Asana as a way to meditation
No secret, that concept of “Yoga” made a way from describing philosophy and a lifestyle of a limited group of people to a very vague term for any physical activity as long you are using a rubber mat, performing asanas and, of course, saying Namaste at the end.
We all have preferred way to perceive information: somebody getting more experience through the touch and move, somebody through listening or singing/speaking. So, before diving into the yoga, of course, it would be perfect to determine: what is your type and what that you want to gain from this practice. Otherwise, it’s easy to get lost in the forest of all kind of yogas. If you are very “down to earth” like most of us: living in the city, taking care about the family, having a daily routine - it’s probably not a good idea to start from hours of chanting mantras in Sanskrit language or sign up for Vipassana course without any practice beforehand. Of course, we all seeking something higher, deeper and more meaningful than just build up our bodies, even if we are not fully aware of that. And, of course, we all have an ability and inner knowledge to get there. But we cannot rise up from the marble floor of Taj Mahal, if we accidently fall down into the mud… Can we? Maybe only if it happened in our dream. In real life for most of us easier to get necessary information and experience through the certain sensations of the physical body. The question is: can the physical practice can pave the road to meditation?
Iyengar once said: “The asana begins the moment you want to come out of it”. Unfortunately, today there are many yoga practitioners who hasn’t been even given a chance to reaching this moment. Because of the popularity of Vinyasa Flow, yoga now has an association with student being in the pose for maybe 5-10 seconds and then move again, and again, and again. Somehow if sweat pooring from you and you breathing heavily after the class means you did a great job! There is nothing wrong with this “style”, per se, but there is only one way to be safe during your practice – know what you are, actually, doing and what are you doing it for. How it’s affecting your body, your mind and your emotions; how your breath and your experience in pose interconnected; how by being an observer you can train your mind through the physical body and how to take your practice on the subtle levels? A bit too much to consider if you have only 5 seconds, isn’t it?
The very initial idea of asana is to prepare body for the seated meditation. Nothing fancy, you are training your body as long as you need, so then its strong enough to keep you in upright position and allowing you to practice Samyama (from Sanskrit संयम saṃ-yama—holding together, tying up, binding, integration). Combined simultaneous practice of Dhāraṇā (concentration), Dhyāna (meditation) & Samādhi (union). A tool to receive deeper knowledge of qualities of the object) without being distracted on the physical discomfort.
Why then we need asana, why don’t do some gym workout and call it a day?
Very often I see the yoga practicioners who can perform different asanas, move really fast, look fit and athletic, but struggle to sit in Sukhasana (crossed-legged pose) even for a few seconds. Their spines round, diaphragm blocked, they distracted, bored and just all over the place. It’s happening only because after quite short period of time, when the untrained contracted muscle is not getting enough oxygen it gives up and switching on another muscles and it’s happening till all muscles are fatigued and rest needed.
People have two general types of skeletal muscle fibers: slow-twitch (type I) and fast-twitch (type II). Slow-twitch muscles help enable long-endurance feats, while fast-twitch muscles fatigue faster but are used in powerful bursts of movements like sprinting. Slow muscle fibers are something what we want to train to eventually sit in a lotus posture with a straight spine for a long time taking our yoga from Hatha to Raja level. To train those muscles movements should be done SLOW with intensity NOT MORE than 60% from your maximum. Otherwise, you will immediately engage your fast-twitch muscles (which is causing tremor in the muscles).
But if we are moving mindfully without rush, contracting the muscle and holding posture for a while (depend on the level of your practice), we are transforming the muscle fiber, changing the amount of capillaries, mitochondrions and myoglobin , so, eventually, slow-twitch muscles started to hold our body without using as much oxygen as it was before.
And, of course, in yoga the work is never happening only on the physical plane. As soon as we are giving enough time for asana to unfold it’s potential, your inner voice chime in: “I probably look stupid! What’s even the point of such a long hold? I am sure I should move to the next shape! I am tired! I am too weak… and that can go on, and on, and on. And as much you will be forcing and pushing as louder this voice will be screaming at you. The thing is, that certain type of meditation already starting here. You are taking certain stimuli (physical in our case) and starting to go deeper in the details, aspects and nature of it. Asana by itself is just the shape, embodiment of certain energy, pattern, yantra. mantra and all what you need to do is put your body in the asana and watch, listen, observe and witness. Witness and embrace anything what might come up for you. This is the first step to profound healing. By noticing what kind of postures put you in the emotional pain, uneasiness, make you struggle and want to quit – you will gain so much information about what are you holding on to what doesn’t serve you anymore and has to be released.
Can you get to the point when there won’t be practitioner? Where will be nobody DOING asana but asana itself. It’s neither fancy neither hard – its fact. All of the stamps your mind put on it being dissolve by witnessing. And here the silence and stillness coming to play. And from this point you can be in asana for a very long time, because you are not holding anymore, asana is existing without your help. And when it happens – pranayama begins. But it’s another story…
Yogic asanas is just a tool rather than the ultimate goal. You not necessary have to aim for the meditation practice or for experiencing Samadhi (state of meditative consciousness). If you came to the practice with the certain earthly problem: let’s say, uncontrollable aggression, and have no clue what exactly to do, but deciding to try a little bit of everything. Because yoga is the magic pill, right? After some time you can perform a beautiful handstand or perfect split, but it’s not necessary going to help to deal with your anger issue neither it will make you happier human being. To make your practice useful, effective and powerful – have patience and desire to learn, to explore, to be open. Know that the “medicine” is never sweet, pleasant or immediate. It can be simple, boring, it can take time, but being used wisely - it can give you a tremendous benefits on the physical, emotional and spiritual planes.