Many people are surprised to learn that posture isn’t the first or even the second element of Patanjali’s eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga. “Asana” means pose, or posture, and it comes third after the yamas and the niyamas discussed in the ancient Yoga Sutras.
Most people today tend to find a yoga posture class before discovering the other teachings Patanjali included in the Yoga Sutras, but without living well in our values and actions, yoga postures are mostly just a great form of group fitness. Asana helps us get started in discovering the wider teachings of yoga and what they mean for each of us. David Williams, Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga teacher of Scholé founder Micah Scholes, has said, "Before you've practiced, the theory is useless. After you've practiced, the theory is obvious."
If you’ve ever heard the Sanskrit names for yoga poses, most end in “–asana”, such as Adho Mukha Svanasana, (downward facing dog) or Uttanasana (standing forward bend). When Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras 5,000 years ago, posture was much simpler than it has become today. In Patanjali’s time, asana referred to taking a seat to meditate. Highlighting the timelessness of Ashtanga Yoga – the eight-limbed path of Yoga – even as yoga has become a much more active practice for many, the practice of asana can bring us growth physically, mentally and spiritually.
Finding Limitations and Ease
By practicing yoga posture, we find limits. Where we find limits, we find opportunity to observe how we react to our limits. Do we get frustrated? If we do, can we sit with our frustration? Can we observe our emotions without judging them? Often if we can work on these abilities of observation without judgement, over time, we find ourselves moving beyond our former limitations, both physically and mentally.
In Scholé Yoga and other forms of modern yoga, asana practice features a number of poses. As we practice, we learn to focus on the transitions as well as the postures themselves. So often in life, we want to get from A to B, but asana teaches us to observe how we move between our goals. In life, transitions can be hard as we take on new jobs or make new habits. What we learn by observing transitions on the mat can be taken away with us, helping us to notice where we can bring more attention to creating more easeful transitions in the real world.
Creating Space for Change
Through asana, we learn to respect our bodies and ourselves. We can observe when our ego gets in our way, pushing us to look at the poses we can’t do yet rather than being grateful for all the movements our bodies can do. We can connect with ourselves, using the breath to find some stillness even in movement. Given how fast-paced life can get, posture practice helps us ground down and reconnect with how we really feel and who we really are.
So many people reflect that they can’t do yoga because they are not flexible. The magic of yoga is that our bodies can and will change if we just give them the space to do so. Asana is that space where profound change can begin, if we are willing to just start where we are.