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What are Yoga Asanas and Why Practice Them?

© Donna Farhi

Given the central importance of the yamas and niyamas, one might wonder why it would be necessary to practice the other limbs of yoga. Would it not be enough to be compassionate, truthful, and content? Why would it be important to take the time to stretch our backs or to listen to our breath? If not for the tremendous importance of grounding spirituality in the body, it's unlikely that the great sages would have listed asana practice as the second limb. This is why I have chosen to focus in such detail on this dimension of practice. What is asana practice all about?

The word asana is usually translated as "pose" or "posture," but its more literal meaning is "comfortable seat." Through their observations of nature, the yogis discovered a vast repertoire of energetic expressions, strong physical effect on the body but also a concomitant psychological effect. Each movement demands that we hone some aspect of our consciousness and use ourselves in a new way. The vast diversity of asanas is no accident, for through exploring both familiar and unfamiliar postures we are also expanding our consciousness, so that regardless of the situation or form we find ourselves in, we can remain "comfortably seated" in our center. Intrinsic to this practice is the uncompromising belief that every aspect of the body is pervaded by consciousness. Asana practice is a way to develop this interior awareness.

While a dancer's or athlete's internal impulses result in movement that takes him into space, in asana practice our internal impulses are contained inside the dynamic form of the posture. When you witness a yoga practitioner skilled in this dynamic internal dance, you have the sense that the body is in continuous subtle motion. What distinguishes an asana from a stretch or calisthenic exercise is that in asana practice we focus our mind's attention completely in the body so that we can move as a unified whole and so we can perceive what the body has to tell us. We don't do something to the body, we become the body. In the West we rarely do this. We watch TV while we stretch; we read a book while we climb the StairMaster; we think about our problems while we take a walk, all the time living a short distance from the body. So asana practice is a reunion between the usually separated body-mind.

Apart from the vibrant health, flexibility, and stamina this unified body-mind brings us, living in the body is also an integral aspect of spiritual practice. The most tangible way that we can know what it means to be compassionate or not grasping is directly through the cellular experience of the body. The most direct way that we can learn what it means to let go is through the body. When we have a self-destructive addiction--the impulse to overeat or to take drugs--this happens through the entrenchment of neurological and physiological patterns in our bodies. And on a more basic level, it's hard to feel focused and purposeful when our bodies are full of aches and pains or burdened with illness and disease.

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About The Author
Donna Farhi is a Yoga teacher who has been practicing for 30 years and teaching since 1982. She leads intensives and teacher training programs internationally. Donna is best known for her unique ability to help students and teachers alike access a deeper connection with the body as a vehicle for the regeneration of the spirit. Donna has been the asana columnist for both Yoga......more
 
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