This process and purpose makes asana different from exercise. Many times I see that asana is confused with exercise. In fact in the west the approach to asana is like exercise though there may be some philosophy thrown in. Find below the distinctive characteristics of asana when compared to exercise or sport.
1. In asana, one cultivates stillness and stability and not just speed.
2. Asana is done at one’s own pace. It is not competitive.
3. There is space created in asana. The stretches, bends and twists work on broadening and lengthening the body. It helps remove tamas or stagnation to clear and open up the body. Prana or life force also moves to clear blocks. It expands us and thereby we can fathom many expanded ways of being. There is a world of possibility that opens to us due to the space that has opened up within.
4. Asana detoxifies the physical, emotional and mental bodies when done correctly. This detoxification can be supported by drinking enough water and having alkaline foods and alkaline emotions and thoughts. Environmental pollutants and pesticides can make one acidic and poisoned. Eat organic foods and live an organic life. Dwelling on anger, fear and negative emotions makes us acidic. When the system is acidic, we can develop diseases right from ulcers and depression to cancer.
5. Asana helps us tap into the wisdom of the body and cellular consciousness. We ignore this wisdom and can become disconnected and feed addictions. When we are connected to the body and breath we can see the fear, anger rise in us thus giving it healthy expression rather than a violent outburst. Violence is also an addiction like alcohol or drugs. Thus, asana is excellent to treat addictions.
6. Asana helps not just to align the body but also align one’s life. We move as a unified whole rather than being disjointed or split. I am sure many of you have experienced instances when your heart wants something, the mind something else and the body is doing something completely different.
7. It is isotonic, isometric and isokinetic (resistive as with some postures in partner yoga and yoga therapy but pace/speed is constant). Isometric (static) is when you hold a position as in classical asana and this builds endurance. Isotonic is when there is movement, when asana is done in sequence like in a kriya or vinyasa. So asana combines benefits of many forms of exercise and much more.
8. Asana helps in self mastery. Impulses and animal drives are sublimated and not suppressed. Refinement is cultivated when practiced in the right context. We naturally give up things that are not healthy.
9. Asana regulates the sympathetic (stress response/ fight or flight) and parasympathetic (feed, breed, rest and recuperate) nervous system. It is also an adaptogen (though this term is usually used with respect to herbs). This means it will regulate the metabolism and enable a person to adapt better to the environment. It will lower the blood pressure of someone who has high BP and increase the blood pressure of someone with low BP. Similarly, it rebalances all bodily functions like, digestion, reproduction, sleeplessness, and endocrine function.
10. Asana does not work only on the muscles but tones the endocrine glands, nerves as mentioned and most importantly the nadis or pranic channels which are there in the pranamaya kosha or the auric field. This principle of acknowledging the nadis and pranic pathways and seeing a more expanded view of the practitioner is there only in asana and not exercise.
11. It brings forth noble qualities and virtues in the individual if practised in line with Yama, Niyama.
12. Patanjali beautifully describes that perfection in asana will free us from suffering from the pairs of opposites. This dwandwas or the sense of twoness or seperation causes fear, anxiety and in many cases disease of the body or mind.
It can be opposites that exist in body, emotion and mind. So rising above heat and cold, pain and pleasure is a gift of asana. A good steady asana practice will help us deal with life situations in a more balanced way and not get easily perturbed. We see a seamless blending of the material and spiritual. Asana also helps one befriend the ego if done correctly. Else if practised like exercise or sport, there can be a strengthening of the ego.
ASANA – a state of being The beauty in unity When the heart hugs the mind Form reflects strength and grace In “being” form blends into the formless And Two can dwell as One.
13. Asana connects the right and left side of the brain, so we can move towards a whole brain awareness. The Left side of the brain is the masculine linear, logical, mathematical , detail oriented, fact based, strategic side of the brain. The right brain is the feminine, lateral thinking, musical, big picture oriented, side of the brain. A good team work between these two areas enhances the quality of life. Asana also brings consciousness to the old parts of the brain, like the reptilian and mammalian part of the brain. It creates many new neural pathways. By connecting the old brain with the new brain or neo cortex we can rise above the survival instinct as well as brainwashing that creates fear and cultivates a herd mentality. That is why in the film matrix, Keanu reeves is called Neo. The film was based on yogic/ eastern mystical thought.
14. Asana practice also builds various positive qualities like we saw earlier. For example, in general forward bends cultivate patience and surrender, back bends conquering fear, twists work on the organs and release a limited perception of life. Different animal, nature based and those based on sages help us tap into the innate qualities of that. We learn from different animal and nature gurus, just as the story of king Bruce makes us see that he learnt from a spider not to give up.
15. Asana is dancing with the divine. When we move in some of the kriyas (action for purification/ asana sequenced to breath), and vinyasas (asana sequenced to breath) the movement is mindful and meditative to enable this bringing together of body, emotions and mind with the divine. Thus, asana becomes a bodily prayer as well, where there is no more separation between the one praying and the one prayed to. In asana, one aligns with the divine consciousness. This is what Patanjali calls Ashtanga yoga or raja yoga and Thirumoolar Siva Yoga Thirumoolar in the Thirumandiram mentions that one can create an immortal body for the soul to evolve and unite. One of the ways of enabling an ageless body is through asana apart from lifestyle habits and self refinement.
16. We look younger and lose weight due to asana practice. This however is not an end in itself and it is also important we become wiser and more childlike. There is no point in prolonging an unhappy life. That is why in class, I mention that the best mudra (gesture/ mystic seal) is the haasya (smile, laughter, internal state of cheerfulness and gladness) mudra. Even if we are not experiencing transcendental bliss we can enjoy the practice and be in a state of joyfulness in our practice. That is why finding a class that is the right pace for you is important.
17. Asana cultivates samabhava or equanimity. We can be centred and be stable even in the midst of external confusion or disturbances. This is the quality that many masters ask us to cultivate.
18. Asana is the art of mastering effortless effort. Patanjali also mentions that in Chapter 2 verse 47 that one needs to give up effort and focus on the infinite in asana.Thus, we see that asana is a beautiful art and science for evolving consciousness, to become greater than who we perceive ourselves to be, to rest in our best in the moment, yet not get trapped in this idea of greatness or self grandeur.
Yogacharini Maitreyi is a practical Mystic and the founder of Arkaya. She also runs a foundation for children who live in the slums. She enjoys interacting with her readers at firstname.lastname@example.org, www.arkaya.net