Something about Asana
In my ongoing attempts at self-inquiry (Svadhyaya) and non-dogmatism I have cycled between and blended traditional yoga asana (poses) and innovative, out-of-the-box forms and movement practices. Physical injuries (my own and others') and changing bodily conditions have often led me to seek out yoga teachers who are more likely to be out of the mainstream.
Following some of these mavericks on social media and web platforms, I have recently found myself asking at what point do these new takes on asana stop being asana--the specialized forms which have historical and spiritual roots in India. It has been well argued that asana themselves are hybrids, and there may not be anything inherently pure within their outer shapes. And yet they function as a kind of app or transistor, part of a sacred geometry through which something that might be grace enters. Participating in the conscious deconstruction of traditional poses is fun and feels good, but at some point it feels to me likes it has morphed into exercise, or fitness. Does adding breath and mindfulness to what outwardly looks like calisthenics upgrade it to asana? And wait, does healthy and fun movement need to be upgraded anyway?
Tirthas is a Sanskrit word sacred meaning "crossings", described in the early Vedas and Upanishads. In ancient times literally a place to ford a river, part of the sacred geography of India, more broadly it is "a place of spiritual crossing, where the gods are close and the benefits of worship generous". (7, Eck, Diane, India: A Sacred Geography, New York: Three Rivers Press, 2012) In The Mahabharata, pilgrims are spoken of as becoming tirthas themselves. The body itself becomes the crossing.
Do we lose something as we try to give the body variability, progressive loading, controlled range of motion, healthy and novel motor patterns, greater functionality and sustainability both on and off the mat? Is it enough to down-regulate the nervous system, achieve self-regulation of one's mood and emotional-mental states, find healthy and free breathing patterns? Do we lose something, or does the tirtha expand as we more fully inhabit our bodies?
If it is true, to paraphrase Leslie Kaminoff, that the vast majority of people get the most benefit from the simplest movements, why do we need to pursue complex asana? I recently attended a Soma Yoga class which contained very little that could be recognized as a classical pose we call asana. And yet the extremely subtle movement of the spine, the shoulders, the hips--and the way in which the teacher invited us to spread awareness through the body--was nothing if not yoga, and yoga of a most profound sort.
In a recent Mindful Strength podcast interview by Kathryn Bruni Young, Jules Mitchell said, "Look at what your practice is doing for you, but be honest about what it's not doing, and add that into your life". For me, this is such an important statement. If our life is rich with movement, our yoga practice doesn't have to be everything. It can't be. Lately I am interested in reigning my yoga asana practice in a bit towards tradition, a bit towards simplicity, and in offering that possibility to students for their own self-inquiry, their own investigation and discernment.
Is the body the crossing? Has the crossing become a road? Each explorer, each geographer, map-maker is finding that out.