Asana: psalm of the flesh

"Enter eagerly into the treasure house that lies within you, and so you will see the treasure house of heaven...The ladder that leads to the Kingdom is hidden within you."  sixth century Christian mystic St. Issac the Syrian

handsI'm faced with this problem:

I teach, mostly, asana.

I tell people the asana don't really matter; yoga begins with a desire to wake up, with ethics and personal observance, with self study and commitment.

And I tell them the way is through asana.

You see the problem.  I'm contradicting myself.

We all walk into yoga knowing it has to do with postures.  A few of us figure out, along the way, that yoga has nothing to do with postures.  If we've made the commitment to a regular practice, if we keep knocking on that door of the body, if we practice when we are tired and when we've not slept well and when we don't want to, practice when we're too busy and when we're happy enough without it, eventually we feel joy come to answer the knocking.  Joy erupts as deeply as an orgasm and as incorrigibly as age.  Grace only ever happens in real time.

But those things - ethics, commitment, self study - remain abstract for most humans.  Asana offer a discipline, an opportunity, a path. Maybe a ladder.  They give a way in to meditation, to healing, and to the present moment.  Most of us wouldn't have the guts or the time to get there on our own.  Asana is the teacher, is the commitment.  Asana is the guru.

We show up and are prodded into the present moment.

The body lives in the present.  When you are aware of the body, you are connected.  To what I won't bother to say.  Maybe the global throb of life.  The on-goingness of it.  The truth of dailyness.  Eternity.  God.  An underlying okayness. The realization of how small and irreal your hang-ups are, considering reality.  How big they are, as hang-ups.  The present, via the body moving and the mind watching, will reveal the stories you tell yourself day in and day out.  If you manage to trace edges with your breath and your toes, the present will prove to you that these stories are untruths.  Half truths at best.  Signals of compromise.  Misunderstandings. vaparita dwi pada dandasana

The present, via the body, is the one place from which you can see reality.  Awareness of the body is our gateway into the truth of what is.

Pema Chodon writes "To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.  To live fully is to be always in no-man's land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh.  To live is to be willing to die, over and over again."

Asana throw us directly into no-man's land.

I think that is where we need to be.


The simplest explanation for why, in the eight limbed path, there are asana is this: if you want to reach the inner self, you have to go through the self.  It is hard to feel alive, let alone awake, if you are stuck in a body that is unwell.  If you want to go the depths of who you are and what you are capable of, it helps if your most immediate and constant tool - ie flesh and blood - become resource rather than hindrance.

It is hard to find reality if you are unaware of your own heartbeat.

So the body itself becomes an object for meditation.  The body itself is medicinal, therapeutic.  Asana provide a genuine high and a refuge.  Asana gives us a place to go.  It lays out pathways and intricacies of mastery and skill.  They strengthen and sooth, open and release.

ardha padma uttanasanaBut there is something more than the simple explanations.

If we can manage to show up in the body, to drop in, we experience.  We feel something.  Something is known that wasn't known before.

Because it is body - or whatever it is that is real inside and outside the body -  it is not a thing of the mind.  Language can only approximate it.  Like love, asana is a thing that has to be experienced, rather than talked about.  Also like love, asana is expressed in metaphor and poetry.  It involves ecstatic release, profound rest, changed brainwaves.  Like love, the entirety of the experience can never be understood from the outside.

But we've touched something.  It's eerie at times.  The fact that there is something there.  To reality.  To body.  This isn't necessarily what we came looking for.


A deeper understanding reveals itself.  Our brain is everywhere the nerves go.  Heart is everywhere the blood is.  The practice of asana teaches fairly quickly that our bodies are much more complex, or perhaps more stiff, than we'd known.  What we took for granted, as reality, as limitation, proves to be conditioning or simply a  process we haven't completed, yet.  It also teaches, in little shivers of recognition, that we can know our bodies more profoundly.  Where body is, mind and heart and emotion can go.  Meditation and awareness can go deeper.  What was unconscious in us is brought closer.

