In class recently with Ti Harmony, my main yoga teacher, a student joked about never being able to enter his expression of hanumanasana in the USA Yoga National Yoga Asana Championship. I giggled along with several of my classmates. It was funny to those of us who practice yoga primarily as a spiritual path rather than a path to physical fitness (although this is another valid reason to practice). One of the reasons I love Ti’s classes is that humor is encouraged–we feel like we’re all in this together, whatever the challenging moment is–and we are. But Ti does encourage us to get better at asana, along with cultivating more love, compassion, and empathy, so there’s a healthy balance.
I have another spiritually-oriented teacher whose teaching, over time, has evolved to include the belief that what the asana looks like is unimportant as long as the practitioner is not performing a movement that would injure their body. It’s all about linking breath and movement. For a while, convinced that this teacher was totally “right”, I focused on my breath, did my usual daily practice, and didn’t really do anything new, asana-wise. Boredom and laziness started to rear their ugly heads. I wanted to do scorpion, lotus, and hanumanasana, and do them well! Maybe I misunderstood the teaching, but I felt like my asana practice was regressing as I practiced this way for a few months. I can see the value in this idea regarding the practice of asana, especially for Instagrammy asana-obsessed practitioners. I have a tendency toward swinging all the way one way or the other, and that was probably in play here to some degree. I also want to emphasize that I absolutely believe that the connection between breath and movement is essential. The breath is the vehicle on which prana (energy) rides, so obviously it is so important.
This past Monday night, in between my kids’ yoga class and my Flow Yoga 101 series, I decided to stick around Carrboro Yoga Company for Molly Drake’s class rather than dashing downstairs to Weaver Street Market for a cupcake and an ALOdrink (weird combo, I know, but I like it). A few years ago, I used to take Molly’s Monday night class fairly often, then my schedule shifted so I stopped. I can’t say enough wonderful things about her as a teacher–her style is playful, exploratory, and mellow. She led a masterfully crafted sequence of poses to encourage grounding through the legs and lower chakras, then reviewed some material from the previous week when the class was working on inversions and grounding through the forearms. With her verbal, energetic, and physical guidance, I found myself in pinca mayurasana without kicking up to it or otherwise physically forcing my body to do anything. I followed her instructions on how to align the shoulders over the elbows (which I know, but she led it verbally in a way I haven’t heard before, so it seemed new), how to feel a strong connection with the ground through the forearms, and a few other refinements, and I practically floated up. Her class is called Gentle Yoga, and it is gentle, but it does not neglect the mastery of asana as a goal. It’s more like mastery of asana is a side effect of exploring the movement and energy.
These three experiences have me thinking a lot about the place of asana in Patanjali’s eight-limbed path as laid out in the Yoga Sutras, the emphasis on asana in modern yoga studios, and on my own ego’s desire to perfect asana. Right now, I think it’s about intention and balance–in some practices I might really be focusing on working on handstand, and in others on connecting to my breath with less emphasis on any specific asana-related goals. Patanjali didn’t say much about asana in his Sutras, but what he did say was succint: sthira sukham asanam, “Posture should be steady and comfortable.” (Bryant’s translation) We yoga teachers often interpret this Sutra in a way that polarizes effort (sthira) and relaxation (sukha). Is effort the same thing as steadiness, though? Or do we mean a steady effort (this is what I usually teach in class)? Or maybe, the Sutras should be our guide to the attainment of liberation, and we should focus more on the Hatha Yoga Pradipika or some other text or texts, ancient or modern, for asana guidance?
Please consider reading some of J. Brown’s writing on this topic–or any topic, really–and let me know what you think–I’d love to hear others’ perspectives.