Think yoga, and likely you’ll think of a person bending their body into a posture. You’ll imagine the cover of Yoga Journal and think, that’s yoga.
Except it’s not.
It’s one aspect of Yoga – Hatha Yoga, or physical yoga.
Yoga has many paths one can walk, including Bhakti Yoga, Raja Yoga, Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Tantra Yoga, Mantra Yoga… some of these paths don’t involve twisting and turning of the body at all, yet they are still yoga.
And to complicate things even more, when Patanjali wrote his 196 yoga sutras, laying out out to incorporate the science of yoga into your life, he specified eight separate aspects, of which asana is only one (and asana is only referred to once, in just two lines!).
Patanjali’s eight limbs are kind of like the road map which all of these yoga paths follow:
- Yamas – how you treat others and the world around you
- Niyamas – how you treat yourself
- Asana – physical postures
- Pranayama – breathing exercises
- Pratyahara – withdrawal of the senses. Pratyahara occurs during meditation, breathing exercises, or the practice of yoga postures — any time when you are directing your attention inward, and you don’t allow anything to distract you.
- Dharana – When you teach your mind to focus only on one thing, and time seems to cease. It’s effortless concentration.
- Dhyana – Uninterrupted meditation without an object is called dhyana. Concentration (dharana) leads to the state of meditation. The goal of meditation is not unconsciousness or nothingness. It is heightened awareness and oneness with the universe.
- Samadhi – This is pure contemplation, superconsciousness, in which you and the universe are one. Those who have achieved samadhi are enlightened. It is sometimes called the state of God-Union.
To further complicate matters, these eight aspects of yoga don’t occur in order, or independently of each other, but are totally intertwined. The last four are all aspects of asana, or pranayama, or meditation, or eventually, just day to day living.
So if one is practicing physical postures without adhering to the yamas and the niyamas, without practicing pranayama or pratyahara, and without being aware of moving toward Dharana, Dhyana or Samadhi… is one practicing yoga?
One is doing gymnastics.
Yet, if one is doing no physical postures at all, one can still be practicing yoga, like Karma Yoga. Karma Yoga is the path of action in the world. It is the path that great yogis like the Buddha walked. Karma Yoga is acting in accordance with one’s Dharma (path) with no thought of reward or attachment.
Therefore, without being attached to the fruits of activities, one should act as a matter of duty, for by working without attachment one attains the Supreme – Bhagavad Gita
So in the West, where people get stuck into postures with great passion and commitment, yet fail to take their yoga off the mat, or properly understand that yoga is a science of life that leads one to the absolute… not much yoga is really happening at all.
Yep – Asana practice is totally over-rated.
It feeds our ego – Look at me! I’m so strong, flexible, fit… I can balance in headstand, crow, handstand… Asana practice makes us feel good, like we’re achieving something. We keep practicing and adding new and wonderful postures to our repartoire, and our identity becomes infused as ‘One who does Yoga’. Pride enters the picture, and attachment to results.
There are other reasons for this Western focus on asana of course. Asana is a visual representation of something – it’s very hard to visually represent Karma, or Dharana, or Dhyana. Even an image of someone sitting in meditation looks… well, boring. Yoga Journal can show endless asana on the cover, but to show people meditating or doing pranayama just wouldn’t have the same Wow factor (although it does happen occasionally).
Asana is often the gateway into Yoga practice, so more people cluster here. Unless one finds a teacher that understands the eight limb path, and teaches it in class, how are you supposed to know there is more to yoga practice than just contorting your body?
As teachers, we can struggle to work out how to impart the wide-range of Yoga philosophy and psychology within the constructs of an asana class. Sometimes even taking the time to teach pranayama or meditation can be difficult, because it’s a longer, slower process and class times are tight. One wants to pack as much as possible into that hour, or 90 minutes.
Besides, how many students come to class looking for a way to merge with the Divine? Most come just wanting to be able to touch their toes, or rehabilitate an injury, or lose weight, or get stronger. If they wanted God, they’d be in church right?
And those teaching yoga in the West… how many teachers have learned more than just the physical postures? Their study may have included reading about or hearing about the Eight Limbs, and perhaps even some discussion around the other yogic paths, but how many teachers actually integrate these teachings into their lives? How many teachers are observing the yamas or the niyamas? How many have a regular pranayama or meditation practice? What is their interaction like with the people in their lives?
It is far easier to learn asana in order to teach, than it is to integrate all these other aspects of yoga and teach those. It’s very difficult, or even impossible, to teach something that one doesn’t live.
In Wellington, one of my favourite teachers who does have a broad grasp of all the other paths of yoga, and the eight limbs, is Tyag of Satyananda Yoga. At his last Kirtan session (Bhakti Yoga), he was the one that came out with the headline for this article;
Asana is a totally over-rated part of yoga
Later he told me from his view at the front of the class, he saw people’s jaws drop. Literally. Even though people were there to meditate and chant mantra, for most of them, asana is the central part of their practice. The concept that asana is totally over-rated was challenging.
Because if asana is over-rated, what is a yoga practice supposed to be like?
For a start, try adding meditation, or pranayama. These two practices can be more challenging for the mind, but they can also be far more transformative and powerful than just asana practice. Regularly working with all three will give you a solid, well-rounded yoga practice.
Next, learn the yamas and the niyamas. I discuss the application of the yamas in this article here – Day 1 to 15: Forty Day Sadhana of Infinite Energy and Prosperity Meditation. Yamas are the way we interact with other people and the world. It’s not about what we should or shouldn’t do, but about understanding the results of our actions and the karma created, and choosing to act in ways that don’t create more karma, nor results we don’t want.
The niyamas are about how we behave toward ourselves, they describre actions and attitudes that help overcome the illusion of separation and the suffering it causes. The five niyamas are: purity (saucha); contentment (santosa); austerity (tapas); self-study (svadhyaya); and devotion to the Lord (isvara pranidhana).
Lastly, spend some time learning about the other yogic paths – find out about karma yoga and consider how you could be mindful of that path in your life. Study yogic texts and apply yourself to the jnana path. Go try Kirtan and learn about Bhakti. Be curious, explore, talk to your yoga teacher and see what they can suggest.
There is a whole world of yoga out there, just waiting for you to discover.
And if you disagree (or even if you agree) that asana is an over-rated part of yoga practice, let me know in the comments below.