It’s Not About the Pose, It’s All About the Pose – Why Form Matters, and Why It Doesn’t
As modern yoga seekers, we are often bombarded with a million pieces of information about yoga, sometimes some of them downright contrast with each other. In this post I want to talk about two seemingly opposing viewpoints: the importance and unimportance of the fourth branch of Patanjali’s Classical Yoga: the Asanas.
One thing that you may have heard is Yoga is not about the Asanas! Yoga is not exercise! Yoga is not about putting your legs behind your head! I myself often say, “Yoga is not about what you can do with your body, and it’s definitely, definitely, one hundred percently, not about what other people can do.”
“So, okay, got it,” you might think. “It’s not about looking like Gumby and twisting into a knot. I’m just going to free flow myself into all these groovy postures and shake to groovy music and all my chakras will line up and open, and lotus petals will grow out of my head while a snake will coil up my spine and light will pour out of my chest while I fling myself in a headstand, right? Yup, message received, it’s not about the poses.”
Then, if you take a class with me, you might wonder if it’s all about the poses. Do I have some kind of foot fetish, asking you to move your toes over to here, and your heels over there, and lift the arches of the feet just so? Do I have some major control freak issue? We spend class after class after class talking about very physical things like the tilt of the sacrum, the neutral spine, keeping the frontal ribs soft, the inner groins going into the pelvis…. um, say what?
Why the contradiction about the importance of the Asanas? Are they or are they not “yoga”?
It’s Not About The Pose – Yoga is Not the Asanas
Before we talk about what is and isn’t yoga, let’s back up and see what yoga might mean. For our purposes let’s rein it in to Patanjali’s Classical Yoga. Also known as Ashtanga Yoga, also known as the Eight Limbs of yoga, this particular definition of yoga is comprised of… yes, you guessed it, 8 branches. (Not to be confused with Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga as taught by Pattabhi Jois.)
Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Classical Yoga
- The Yamas are concerned with ways to deal with the external world, including: Ahimsa – non-violence; Satya – truthfulness; Asteya – non-stealing; Bramacharya or self-restrain, and Aparigraha or not being greedy.
- The Niyamas are about the relationship you have with yourself, including: Sauca – cleanliness; Santosha – contentment or humility; Tapas – discipline; Svadhyaya – the study of the sacred text and ultimately yourself; Isvarapranidhama – a sense of connectedness.
- The Asanas, the young, flashy part of the 8 limbs arrived fashionably late, at least later than some other limbs, but for good reasons. They came about as the ancient yogis came full circle with their bodies, flesh and bone. So, I can’t say *for sure*, but an informed guess is they were designed to enable those yogis to sit and meditate by releasing tension and stress. Thousands of books upon books have been written on this topic.
- Pranayama, literally, is the extending of the breath. There are books upon books on this topic. The general idea is the breathing exercises help to calm and focus the mind. Books upon books have been written on this topic.
- Pratyahara is translated as the withdrawal of the senses, and it’s often misunderstood as turning the world away, or tuning out. What it really means is you are aware but no longer distracted by outside events.
- Dharana is the concentration of the mind. Books upon books have been written on this topic.
- Dhyana is the meditation practice to observe the mind. Books upon books have been written on this topic.
- Samadhi is Enlightenment (yes, with a capital E), and not surprisingly the ultimate goal of Classical Yoga. Many books have been written on this topic, and many people have claimed that they have achieved Enlightenment. Many books on Enlightenment are also enjoying a very thick layer of dust on their owners’ bookshelves.
So, since Asana is part of this troupe, why isn’t it considered yoga?
Yoga is Not *Just* Asana
I can only speculate here, but I believe when someone says “Yoga isn’t Asana”, they actually really mean, “Yoga isn’t just Asana”. There is a much higher emphasis on the physical aspect of yoga, especially around here (here being North America), to the point where, if aliens from out of space landed in a certain yoga studio, they might make this association: Yoga = hot sweaty bendy young thin (mostly female) bodies.
For sure, any one of those branches can be used and abused and over-commercialized, but that’s not as likely or easily. There are no “Journey into Power, 30 days of Pranayama” studio contests. There are no Pratyahara competitions. There are no nude advertisements for Dhyana or Naked Dharana workshops. When was the last time someone said to you, “I need some new pants for meditation”? And let’s not even go to the Yamas and Niyamas, because quite frankly, those who call themselves yogis are the worst offenders of those precepts.
So, emphasizing the Asanas is much easier, especially in a culture like ours, where physical perfection is a multi-billion dollar industry. With easy access to food and a tendency towards a sedentary lifestyle, we are constantly concerned with losing weight, burning calories, and fitting in skinny jeans. And so, the Asanas, the Chosen Ones, get propelled up to a pedestal to represent Yoga.
