Yoga Sutras for Modern Life. Third Limb: Asana

Here we are onto the third episode of my mini series dedicated to the Eight Limbs of Yoga according to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The first two limbs were the code of conducts: Yamas and Niyamas. The third limb or stage of yoga is called Asana. Asana is the Sanskrit word for ‘pose’ and this limb is what most people associate with practicing yoga as it encompasses the postures of a typical yoga class. In fact, ‘asana’ has two meanings: it is both the place where a yoga practitioner sits, and the manner in which they sit. This duality is reflected in the word’s two literal translations: ‘seat’ and ‘posture’.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali describes 84 core poses, mainly derived from animal postures. These poses were designed to prepare the body for the deeper practices of breathwork and meditation. All asanas (poses) in yoga are to contain two key components: a steadiness (or awareness) and a sense of lightness (or ease). Postures are to be practiced with awareness of and connection to the breath.

Patanjali didn’t go into great detail about this limb, but he did mention that asanas should be both comfortable and easy. It’s thought that asana postures were originally meant to be held for longer periods of time in stillness. This is quite different from the faster-paced yoga practice of many classes we are used to today (no right or wrong judgement).

Here are some ways to nurture, and eventually master, these two components of the yoga practice – steadiness and ease – on and off the mat.

Balancing steadiness and awareness in your practice

This first point is about figuring out how to engage the muscles just enough, then search out tense places and soften as needed. Attune yourself to the sensations that come up and learn to recognise when you’re working hard enough, but not so hard to injure yourself. When you do finally discover how to tiptoe gracefully along the fine line that divides sthira (steadiness) and sukha (ease), you might reach a wonderful state of tranquillity and peace.

By juxtaposing steadiness and ease, Patanjali advises us about the importance of striking a balance between determination and content. Beyond the yoga mat, this is an important teaching for our everyday life too. In a new job or in a new relationship, for example, working patiently toward a balance between effort and ease is a good recipe for happiness. On one side, in fact, we want to pursue our goals with intensity, while on the other, we need to know where to stop so that we don’t get hurt or our effort becomes too much.

Don’t spend too much time in the mind

Most of our activity these days involves a spinning mind and with time this can lead to exhaustion and mental burnout. This constant mental activity is often unconscious and automatic – habitual patterning of thought and thought processes being unaware of why we think the way we do and believing that we are our thoughts.

Doing something physical, especially an activity that involves conscious movement (like yoga), requires concentration and focus while at the same time it helps us being in the present moment and builds resilience and stamina. The state of light discomfort that we feel when we are pushing our physical limits (without going too far) often opens a door into a greater sense of spaciousness and inner comfort. This is an experience that we can apply to the rest of our lives: grounding ourselves in the present and not always taking the ‘easy road’ or shying away from what is uncomfortable or brings instant gratification, especially if it relates to our personal growth.

Enjoy the journey to find peace and equanimity

The ultimate goal of Asana is not to perfect our form, but rather to move beyond the mere physical sphere in order to achieve integration between body and mind. Once you discover how to gracefully move along that fine line that divides sthira and sukha, you might reach a state of peace and equanimity. Patanjali goes on to say that when you’ve found the place in the asana that embodies steadiness and ease, “all effort relaxes and coalescence arises, revealing that the body and the infinite universe are indivisible.”

Sooner or later, we all have that moment when we come into a pose (or a situation in life) which may have been struggling with and suddenly it all comes together and you find you can breathe with ease. That is the very moment when you begin to feel spacious, open, aligned, empowered and free.