Asana

Dear Reader,

Please accept my manifold apologies for being absent from blogging for well over a year. 2011 has been a wild ride: I got married (in Vermont, if you catch my drift), bought a house, and just in general rode the waves of many, many emotions. It’s been hard to get back into the habit of blogging because I feel so embarrassed about being away for so long. But what does shame or embarrassment get me? Well, it certainly doesn’t get me any more blog posts!

So, I appreciate your patience and I want you to know that my intention is to blog more regularly and to continue exploring the 8 limbs of yoga as well as exploring writing, teaching, and the general state of affairs in the world today.

When I last blogged, I was finishing up the last of niyamas or observances. The first two limbs of yoga are the yamas (restraints) and the niyamas (observances). There are 5 of each of these; in other words, those 10 topics took me a while to write about. Today it is time to address the third limb of Ashtanga yoga: Asana.

If you’ve ever practiced yoga, you’re probably familiar with this term because it forms the backbone of the Sanskrit names of the poses. Trikonasana, Virbhadrasana, Utkutasana, Janushirasana, Savasana, etc. Asana, asana, asana. (Although you may notice that some yoga teachers don’t pronounce the last “a” in those words, saying instead something like, “Virbh-ad-dra-san.” In fact, all over India there are signs inviting people to “Yog Asan” classes. My teachers used to say, “When the yogis brought the yoga to the West, they brought a couple of extra A’s with them on the airplane.” In other words, the last “a” in asana is a bit of an addition.)

Because of the word’s place in the name of every pose, we can infer that “asana” means “posture” or “pose.” Yet the word has the sense that this pose or posture is comfortably held. We often hear yoga teachers remind us that “asana” actually means “comfortable seat.” According to Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutura’s, “asana” means all of these things. In Sutra II.46, he writes, “Posture (asana) is to be seated in a position which is firm but relaxed.” In the commentary by Christopher Isherwood and Swami Prabhavananda, they continue, “asana means two things: the place on which the yogi sits, and the manner in which he sits there.”

Both the commentators and Patanjali himself continue to explore this term in more detail, and while I’d like to discuss their thoughts, I’d also like to share some “real-life” moments that I have helped me gain a deeper awareness of this limb. It’s one thing to practice asana in yoga class; it’s another thing to find your comfortable seat anywhere and everywhere in life. While practicing yoga in the community of a studio class is extraordinarily beneficial and life-affirming, the real test of our practice comes when we roll up our mat and walk out of class. How can we practice finding our comfortable seat, our “asana,” out in the real world? There’s nothing comfortable about that chaotic mess and most of us don’t even have time to sit down!

This summer, my sweet old dog Prufrock needed to have surgery. He had a lump on his tail. He had had surgery once before to remove a lump that was nothing more than a “fatty old man cyst,” according to my vet. But this time, the vet told me it was unusual for these benign lumps to grow on the tail. For this reason, I was nervous about Pruf’s upcoming surgery; I was worried what the doctor might discover. I was worried that my days with my dear old friend might be numbered. So I sat with him.

It was late June and the sun was wide and bright and beat down on the backyard. I sat in a clump of hostas, weeding. Pruf came up to me and lay down, stretching out in the dirt right where I was weeding. I took this opportunity to talk with him about his upcoming surgery. Yes, I know that he couldn’t really “understand” me, but by the gentle look in his eyes, I knew that he understood that I was discussing a serious matter with him. And there we sat in the dirt, communing with each other about his upcoming surgery. Something about this moment reminds me of the practice of asana: sitting comfortably with it in the world, knowing what you know and weathering all the rest.

(Incidentally, Pruf is fine. Turns out, the lump in his tail was a fatty old man cyst after all.)

Another “real life” moment that reminds me of the practice of asana is a “real life” moment that I have yet to actually experience: child birth. Ok, calm down. This isn’t happening to me yet or anytime soon. But it’s something I’ve been thinking about and researching about. My thinking here has been greatly influenced by the likes of Ina May Gaskin and Robbie Davis-Floyd (and two documentaries, which I recommend: “Pregnant in America” and “The Business of Being Born”). Bearing a child is an asana like no other, yet, unfortunately, our medicalized, industrialized, anesthetized culture has turned a natural, intuitive (and, yes, very challenging) process into a quasi-medical emergency, requiring the “expert” help of a [male] doctor, the injection of narcotics and synthetic hormones, and the complete harnessing and otherwise prostration of the woman’s body.

You probably don’t need a PhD in Physics to understand that pushing up, against gravity, isn’t really the best way to get an enormous object out of your body. It seems to me that a woman’s body always already understands the asana of childbirth–the innate desire to move and squat, the flood of natural hormones, the full-bellied, fully-presentness of each often agonizing moment, the rhythmic dance of the baby’s body within the mother, and the trusting. This “seat,” these sequence of poses, are eternal and ancestral. This asana transcends us, as any attentive yoga practice does.

The naysayers, of course, will lacerate me for not knowing what I’m talking about. So be it. Perhaps what’s instructive here is the metaphor: when we take our seat–our firm but relaxed seat–and bear the pain and confusion and complication of each individual moment, we bear fruit and are transformed.

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