Over the years, countless people have asked me what benefits my students feel when they practice asana. A quick Google search on the benefits of yoga (i.e., asana) yields an astounding 45,400,000 listings. While I confess that I did not get much past the first page of the list, the sampling I read largely listed physical and physiological benefits—flexibility, increased muscle tone, weight loss, stress relief, and of course, the much-touted “yoga butt.”
It is quite true that these benefits—and many more—can be experienced through asana practice. However pleasant these benefits might be, they are secondary at best, and are meant to serve the deeper benefits of asana practice. According to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the primary benefit of asana practice is far more extraordinary and life-changing than any of these.
Sutra 2.48, as translated by Alistair Shearer, states that once the practice of asana is mastered—and I will define “mastery” according to the sutras later in this article—we are “no longer upset by the play of opposites.” T.K.V. Desikachar explains this further in his translation: “When these principles are correctly followed, asana practice will help a person endure and even minimize the external influences on the body such as age, climate, diet and work.”
We all are subject to the play of opposites in our lives. This is the very reason that the Buddha claimed human birth to be such a precious opportunity for evolution. Living as a human being gives us ample opportunity to experience the pain that can lead us to deeper inquiry. But we also have the capacity for great pleasure, a quality that softens the pain we will inevitably face. When pleasure and pain appear alternately in our lives, we are better equipped to meet gain and loss, praise and blame, fame and disrepute—qualities that everyone will experience countless times in our lives.
Asana and the Nervous System
How can a physical practice help us to develop the mental/emotional stability that allows us to remain balanced no matter what difficulties we might face? What asana does best is relax the nervous system. The slow, gentle movements of asana practice, combined with relaxed, deep breathing, help us shift from the sympathetic (fight or flight) side of our autonomic nervous system to the parasympathetic (rest and digest) side. When our physical bodies are at ease, our minds have a harmonious place to dwell.
In 21st-century America, most of us spend a great deal of our time in our sympathetic nervous system—working long hours and scheduling ourselves so that we leave no time for such “non-productive” practices as relaxing. When we do decide to relax, we often entertain ourselves with intense, adrenaline-pumping TV shows and films. We like our music loud and fast. As a culture, we’re “sensation junkies,” as I once heard meditation teacher Sylvia Boorstein put it. Constant stimulation makes us feel alive.
We avoid quiet. Silence brings up a different—and much more unsettling—type of noise. When we quiet our outer world, the normally neglected voices of our inner world speak up—often with a megaphone. Their message is not always pleasant, and it is quite often humbling, challenging our ideas of who we are. No wonder we love to drown out the cacophony.
Asana offers us a way to walk through the chaos of our inner and outer worlds with grace. We learn to be present with whatever comes our way with acceptance and curiosity—neither clinging nor resisting.
Resting in Asana
Asana means rest. Moving slowly and mindfully in asana practice allows us to become aware of the subtle sensations—physical, energetic, emotional and mental—usually obscured by our frantic lives. As we gain access to the pleasures of subtle sensation, we can unhook ourselves from the need for ever-more extreme stimulation. As we detach from our addiction to stimulation, we drop into pratyahara, often defined as “retirement of the senses.”Most of us have experienced pratyahara in savasana—in those times when you’re aware of sounds and sensations around you, but remain undisturbed by them. In the scheme of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, pratyahara is the bridge between the physical and meditative practices.
The Yoga Sutras tell us exactly how to practice for pratyahara and the wider equanimity that follows. Sutra 2.46 is the first of the three yoga sutras concerned with asana. Alistair Shearer translates this as: “The physical posture is steady and comfortable.” Other translations are quite similar, using such opposite companion concepts as “firm and soft,” “steady and easy,” and “alert and relaxed.” Judith Hanson Lasater, Ph.D., translates this verse as “Abiding in ease is asana.”
How do we fit this concept into our practice? And how does it lead us to be undisturbed by the play of opposites in our lives? For me, the concept of steadiness implies a resolve to abide in a pose over a period of time. In this definition, steadiness in asana yields physiological and psychological benefits. On the physiological level, when we stretch a muscle, it takes 30 seconds for it to habituate to a longer-than-usual length. Before 30 seconds, the spinal cord sends a message to the muscle’s motor neurons to protect it by shortening it. Psychologically, if we never stay in a pose long enough to explore and make peace with the discomfort that can arise, how can we expect to find the equanimity to remain undisturbed by the difficulties in our lives?
For the first seven years of my practice, Paschimottanasana (the simple seated forward bend) filled me with intense fear. The fear was profound and primal; the pose felt suffocating. Every time I practiced I would take myself just to the edge of the fear before letting the pose go, a process that usually took about 15 seconds. One day I resolved to stay in the pose no matter what happened. The fear turned to intense panic, but I remained steady and continued to soften my body and mind around the anxiety. After several minutes, the fear dissipated. It has never returned.
Steady and Comfortable
Sutra 2.46 asks us to remain steady in our resolve, to hold our poses long enough and mindfully enough that we become acquainted and possibly even make friends with the discomfort that arises. We achieve this by breathing into and softening around the difficulty. While we may often employ the strategy of coming out of a pose at the first sign of discomfort, we just as often create even more stress by meeting discomfort with aversion and/or trying to muscle our way through it. The latter response often leads to injury. Balanced effort is not too tight, not too loose. When we stay in a pose long enough to relax into difficulty, we uncover the subtle energies that lie underneath the gross, surface levels of sensation. The longer we practice in this way, we cease to feel a need for extreme levels of stimulation to feel alive. Not only do we find more balance in our lives, but when we abide in ease in our asana practice, we move toward what the Sutras define as mastery.
According to Shearer’s translation, Sutra 2.47 says, “[Asana] is mastered when all effort is relaxed and the mind is absorbed in the Infinite.” Barbara Stoler Miller, in her book, The Discipline of Freedom, offers my favorite translation:“It is realized by relaxing one’s effort and resting like the cosmic serpent on the waters of infinity.”
Mastery of an asana, according to the sutras, has nothing to do with our level of performance. Whether we can perform a straight-armed backbend or hop across the room in chatturanga dandasana is irrelevant. Asana is mastered when we recognize our asana as complete in each moment, regardless of whether it bears any resemblance to our own or the wider yoga culture’s idealized concepts of what it should be. Mastery can happen in any moment, in any pose, no matter what we look like. The trick is to let go of ambition and expectation.
In this interpretation of mastery, we abide within our calm center as we practice asana. It is the same center that allows us to stay at ease, flexible and creative in the face of all the many peaks and valleys we will traverse in our lives. It is this balance of mind that allows us to remain peaceful and open in the face of pleasure and pain, gain and loss, praise and blame and fame and disrepute.
I once heard Judith Hanson Lasater say that she hoped people wouldn’t say at her funeral, “We loved her so much. Her hamstrings were so loose.” Judith, like most of us, would rather be remembered for wisdom and compassion. Judith’s practice is about what she calls “big Yoga,” the Yoga that we live in all the moments of our lives, not just when we’re practicing asana. Asana is one step along the way, an invaluable gift to all who practice in its ability to point us in the direction of graceful living.
This doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the physical benefits such as flexibility and balanced muscle tone. Please do enjoy them and all the other nice sensations you feel during and after your practice. But keep in mind the inspiring possibilities that lie beyond the simple physical benefits of practice. Remember that mastery depends less on what you do than what you are willing to stop doing. Let your practice bring grace to each moment of your life.