If the simple reason for asana is clarification and refinement of the body, the more complex reason is the fact that bodies are our most direct route to reality and its depths.  Deep involvement and attention to asana brings us directly to (perhaps, perhaps...through...) mind and it's shadows.  You can't work physical patterns very long without banging smack up against psychological patterns.  namaste

You cannot practice asana for long without having to acknowledge that even mind and emotion, urge and insight, knowledge and clarity, are more profound and shadowy than you thought.  In the deep silence underlying your breath, you'll recognize you're facing a door.  To enter possibility, to to turn away.  The pose begins exactly as you most want to leave it.


Psalms, songs, beatitudes, and prayer are all words that come to mind when I try to write about asana.  There seems to be no more literal way to commune than to examine what it is we do with our hands, or to open our heart.  To touch gratitude, acceptance, dedication.  It is one thing to understand such concepts.  Another, deeper thing, to embody it.

sirsanaI teach asana.  Sometimes I can hear resistance and disbelief roaring out of my students bodies.  My foot, where?  The hell you say.  I practice asana, and I hear that same roar inside myself.  Here I am, lurching through no-man's land, all over again.  But it has been in asana, in that very place of disbelief and breath, that revelation comes.  There have been times I seem to break through in a pose I've done for years; the body shifts a millimeter, perception gets brighter, it seems there is bliss inside the hamstring. There have been other times, crumpled on the mat with my knee no where near where it's supposed to be, that fear has been revealed.  Or longing.  Absolute surrender and behind the surrender the sensations which are moody and pithy and cogent and altogether sweet.  There's the thought I didn't know I could feel this.  There are poses, too, that I have doggedly practiced - without success - for months and months and years on end without much believing I'll ever truly get there.  When suddenly, I am there.  The foot lifts.  The rib moves out of the way.  The heart stretches.

We have potential in our gristle.  The root truth is this: if we experience pleasure, pleasure is experienced through the body.  If we experience fear, grief, or longing, it is because our physicality has been shifted and touched in fine or blatant ways.  If we honestly desire health, wellbeing, contentment, it must involve the chemistry and patterns of hormones, digestive proteins, cellular structures.  If we have ever longed for god, or felt our heart clutch in some manner of loneliness, it has been a physical pang.  Therefore, we come closer by going through.  We bend back on our selves, attention revolved back toward itself, the body a mirror in which we can begin to see.

Asana is a dedicated form by which we turn the abuse and denial of the body back into humility, feeling, and meaningful gesture.  Asana is how we turn our bones to dancing, our wrinkles to poems.  Asana is a psalm made of flesh and bone.

Sweet Lotus. Padmasana.

Sweet lotus. The Bhakti Diaries.

gosia janik

Listen: what you have been taught may no longer serve you; what you need, you already know, but have forgotten.  What we need, the way we know, is not in logic or learning.  What we need is in our stories, our posture, and in symbol.  Nothing will ever touch you so deep, and deep is where you need most to go.

In the beginning is the lotus flower.  There was nothing, and vast emptiness, and watery expanse.  And then the lotus grew.  The arch and stone of mountain sits on a petal of lotus.  The cities.  And man.

The chakras, those energy points and passages in our body, are symbolized as lotus flowers.  In particular, the heart.  The heart is a tight fisted bud, unblossomed.  The heart, wisdom, is in unfolding.  Lotus is spontaneous birth and purity.  This is divine.  And this is our center.

The lotus is perfect expression of the human condition.  That human condition is mired in the material, physical, dank world.  But its very essence, its first urge, is toward growth.  The lotus flower grows in mud, mimicking the samsara or suffering of Buddhism.  It pushes upward, through the water, mimicking the spiritual path and purification.  And it breaks the surface.  It is beauty.

In the beginning of time, yoga was not about asanas or postures or physical fitness.  Yoga was a spiritual quest.  The poses come out of the binding of the spiritual quest to the physical body. We are bodily humans, looking for something.  They learned, then, those ancients, that the most direct route to enlightenment is not over but through: body is a path, body is THE path.  In the beginning, there was only one yoga ‘pose’.  This was the lotus.  It careened into stillness, facilitated meditation, incarnated process.

