Yoga-Based Birth Skill #1- Movement (Asana) - History of Movement and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

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 Yoga is extremely popular today, both in the East and the West. Millions of Americans practice the physical aspect of Yoga—the poses and stretches, or Asana.  Indeed, almost the entirety of American yoga is typically understood and presented as being a physical practice, a movement-based form of exercise that helps a person stay fit, flexible, and healthy.

However, the reality is that Yoga is far more than an exercise program and the Yoga of Patanjali’s sutras is at its heart a meditative practice whose aim is to enable a person to see things as they are and to achieve freedom from suffering.

It is safe to say that most of what is taught today as yoga would unrecognizable to Patanjali’s contemporaries who attained their realizations through the silent practice of meditative stillness.

Asana is the 3rd stage or limb of Yoga, in its famed Eight Limbed Path which is found in Book II of the Sutras (the portion on practice) and in fact, Patanjali pays minimal attention to Asana in the Yoga Sutras.

SUTRA II:29   YAMA NIYAMASANA PRANAYAMA PRATYAHARA DHARANA DHYANA SAMADHAYO STAV ANGANI

“The eight limbs of Yoga are abstentions, observances, posture, breath control, disengagement of the senses, concentration, meditation, and adsorption.” ~my emphasis

While there are 16 sutras devoted to the first two limbs of Yoga, Patanjali has relatively little to say about Asana (the 3rd limb). There are just three sutras regarding posture and a total of 8 words, which is less than 1% of the total text of the Sutras.

This lack of detail does not mean that Asana is irrelevant to the goal of Yoga and does not mean that Patanjali considered Asana unimportant practices for aspiring yogis.

While no contemporary Asana specific texts survive from the time of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras   that doesn’t mean that they didn’t exist at that time.

According to Edwin Bryant, one has grounds to suppose that Patanjali saw no need to elaborate on the details of Asana since information was already available elsewhere, in other texts or traditions that were specifically dedicated to that purpose.

Other scholars also surmise that an elaboration of Asana is not undertaken in these Sutras because the subject of Patanjali’s text was Raja Yoga and a full and detailed treatment of Asana is to be found elsewhere, in the works on Hatha Yoga.

The Hatha Yoga tradition has many important surviving texts and while these works come much later than Patanjali’s Sutras, one is relatively safe to assume that the surviving Hatha texts were drawn from much older sources, including oral traditions, similar in the manner in which Patanjali’s compiled the dhyana-yoga sutras.

The Marabhararata, 400 BCE as a text, a major Sanskrit epic poem of ancient India, that is also the source of the Bhagavad Gita makes passing reference to more than one Asana. There is a 5 CE text that lists at least 12.  Enough evidence exists to show that Hatha Yoga was definitely an element of Yoga practice prior to and during the time of Patanjali.

The most influential surviving text is the Sanskrit manual The Hatha Yoga Pradikapita written by Svami Svatmarama in the 15th century. It is believed to be a compilation of at least eight earlier works regarding Hatha Yoga. The subject matter of “Light on Hatha Yoga” concerns purification, postures (Asana), breath control, chakras, kundalini, bandha, nali, mind-body connections, and mudra. ~my emphasis

It is long, weirdly wonderful, and nothing like the Hatha Yoga taught today. I will let that work lie sleeping for now.

The Yoga-Based Birth Skills of The Whole Way are all derived from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and provide a solid base on which to lay a path towards a calm positive pregnancy and a strong resilient birth.

SUTRA II:46  STHIRA SUKAM ASANA

“Posture should be steady and comfortable.”

 

It is important to realize that mastery of Asana is a means and not an end goal unto itself. Only the successful removal of the Kleshas (attachments) and the attainment of Samadhi (complete adsorption) allow one to achieve the ultimate goal of Yoga.

The Sanskrit word, asana, literally means seat and an essential part of a devoted meditation practice is having the ability to sit firmly and comfortably for long periods of time. It is impossible to fix attention if you are sleeping, running about, or fidgeting.

The relevance and function of Asana is to train the body so that it does not distract or disturb the mind of a Yogi while she sits in meditation.

Asana is not the goal of Yoga, but attaining a meditative practice is—-so the point to grasp is that yogic postures are useful only to the extent to which they facilitate fixing the mind completely in meditative adsorption.

It is sometimes thought that Hatha Yoga came into being because of aspiring yogis who wanted to sit still but could not. It was developed as a means to allow yogis to gain the ability to sit comfortably still for long periods of time.

Because it was and still is understood by yogis that if the body is still, it becomes easier to allow the mind to still.

SUTRA II:47  PRAYATNA SAITHILYANANTA SAMAPATTIBHYAM

“[Such posture should be attained] by the relaxation of effort and adsorption into the Infinite.”

