In Defense of Asana: a Rant
I recently hopped a Greyhound bus to Montreal. The ride was long and the bus smelled of wet soda crackers. Now, I am admittedly a cranky asshole while on public transit, yet the discussion I got into (and the subsequent victim of my venom) caught me by total surprise.
It was a fellow yogi I began speaking with. A devotee of tantra, a perceiver of chakras, and, at that moment, a pain in my ass.
When I shared with him that I was a Hatha yoga instructor, he asked ‘like Asana work?’ (Yah, dumbass, like postures). “So,” he chided, “you essentially lead a stretch class.” And this is where I started talking real fast and real loud on a really crowded bus. Cue my defense of asana.
But first, a disclaimer: I understand that yoga is not just about asana, or the physical practice of yoga. Patanjali made it clear in his sutras that asana is simply a tool to help us achieve a state that is more cohesive with Samadhi.
This asana is not to be confused with enlightenment.
Consider asana more as the popcorn that helps you enjoy the new Die Hard movie. It greases the wheels of yoga. I would be the last to claim such higher knowledge after a vigorous round of sun salutations, or a few precious moments in child’s pose. But to belittle the practice of asana and kick it to the curbside because it doesn’t necessarily make your mind and heart implode and explode at the same time?!? (Obviously I am an unenlightened cat.)
Well, that’s just bullshit.
Yoga was not born in the West. Far from it, man. It was introduced and adapted to suit our needs. We bent it to compliment the environment it was being transplanted into. Just as we North American folks have taken a liking to chicken balls and Thai massage, so have we found a home in the asana side of yoga. And what’s so wrong with this?!
Admittedly, we Westerners are spending an hour bending and stretching. But it is better to bend than break, in a society where it is so easy to feel a bit broken.
I think we can all benefit from learning to bend compassionately. As for stretching, we are constantly fighting against time to fit everything plus their grandma into our days. To stretch out our afternoons so we can devote an hour to moving slowly and deliberately does not seem like such a crime.
Sure it may not be meditation in the Himalayas, or chanting to awaken our chakras. Still asana offers a precious chance for reflection, for compassion and for acceptance that is accessible to us in the West, because it speaks in a language we understand.
Some of us yogis may never master Sanskrit, or relish in the words of the Bhagavad Gita. But we can all appreciate a deeper release in a forward bend, or a growing strength in plank, or a twist that leaves you feeling less cluttered. This asana practice encourages pranayama (breath awareness,) a stilling of the mind, and a devotion to the present moment. These don’t seem so out of line with what ‘real yoga’ is working towards.
We can cherish our time on the mat, not because of the toned legs or rippling biceps it leaves us with.
Rather, this asana practice floats on the principles of yoga; strength through release, mindful compassion, and above all, union.
So, I may be leading a bend and stretch class, but if that’s what draws people to yoga, then that is the medium which I will reach out to them.
Asana is not a compromise of yoga, it is an accessible entry point into a foreign practice and lifestyle. Almost like a ‘gateway drug’ to enlightenment, asana manages to be a relatable yet highly personal practice. And I will continue to share this with anybody interested, and be confident that whatever they are taking from the class will feed positively into their personal yoga experience.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise