by J. Brown
For many, it has become important to distinguish between “asana,” or the performing of postures, and yoga. Both those who are inclined towards yoga as a fitness regimen, and those who embrace it as more than just exercise, find it necessary to clarify the intent and purpose behind their practice. This compartmentalization, while convenient and often useful, brings with it a dilemma, the resolution to which determines what is actually possible with yoga.
Back when the New York Times blew up the yoga world with William J. Broad’s article, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,” my major criticism was the conflation of asana with yoga, and a lack of distinction between different approaches. Practicing postures as an end unto themselves easily betrays the subtle nuance of their potential, which resides in the person not the pose. For those with a therapeutic orientation, the question of purpose is of utter significance. Not only does it amount to a level of safety, or not, but is largely determinative of results.
Conversely, many teachers with a more physical or athletic orientation, distinguish asana from yoga as a way to be clear about what they offer. They are mostly concerned with the technicalities and physiological benefits of the forms. They don’t purport to have any insights into other aspects of yoga per se. They specialize in providing an experience of your body often geared towards challenge, measured by increased prowess more than functional health. Referring to yourself as an asana teacher, rather than a yoga teacher, has become a way to manage expectations and establish a more accurate scope of practice.
If the purpose of asana is not yoga then what are we doing?
Making shapes with our bodies can be anything from a form of fitness to a way of working past perceived limitations and reaching new heights in ourselves, creating awareness, reducing stress and pain, or better appreciating the taste of wine and chocolate. This loose relationship between asana and yoga allows us to more easily avoid difficult questions about purpose that yoga alone raises.
Yoga challenges our perceptions, our sense of ourselves and our place in the universe. The inquiry requires great courage and resolve on a psycho-spiritual level, so as to overcome the many impediments that life inevitably presents. Divorced from a broader yogic purpose in practice, the challenge of asana becomes one of physicality. Progress is marked by our ability to withstand the resistances our bodies present, and to mentally surpass imposition on the system.
Distinguishing asana from yoga diminishes the opportunities and potential for people to learn and gain the benefits of yoga.
Whether drawn from an external source or derived through internal inquiry, purpose in yoga is relative to individual sensibilities and interpretations. Thus, the purpose of asana cannot be definitively stated. But the primary vehicle through which we arrive at a sense of purpose in practice is attending classes. If the classes available are limited to a consideration of asana, then our sense of purpose in practice also becomes limited.
Asana forms associated with yoga practice can be used in effective ways that are not necessarily rooted in yoga tradition. The poses can have physical benefits without being tied to any particular teachings, or profound personal inquiry into the nature of existence. Going to yoga class can just be about cardiovascular exercise and challenging ourselves to have greater stamina and fortitude. And maybe that is not a bad thing. But this notion of asana does not point people to a broader purpose in yoga. Only despite this notion of asana will someone who wants to experience the subtler benefits of yoga be able to do so.
Asana-only practice succeeds in leading people to yoga when it fails.
The long prevailing trope that purely physical practice helps turn the masses on to the deeper aspects of yoga is grossly misleading. This half-truth rationalizes the financial benefit of perpetuating a disempowered body image that our culture capitalizes on. Only when this premise proves false do people then become interested in what is missing. At some point, a plateau in physical ability is reached where attempting to accomplish more in asana stops feeling like progress. Unintended consequences start to outweigh the benefits. Or worse, an injury occurs that forces us to question what we have been doing against our will.
I am a proponent of yoga evolving and meeting the individual needs of people. That means accepting that there is a whole bunch of people who do something they call yoga that bears no resemblance to what it means to me. But I’m interested in how asana is utilized to learn and receive the benefits of yoga. In that context, speaking about them as though they are separate no longer makes sense. Let’s not take off the table what is possible. Let’s allow for avenues to yoga, not just through a side door or in response to injury, but through direct invitation and the courage to take a stand.
J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer, podcaster and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY. His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy Today, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, and across the yoga blogosphere. Visit his website at jbrownyoga.com