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.