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Why Do Asana? Part 2

WHY DO ASANA? PART 2
I’ve been reading an intriguing book by science writer, Annie Murphy Paul. The
Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain (2022) gathers and
analyzes the recent work of cognitive scientists demonstrating how we “think”
and perceive not just with our brains, but also with our entire body (embodied
cognition), our shared spaces (situated cognition) and our relationships with
others (distributed cognition). This isn’t just another book recognizing the reality
of “gut feelings”, but instead a deep dive into what exactly that might mean and
how we can specifically use this recent science to enhance our ability to learn
and, particularly, to think creatively.
Although Paul never mentions yoga, I’ve been struck by her reports of recent
studies and the terminology that has resulted. “Interoception”, a word scientists
are using to refer to our awareness of the inner state of our bodies, is something
yoga instructors constantly urge. We ask (or should ask) ourselves how does a
certain asana or movement make us feel? Even when most of us don’t turn our
awareness inward, she documents numerous studies showing that we engage in
“nonconscious information acquisition”, particularly when we significantly move
our bodies. Many of her insights in this area are linked simply with walking
(Thoreau’s “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin
to flow)”. But she also devotes an entire chapter to the role of “gesture”
(movement of hands, arms and body), citing studies which show that actively
gesturing on our part not only allows us to better communicate with others
(particularly children), but can be closely associated with what and how well we
(and our children) learn from others as well.
It got me thinking: Can we start to somehow equate asana practice with gesture?
When we ask ourselves why we do warrior pose in a certain shape, might it be
that previous teachers have noticed that such shape communicates with us better
than others? Or that the posture stimulates interoception or at least the impetus
to focus our awareness on bodily feeling? When we wonder or worry about the
historicity of yoga, might certain asana in fact be simply gestures from former,
accomplished teachers that instruct us across time without the use of voice or
words? And don’t get me started about mudras or a vigorous power yoga class!
Questions, questions, questions! Come join us for more at Inside/Out!
Kerry Wilson 3.31.22

Bound Tree Pose

Bound Tree Pose

 

I now have a lot of yoga books. But when I started doing yoga many, many moons ago, there were very few books explaining or illustrating asana practice (and precious fewer discussing pranayama or chakra anatomy). The Vishnudevananda and Iyengar folks put out several seminal works in the 1960s and 1970s that contained LOTS of postures and since then of course there have been thousands of books stoking that flame. But there’s one posture that really feels good to me that I’ve never seen illustrated or discussed in print. I’ll try to describe it here.

 

“Bound tree pose” is a variation of vrksasana, commonly known as just “tree pose”.  In the latter, you stand on one leg with the bottom of the opposing foot placed somewhere on the inside of the standing leg. In many ways, this is the ultimate balance posture, depending, as they all do, on your alignment, (in this case) leg and foot strength and your constant attention to and sensory dialogue with gravity. Common variations usually involve your arms, with palms together at your chest, your arms spread wide for better balance, or arms overhead reaching your entire body upward. Each of these arm positions materially affect your center of gravity, making it harder or easier to maintain the posture.

 

To perform the bound variation, begin balancing on your right leg, and bring the top of your left foot into your right hand so that the left knee is pointed down-ward and your left heel is nestled at the top of your right thigh. Maintaining that grip, stand up straight and feel the whole of your right foot really anchor into the floor while your left knee comes close to your right knee. Your left hand can remain at your waist or (here comes the bi nd) snake across your back so that it takes hold of the inside of your right elbow, probably causing your spine to arch a bit and your shoulder blades to come closer together. Again, think about standing up straight, upwardly extending the trunk another inch and keeping your ribs soft, not jutting out. Hold for however long you’d like and then, as Mr. Kaminoff would say, repeat on the other side so that you don’t go to yoga hell.

 

This, I think you will find, is a very solid posture. If regular tree pose, with arms overhead, is like an elegant pine tree or swaying aspen, bound tree pose is like a large oak stump, immovable perhaps. And it is a more stable position in which to consider your proprioception (close your eyes if you’d like). If, like me, you have a tight shoulder girdle, it’s an opportunity to loosen that underwear. You might also find that the sore knee of the lifted leg gets a gentle stretch while all the other muscles stabilizing the standing knee get a good workout. Consider how this pose may prepare you for lotus. Observe the movement of your diaphragm-led body and the calm attention you must pay to maintain a dynamic balance. 

 

Got a favorite asana? Practice it joyfully but don’t overdo it. Like many yoga positions, deeper and more frequent is not necessarily better and better. 

 

Kerry Wilson 

3.14.22

Why Do Asana?

Hello, yogis, and welcome to the first of many questions. I raise these questions not to provoke doubt about your postural yoga practice, but rather to strengthen your personal resolve based on answers well thought through. You might call them “yogic koans” — questions that you should face and either answer with your entire being, or just thoroughly drop as you reach for your second glass of wine.

Today’s question is “Why do asanas?” Asanas are of course the bodily poses and postures we perform in class and in private, whether they be warrior poses, forward bends, seated twists or others of hundreds which have now become popular. We know by now that nearly all these poses are essentially inventions of the twentieth century, first created in Mysore, India by Krishnamacharya during the 1920’s and 1930’s, and then sown, grown and magnificently fertilized by his students (like B.K.S. Iyengar, T.K.V. Desikachar, Pattabhi Jois and Indra Devi). And then by hundreds of teachers residing mostly in California. I say this not flippantly, nor to minimize postural practice, but to make sure you don’t think that half-moon pose, for instance, has been practiced for 4,000 years. (The seated meditation poses (asana means “seat”) are of course another story.) Because asana practice is not ancient, however, does not mean that it is less important or effective. In fact, you might decide that its modernity and rapid international spread means that it has been proven and much improved over the last 100 years.

Does asana practice make you healthier? It would seem to and there is good evidence thereof. But so does playing basketball and intelligently lifting weights.

Does asana practice, particularly a more aerobic vinyasa routine, make you happier? Lots of evidence for this, though any good exercise program seems to do the same.

Why is assuming and maybe holding a seated twist, like Lord of the Fishes, beneficial? Does it touch and activate some spot in your body that has a particular healing power? 

Does returning to the same posture each day, the same arrangement of bone and muscle, whatever it may be, provide some more effective way for you to check-in with yourself or test your bodily health or demeanor?

Is asana practice, as some teacher once said, simply a beneficial method of learning how to breathe in difficult positions?

Do certain postures make you taller, more flexible, expand your range of motion or just make you temporarily feel taller, more flexible with a greater range of motion?

Is it some magical shape in space, some cosmic configuration of human angle, that melds you physically with Love, the Universe or maybe God in some special way?

Most importantly perhaps, does your posture practice promote what the Patanjali aphorisms long ago stated was the goal of yoga, that is “the calming of the fluctuations of the mind”?

Questions, questions, questions! Come join us for more at Inside/Out!

Kerry Wilson 1.27.22

1) If you have any doubt about this history (and there are many subtleties to the story), read Mark Singleton’s revelatory work “The Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice” (2010).

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