In a way we use words to create yoga postures. As an instructor I describe the way the student needs to move their body in order to create a form. As a student I listen to the instruction and then work to create that which has been described to me. We may supplement our understanding of a posture by reading about it or even watching videos and looking at other practitioners in the class. This is a mental process, a cognitive process, a logical and rational process. Essentially we are using words to build an idea, not dissimilar to a Platonic “essence.” And like a Platonic essence, the idea is not real, it never actually exists but we work to resemble it. Asana practice is an art, the medium we manipulate is the physical body. We manipulate the body to express an idea, like a painting or a sculpture.
In a more tangible way we create asanas by observing ourselves and making small adjustments to joint structure organization and muscle tensions. I encourage my students to give themselves a bit of freedom in their stillness. We recognize that stillness in a posture elicits the desired effects of an asana practice but the fact is, we are never completely still. The analogy I use is the calm pond on a summer morning. The water appears still as it is is highly reflective. Is this not the state of mind we seek, a stillness that reflects our essence back to us that we may observe and gain insight? Now, that water on the calm pond is NOT still, it is vibrating, spinning, weaving around in thermal currents, disturbed by fish swimming in the deeper layers. At certain times of year up here in Maine where I live the surface of that pond is much more still, it is frozen. The water becomes a solid crystalline structure. Do we ever do this? Nope. So the stillness we seek in asana practice is not exact or complete. At the very least we breathe and as we breathe we move. The movement of breath changes the pressure inside the body. The body is an elastic bag of mostly fluid. Fluid transmits pressure quite readily. In this way, the whole body breathes with the diaphragm. This is a valuable source of information, of insight. As we allow pressure to move throughout the body by adjusting alignment and muscular tension we experience sensory feedback, a window into a deeper understanding of the subtle alignments.
As guiding principles for this process I recommend that students look for stability, freedom of movement within their joint structures and calm abiding in their disposition. It is essential that the student focus their mind on breathing so that they may remain calm enough to bear witness to themselves within each moment, within each breath. It is this calm abiding that allows the student to carefully examine their body during the demands of the asana. Through careful observation, the student may invite variation into their methods, observe the consequence of that adjustment in terms of stability and freedom and then learn if that adjustment is appropriate or not. The body seeks stability and ease, so it is the student’s responsibility within asana to create stability and ease. Often we compensate for a lack of alignment or a lack of softness by over exerting muscle tension. This is why some postures at first are very exhausting. As we calm down, breathe more intentionally, make small adjustments in organization of joints and tension within muscles, we find that we feel stronger with less effort, more freedom in our range of motion and a few moments of true connection of body, mind, spirit, and breath. Self awareness through self dissolution. That is the nugget of profundity that makes the routine so worthwhile, and with practice those moments of transcendence multiply.
Now we need rules, to a degree. Structure is a valuable tool for learning. Culturally we are very rule based, very goal seeking and future oriented. These tendencies permeate in asana practice and distort the experience. We attach to the outcome and are not satisfied unless the posture looks a certain way. It is certainly helpful to have an idea about a posture, otherwise what are we doing in the yoga room anyway? Just remember to let go of the destination and enjoy the journey. Structure and play are inseparable compliments of whole. The yoga, the union, the self-realization occurs when we consciously harmonize these complimentary aspects of being. We work to harmonize the logical structural rules based element of an asana with the intuitive observational process based element of asana. We harmonize the mind and the heart, the Ha and the Tha.