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Full Expression: What is it Really, in the Context of Yoga?

Full Expression in Supta Padanghustasana?

Have you ever heard a yoga teacher invite you to take a pose to full expression? What comes to mind when you hear this? I’d wager that for most of us, we picture the most extreme expression of flexibility—one that we might see on Instagram or on the covers of yoga magazines. But given that yoga is not just about poses, in the larger context of Yoga, could “full expression” have another meaning?

Of course, asanas are the face of what we think of as yoga, at least in 21st-century America. But poses are just one of the technologies that we can practice to support yoga’s larger intention—the settling of the mind into silence. Rather than being about accomplishing amazing, awe-inducing feats of physical prowess, asana practice is about maintaining and healing the body in order to create a suitable environment for the mind to practice meditation.

The traditional poses that were handed down through the ages were mostly seated poses, likely designed to relax the legs and hips which serve as our foundation when we sit. Seated forward bends also cool the brain and nervous system. The more show-offy poses come from Western gymnastics, and were introduced to yoga when the British colonized India.

According to the Yoga Sutras, asana practice is mastered when “all effort is relaxed and the mind is absorbed in the Infinite.” So I’d like to propose a different definition of “full expression.” To me, full expression of an asana happens when we are aligned in a way that allows our structure to support us fully, rather than our having to squeeze muscles around our bones just to stay upright. Full expression arises in a pose when the wave our breath creates is free to move around the body. It also happens when we have invested our full attention into the sensations arising as we move and breathe in the pose. Full expression is not dependent on what a pose looks like. Full expression depends on our physical/mental/emotional investment into each moment of the living, breathing process that is asana practice, whether we are touching our nose to the floor in a seated forward bend, or whether we are sitting upright on a stack of blankets with a strap lassoed around our feet.

Anna Guest-Jelley of Curvy Yoga  suggests the term “individual expression” instead of “full expression.” It’s a lovely way to say it that gives us permission to express asana in a way that’s compatible with our unique genetics and physical habits—the multitude of variations in skeletal structures, body types and constitutions that make up the colorful palette of human physicality.

But we can all come to full expression within our unique physical/mental/emotional bodies, as long as we define the phrase in a wider way, one that’s truer to yoga’s intentions. When we invest ourselves completely in each passing moment of the ever-changing process that is asana, our practice becomes meditation. That is full expression.


About Charlotte Bell

Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice, published by Rodmell Press. Her second book, Yoga for Meditators (Rodmell Press) was published in May 2012. She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to schools and to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.

6 thoughts on “Full Expression: What is it Really, in the Context of Yoga?”

  • Suza Francina

    Beautifully expressed. Thank you!

  • Lisa

    As much as I agree with the traditional view of what yoga is really about, which is certainly defined here in an experienced and intelligent way, I am always a little put off by articles that suggest asana is so "irrelevant". No, I don't think mastery of "gymnastics" like poses are the purpose, but I do believe they are necessary for the journey. I know someone who meditates and rarely does yoga asana and complains about her hips and her knees.
    I personally have found asana to be an extremely important part of my spiritual growth and its in the balance between the intense challenging poses and the more restful, restorative asanas that I find my way to daily and realistically, fleeting moments of peace.
    With all due respect.
    An Asana Teacher

    • Charlotte Bell

      Thanks for your comment, Lisa. I hope my blog didn't make it sound as if I think asana is irrelevant. I've been practicing asana for 31 years now; I consider it a huge part of my practice. The nervous system equilibrium, along with the balance of strength and flexibility I've built into my body through asana practice is essential to my ability to meet my worldly commitments with at least some measure of grace. Sutra 2.48 is certainly in agreement with what you say above about asana helping you to find your way to moments of peace in your life. 2.48 says that when asana is mastered (in the definition I cite in the blog) "then we are no longer upset by the play of opposites." I believe that asana is so important as a companion to meditation that I wrote a book about it: Yoga for Meditators, published by Rodmell Press.

      I used to enjoy doing the gymnastic-type poses myself back in the day. Most of them are no longer healthy or balancing for my particular structure (excessively loose joints), so I don't practice them anymore. What I object to in the use of the phrase "full expression" is that it defines the "best" way to practice an asana in a way that excludes most of the population that practices. It just contributes to the idea that one can't really do yoga if you're not flexible, strong, thin, etc.

  • Dan Waterloo

    Considering myself a beginner yoga student, when I hear the term 'full expression', it has connotations of ‘what I am not doing’, which isn’t really what I want to think about when I’m in a pose. I do realize that further progress can be made in the pose, but if I am limited today by the state of my body (usually it is my muscles are tight, or I’m not strong enough, or …), I’d like to think that I am in my ‘full expression’ as is possible today. Tomorrow will probably be different.

    My general approach is that ‘showing up’ and doing an asana practice is a path that leads to improvement in my body, my nervous system, and my mind. With an intention to progress, I do need to know and feel that today’s physical limitations create a unique ‘personal full expression’ for me, and that the idea of ‘personal full expression’ changes each day.

    Yoga is a systematic way of developing improvements, eventually leading to a greater consciousness, which is perhaps one of the finest experiences that a human can have. Part of its beauty is that it is a subtle mix of physical and mental exercises that demand both an intention to improve, and an intention to be in the present as we are right now.

    Perhaps the phrase ‘full expression’ is related to intention to improve, but don’t let it distract from the intention to be in the present as we are right now.

  • Jessy

    Nice post. Thanks for sharing the information.

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