Lotus is where yoga began.  It is, in many ways, where each individual begins to learn and live yoga.  It is, thus, absolute beginning.  It is always a place to start.

Lotus is the becoming that is being.  The process that is arrival.  It’s the moment when straw is spun into gold.  When we don’t escape or change who we are, but be it fully, and therefore, change.

I am a shy woman.  People don’t always believe me.  I sometimes act very brave.  I danced on a bar for a living.  But these are things from outside, ways I’ve been for others, my body as object.  I have very little internal solidity, faith, or confidence.  As a subject, I wither and hide.  Yoga has changed that.

When I first came to yoga, I came on the heels of someone else.  I dressed to hide.  I dressed at home, so that I would not have to change at the studio.  I came to yoga through Bikram, which uses a mirror as a tool.  Look at yourself, they say.  Meet your own eyes.

This was a thing I could not do.  When they said so, I’d focus on my forehead, my collarbone, or a space on the mirror.  An odd realization struck me the other day as I went to an unknown Bikram studio, peeled naked in the changing room.  I am no longer afraid or ashamed of my body.  At least, not as I was.  At least, not when it comes to yoga.  Shame and fear surface.  But now I have a place to take it, and a process to transform it.

The secret to transformation is sitting still.  The secret to yoga is that you are already there.  You already have everything you need.  Lotus is purity, and a means for us to rediscover ourselves as purity.  And lotus is also the dark, the shadow, the mud.  The hard truth is that the dark, the shadow, is an aspect of the divine.  In lotus, in yoga, we learn this isn’t only true, but beautiful.

There is a tendency to turn spiritual concepts on their heads.  To believe that ‘spiritual’, or even the more mundane process of ‘healing’ or ‘living’ or ‘getting better’, has to do with looking up.  We envision enlightenment, overcoming, ideals.  But the truth of every spiritual path begins with surrender, a kind of looking down in order to go up.

Try this

There is lotus pose, and there is lotus mudra.  Both are moving meditations.  It doesn’t matter if you can’t hit full lotus with both ankles on your thighs, pose of ease or half lotus will accomplish the same thing.  Lotus mudra is one of the more visceral and moving mudras, driving all our conscious thoughts and images into the emotional context, and weaving this with a physical expression.  Both the pose and the mudra are basic, non-obtrusive: you can do them anywhere.  They incarnate peace, purity, and blossoming and are directly connected to the heart chakra. Lotus MudraThis Mudra belongs to the heart chakra and is the symbol for purity. It is good during times of loneliness and despair.

  • Put your hands together, fingers vertical, relaxed and spread out.  The lower part of the palms touches, as well as the pads of the little fingers and thumbs.
  • When the hands are closed, they resemble the lotus bud.  As the hands open and the fingers splay, the lotus blossoms.
  • Open your hands into the flowering lotus.  Take four deep and slow breaths, without any forcing or control.  Then close the hands back into a bud. Place the fingernails of each hand together, the fingertips curled into the palm.
  • Repeat.

Ashtanga: Patanjali's 8 limbed path

It is impossible to say when or where yoga started.  It exists back in shadowy pre-recorded history and was, for the most part, handed down from one teacher to one student through face to face practices, not spiritual or historical texts, and not in holy books. But we do know something of what the earliest yogis were doing and looking for, what, in essence, yoga is: it is a set of proven, tested, accessible practices for bringing our bodies and minds to their fullest capacity and to ease human suffering.  Yoga is a path of liberation and souls on fire.  It is a path, if you will, of deep healing and soul work.  But it is more than identifying or ‘fixing’ what is wrong; it is also a means to find life beautiful, meaningful, and profound.

Those practices are not strictly physical, no matter how athletic the word ‘yoga’ has become in our culture.  Yogis realized that a ‘soul awake’ was a soul unfettered by fear and interpersonal conflict; living a good life involves not only a strong and properly functioning body but a deep sense of purpose and meaning, connectedness to others, right relationship with the world.  While we spend a lot of time talking about ‘balance’, ‘strength’, and ‘flexibility’ in our practice, we might catch glimpses of the fact that we’re not speaking of the physical body, only.  The physical is a mirror and truth teller of the interpersonal, the deeply personal, and the spirit.  Don’t underestimate the value of being balanced, strong, and flexible: these are the means to sift through the false to hit on what is true and meaningful.

