Modern yoga is obsessed with asana, the practice of postural forms. Other practices are studied in modern yoga, but asana eclipses them all. Many critics have lamented this fact. In the spectrum of classical practice, they say, asana is merely a support. The purpose is to prepare the body for seated meditation, and the practice is empty when undertaken by itself.
Meditation, to be sure, is the yogic practice par excellence: without it, there can be no yoga. As Swatmarama writes in the Hathapradipika (c 1500) people who practice asana without knowledge of meditation are simply wasting their time (IV.79)1. In light of the relative indifference in modern yoga toward the formal practice of meditation, the critics seem to have a point.
What they fail to appreciate, however, is that asana can be so much more than a supplementary practice. It can be so much more than a method of cultivating the sitting posture. When undertaken with focus, and with the proper balance of openness and internal support, it can be a moving meditation within itself.
1. Hatha and Raja Yoga
In the Yoga Sutras (c 200-300 CE) Patanjali counts asana as the third limb of the classical ashtanga or “eight-limbed” system. The Sanskrit word “asana” literally means “seat,” and the practice of asana is the practice of taking one’s seat, specifically for meditation. The seat of meditation includes not only the posture of the body, but also the posture of the mind, as both must be balanced for meditative states to arise.
Patanjali gives no account of the practice, but he does say this: sthira-sukham asanam: “Asana should be steady and easeful” (II.46). The posture of meditation must be steady and easeful so that we can observe what arises with perfect equanimity. That is, it must be steady and easeful so that we remain grounded in the tumult of our emotions and thoughts, without engaging the patterns of tension that would distort our experiences. To hold this kind of posture requires practice, and this, we might say, is the practice of asana in the classical tradition.
In the Hatha tradition, which emerged roughly ten centuries after Patanjali, the practice of asana appears somewhat more evolved. Asana is used not only for meditation, but for the cleansing and toning of the psychophysical body. In the Hathapradipika, we are given instruction on sixteen asanas, only three of which are indicated expressly for meditation (Siddhasana, Padmasana and Bhadrasana).2 The other thirteen postures are recommended for their psychophysical benefits, which Swatmarama describes in some detail. He tells us, for example, how they balance the doshas (II.31), kindle the digestive fire (II.27,29,31), destroy diseases (II.17,27,29), or remove fatigue (II.32).
In light of these passages, the practice of asana appears to play a “therapeutic“ role in the Hatha tradition that it did not play in the older tradition described by Patanjali. In other words, it appears to focus on the balance of the physical body. But this does not mean that Hatha Yoga views asana and meditation as separate practices. On the contrary, the therapeutic purpose of asana practice is to promote an internal balance of masculine and feminine energies, and this balance, which just is the balance of sthira and sukha, is nothing less than the meditative state of mind.
The Hatha tradition is founded on the idea that our conditioning has a physiological basis, and we can undo our conditioning by working on a visceral level with the internal movement of the breath. Our thoughts and feelings are so many formations of the vital current that runs through our bodies, and they reflect the same conditioned patterns. So by redirecting the breath out of the usual patterns, and allowing it to move fluidly, we can break the spell of our mental conditioning. That is, we can clear out the sediment of our minds, the sediment of memory and experience. And consequently, we can begin to perceive things with improved clarity.
In the opening verse of his text, Swatmarama says that Raja Yoga is the “pinnacle” of aspiration and Hatha Yoga is the “staircase” that leads up to it (I.1). In speaking of Raja Yoga, he means the classical yoga of Patanjali. So in his presentation, Hatha Yoga is not meant to be a rival to classical yoga but an internal support. And as he later makes plain, the methods of Hatha Yoga work directly on the psychophysical body to encourage the same states of elevated awareness (IV. 102).
The therapeutic use of asana in the Hatha Yoga tradition is intended to make the elevated states of mediation more attainable, by moving the prana, or the internal breath, into more expansive forms, and breaking through the patterns of our mental conditioning. As the prana breaks through those patterns, it destroys the delusions of the egocentric mind. It awakens the inherent intelligence of the body and induces a series of mediative insights.
2. The Roots of Contemporary Asana
The asana practices that survive today were handed down from the Hatha tradition. With markedly few exceptions, these practices can be traced to the teachings of the South Indian scholar Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), an accomplished practitioner of yoga who learned the Hatha method in the Himalayan foothills from his master Ramamohan Brahmachari.3
According to biographical reports, Krishnamacharya first learned of his teacher while studying in Calcutta. He was told that Bramachari was the only person alive who could still teach the esoteric meaning of the Sutras. Determined to learn, Krishnamacharya walked for over two months to reach Bramachari’s cave, at the foot of Mt. Kailash in Tibet.4 He sat outside for nine cold and hungry days until Bramachari threw him a chapati (a wheaten flatbread) to signal that he would accept Krishnamacharya as his student. Bramachari then instructed Krishnamacharya to fast for eight days exclusively on fruit. After the fast, Krishnamacharya’s lesson in the esoteric meaning of the Sutras began — with asana.