Asana becomes perfect when all effort or strain ceases and the body no longer trembles and when the mind is adsorbed into the infinite.

The ability to sit quietly in meditation for hours invites a level of bodily discomfort, especially when one first initiates a practice. The yogic “cure” for this discomfort—Asana—also involves a level of discomfort. One of Yoga’s many lessons is that it teaches us to sit quietly with discomfort.

After a time the discomfort disappears and the body completely relaxes into the pose—to the point that the body seems nonexistent. When the body relaxes the mind can be directed towards meditation without bodily distraction or disturbance.

Mastery of Asana is achieved when a state of calmness is reached in the body which allows for detachment from bodily sensation—Asana is a preliminary necessary ingredient in a far larger undertaking.

Once Asana is perfected you move on to breath control—Pranayamah.

You may very well be wondering about the same things I was:

  • If Yoga is a meditative practice at its heart why is it a such physical practice today?
  • Why did a strong physical practice fix my mind into stillness, at a time in my life when I could never sit for even a moment in quiet meditation?
  • Is there merit in this approach from the words of Patanjali?

Most of Yoga taught in the West today traces its lineage from the work of three Yoga Masters: R. Pattabhi Jois, T.K.V. Desikachar, and B.K.S. Iyengar. Those three big names have done more to popularize Asana (physical stretches and poses) practice than anyone else in the history of Yoga, particularly Iyengar.

In his book, “The Tree of Yoga”, Iyengar, presents Asana, yogic posture, as not just the 3rd of eight limbs of Yoga but also as a self-contained object of meditation that can itself bring about samadhi, the ultimate goal of Yoga, if approached and undertaken correctly.

According to Edwin Bryant, this represented a very innovative approach and was an unique contribution to the practice of Yoga.  Iyengar based his approach to Yoga practice as grounded in three sutras found the first book of Patanjali’s Sutras—The Portion on Contemplation.

SUTRA 1:34 PRACCHARDANA VIDHARANABHYAM VA PRANASYA

“Or [stability of mind is attained] by exhaling and retaining the breath.”

SUTRA 1:39 YATHABHIMATA DHYANAD VA

“Or [steadiness of the mind is attained] from meditation upon anything of one’s inclination.”

SUTRA 1:40 PARAMANU PARAMA MAHATTVANTO SYA VASIKARAH

“The yogi’s mastery extends from the smallest particle of matter to the ultimate totality of matter.”

Patanjali states that there are various meditation options for steadying the mind and he wraps up this particular series of  Sutras by acknowledging that ultimately a yogi may meditate on any desired object according to her/his own inclination—internal or external.

The point is to fix the mind in meditative stillness, a task that does not depend on the choosing of a particular method, so long as the chosen method allows the mind to remain fixed, it doesn’t matter the method utilized as long it achieves its goal.

Patanjali specified in Sutra I:34 that practices associated with breath control (4th limb of Yoga) can bring about the steadiness of mind that is a prerequisite of samadhi. In Sutras I:39 & 40 Patanjali allows that any object of one’s inclination can be used as a meditation prop to achieve this goal.

According to Iyengar, if one approaches Asana in conjunction with Pranayama (breath control) utilizing these as bona fide supports for fixing the mind, then this approach to practice becomes a justifiable methodology that is fully supported by Patanjali’s system, provided that Asana is practiced with this intent rather than for some superficial motive.

But the real beauty of Yoga is that a strongly directed practice that combines poses with breath control where the mind is fully adsorbed and fixed on the practice without distraction, whatever the actual motive for practice, the mind can still attain fixity and stillness. Thus an essential goal of yoga is nonetheless attained, regardless of whether you just want to look good in yoga pants or whether you would prefer to approach labor with a calm quiet serenity.

This more physical approach is one which many people particularly in the West might be best suited as it opens the door to a new way to practice Yoga, one that is more palatable in a present day mainstream context.

Especially for those who are not interested in pursuing Yoga’s more spiritual elements, you may find yourself very attracted to Asana, even if for solely physical reasons at first.

Even if this is the case, if the mind is fully fixed and adsorbed without distraction on the practice of Asana, for whatever motive, it can still attain fixity and stillness. Once the mind has steadiness in one area, this steadiness can readily be transferred to other areas.

Yoga in the West may be more physical than meditative but that does not mean that Asana does not still the mind, reduce suffering, ease pain, or reduce anxiety and stress. It most certainly does.

Iyengar makes an excellent use of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras to support his claims. I don’t need them— I am a beneficiary of the beauty of a strong directed Asana practice, a practice that brought my mind to stillness and clarity when seemingly nothing else could. For the record I began practice because I wanted to lose weight, Yoga had other things in mind for me.

So now that you have a deeper understanding of both the history of Yoga and the role of movement in Yoga let’s move forward.