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, the path is called Ashtanga Yoga (ashta, eight and anga, limb).  The Yoga Sutra is the oldest extant text on yoga practice and philosophy, but it is understood to be a compilation or summation of practices that were already ancient when Patanjali wrote them down.

Some say the eight limbs are like a ladder one can climb toward enlightenment.  Some say that traditionally, a student would spend years mastering the first two limbs – ethics and personal observances – before he’d be ‘ready’ to begin a physical practice.  There is some truth to the idea that the limbs are progressive, as step; a student truly integrates the physical asanas only once the elements of ethics and personal practices have been glimpsed.  Many point out that the word asana, which we generally translate to ‘yoga pose’ or ‘yoga posture’ literally translates to ‘seat’, as in the seat one takes to meditate.  The point of each and every pose was to prepare the body and open it to a meditative experience.

But no spiritual path has a beginning or an end so much as it does aspects or variations on major themes, like verses and chorus of a song.  Or the inhaling and exhaling of the breath, the rising and setting of the sun. The process is organic, rhythmic, and cyclical.

Truly, one can enter anywhere.

One day, a student approached me after her very first class.  She called it amazing.  Life changing.

I believe that it is.  And I believe that she had touched and experienced many of the 8 limbs in a single class, although she wouldn’t have any reason to know that’s what she was doing or that these things have Sanskrit names, each with thousands of exercises and practices and theories attached to it.

She simply felt it.  She felt the effects of expanding and opening her body, compressing the glands in asana; she felt the immediate, energizing effect of rapid abdominal breathing and the calming, grounding effects of slow, deep, diaphragmatic breaths (pranayama); when she focused her attention on the breath in our centering meditations, she is withdrawing her mind from external stimulation (pratyahara); when I guide her to use a mantra or listen to her breathing during the holding of a pose, she is concentrating (dharana).  During the holding, if she follows her intuitive sense and my cues to stay in touch with the sensations happening in her body, her mind is absorbed and she is meditating (dhyana); there may be times during the holding or releasing of a posture when she touches on, glimpses, or is washed with the deeply healing state known as samadhi.

Interestingly enough, Patanjali starts not with promises or should and oughts.  There is no description of god or the meaning of life, no attempt to make you believe anything at all. He starts, instead, by listing the ways human beings suffer and the mental/emotional/physical ramifications or symptoms of that suffering.  Yoga, he says, is the calming of sufferings.

We touch on the experience of yoga without having to know the whole philosophical system or intending to re-wire our brain or balance our pancreas.  Those things just happen.  That student may or may not have understood that yoga is a prescription, a positive how-to list, in the treatment of anxieties and depressions and physical diseases, a path toward whole.  It is a systematic and proven process.  Yet it is enough to simply experience and know you feel better for days after a practice, and that’s maybe all any of us need.

But knowing the limbs exist invites us to a new depth of the practice, a way to circle around and around again until we hit revelation. And then start over again, because there is more revelation. It is a path, a prescription, that has been followed by billions of people; we can trust their experience.  We are given good directions and a ladder to grab on to, if not to climb.  Ladders, things to grab on to, are sometimes hard to find in our shiftless, startling world.

Over and over again, spiritual paths and spiritual truths will teach a humbling reality: it isn’t a thing you understand or philosophize about; it’s a thing you must do.

The path of yoga begins in acknowledging reality: this being human is difficult.  Like the Buddhist first noble truth (Life is Suffering) it could be seen as a bitter pill, a hard way to look at life.  It is.  But that isn’t the point.  The point is that revolution is possible.  There are ways out of suffering.  It is entirely possible to approach your own potential and fulfillment.  A purposeful, deep and richly nuanced life is both the goal and the path yoga takes us down to reach that goal.  Yoga is perhaps unique in that it doesn’t start with the origins of the universe, the ends of the world, or explaining human relatedness to the divine.  There is little point, yoga says, in trying to wrap our faulty minds around things that are larger than those faulty minds.  There is power in the here and now, in unraveling illusions and abstractions to the solid abiding ground beneath.

