Ashtanga Yoga: Asana and Pretzel Yoga

Yoga as Life — By on March 1, 2009 12:30 PM
by Miriam Stollar
Do you ever ask yourself, ‘What, really, is this?!’ as you twist or turn into a yoga position that has your body trying to remind you that you really aren’t meant to be reborn as a pretzel?
In the last two issues of Yoga Bean, we started discussing the first two of the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga, or the eight-branched spiritual path of yoga.  Before continuing with the third branch, let’s review the first two. 
The first five Yama, we can remind ourselves, were Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya, Aparigraha.  While these are commonly translated today as non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, celibacy- generally taken as right sexual conduct-, and non-covetousness, yoga followers are encouraged to learn the precise meanings through the Sanskrit terms.
The next five, the Niyama, were Sauca, Santosha, Tapas(ya), Svardhaya, Ishvaripranidhana.  Again, today commonly translated as cleanliness, contentment, austerity, spiritual study, and surrender of self, these are best understood in their Sanskrit terms.
So now we come to the third branch of Ashtanga Yoga, the branch that is assumed by many to be the center of yoga, Asana- or physical posture.  All physical postures of yoga fall under this third limb of Ashtanga Yoga, or, Asana. 
While many people assume yoga asana, or physical practice, to be the central or only practice of yoga, and flexibility to be its goal, Asana is, in fact, as Yama and Niyama, a beginning preparatory step, one that may even be discarded by yogis when it is no longer necessary for the path.  The practice of Asana is primarily to maintain a healthy and balanced body which facilitates the meditation and concentration needed to progress on the spiritual path.  The deepest benefits of yoga asana are on the hormonal level, aiming at energizing the listless person, calming the hyperactive body/mind, and gladdening the depressive mind.  The practice of Asana works simultaneously on the physiological and psychological levels, creating the physical and mental states most conducive for meditative concentration, insight, and bliss.
While yoga practice is most often imagined as intricate and spectacular body twists and turns, the word ‘asana’ in fact comes from the word ‘asan,’ or ‘easy.’  A yoga asana, or posture, is a position in which we should feel at ease.  This may even be just plain sitting.  The essence of an asana is not the posture itself, but how it is done.  The mastering of an asana means to achieve a feeling of ease in that position, an ease both of body and of mind, whether it is the most intricate and difficult position, or a simple sitting or standing.
Daily asana practice is a wonderful way to maintain health, regulate imbalances of the body, and rejuvenate and refresh the body and mind.  It should be remembered, at the same time, that sensational flexibility is not the goal of yoga.  At its deepest level, Asana works through the fulcrum of the hormonal system, which in yoga is both the physiological key through which both body and mind can be regulated, and, through this same key, the  door to the hidden wisdom of esoteric yoga. 
Pranayama, the fourth branch of Ashtanga Yoga, is where this key opens the door linking physiological practice and esoteric yoga.  Its hidden wisdom is the practice of learning to control the hormonal system at will, through control of the body.
Enjoy your asana, and, whether doing a simple stretch, or twisting like a pretzel, balancing all your body on one finger, or even just sitting or standing, remember to aim for that feeling of ease! 
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