YS II.47 prayatna-shaithilya ananta-samapattibhyam

“Perfection in an asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached.” —BKS Iyengar

Sanskrit names for poses almost always end in -asana. We have taken this ending to mean “pose,” so Trikonasana is Triangle Pose, for example. Savasana, which is a big favorite (although the most difficult for most people), is Corpse Pose. This reflects the trend in our times to think of yoga practice as a series of poses. The poses have become the thing. We roll out our mats and begin to practice. How that looks for each of us is unique, but generally, we will include the poses we like, the ones we know we need, and maybe one or two that ask us to reach into our darkness. To complete the asana practice, we may add a brief meditation, perhaps some conscious breathing, a little time for integration. Most of the practice time, for me and the yoga-aware friends I know best, is focused on the poses. We string them in series for best results. We make sure there’s some restorative as well as active work, whatever our bodies ask for on any given day. When we teach, we place asana pearls on the string for our students’ needs, and off we go in beauty.

This is a change. With all best intentions and purity of heart, we have become modern. The word asana translates from Sanskrit as “seat.” This brings light to earlier forms of yoga practice, and how that practice evolved. We would sit. Primarily, we would sit, and we would breathe, we would meditate. The practice was less physical, way more internal from the start.

From the perspective of my long-time teacher Manouso (with all his genius as well as his limitations), two students of T. Krishnamacharya of Mysore, India—K. Pattahbi Jois and BKS Iyengar—were vehicles for this change. Jois founded the Ashtanga school of yoga based on vinyasana, or movement. Iyengar Yoga, which is also Ashtanga-based, relies on precise alignment and detail-based introspection. Both Jois and Iyengar used poses as the starting point for the further limbs of yoga.

Ashtanga literally means 8 limbs. They are: Yama (ethical teachings), Niyama (personal disciplines or ethics), Asana (poses or seats), Pranayama (control of pranic energy via breath), Pratyahara (inward focus), Dhyana (concentration), Dharana (meditation), Samadhi (bliss, meditative absorption). This year, we began with the first limb and moved through all the Yamas and then the Niyamas. Now we are up to Asana, the third limb.

Basing a practice on Asana comes from knowing that all the limbs are inter-present. Absorption in any leads further into the others. When we enter our poses with conscious, internal awareness, grounded in the ethical principles of Yama and Niyama, we go further and further inside, find breath awareness, then through concentration and mediation, to samadhi, absorption in bliss. Kaivalya is freedom! “Perseverance and effort are no longer needed,” according to Mr. Iyengar. The individual meets the infinite. We get there by working so intricately and lovingly with our bodies. This history and theory are easy to write. But to do it, this requires that we practice and practice and breathe and feel and get maybe just the tiniest bit better at any part.

Ultimately, where we get, how long it takes, is not the point in any case. We are journeying through our limitations and fears, watching ourselves as expressed by our arms and legs and diaphragm and collar bones. Can we love every part? Can we love the difficult parts even more? Can we expand into connection with the other students in our class? With other people we love? With other people we don’t even like? People, plants, insects, animals, the planet? Ah, if we can be a little less fearful, a little more love-ful, all the time on our heads or feeling for the roll of the collar bone, an elusive release in the groin muscle, all is time well spent.

At our little studio, Windhorse Yoga, we’ve got Sherri in her spot, Nancy and Rayna on their mats, Cathy and Laura, Casey, Deb, all the teachers up front, the older students, the young ones who might come in late or hide in the back. We study and practice for each other. A kindness in East Tennessee soothes the latent tsunami in the Pacific, helps a baby in Colorado be born with more peace and ease. Asana contains all the limbs. We contain and affect each other. We can help. Love. Be kind.

by Barbara Myerson