Asana as a means, not an end

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We are in the age of yoga selfies. So much that it has almost become a form of spam. There are scores of blogs where people are trying to achieve this and that pose in 30 days. Yay! I did the splits, now what? Welcome to what yoga has become in the West. What if we were to discover that asana was just a way to penetrate the ego so we can see our true selves more clearly?

To put asana in context of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, it is the 3rd limb of yoga after Yama and Niyama, which are moral precepts. The 8 limbs of yoga do not come until the second book in the yoga sutras which focus on practice. And in the second book the 8 limbs of yoga are about 2/3 the way though. There are only three sutras that refer to asana, and they refer to the “state” of the citta (mind-stuff) in the asana rather than “how to.”

Were the 8 limbs of yoga deliberately placed far back in the text? Why did Patanjali only refer to asana three times in a 196 verse text? I don’t pretend to be a Sanskrit scholar. I am still quite a beginner at yoga as I have only been practicing 15 years. But my gut instinct after reading the Yoga Sutras is that Pantanjali placed asana achievement as low priority compared to the goal of having the practitioner silence the mindstuff to see his/her self more deeply and attain realization from that process.

The problem in the West is that Citta Vritti Nirodaha  (silencing the mind stuff) doesn’t Instagram well. Lululemon would not have market if Westerners valued silencing the mind instead of doing Scorpion Pose. The Wanderlust Festival would have to fire their DJs if pratyahara was taken seriously. As seen in my previous post, there was a recent study that says people would rather give themselves electric shocks than to sit silently for 15 minutes. Our society is chronically distracted. We do not value silence as a culture. We prefer doing more and more and more. Has that moved us forward as a society? It certainly has stressed a lot of people out. I see that in my job as a mental health worker daily.

So what are asanas for then? They are a means to penetrate your mind via the physical body. They are a direct laboratory to assess your inner self both physically and mentally. They build strength, increase circulation, provide physical health so the practitioner can carry out his or her dharma and be of service to the world.

And if you are going to do asanas, do them properly. Not just based on the teachings, but do them to learn about yourself. Don’t do them to show how “accomplished” you are. That is just ego and delusion. One day you will get older, and be less able, and God forbid get injured. Then what? If you have been practicing yoga properly until that point, it won’t matter. Your mind will remain still, and you will know that your consciousness has little to do with your body.

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16 thoughts on “Asana as a means, not an end

  1. Tavia Rahki

    Wow this was amazingly helpful. I’ve been in and out of Bikram classes for years and recently started at home yoga practice. I follow a bunch of people on IG for inspiration and this put things in an entirely new perspective for me. Thank you

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  2. Scott at SkepticMeditations.com

    Great angle on asana yoga. Classic when you say “silencing the mind stuff doesn’t instagram well”. Western culture seems so consumerized we need to compete not just with trendier cars, phones, or clothes but we have to out-pose the Jones’s next door. I suppose there’ll always be folks who have different reasons for yoga. Their reasons don’t need to agree with mine. But reminders like yours, that yoga is a means to an end not THE end, are important – silentce of mind stuff is wasted on “instagram” noise.

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  3. Ana Sofia

    Absolutely beautifuly said. This is one of the biggest challenges of the western yoga practice. Our competitive education and mindset makes the journey even more difficult to be turned inwards and therefore so easy for people to loose the point of the practice.
    And surely the yoga-selfy has become true madness but we can look at positive side to it too. If that’s the way some people need to gain motivation for the practice, then be it. Along their journey, they might come to realize more about it, study and dedicate themselves beyond the instagram “shala”, I’m sure. It may take more or less time, but if that realization and progression comes, it doesn’t matter how or when.
    If yoga needs to become instagram friendly to catch the attention of westerners into the practice, then be it. It is up to eachone’s individual journey to understand and discriminate what makes sense and what should be discarded.
    I’m, for example, doing an instagram challenge. I thought a lot about how appropriate it would be, in terms of yogic principles and my personal practice, and then I decided to do it. I’m doing a handstand 365 and I must say it’s been an interesting process for me in terms of self discovery and commitment to the practice (as a whole and not just of the asana “limb”). With the focus on that little daily accomplishment, of doing a handstand everyday to learn and practice to get stronger for it, I have observed my behaviour, the way I react physically and psychologically to it and I’m honestly taking it as fun and rich self-developing experience. The fact that I’m sharing the process, including the little self observances with whomever finds it interesting to follow, gives it another dimension. Of course I could be doing it by myself and not share it on instagram but I do see it as an interesting experience to be shared which can possibly inspire or bring some benefit of insight to others.
    With all this being said, reminders of the true essence of yoga are certainly missing amongst this contemporary yoga trend, so thank you for the post. I’m glad I found your blog! Thank you!

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    1. yogibattle Post author

      Thank you for your well thought out post. I have to admit I get hyper vigilant at times on this topic. People need a gateway into yoga and the eyes are the most active of the Jnanendriyas (organs of perception). A picture of a person doing an asana has certainly been a gateway for many people to come to this practice. My beef with IG pictures are that many people are using it to transmit their ego instead of trying to bring people to the practice. Eventually, we are supposed to rid ourselves of the ego and it’s attachments. I like that your 365 handstand project has an element of Bhakti in it. It sounds like you are learning that it is not the handstand itself, but the daily commitment to it no matter what that is a truer essence of yoga.

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  4. Rose

    Reblogged this on Actively Living and commented:
    This is a beautiful post highlighting the misconception that yoga is about hitting a pose and getting a photo. I personally started off hoping to enhance my flexibility and support my back issues, but found I got a bit caught up in this idea of achieving certain poses. The idea of yoga is that by using the poses, we can better befriend ourselves, not push ourselves to breaking point. This pose was great to stumble upon, and definitely worth a read for beginners and advanced yogis alike!

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