By Jennie Williford
Pranayama Yoga Studio
Asana (the practice of yoga postures) is the most visible part of yoga and the thing that usually comes to mind when people think about yoga. But what is asana beyond a physical workout, and what is its purpose?
Sutras II. 46, 47 and 48 in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali state that “Asana is perfect firmness of body, steadiness of intelligence and benevolence of spirit. Perfection in asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached. From then on, the practitioner is undisturbed by dualities.”
BKS Iyengar has formulated a three-fold approach to asana focusing on precision, timing and sequencing to fulfill the purpose stated in the sutras. Iyengar’s method enables a practitioner to go beyond a physical workout to experience the deeper benefits of asana.
Iyengar classes are known for their detailed instruction and the holding of poses for longer periods of time, using props, if necessary, to achieve specific alignment and support. “Firmness of body and steadiness of intelligence” are nurtured through this precision of alignment and timing of poses.
BKS Iyengar states that “The technical details are not the complexities, but the intricacies. They provide the means to go beyond the peripheral physical body. Precision is an entry point to the deeper layers of being.”
The details of instruction are not given to confuse the mind with the anatomy of the body, but to draw the mind inward through the subtlety of alignment. Staying longer with sensitivity and focus prevents the mind from wandering, builds a firmness in the body from the outside in, and steadies the intelligence toward the self. This self-intelligence leads to self-knowledge, the ultimate goal of yoga.
Timing reinforces precision to help bring effortlessness to our efforts. Holding poses moves us beyond mere external stiffness and action and transforms initial quick-burst energy into stamina and stability. Over time, we develop asanas that feel more settled, steady and balanced. We are able to “be” in the pose instead of just “doing” the pose. We learn that timing has meaning beyond chronological minutes.
In the beginning, we may set an external timer, but as we mature and evolve in asana, we learn to watch the timer of our inner self.
“Timing is important from the point of view of creating and developing a circulation in the body, which is peculiar to that asana. When each cell is sensitive to being in the present, it is timing,” according to BKS Iyengar.
Through sequencing, the last of the three-fold Iyengar approach, the beauty and art lying latent in the practice of asana is uncovered. Just like any other art, a good sequence brings about the lightness and “benevolence of spirit” that we look for from our asana practice.
Sequencing does not mean simply that one pose follows another. It is the process that causes the effects of practice to accumulate at a deeper level.
Although we hold each posture individually, moving our awareness through a well-planned sequence of related poses takes us to a deeper state of quietude and equanimity.
According to BKS Ieyngar, “When each cell can flow harmoniously into the next moment, it is sequencing.”
So, what does it mean to be “undisturbed by dualities” in asana? How do we move away from the single-pointed focus on physical detail to the promised, all-encompassing sense of oneness? We can see the process simply in the experience of learning a pose. At the start, we focus the mind by means of physical instructions like “move your foot here,” “tuck your tailbone” or “extend your spine.” Once our physical alignment is steady, we experience more ease in a pose, our breath fills space more readily and our energy spreads more evenly. Our mind is able to move away from the disturbances of the external body and to come to a state in which it experiences the oneness of “being” in the pose, instead of the physical duality of “doing” the pose.
Of course, this requires time spent in study and in practice. But, despite the difficulties inherent in the attempt to quiet our mental fluctuations (the definition of yoga), the three-fold Iyengar method of precision, timing and sequencing can draw us nearer to the goal.
“Independently, they will be beneficial on one plane, but blended together, they will take the student on a different plane,” according to BKS Iyengar. So, though asana can be simply a great workout, it also offers access to a more profound experience on every plane of being.
(Quotes for this article come from a booklet commemorating an archival exhibit of BKS Iyengar’s life in celebration of his 90th birthday: Pune, India, December 2008.)
For more information about Pranayama Yoga Studio, visit www.yogarockford.com or call (815) 968-9642.
From the April 25-May 1, 2012, issue