What do you do with your body in asana?
And—whatever it is—is that what you should be doing?
Today, we do yoga to calm the nerves and make us look hot.
That’s all good, but . . . anything else?
The old school notion (and a here-now realization) is that asana performs surgery on the “shadows,” the structures that tether your awareness to your body. These chaya or kosha (subtle body) structures enwrap our being and keep the soul from flying away to death. They keep us in life. The physical body is just one of these (the annamoyakosha).
These koshas are neat to know about, but that’s not exactly what I want to talk about. I want to talk about how we go deeper to discover these shadows and work with them, and what we face in doing that.
First: a word on why we exist:
Yoga assumes consciousness is just air in a balloon. Yoga accelerates the momentum of psychic release through the layers of being that keep that air here—on this Earth, in your body, i.e. held tight by incarnation. The structure of our “body” is vast, and there is much to be seen “in” it—and countless ways to leverage the way we are trapped in a body-consciousness.
Asanas are one way. If we use them right, they seduce us beyond the physical.
We get to extra-physical knowledge through a devotional focus, among other things.
A bhakti relationship to yoga will make us present at the chance-meetings yoga inscribes on our daily calendar.
“Watch and wait,” the Bible says.
Using Western-speak, we may say that asana teaches soul anatomy as well as the anatomy of blood and bone. Commonly, it is practice that reveals unseen subtle structures of mind and body. Bhakti, Abhyasa (regular practice) and vidya (practice of insight) gives us knowing.
Regular asana work opens us to the descent of grace. “Pose-as-guru” opens us.
We can harmonize with the “something” beyond the mere localized you of being by peering through the everyday lens of the body.
Yoga, at its best, is a daily rapprochement with reality, a situational re-set with both the relative and ultimate contexts of being.
Devotion and insight develops a subtler empiricism. It makes us see what science can’t parse. Day by day, yoga clears the smog concealing the strata of consciousness.
Yoga tones muscles, but also teaches us to feel chi (life-force), to execute clear thought, to recognize consequences, and to harmonize with the key of life—love.
We can explore this knowledge through the old texts and get a preview of what our investigations can reveal. This helps the postures speak with new voices.
When B. K. S. Iyengar consulted with a medical doctor to craft purely physiological justifications for posework (in Light on Yoga in 1966 ), he sagaciously conveyed yoga to Western sense, but when he dodged talk about Hatha Yoga’s deep streams of thought—when he dodged talk about what keeps the little “I” embodied—he sundered a link to greater knowing.
Our other great world teacher, K. Pattabhi Jois, was also reluctant to talk about yoga’s capacious depths.
We live that legacy.
Pattabhi rightly said, “Practice and all is coming,” but there’s more to it than that.
When I was a triathlete, we talked about “junk miles.” This was time wasted running, but not pushing past your edge.
Practice can be dumb, and I’ve seen it in practitioners of Ashtanga and every other discipline. The disregard for intellectualism or a deeper investigation into yoga science islands them in a cul-de-sac. They do not grow beyond the body.
I love modern athletic yoga. I love the familiar sweat and pain and surpassing of physical limits. But it must be said that it’s Velveeta next to Gruyere.
Old yoga with its precise methods and maxims is a seven-layer cake, and today’s happy-go-lucky vinyasa with its healthy-hip repartee is butter and white bread.
It’s a wild gift that William Broad’s Science of Yoga gave us, when it explained the medical dangers of the practice. It’s terrific that Tim McCall taught yoga’s medical benefits in his book Yoga as Medicine. It’s super cool that savvy doctors now prescribe yoga for common complaints and that we heal and maintain the modern bod through regular and careful work in posture. But from a yogic perspective, mere body-concern is just a first step toward the pot at the end of the rainbow.
The deep deep practices found in the old books are still taught by some wise teachers, and they give a taste of the greater of incarnation that is you.
This hunk of muscle and bone we walk and talk in is surely sacred, but realms exist beyond it, and road of yoga goes there.
Search the texts.
Aim the arrow of your attention deeper.
See what comes.
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Editor: Kate Bartolotta