Apparently, Bramachari held the view (which we find in the Sutras as well) that with the exception of a few rare souls, nobody can enter the meditative state without a serious regimen of psychophysical reconditioning. And thus he made his student practice asana relentlessly. Krishnamacharya reported that Bramachari knew 8000 yoga postures and taught him 3000 of these, including their therapeutic uses and their contraindications. So while Krishnamacharya sought to learn the meaning of the Sutras, he received an intensive course in Hatha Yoga therapeutics, the science of working with the body to cultivate the meditative state of mind.
The training ended when Bramachari asked his apprentice to return to South India, become a householder, and spread the teachings of Hatha Yoga to the modern world. Krishnamacharya dutifully accepted his teacher’s momentous request, and he spent the rest of his life fulfilling it. Over the next six decades, he taught Hatha Yoga with a rare resolve. Owing to his severe and intimidating personality, his students remained few, but some of them became world-renowned teachers, and they spread the teachings of the Hatha tradition to the West.
These include B. K. S. Iyengar, K. Pattabhi Jois, T. K. V. Desikachar, S. Ramaswami, and A. G. Mohan, some of the biggest names in modern yoga. Their teachings define the practice of asana as we know it, and Krishnamacharya is their source.
3. Vinyasa Krama
In Krishnamacharya’s teaching, asana is practiced according to an art of sequencing called vinyasa krama, in which posture, breath and gaze are strung together on a thread of unbroken attention. The origin of this art is uncertain, (and Krishnamacharya gave mixed reports) but there can be no doubt that it represents an important chapter in the history of modern yoga. It inspired the modern vinyasa movement, and it made an indelible impression on the common idea of yoga. Most importantly, it brought the higher and lower practices of classical ashtanga into a single contemplative form, combining asana with pranayama and pratyahara. The art of vinyasa krama thus made the technology of classical yoga more accessible to householders, which is to say, to people whose social responsibilities make it impossible for them to engage in esoteric practices all day long.
The Sanskrit term “vinyasa” has a ritual connotation. It refers to the precise placement of ritual objects in defining a sacred space. In vinyasa krama, the precise placement of posture, breath and gaze is used to sanctify the inner space of the body, while building internal heat. The sensations that arise within that space are then considered sacred, and as the ritual advances, they are thrown into the sacrificial fire of awareness. The practice of vinyasa krama is thus a yagna or fire sacrifice. It burns away the delusions of the conditioned mind.
The formative principle of this purificatory process is the expansion of the internal breath, and the postures themselves are but so many unique forms through which the breath can move. In essence, vinyasa krama is a breathing practice, and as with other breathing practices in the Hatha tradition, the point is to balance the polarities of the body. On the one side, there is the creative force of the inhale, which is heating, brilliant, expansive, and formative. On the other side, there is the dissolving force of the exhale, which is cooling, darkening, contractive and grounding. When these forces are balanced and aligned, they create the conditions for the mediative state to arise.
4. The Meditative State
In the second verse of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali defines yoga as chitta vritti nirodha (I.2). Thus, “Yoga is the nirodha of the activity of the mind.” The term nirodha is polysemous, with over forty different meanings, and Patanjali’s verse is therefore open to a wide range of readings. In recent translations, nirodha is often rendered as “cessation” or “annihilation” but these rather violent-sounding terms mislead. The aim of yoga is not to obliterate the mind, nor to induce mental paralysis, but to suspend the distorting effects of our mental conditioning.
When we suspend our mental conditioning, our experiences become more open and direct. They are no longer distorted by our projected ideas about the way things are. Thought and emotion may still arise, but we no longer succumb to their delusions. We see them for the projections that they are, and we appreciated their dependencies upon other sensory phenomena.
In nirodha, therefore, we suspend our delusions. And this suspension is the essence of the meditative state of mind. In that state, we see through our delusions, without being taken by some other projected idea of truth or reality. So nirodha is not so much a unique mental state or experience, but the gesture of suspending the distorting elements of our minds. In that gesture, we make a mental clearing, in which we can experience things more directly.
In light of this account, we should not think of meditation as a state of entrancement. To be sure, Patanjali describes some states of entrancement, and he accords them a special place in the progression of yoga. But these are limiting cases, and we should not take them as definitive. Instead, we should think of meditation as an absolute openness to the way things are.
This is the purpose of Krishnamacharya’s householder yoga. It is concerned with a meditative experience that is more amenable to life as we know it. And what is essential is not the experience of itself, which can take an infinite number of forms, but the gesture of opening and releasing that allows such experience to unfold.
