by Marian Thornley

Last month I started to talk about a yoga text called the Yoga Sutra-s of Patanjali. As I explained last time, this ancient authority sets out the various tools in the yoga toolbox, which can all be used to help us become happier, more content individuals. This is quite different to most people’s perception of yoga in modern Western society, where yoga is perceived as either stretching or about relaxation.

In fact, asana, which is the Sanskrit word for “posture” is mentioned only twice in the sutra-s! This reflects the fact that when these aphorisms were written the way of life in India was such that physical exercise was not needed by the majority of the population, who had to work physically hard for a living. Today, of course this is not the case, in the West at least. Most of us these days lead fairly sedentary lifestyles and we do need to exercise our bodies to keep them healthy, strong, supple and disease free.
Asana was seen merely as a means to an end. If we develop healthy bodies then we are able to focus on controlling our mind, thoughts, behaviour and emotions, so that we become more in touch with the real self.
Patanjali tells us what he means by mastery of asana. Again, we are in for a surprise. Instead of mastering an asana by being able to place the body in a perfect way, putting a leg here and an arm there, mastery means achieving a balance between comfort in the position and effort. What this means in practice is that when, say, we try to practice standing on one leg, we are not straining ourselves so much that we hold our breath, pull a funny face and make our muscles quiver! And on the other hand we do not stand there in such ease that we are able to ponder on what we are going to have for tea later. We put enough effort into the pose that we have to keep our mind constantly engaged in what we are doing.
So I would say that a 90-year-old grandma who can raise and lower her arm all the while being totally mentally present with the movement is in a state of yoga, whereas a young, fit person who stands on their head while humming a tune, is not.
This gives a different perspective on the practice of asana. First, that it is only a small part of this thing called yoga, and second that it’s not about perfection of form. This means that absolutely anyone can practice yoga as long as their mental faculties are in order. It also leads to the important point that yoga is about the individual and should be tailored to the needs of the person, not that the person has to comply with the requirements of yoga asana.
So to conclude this article, maybe you would like to try some asana now, for yourself. You can stay in a sitting position if you are reading this on your computer or you can stand up. Switch the computer and telephone off. Then, simply inhale and raise your arms as high as you can. Exhale and lower. Repeat and keep the mind fully engaged with the movement and the breath. Try this every day for a week, and observe what happens.

Marian is a qualified yoga teacher, although she is not currently teaching.  She is particularly interested in the use of yoga as a tool for health and healing.

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