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Meditation Master Class: 8. The True Meaning of Asana | How to practice Asana?

In the previous sessions, we have discussed a lot about breath and the mental attitude of letting go of all tension and arriving at the natural state of ease. I think it’s worth dedicating a session to discuss physical relaxation as a continuation of the movement of relaxation from mental to physical level using the breath as a link. And be prepared to dive deep into the word Asana itself.

Definition of Asana:

Patanjali the codifier of Raja Yoga defines asana as:

स्थिरसुखमासनम् ॥

“Sthira Sukham Asanam”

Yoga Sutras ‘Chapter 2 Verse 47’

Sthira – Stability or unshaking

Sukham – Something that promotes ease or comfort

Asanam – Asana

The sutra can be translated as “Asana is that which promotes ease and stability.” Only if these two conditions are satisfied, the posture is called Asana because the Sanskrit word “Asana” is derived from the root “asi” which means “to be” as opposed to the term “to do”.

I often tell this to myself and my associates when we are overwhelmed by something viz. “When you don’t know what to do, just be, be present and let the reality unfold itself”. And suddenly mind gets established in ease and tranquillity not by trying to control it but by simply letting go of the constant insistence on activity, even when we know that certain things depend on many many external variables. So I want you to understand asana not just as a physical posture of ease but also as a state of mental poise.

Swatmarama Yogi the author of Hatha Yoga Pradipika also defines Asana as the first accessory of hatha yoga and states “Asanas make one firm, free from maladies, and light of limb.” [1]

And in the very next sutra Patanjali explains what I just told you about letting go:

प्रयत्नशैथिल्यानन्तसमापत्तिभ्याम् ॥

“Prayatna śaithilya ananta samāpatti bhyām

Yoga Sutras ‘Chapter 2 Verse 48’

Prayatna – tension; effort

Saithilya – relaxing; letting go

Ananta – limitless; infinite

Samāpatti – state of total recollectedness or eqanimity

Abhyām – both

Which can be translated as “By letting go of effort and contemplation on infinity, equanimity is attained”

Some schools of yoga would take Prayatna (effort or tension) here as jivana prayatna, or effort of life, which is breathing. And Prayatna Sithilya as making the breath smooth and long during asana practice. And Srivatsa Ramaswami the direct disciple of T. Krishnamacharya recommends the breath rate should be no more than six breaths per minute. As much as I agree to that, I think Patanjali is a Raja Yogin and his approach is more directed towards the mind. And I think he’s talking about letting go of constant strain and effort we put on ourselves and others to control things and at every moment we spend vast sums of energy in self-defence, self-justification, constant thinking and conceptualizing and trying to control things which are beyond your control, it’s colossal.

But why would one want to do that? Because one haven’t understood the nature of infinity and is controlled constantly by Attraction and Aversion (Raga and Dvesha), constantly seeking pleasure and running away from anything that seems uncomfortable or painful, having more or less of a hedonistic attitude. And such a person is constantly haunted by the notion that darkness may finally win and overpower the light.

But only if he were to contemplate on the true nature of things he would realise that all things in nature come in pairs of opposites like day and night, hot and cold, light and dark, black and white, hard and soft etc. and none can overpower another.

As Sri Krishna tells in Gita verse 2.14-2.16:

The material touches, O son of Kunti, giving cold and heat, pleasure and pain, things transient which come and go, these learn to endure, O Bharata. The man whom these do not trouble nor pain, O lionhearted among men, the firm and wise who is equal in pleasure and suffering, makes himself apt for immortality. That which really is, cannot go out of existence, just as that which is non-existent cannot come into being. The end of this opposition of ‘is’ and ‘is not’ has been perceived by the seers of essential truths.” .

Both the Patanjali and Sri Krishna are not talking about simply bearing these pairs of opposites but they go a step beyond and go to explain that these dualities don’t exist and they exist only in an untrained mind. What is heat and cold, hard and soft, light and dark? They are relative concepts and they exist in the mind of an individual. Something can be hot or cold relative to one’s body temperature, soft or hard compared to the indentation or abrasive resistance capacity of one’s skin and so on.

And these dualities arise when one looks at two ends of a stick as separate and tries to favour one end of the stick over another and tries to negate the unfavored one. Such a fool would cut the stick into two only to realise it still has two ends. Because he’s looking at the ends of stick as separate from the stick itself because of a myopic point of view or in other words, he’s so obsessed with the poles of duality that he fails to see the inherent unity and conspiracy and mutual arising of opposites in the mind.

As Lao Tzu says:

When everyone knows beauty as beautiful there’s already ugliness;
When everyone knows good as goodness there’s already evil;
“To be” and “not to be” arise mutually;
“Difficult” and “easy” arise mutually;
“Long” and “short” are mutually contrasted;
“High” and “low” are mutually posited;
“Before” and “after” are in mutual sequence.”

It shows how self-deceiving the mind can be it already defines ugliness as it defines beauty and a layman unaware of this habit constantly struggles and strives for better, when “better” itself exists only in the mind and is a great deception. So just let go of those notions and the strain due to constant striving for one thing over another will fade away that’s what Patanjali is trying to tell as he himself writes in the very next sutra “Thereafter, one is undisturbed by the dualities.”.

Now if you tell me “Gee! are you asking me to let go off my attachments and desires and habits I can’t do that :(” to that Seer Patanjali says don’t worry just contemplate on the nature of thing once more and let go even of the effort or desire to let go and see what happens and you’ll see that the whole world is in the constant process of decay, dissolution and death and if you can’t give up the process of nature will achieve it for you and there’s nothing to hold on to as Omar Khayyám writes:

“The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon Turns Ashes–or it prospers; and anon, Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face Lighting a little Hour or two–is gone.” ― Omar Khayyám, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Or as Shakespeare writes in The Tempest:

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve;
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. “

(IV.i.148–158) The Tempest: Prospero

And if you can “just be”, just sit without restlessness and simply observe (the true meaning of the word asana) the whole of the world will appear as a constant play of duality and the constant interplay of opposites merging into one another and reemerging from one another and soon this duality would too disappear into the Oneness of the Spirit.

And this is the true concept of Asana. Today we delve deep into the meaning of the word asana itself and in the next session, we will discuss more practical aspects such as how to sit with proper alignment to get rid of physical tension and restlessness, so that we can just be in Asana as opposed to doing it as if it were something to be done.

If you enjoyed reading the post please like and share with your loved ones and stay tuned because there’s a lot more coming.


[1]अथ आसनम
हठस्य परथमाङ्गत्वादासनं पूर्वमुछ्यते |
कुर्यात्तदासनं सथैर्यमारोग्यं छाङ्ग-लाघवम ||

atha āsanam
haṭhasya prathamāngghatvādāsanaṃ pūrvamuchyate |
kuryāttadāsanaṃ sthairyamāroghyaṃ chānggha-lāghavam ||

– Hatha Yoga Pradipika 1.19

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