Monday, April 20, 2015

Asana–Not Just a Gateway Drug

I've been pondering yoga in a new light lately.

Why do we do it?

Which may not seem like a new light, but bear with me.

Yoga is this beautiful, potent practice that connects you the breath, that gives you a foot in the door to the present moment, and that most powerful of practices: meditation.

That's the magic, right? That's why thousands upon thousands of people walk through the doors of a studio to get more flexible, or to tone their abs or slim their thighs, and months later, they're chanting mantras under their breath at the grocery store, and burning sage before company comes over at home (or whatever brand of yoga cultural paraphernalia, which may or may not be cultural appropriation, they got hooked on).

So, if you finally get it, that it's about the meditation, and if you finally, FINALLY, get that daily meditation practice down pat...

then why do yoga..?

For the stronger muscles? The more limber forward folds? That's the stuff that doesn't mean anything, right...?

Let's be clear here: every time I think I've got that daily meditation practice on lock, I lose it again. So, I'm not the best example of someone who doesn't 'need' yoga anymore, but just as a thought experiment, if I DID, then would I?

My inevitably westernized, personalized, neo-paganized, Catholicized Spiritual Yoga understanding was that the Asana practice was a gateway...and with most gateways, once you pass through them, you leave them behind.

But, according to Patanjali (who is kind of a big deal), if we look at Yoga as an eight-limb path, then Asana is one of those branches. We make a big fuss about how meditation encompasses four, but Asana is still there, a seemingly indispensable aspect of the beast...

Why is that? Within the context of the other seven limbs, what does Asana do for us?

Well, its role as an assist into a meditation practice is totally legit: by keeping the body busy, we make it a bit easier to still the mind.

But contrary-wise, we're also making it pretty tough!

In a yoga class, there's a lot to focus on, from elaborate alignment cues, to intense stretching sensations, to tired, sore, achey, shaky muscles. Then there's the sights, sounds, and even smells coming from other practitioners in the room, and your instructor, and the complex relationships engendered by physical adjustments. There's also the music playing, if there is any, and sounds from outside, like sirens, construction, or a phone ringing in the office of the studio.

Some of those things are useful to focus your attention on, but a lot of them you're meant to be tuning out, and that's a tall order. Some of those things might tempt your mind to stray through their pleasantness: a favorite song popping up on the playlist, a sacrum massage in child's pose, a good-looking fellow practitioner striking a pose. Others steal your attention with their sheer obnoxiousness: the jackhammer outside the window, a particularly bad joke on the part of your instructor, the ache in your arms after four breaths holding down dog, the smell emanating from that guy who's mat looks like it's just been through a car wash.

With the former, it's easy to want those things to go on, and on, to lose all sight of being present to your body and your breath. With the latter, feelings of anger, and frustration often come up.

"Ugh, I cannot possibly pay attention with this pop song blaring in my ear!"

"That car alarm needs to shut up RIGHT NOW!"

"If she adjust my hips in Warrior III one more time..."

If you've taken even one yoga class, the tone of these thoughts is likely familiar. Yoga brings up anger, frustration, fear, aggression, not because you're not good enough at yoga to keep those things down, but because it's designed to. The asana practice is your opportunity to confront the more difficult parts of being a human being with presence, wisdom, and humor. 

To do that, you're going to fail, over and over and over again, for a while. Now, eventually, you'll start to pick up on the fact when those feelings pop up again when your train gets delayed underground when you're already running late, or your significant other leaves dirty clothes on top of, instead of in the hamper (maybe he's thinking in Spanish, so that 'en' could mean either one, so he's not distinguishing the difference?), you're facing another opportunity to choose patience, your breath, and the peace and content that is always there waiting inside of you. When you do, maybe that hour and a half sweating it out on a mat becomes slightly less crucial...but we all need practice to keep this skill honed, not just in the beginning, but for the rest of our lives.

And, all bodies need exercise to stay healthy, which a good asana class provides in a beautifully balanced way.

So even if you're all about meditating while waiting for your table to come up at a restaurant, and you practice mudras to help you refocus and energize at work, your nitty gritty Asana practice still has a lot to offer you. I'll see you on the mat. :-)
Live Omily,

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