Depending on what tradition of yoga you follow, Physical Postures (Asanas) are the 1st or the 3rd limb. Either way, they are of fundamental importance.
Physical Postures play 3 significant but different roles in the practice of yoga: 1) physical health, 2) energetic flow and 3) a seat for meditation.
The first purpose is physical health. This is the most common use of yoga postures. When the body is weak or ill, it is impossible for us to be content, happy or to make spiritual progress. If we want to be happy, we must first be healthy, so physical illness is the first obstacle we must overcome. In order to eradicate bodily illness and perfect bodily function, yogic physical practice is designed to heal each part of the body and make it strong. That is why it is such an effective form of what we might call "physical fitness." While many other forms of physical fitness, like running, lifting weights or swimming, focus on the muscular and cardiovascular systems, either ignoring or sacrificing other bodily systems like the joints, organs, circulatory, endocrine and nervous systems, yogic physical practice (ideally) exercises every inch of the body inside and out. This is the founding principle of Ghosh Yoga, the style that I practice most ardently.
Once the physical body is healthy and strong, the energetic body comes to life. The second purpose of Physical Postures is focusing and freeing the energetic flow. Like Tai Chi and QiGong, yoga postures create open pathways for the powerful energy that flows through the body. Usually this energy lies dormant because our stress inhibits it or our body is too weak to handle it. With yoga postures, we can awaken that energy and focus it. This leads to radiant physical health and emotional and intellectual insight and intuition.
The third and most ancient reason for yoga postures is meditation. When we meditate, we must sit still for long periods of time, and unless we are strong enough and aligned properly it is quite difficult. There are several postures in yoga designed specifically for sitting in stillness or preparing us to sit in stillness. These postures encourage good spinal alignment that draws our energy up the spine.
What is the right amount of effort? Should we try hard in our yoga practice, pushing our bodies and minds up to and then past their limits? Should we relax, exerting minimal effort and only pushing ourselves as far as is comfortable?
I am growing to believe that yes, yoga practice takes a tremendous amount of effort, just not in the ways we think. Our culture tends to think of effort as "working hard" and "pushing through." But in a yoga practice this creates distress in the mind, stiffness in the ego and separation between mind and body. While in the practice, our effort should have more ease, more patience, more stillness, gentle focus.
The tremendous effort required in yoga is long-term, in the form of persistence, patience and perseverance. We should practice often; we will never reach a point in our practice where we can stop. But it is easy to lose interest and move on to newer things just as our practice begins to reach the fruitful stages.
If we put our effort into perseverance, we know that we will be back tomorrow to try again, so there is no need to "push" our bodies. The effort is in the lifestyle, not the immediacy. The effort is in humility, not progress.
This morning while meditating I caught myself in a common thought pattern. I felt a shift in my body's energy and I noticed the mind-frame and the breathing that had brought it about. I thought to myself: "Remember this. Remember what you were thinking and how you were breathing. You can teach this to others."
Then I realized that this was my ego trying to turn self-awareness into something that can be harnessed and explained. It was my ego trying to turn an experience of humility and connection into a quality of superiority.
After noticing this, I remember how often during my practices I have this thought. "Remember this later so you can show somebody (how much you know)." All those times, it was my ego trying to control my practice and progress. My ego wants so much to be admired and respected.
I will try to let this go. To have realizations without holding on to them. To make progress without taking note of how much progress I've made.
Here is a blog by the founder of the American Yoga School James Brown entitled How Yoga Alliance Is Ruining Yoga.
The growing popularity of yoga makes fertile ground for businesses and pretenders. It is good that yoga is growing in awareness, and also bad. Brown's blog is interesting and worth reading.
Also here is Brown's more recent blog post, a follow up to the first. It is called Yoga Teacher Training Standards After Yoga Alliance.
The restraint of the modifications of the mind is Yoga.
Then the Self abides in Its own nature.
At other times the Self appears to assume the forms of the mental modifications.
- Sutras 1.2-4
Accepting pain as help for purification, study of spiritual books
and surrender to the Supreme Being constitute Yoga in practice.
- Sutras 2.1
It is easy to take a day off of our practice, whatever the practice may be. Our schedule may be busy, we may be tired, we may be stressed. We decide to skip a day, or two, or three. We are smart, mind-driven creatures who can easily come up with rationalizations for whatever we like.
But we are not staying the course. We are not committed. All these rationalizations are laziness, pure and simple.
It was put well in How Yoga Works by Roach and McNally:
"They are just plain laziness; laziness, don't call it anything more noble. Something else comes up, and the yoga takes a little effort, and time, and so you skip it. You don't really want to do it."
We can rationalize all we want, but we are just being lazy. We must decide what is important to us - how much do we want to progress in our physical or spiritual yoga practice (or any other practice)? If our practice is important, we must prove it by actually practicing regularly and not making excuses for our laziness.
In Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, Chapter 1, Verse 30, he writes about the obstacles that we encounter on the path to Realization. The 9th obstacle that he illuminates is "instability in maintaining a level of practice once attained."
When I first read this obstacle, I thought about it intellectually. "Yes," I thought, "I can see how one might struggle to maintain a level of practice (no matter how high the level). It could be laziness or a change of focus or a loss of interest."
I realize now that I struggle daily with this very obstacle.
I am quite focused and determined when I want to progress. I set my eye on a goal and I work toward it. In this way I can make progress quickly. But once I have achieved the goal, I soon lose interest. I set my sights on a new goal and work in a new direction. In this way, I often have trouble maintaining the levels of my practice. My attention wavers from goal to goal, forgetting that which I have worked hard to accomplish.
Depending on our individual constitutions, there are a few different paths we can take on our journey toward Self-Realization: Devotion, Action, Knowledge and Self-Control. These are different ways to get to the same place.
My path is the path of knowledge. I love to read, learn, question, try, hypothesize, learn more. My progress all comes from my knowledge as I slowly whittle away the untrue aspects of the world and zero in on what is true. For me, progress comes through knowledge.
If you have a different path, I would love to hear about it. The other paths do not come naturally to me, but I am quite curious.
I have heard many differing opinions on the value of Headstand. Some claim it to be one of if not the most important single posture. Others claim that it is dangerous and should be avoided. Here is what Sri K. Pattabhi Jois says about Headstand in his book Yoga Mala.
"Aspirants should note that merely putting the head down and legs up, and then standing upside down is not Headstand; very simply, this is wrong... The proper method for it must be carefully learned. For example, the entire body must stand upside down on the strength of the arms alone."
"Some say that practitioners should stay in this asana for only two to five minutes; otherwise, harm could come to them. It must be stressed, however, that this is not correct, as the following scriptural saying attests: 'We can dwell in Headstand for three hours'... To be able to stay in Headstand for three hours, an aspirant should begin by practicing it first for five, then ten, and then fifteen minutes, that is, he should gradually increase the time in the state of Headstand by increments of five minutes. In this way and by force of slowly practicing over many days, months, and years, an aspirant should be able to stay in the asana for a full three hours... However, if an aspirant stays in the state of Headstand for one to five minutes, or even less than a minute, he will not get the specified benefits."
In this, Headstand isn't much different from other postures. It can injure us if we do it improperly. But if we do it properly it will bring us health and strength.
He goes on to say that Headstand should always be the final posture in our practice. "Following Headstand, they should only sit in Padmasana [Lotus Pose] and do pranayama and the like, but no further asanas."
After coming out of Headstand, he says we should "rest with the buttocks on the heels and the head on the floor for two minutes."
Please do not take this entry to be an encouragement to start practicing Headstand for 3 hours a day. Like Pattabhi Jois says, we must be sure to do the posture correctly, with the guidance of a qualified teacher. Then we must have patience and perseverance to practice for months and years building our strength and endurance.
Every teacher has a different approach to the postures of their students. Some believe "I say Warrior 2, it is the student's responsibility to meet me there." Some believe that wherever we may land in a posture is the "perfect posture for that day." Some are meticulous about verbal cue-ing, telling the students specific bodily instructions like "rotate the hip slightly inward and push down through the outside corner of your back foot."
Each teacher also has a different philosophy about whether to do "hands-on assists" on the students. Some will push rather forcefully to get a student deeper into a posture. Others massage or lightly touch the students to help them relax or direct their focus. My personal philosophy is to do corrections, sometimes hands-on, but never assist.
It is difficult or impossible to tell where a student is at in their practice. Where are they focusing? Are they tight, sore or injured today? Are they trying something new? If we (teachers) assist their posture, we take them out of their own practice and demand that they do ours. Their focus gets drawn away from where they were and necessarily to where we are pushing or stretching them. I consider this to be contrary to the goals of teaching.
On the other hand, if a student is executing a posture in a way that will be damaging to his or her body, it is our duty to correct their form. We should insist upon correct technique and alignment to the best of the student's ability. (Sometimes weakness or tightness makes proper form impossible. In those cases, we can help steer the student in the right direction.)
I think the largest amount of responsibility for each person's practice lies within themselves. A teacher can illuminate new paths and guide the student away from pitfalls, but the work must be done by the student.
This journal honors my ongoing experience with the practice, study and teaching of yoga.
1) Sridaiva Yoga: Good Intention But Imbalanced
2) Understanding Chair Posture
2) Why I Don't Use Sanskrit or Say Namaste
3) The Meaningless Drudgery of Physical Yoga
5) Beyond Bikram: Why This Is a Great Time For Ghosh Yoga