as:
Sthira sukham asanam |- Yoga Sutras 2.46
The asana (pose) is that which brings stability and comfort to our posture. Alternatively, the asana (yoga posture) should be steady and comfortable.
That is it. Short and sweet! There are two interpretations of the sutra:
First Meaning of asana
The asana or body posture that brings us stability and comfort to our posture. The asanas are different body poses that tune our body and mind to achieve stability of both. Details of hundreds of asanas are prescribed in scriptures like Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Gheranda Samhita and Shiva Samhita etc.
The name of any pose is given based on how the overall pose looks like. For example, Padmasana(Lotus Pose) is sitting straight by folding the legs such that one folded leg comes on top of the other. The folded legs look like petals of a Lotus. Hence, it is called a Lotus(padma) pose!
We may ask now: What is the context of practicing poses in Raja Yoga? Why is it required? As our Maharishi said: they bring stability and comfort to our posture. Fundamentally, without a comfortable and stable posture, one cannot focus to witness the Universal Self.
Our bodily movements are correlated with thoughts and state of mind. Have you noticed restless people? They cannot sit comfortably in one place! Even if they could, they rhythmically tap the floor or table!
Have you observed tigers or jaguars in a zoo? They are restless and constantly move around in the cage! But, if you see the deers, they are calm and peaceful, standing in on place. That reflects their state of mind.
In Raja Yoga, it is critical to sit with our backs straight, for a long time to observe the mind during meditation. The asanas bring necessary stability and comfort to our posture to this end.
Second Meaning of asana
This perspective of the sutra answers the question: how to practice the yoga asanas(poses)? Asanas have to be sthira(stable) and sukha(comfortable). This means we need to practice any asana such that we can be stable in that asana. Also, we should not experience any strain or stress while practicing asanas. The entire practice should be comfortable too.
For beginners, asana practice can be challenging and stressful. However, as the practice progresses, one should be able to stay in the asana with complete stability and comfort.
Some so called modern yoga( fitness practices) we discussed in the beginning, simply violate these two fundamental aspects of an asana and will not lead to any meaningful spiritual benefit of real yoga. So, we need to be cautious about this and create an awareness to help others.
To recapitulate: by now, we know clearly that practicing yoga poses (asanas) itself is not yoga; it is a step in Raja Yoga.
Practicing asana may be challenging. Maharishi has some tips to master asanas. What are those? We will see them in the next post.
Next post: Raja Yoga- Part 8 on establishing in an asana. Stay with us!
Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu |
May the entire universe be happy!
Om Namah Shivaya ||