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).