It's not about the poses...or is it
Prior to everything, asana is spoken of as the first part of hatha yoga.
Hatha Yoga Pradipika, 1.17
In the evolving vocabulary of yoga, one phrase keeps bobbing to the surface: 'It’s not about the poses.' Maybe this is a warning against pushing our bodies beyond capacity or comparing ourselves to hyper-mobile gymnasts posing as yogis to sell merchandise. But this statement -- taken out of context -- implies that Hatha Yoga has nothing to do with postures. Which would be fundamentally missing the point of the practice.
Certainly poses by themselves are not events to be mourned or celebrated, and personal growth cannot be measured by joint mobility. In this way, the adage is true. The hard labor of transformation eventually moves from surface physical awareness, through the tissues, to the more elusive realm of thought. "Change your thoughts, change your world," is the resounding battle call of therapists, teachers and life coaches everywhere. And we would most certainly be slighting ourselves if we reduced the practice to what can be seen with the eye.
That said, Hatha Yoga was created within the context of the physical form, where inner transformation comes through action. A common interpretation of HA-THA is the harmonious co-mingling of solar and lunar energies. Another, less commonly known description is 'against one's will,' so named because of the rigorous discipline required to find union with the Supreme. Hatha Yoga'searliest writings assign physical practices to purify, stabilize and prepare the body for higher states of consciousness. Postures and movements unclog stagnant patterns, fortify the container and slowly train the mind away from constant external preoccupation. Even meditation can only truly blossom from a steady, comfortable seat.
'Fitness yoga,' on the other hand, preys on our cultural obsession with aesthetics or 'cardio,' or is viewed as an antidote to overuse in other physical activities. The resulting mindset actually blocks access to yoga's deeper benefits, those which transcend time, space and form. Eventually, we may strive to move beyond physical benefits, but we cannot conceptually throw the happy baby out with the bathwater. Without feedback from the body, how do we know if our actions are making a difference? How do we recognize difficult emotions when they arise, and our subtle efforts to avoid them? How do we become sensitive to what we put in our bodies and how it affects our minds? There is no hidden moralistic message here, just a call to fearless honesty with ourselves every day, over time, and especially when we don't like what we see. Without Hatha Yoga's powerful physical practices, we have nothing to trust but the mind. And we all know how that turns out.
How does this narrative play out in real life? For most people, the initial stage of yoga is part celebration, part confrontation. Tightness, old injuries, and shakiness are counterbalanced by feelings of inspiration and well-being. You begin to scrape at the residue that has clogged things up, and discover a vague sense of homecoming. Next comes the first psychological plateau, when we become discouraged, impatient or bored. Progress seems minuscule if it is perceived at all, and the mind clamors for something more gratifying. Rather than confront the situation directly, many people change teachers, change styles, or quit altogether. Some will with stick with yoga, but if the underlying discomfort is not dealt with, the practice can become a frozen cycle of burning through the sludge of life, accumulating more stress, burning that off, and so on. Nothing in the mind fundamentally changes, because none of the conditioning is actually examined. With persistence, however, restlessness and boredom become powerful triggers for cultivating discernment. You get bored in a class that used to exhilarate you, but instead of bolting you observe your mind. You have difficult experiences in your body, but instead of blaming yourself or the practice you recognize how your mind is seeking validation. The practices of Hatha Yoga reveal those secret caverns where attachment, conditioning and habitual thought lurk in the background. In fact, those tiny psychic fissures of discomfort are absolutely necessary to crack the structure of the ego, and make way for discernment to poke through. With time and patience, we wake up to a new perspective, like riding an elevator out of the basement for the first time.
The process of transformation is an inner alchemy, not given or generated by anyone else, but enkindled by potent practice and a knowledgeable teacher. Once the surface layers have been dealt with, more deeply rooted patterns are bound to emerge. A trusted guide helps usher the student along because -- by definition -- we are heading into the uncharted territory of the unknown (avidya). Habits, psychological intake, attachments, diet, stress, time management, desire, aversion and relationships are now seen in the context of spiritual development and must be adjusted accordingly. It may take a while to clean things up, but the discernment muscle gets stronger, our toolbox grows, and we become wiser along the way. Eventually, personality loosens its stranglehold on the mind, freeing our energy to perceive the light within.
If we become obsessed with accomplishing elaborate poses, addicted to sensations of stretch, or push ourselves from agenda, we miss the point of Hatha Yoga and, more importantly, we suffer. But to dismiss the value of physical practice in Hatha Yoga is to reject the reason for doing one in the first place. Postures should not become goals in and of themselves, but can and should be utilized for refining awareness and connecting with spirit. As B.K.S. Iyengar said, my body is a temple, and the asanas are my prayers. May our journey be blessed with such wisdom.
With great respect and love,