Without the rest of the 7 limbs, the poses may merely promote physical idealization and obsession. This is not to say there is anything inherently *wrong* with a physical endeavor. Olympic athletes do this 24/7/365 for just one moment of glory, and their quests are inspiring and admirable. However, we can’t really call the Asanas as yoga anymore than we can call handlebars a bicycle. They’re part of a bicycle, certainly, but unless it’s a unicycle, a bicycle is most likely going to be pretty useless without handlebars.
It’s All About The Pose – Yoga is the Asanas
Now, having maybe put down the Asanas a little, we need to give them credit where credit is due. And specifically, give the human body credit where credit is due, which is an enormous amount.
Throughout our spiritual quest, and throughout all mankind’s spiritual quest, the one thing that has remained–and will remain–constant, is the vehicle that we use, that is, our body. (For clarity purposes I will define spiritual quest here as the ultimate knowledge of who we are, to “know thyself”, or as the Bard would say, “to thine own self be true”.)
In Defense of the Body
Our body is an amazing and marvelous machine that quietly works as efficiently as possible to make us us. To me, knowing how to operate and keep this machine well-oiled is the least we can do to help it out, and to continue on our quest of self-actualization. Yet, in our post industrial revolution world, we often live from the neck up. More often than not, we’re disconnected with the rest of the body.
This discrepancy is not exclusive to the North American culture at this particular time. In some meditation traditions, there is absolutely *no* emphasis on the body at all, with some viewing it as a hindrance to Enlightenment. It’s rare that a meditation master in any tradition talks about the seat, and *how* to sit. The body is largely forgotten and neglected. Moreover, the general society often tends to value those titled “information workers” more than those called “body workers”. William James had to gently remind his contemporaries, who were the least bit concerned about the whereabouts of their sitz bones, that we are both mind *and* body.
On the other hand, we have a giant obsession with what the body and its performance and appearance. We attempt, over and over again, to manipulate our flesh into whatever it is that we think it should be. We take pills, we drink nothing but lemonade, we purge, we binge, we run, we lift weight, we go to yoga, we stretch. With all the attention, you would think that we would know our body really well by now.
Why Proper Form Matters
The great paradox in the current popular yoga scene is that we are very interested in our body and its form, but we have a disproportionate interest in its function, which is both a requirement and result of proper form. In packed classes of popular yoga styles, we are asked to follow the Nike slogan of “just do it”, do it fast, do it like how your neighbor is doing it, and don’t ask any questions, or, don’t question anything.
I would like to propose an alternative: we consider both form and function. When we think first about the intention of the posture and how our body functions, we lessen the desire to look like something or someone. At the same time, if we pay attention to proper form, that is, the position of our tissues and joints, there’s a high chance that we enables certain function(s) in the body as well. At the very least, we avoid bringing on unnecessary injuries to the body.
The Asanas, Mindfulness, and Meditation
Another thing I’d like to put out there is doing the Asanas can help cultivate our Mindfulness. When we think about our own body, we go inward. When we think about the whereabouts of the sternum and collar bones, and notice what happens when we lift your toes up or slide the shoulder blades down, we not only become intimately aware of our body but we also train to be a curious observer. Then, each movement, each posture, can be compared to a moving meditation.
Practicing this way, over time, we start to tune in to the body off the mat and outside of the studio. We notice, after sitting at the computer for a couple ours, that our neck has shortened and the lumbar spine has protruded out. We are hurrying to finish our lunch to get back to work and realize that we are actually already full. We start to observe sensations, we start to observe our breath, our mind. And with luck, we will bring a certain sense of stability and ease from the yoga postures to other postures in life: when we’re in traffic and someone cuts us off, when we’re interviewing for a job we really want and we’re feeling anxious, when someone we love is getting on our nerves, etc.
The yoga is not in the poses, it’s in the residual they leave. – Judith Hanson Lasater
Kiss My Asana
To say that Asana *is* yoga is to only use the handlebars to travel on this path. To say that the Asana is *not* yoga is to downplay the importance of the handlebars. In an interview on NPR about his book, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, Robert Richardson said, “There’s no real place where you can say the mind stops and the body begins, they are so interconnected.” To overly favor one at the expense of the other is to separate what isn’t.
Once, while studying that famous Dharma Mittra yoga chart, I noticed a small print at the bottom of the poster, saying: “I am not this body, I am not this mind”, and thought to myself, “What a load of crock!” (Yes, true story! I was young and unimpressionable.) My thinking was quite shallow, “How could someone twist himself in all these poses and then say he is not this body?” I thought that it was this fellow Dharma Mittra who said that, and it wasn’t until later that I found out it was Krishna who spoke those words, “I am not this body” in the Bhagavad Gita.
I have now come to understand what that really means, but it has taken a long long time. What do you mean I am not this tall and this size and this skin color? What do you mean I am not my thoughts and feelings? I can touch my toes, yes, today, now. Tomorrow is another day. No matter what happens, I always need to remember, “I am not this body”. In the meantime, I will keep working on staying in headstand in the middle of the room for 10 minutes (which really feels more like 10 million years).