The First Limb: Yamas

The heart of yoga is ethical.  It recognizes the absolute truth of interrelation, connection, and disconnection.  We are hardwired to desire understanding, compassion, forgiveness, love, and laughter, as well as a sense of justice.  Most, if not all, of our pains in life come from misunderstanding our self and our connection.  Most suffering is an experience of being alone, unworthy, separate, as though we are viewing life through a window and cannot touch or hear or live as we suspect others do, or we ourselves should.

Yoga seeks to lay down palpable ways to disentangle ourselves from a sense of isolation, meaninglessness, shame, anger, and greed.  To reveal the false self for the true.

The word yama translates to restraint.  There is an element to ‘self-control’ or moderating our own desires and motives to a bigger picture, and in many ways this is hard to swallow.

But it is a way to be more happy, more free, and more in touch with our core.  They invoke a self that is confidant, unafraid, with depth of character and inner resources.  They way we behave in our relationships – and our ability to change our behaviors to act in accordance with compassion and regard – is ultimately a self-loving and self-enlarging thing to do.  As we change our behaviors and ethics, our souls are able to be more at ease.  Imagine what it would be like to walk through the world without shame.

The Yamas are five:

Ahimsa: non harming

Satya: truthfulness and non-lying

Asteya: nonstealing, not craving or keeping what does not belong to you

Bramacharya: chastity or continence, usually sexual or interrelational

Aparigraha: greedlessness, non-hording

The Second Limb: Niyamas

If the first limb concerns our relationships to others and to world, the second limb is usually seen as indicative of our relationship to our self.  It involves our private practices, our solitude, our self regard and self mastery.  Each of the niyamas can be an endless practice (or diagnostic, or exploration) on its own.  Each can be taken very strictly and literally, or endlessly unfurl into sublte layers of meaning and intention.  For example, shauca, purity, is all fine and well as an abstract concept.  But it becomes a lived thing if one actually decides to practice making one’s bed every day.  The idea is so simple as to be laughable.  But the smallest practices tend to have enormous effect on our experience moment by moment, and the tiny pepples add up to gravel that becomes a road that lead to an altogether different life.

Shauca: purity (of body, of mind)

Santosha: contentment with oneself and one’s life exactly as it is in this moment, including self acceptance

Tapas: austerity, fire, heat or zeal

Svadhyaya: self study

Ishvara-pradnidhana: surrender to the Whole, Real, God, or the It-Is.

The Third Limb: Asana

This is what most of us today tend to think of when we think of yoga; those series of postures that stretch, heal, invigorate and remodel our physical selves.  They are both a science and an art.  It is astounding how profound the study of the body can be, and how western medicine continues to realize the limitations and misconceptions we’ve had for centuries about what this being human, this human body, means.

The physical postures are one branch of an eight limbed path (similar and related to the Buddhist 8 fold path); further, while the physical practices do increase health, improve immunity, foster longevity and allow, with practice, a heightened sense of be-ing and moving in the world, the aim was not some kind of Olympic athleticism.  The aim was wholeness.  A purely physical path is not whole.

Although it is a way to begin.

A yoga teacher friend and I were chatting, and he talked for a long time about his other job as a psychotherapist.  In particular, he talked about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the practice of learning to identify thoughts and feelings rather than be reactive to them, the power of knowing one’s own mind (and it’s false beliefs or cruelty to the self and others).  He spoke of how our emotional or cognitive set of patterns deeply affects our physical bodies.  This isn’t new.  It’s science.  The way we think changes both our immediate biochemical reality and has the power to literally form or deform our physical tissues.  The body, he said, is attentive to every thought the brain has.

Yes, I said.  But the brain is also very attentive to the body.

The secret is you can work both ways.  You can enter, anywhere.