The purpose of Krishnamacharya’s yoga is not to isolate us from other beings, nor to close us off from the world of experience, but, on the contrary, to take us out of ourselves, to wake us up from our egocentric dreams, and to expose us relentlessly to our intimate connections to one another. This kind of awakening makes us more fully human, for it makes us more compassionate toward all that lives and breathes. It requires the opening the senses, not some deeper retreat into the confines of the subconscious mind.
The importance of discriminating between these opposing movements cannot be overstated. If meditation is construed as a solitary retreat from sensory awareness, or even as the suppression of bodily consciousness, it can easily become another distorting instrument of the egocentric mind. It can make us even more self-enclosed than we are presently. It can confine us to the field of our egocentric projections, rather than encouraging our escape.
The practice of yoga, therefore, should not be undertaken as an exercise in suppressing embodied experience, but as an exercise in opening completely to the full spectrum of that experience, and allowing the ego to be overwhelmed in the process. As Patanjali explains, the ego is the organizing delusion of the conditioned mind. Through sustained practice of nirodha, this delusion begins to dissolve, and when it does, “The seer abides in its true nature” (I.3). The seer is not some divine essence or spiritual substance, but the selfless process of seeing that underlies every experience (II.20). So to realize the seer is not to bring some deeper self into being, but to lose the self in the open radiance of pure awareness.
So let us suppose that what we are practicing in yoga – through this elusive gesture of nirodha – is the surrender of our egocentric delusions, including, at the upper limit, the delusion of selfhood, and of our separateness from other beings. When that delusion is suspended, there is a prevailing sense of intimacy or union with whatever falls within the field of experience. That union is the purpose of meditation, and the original meaning of yoga.
5. Moving Meditation
As we have seen, the substance of yoga practice in the tradition of Patanjali is nirodha, the gesture by which we suspend our mental conditioning. The mind is not likely to make this gesture, however, without the cooperation of the physical body, for according to the non-dual philosophy upon which yoga is based mind and body are not separate substances. They are different grades of “Prakriti,” or psychophysical nature, and they blend into one another indefinitely.
In the Western imagination, the body and mind are often pictured as separate substances, defined by opposing qualities. But yoga philosophy views the body as an extension of the mind into the realm of physical form. The elements of the mind emerge directly from Prakriti, and the body evolves from those same elements in subsequent stages.5 So according to yoga the body just is the mind in its crudest manifestation.
This view underscores the importance of dealing with the body in practicing nirodha. If the body is continuous with the mind, then presumably the mind cannot settle into nirodha unless the mental tensions that manifest in the body are released. And this is why the practices of the classical ashtanga system work on the entire psychophysical being — to cover the various strata of the embodied mind, and thus to encourage nirodha all the way down, beginning with palpable patterns of action, and moving from there to bodily tensions, to breath, to perception, to thought, to attention, and to still subtler aspects of the mind.
When we practice asana properly, with the intention of opening ourselves to the entire field of experience, we can begin to curb the gasping, straining, fidgeting and glancing through which prana ordinarily dissipates. The vital movement patterns can then begin to move through the thick overlays of our mental conditioning. As these overlays begin to dissolve, we can have occasional glimpses of insight, in which the underlying unity, the interrelations among things, become more apparent.
With continued practice, the projected distinction between inner and outer, or between this and that begin to soften, allowing us insight into the interpenetrating nature of reality. This insight, which Patanjali refers to as viveka khyati, is the natural blossoming of yogic practice, and the practice of vinyasa krama is meant to cultivate this insight precisely. By combining the practices of posture, breath, and gaze into a single form, vinyasa krama becomes an unusually potent method of cultivating insight, by suspending the visceral root-patterns of mental conditioning.
In Vinyasa Krama, the practice of asana is not merely a precursor for meditation. It is an opportunity to open our minds to the reality of what is unfolding in the present moment. And when we allow ourselves to abide in the present moment, without the interference of our self images, we slide naturally into the meditative state of mind. We lose ourselves in the open radiance of our awareness. Then asana becomes a moving meditation in itself.
Though yoga is often equated with stillness, movement is essential to this practice, for it compels prana to clear out the sediment of our mental conditioning. To use an illustrative metaphor from the Sankhya Karikas, it compels Prakriti to do her sacred dance for Purusha, thus revealing her perfect emptiness, her innocence of any inherent self-form. Similarly, the practice of vinyasa krama helps disabuse us of the illusion that we are bound to the egocentric idea that our minds project. In other words, it encourages us to see through the egocentric illusion of our separateness from other beings.
If the practice of vinyasa krama can provide the occasion for this kind of meditative insight, so it can take us toward the ethereal pinnacle of Raja Yoga, in which the distinction between subject and object breaks down, and we find ourselves exposed to the pure emptiness of being. When regarded in this light, the practice of vinyasa krama appears as a brilliant form of yogic meditation―a practice of continual awakening to the open nature of reality.