by Monica Arellano
There seems to be lot of asana obsessed talk surrounding this practice. Its such a relevant topic since the first thing we are taught to observe is our body. But it is so easy to become obsessed with asana and forget about the other limbs. We practice asana because it’s a good starting point. It’s something tangible to work with. They are ultimately there to support an inward journey when we approach this as a spiritual practice. The postures become the field of energy to observe and then breath, dristhi and bandhas add another dimension to keep us going inwards. The moments when I find myself here are so delicious. There’s a softness in the mind, a letting go of a goal and settling into the present that just feels right. Many times though, I get too focused on only the asana and the work stays in the external. Some tools I’ve used to help me redirect my focus towards the internal are: understanding WHY I get fixated on the external and knowing that its ok to sometimes get stuck here. When I understand the reasons for my tendencies, it’s possible to transform them.
The external is where we function most of our day, and most of our life. In the external and gross. On the things we don’t need so much attention to notice or so much sensitivity to feel. In practice, we are asked to go against our deeply engrained patterns and look inwards. It’s a constant redirection of focus for me to tune into the more subtle. It requires more attention than I’ve used to get by in my daily life. But that’s why it’s a practice, so that hopefully we can use this type of attention more often in our daily life. We can learn something in the process of questioning and changing the patterns that determine so much of how we live.
Because of this external perspective where I am most comfortable and function most of the day, I can often be more concerned with how I look to the person next to me or to my teacher, rather than focused on what’s going on beneath the surface. There’s a natural tendency to want to work on the things that can be evaluated from an external & obvious standpoint- simply by noticing what the body is physically capable of. On the other hand, there won’t be any immediate visible proof that I am making progress in the practice when I have a moment of insight from tuning into the energy moving between the asanas. I always have to ask myself- what am I considering as progress in the practice? It’s much easier to only consider the external.
When expressing progress, It’s so easy to get caught up on asana for the sake of physical capabilities. It’s a clear benchmark of where we are in the practice. What asanas can you do? But how much does that really matter? Is it working in your life and making you a better person? It’s made me a better person, happier & calmer. But is that a focus in my daily life- to be conscious of the effect my thoughts, actions and words have on the world around me and on the world inside me- on and off the mat? I think the awareness cultivated in the practice makes this possible.
Progress in being a better person and making even a small difference in the world (which are hopefully results of practicing all the limbs) are not immediately recognizable qualities when you see someone can put their leg behind their head. Another question comes up- why do we put effort into our practice? We are taught that we should not be attached to the fruits of our actions, in other words we shouldn’t put effort in for the sole purpose of being able to put our leg behind our head as soon as possible. It’s the work of non-attachment, and it can start with asana. When we put effort towards observing our present internal world, and our effort isn’t for the sake of some future goal, then we will accept what our asana looks like on the outside with equanimity. On a larger scale, we are hopefully becoming better people through the practice because it makes the world as a whole a better place not because we will appear to be a certain type of person in the world or because we will receive recognition for it by someone- not for the sake of the fruits of our actions. If our asana practice remains in the external, this a hard quality to live by.
On the other hand, I think maybe it’s okay that sometimes I’m really into the asana, the physical aspect of practice. It is so attractive to be able to do all these physical things that I originally thought would never be possible in my body. There are days when I don’t have the motivation on my own to practice, much less to practice with the right intention, so I reach for alternative sources of energy. Sometimes it’s for the sake of my teacher or their approval, sometimes it’s to be entertained by what my body is capable of. Other times it’s simply to maintain a healthy body, or relieve some tension, which are very beneficial for any path. Many times there’s no reason other than I said I would, I made the commitment to.
On the mat, there’s a constant struggle between working where there’s depth and staying in the superficial. But I guess that’s what the practice is here for- as a place where I can consistently come back to values that I want to uphold and a space to put those values to work so they hopefully become a part of who I am. It’s a space where my intentions can manifest in a real way. When I avoid pains in the body by ignoring and pushing through them in practice, I also endure suffering off the mat that I experience through the actions of others. I chose to listen to the pains and move differently in the practice and I started making the effort to not allow others cause me pain for their own benefit, by moving differently around them. I found a new way of being in both situations. It’s always a work in progress, but a new awareness was able to take root from focusing my attention inwards.
One of the rare gifts that asana gives us is the opportunity to get out of our heads, out of the past and future, and into our bodies, our present. By involving our minds too much into the asana that gift can be lost, and we easily forget why we got into this practice in the first place. Because it works, and takes us to a place far beyond anything that can be evaluated by the shapes we make; beyond anything we can see with our eyes or explain with our words. When we take the gift of asana and put it into a sincere practice with a focus on learning about ourselves and our world – that is the heart of this practice.