The Role of Asana in Yoga

The past few years have seen a rise in the number of people debating what it means to practice ‘real’ yoga.  The general gist of this debate is the rise of Instagram yoga and the promotion of asana practice, in particular advanced poses such as backbends, inversions and arm balances and the omission of other less photogenic aspects of yoga.  Many of these ‘real’ yogis also find the fact that some people treat their asana practice as their workout  ‘offensive’.

For those who have a basic awareness of yogic philosophy, you know that asana, or the physical poses that most of us practice in class or our home practice, is one of the eight limbs of yoga, as laid out by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras.  Meditation and pranayama (breath work) make up the other seven limbs (at a really basic, simplified level).  Traditionally asana has been used to prepare the body for the stillness of meditation, to be able to sit comfortably for long periods of time. If we still use this concept for asana, it actually makes sense that our practices are predominately physical, due to the fact that our lifestyles are far more sedentary than in Patanjalis era.  These days, when the average student walks into a yoga class after a day at work, they have spent on average 2 hours commuting to and from work, sitting badly in their car, spent 8 + hours hunched over a computer at work and are set to spend another hour hunched over the stove cooking and cleaning for their families and will spend any leftover time (if they have it!) sitting slumped in a poorly designed armchair in front of the TV.  The last thing these students really need is to come straight into a sitting position without undoing the kinks and muscular imbalances that contribute to poor posture.  By using the traditional concept of asana, these students would actually require more asana practice than previous generations.  As long as meditation and pranayama is not neglected, increasing asana practice does not make your practice any less ‘real’.

Part of the responsibility of the assumption that yoga is just stretching and a physical work out must be shouldered by the yoga community themselves.  For as long there is little regulation of the industry, in particular the running of teacher trainings, there will be teachers out there who have not had sufficient training in yoga philosophy, meditation and pranayama to adequately pass this knowledge onto the students.  The general public only know about yoga according to what is put out there by industry experts, so they cannot be blamed for ‘not knowing’ about other parts of yoga that they have not been exposed to.

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