“Steadiness and happiness–[that is] āsana.”
Āsana, or posture (literally, “sitting”), is the third of the eight limbs of Patañjali’s yoga. In early usage, it specifically meant the seat that a practitioner would take to meditate. Over time, its sense expanded to include a large variety of body positions and movements that invite attention and inward awareness.
The thirteenth-century Hatha Yoga text Viveka Mārtaṇḍa states, “There are as many āsanas as there are species of living things.” (Viveka Mārtaṇḍa, verse 10.) The allusion to the natural world is important: often named after animals (dog, crow, frog, eagle, horse…) or plants (tree, lotus…), āsanas form a bridge for us to the natural world and our membership in it. They encourage body experience and awaken the senses. In āsana practice, we experiment with gravity by balancing and inverting; we explore the dimensions of space vertically, horizontally, saggitally; we play with forces and enact shapes that expand our sense of self and open possibility.
Geeta Iyengar, the daughter of B.K.S. Iyengar, writes that the āsanas are “seemingly physical,” and I believe she means by this that the mental and the spiritual are expressed in the physical. We move our bodies and we affect our minds.
Yoga–as it is practised today by millions around the world–often begins with the practice of āsana. It is a practice that, though probably influenced by nineteenth- and twentieth-century forms of gymnastics and other movement, has various and deep roots that include the Hatha Yoga of the thirteenth- to fourteenth-centuries, Tantra (100 CE – 1300 CE), the classical yoga of Patañjali (100-400 CE), and the earlier Upaniṣads and Bhagavad Gītā (dating back as far as 2500 BCE). (For a clear description of the literary sources of yoga, see Georg Feuerstein’s The Deeper Dimension of Yoga, pp. 64-69.) What many contemporary practitioners recognize as yoga (a practice referred to by some scholars as “modern postural yoga”) has been significantly shaped by the teaching of T.M. Krishnamacarya and his students B.K.S. Iyengar, K. Patabhi Jois, and T.K.V. Desikachar.
I was introduced to yoga in a New York Soho studio in 1988, when Iyengar teachers Judy Freedman and Peentz Dubble demonstrated Caturāṅga Daṇḍasana, a pose in which the torso hovers, crocodile-like, a few inches off the ground. It was eerily non-physical (as Geeta Iyengar suggests) and physical at once. Clearly, the pose took strength. But it took a kind of release of strength as well, a suspension of disbelief, an integration of being. I was entranced–and I began the practice from that day.
B.K.S. Iyengar has declared that all eight limbs of Patañjali’s yoga are implicit in the first Tadāsana a student does. He is a champion of āsana and of the significance, the impact, of “body knowledge” on every being.
In this first and very lovely sūtra of the three sūtras in which Patañjali describes āsana, he says that āsana is sthira-sukham, steadiness and happiness. We can interpret this to mean that āsana is an expression of these two qualities and/or that āsana brings them. Either way, they are integral to the purpose, the essence of āsana.
Sthira, “steadiness,” derives from the verbal root sthā, “to stand,” which not only is cognate with the English “stand,” but as in English connects to a family of words with related meanings–steadiness, stability, strength. To come to stand is an underlying theme of the Yoga Sūtras. In sūtra I.3, Patañjali states that the purpose of yoga is to bring one to “stand in the identity of the seer” (tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe avasthānam). Words derived from sthā weave in and out of the text (see I.35 and II.28 as examples). But to get a fuller sense of the importance and beauty of the idea of coming to stand in the self, we might turn to the Bhagavad Gītā:
sthita-prajñasya kā bhāṣā
[she who is] steady of wisdom, what description [would you give]
[she who is] steadfast in samādhi, O Kriṣna,
sthita-dhīḥ kim prabaśeta
steady in thought–how does she speak,
kim āsīta vrajeta kim
how sit, how move?
— Bhagavad Gītā, II.54
There are three words in this verse that derive from sthā, forming a kind of chorus of emphasis: the yoga endeavor is steadiness of consciousness, stability of mind and emotions. This inner standing is reflected in our embodiment, and vice-versa–the body that stands, that establishes itself in gravity and space, supports the inner being.
But āsana is not just steadiness; it is also sukha–happiness, sweetness, mobility, ease. Āsana, like the body itself, is not meant to be hard or fixed. As Meister Eckhart says, “The path is beautiful and pleasant and joyful and familiar.” (Meditations with Meister Eckhart, edited by Matthew Fox.) Perhaps it is a surprise that a path of discipline is a joyful path–that a steadiness of purpose might also be light and pleasant–that, as we approach the heart of things, we learn to be, in Mary Oliver’s words, “that wild and loving.”
I had a dog
who loved flowers.
Briskly she went
through the fields,
for the honeysuckle
or the rose,
her dark head
and her wet nose
of every one
with its petals
with its fragrance
into the air
where the bees,
heavy with pollen
not in the serious
that we choose
this blossom or that blossom—
the way we praise or don’t praise—
the way we love
or don’t love—
but the way
we long to be—
in the heaven of earth—
that wild, that loving.
–Mary Oliver, “Luke”
“[The] process of relaxing the brain is achieved through āsana. We generally think of mind as being in our head. In āsana our consciousness spreads through the body, eventually diffusing in every cell, creating a complete awareness. In this way stressful thought is drained away, and our mind focuses on the body, intelligence, and awareness as a whole. This allows the brain to be more receptive, and concentration becomes more natural. How to keep the brain cells in a relaxed, receptive, and concentrated state is the art that yoga teaches.” –B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life, p.15
“The seemingly physical āsanas have a great potential to change the behavioral pattern of the practitioner, which in turn changes the mental stature, enabling the practitioner to proceed further and remain on the spiritual path. This systematic classification is based on the anatomical structure and function of the body and a sequential progression of movement. It brings a progressive activation of the internal body so that one penetrates through the outer body to the inner one, and again, through the body and the mind to excavate the hidden energy of one’s very existence, to reach the source of being, the Soul.” –Geeta Iyengar, Yoga in Action, Preliminary Course, p.11
• How does stability and strength in the body affect your mind and attitude? When you have suffered injury, feel tired, stiff, weak, or unbalanced, what is the effect on your mind and spirit?
• Do you cultivate ease in your practice? A sense of play or fun? Love?
• Has yoga brought you greater stability in your consciousness? How would you describe that? What does it feel like, for you?
• What has āsana practice taught you about sukha (happiness, ease, delight)? What have you learned about duhkha (pain) through āsana practice?
neuter noun in compound
steady (from sthā, “to stand)
neuter noun, 1st case singular
happiness, ease (from su, “good,” + kha, “axle hole, space”)
neuter noun, 1st case singular
posture (from ās, “to sit”)