The Fourth Limb: Pranayama

restraint or training of the breath.  Yogis recognized that the breath is both a root source of our being-aliveness and a easy way to observe and participate in that aliveness.  They learned the experiential reality that an awareness of and participation in the breath can influence our health, energy levels, and mood in ways that nutrition, exercise, and cognitive thought simply cannot do.

The Fifth Limb: Pratyahara

withdrawal of the senses.  Looking within, sensitivity to internal processes and patterns, finding the inner witness.  In a world where we constantly look without for answers and direction, where we identify ourselves as the objects and events of our lives, pratyahara is a radical practice.  It teaches the root truth of how impermanent objects and events are, and how an over identification with them leads to pain.  It also reveals a level of constancy, depth, and unchanging in the midst of chaos.  We are conditioned beings, and often react rather than respond to ourselves and our world.  We have brains that categorize, evaluate, and judge.  The practices of pratyahara teach us to step away from judgement and rest in a place that is beyond judgement and can see whole pictures, as opposed to dualities of black and white, good or bad.  With time, withdrawal of the senses leads to increased discretion, discernment, and compassion.  It is a heart of equanimity.  We become able to respond, rather than react.  Our beings become like the depth of the ocean, rather than the surface of ripples and waves.

The Sixth Limb: Dharana

Intense focus, building of concentration and discernment; the ability to think and see clearly, to heighten one’s powers of thought and cognitive ability, free us from all the layers of misperception and avidya (blindness).  It is interesting that many people think of yoga and meditative or mystic traditions as turning off the mind, when the truth is the practices aim for clarity of mind and right thinking and seeing.  Science is showing in remarkable ways that yoga actually works to change or improve our intelligence; areas of the brain we typically use or do not use actually change with eight weeks of a regular practice; ability to access ‘subconscious’ levels of intuition, insight, memory and self awareness increase.  Study after study shows that a yoga practice improves school and work performance.

The Seventh Limb: Dhyana

Related to the ability to focus and concentrate is the state of Dhyana, or meditation.  We could say that meditation is a deeper level of concentration, but that might lead to judgements of better or worse.  Instead, Dhyana implies a different way of being, not a better one.  Again, science is proving that contemplative states and mindful movements actually result in changed brain waves and cause restorative, rejuvenating processes to happen across the body and mind that are in some ways more profound than REM sleep.  The mysterious ‘gray matter’ of our brains lights up with all sorts of things we can’t identify, yet.  Theta brain waves – unconscious, according to our western science – are increased.  Areas of the brain connected to empathy and compassion flare up and stay more active for days after a practice, and long term meditators seem to have access to this state more quickly, more profoundly, and more frequently.  The hemispheres of the brain increase their communication, balancing our analytic and creative selves, our introversion and extroversion urges, our states of creativity and experiences of ease all increase.

The Eighth Limb: Samadhi

state of oneness or bliss.  We may have touched on moments in our life in which we felt ourselves absolutely alive and deeply connected or in tune with the universe.  Science calls it peak performance or the flow state.  It might be stumbled upon in the most mundane of activities or cultivated through practice.  It’s heart is a genuine recognition of ‘okayness’ and even more than okayness; an understanding or affinity for beauty, power, the order of the cosmos.  A friend describes his first experience of samadhi in the summer of his junior college year, when most of his peers were away and he was engaged to paint and upkeep a professor’s home.  The long, repetitive, rhythmic days spent alone in the sunshine, touched by the sounds and the schedules of birds and insects, drifting on the sensations of sun on his skin, summer grasses in his breath, and long periods of uninterrupted, moony thought peaked in a sense of aliveness that was both cognitive and physical.  Call it epiphany.  It is what Einstein chased after in his long hours of solitude drifting in a little sailboat.  What Beethoven heard – even though he was stone deaf – as he composed his 9th symphony.  It is very nearly an experience of feeling ourselves more than we typically do – the human animal or soul in all its beauty.  Many experience it as a connection to god.  But it may also be a connection to an infant or a puppy or a sunset.  This state, according to yoga, is the ground of who we are.  It is true and trustworthy.  It is a recognition of oneness and a moment of living beyond fear.