Why Practice Advanced Asana?

David Rush


Yoga, Asana, and Meditation

योगा चित्त वृत्ति निरोधः
yogas citta-vrtti-nirodha
Yoga is the stillness of the busy mind

Yes, that’s it, straight from Patanjali’s pen to all of us living centuries away from him. So why do we do all this sweaty hard work, when we could sit in the shade of a bodhi-tree and settle our mind into a near-nap?

Well, first of all, I wouldn’t know where to find a bodhi-tree, so I might need something else. But more importantly, it’s because “the stillness of the busy mind” is more than it appears at first look. In fact, the entire text of the Yoga Sutra was written to clarify that definition, and the short version of the answer is that when you bring the mind to a place of stillness, then you will accurately perceive anything to which you dedicate your attention.

This is all brought together in the idea of samyama, which is the total of the last three limbs of Raja Yoga,

one-pointed focus
intense observation
continuous absorption

Together these amount to an advanced form of meditation. Mostly, in western yoga, we think of samadhi as being the same thing as enlightenment, but that’s just not so. It’s a skill and we can practice it.

Which brings us to asana, the practice of the funny shapes we make with the body. Typically it is viewed as a preparatory practice, to make the body ready and able to sit still in meditation for an extended period. In some traditions, asana is viewed as a practice to prepare the energy body for the rush of Kundalini awakening. Some traditions look at asana as an essential practice for healing and wellness in the body. And it is all of these things, but where I think it is most suited to the practice of Yoga is as a vehicle for practicing samyama.

This becomes particularly clear when we begin to practice advanced asana. Leaving aside for the moment, the question of what “advanced” means, if we think about practicing any posture that is just beyond our current ability, what do we have to do?

we find a clear set of parallels to the last three limbs of Raja Yoga. In short, advanced asana is a meditation practice. And (not entirely by accident) we have also hit upon our definition of “advanced asana”: asana practice that requires the complete absorption of the person’s intention to act and their attention to sensation.

This definition clearly does not require fancy shapes from a circus performer’s repertoire, so nobody is locked out of the practice. But is does encourage us to continue on discovering a deeper understanding of postures we can easily form, as well as working with shapes and expression that we find difficult. This is how your trikonasana (triangle) becomes ardha chandrasana (half moon), which becomes chapasana (sugar cane).

And while all of the meditation skills can be practiced with common asana (e.g. Surya Namaskar A/B), most practitioners of advanced asana also spend a lot of time working with deep attention in the basics. International teacher Christina Sell actually uses it as one of her foundational practice principles, offering online courses and live workshops based on the idea. The reason is really simple: learning deep attention in the basics is tested by working with advanced asana. Life’s progression is always towards more clarity and diversity of expression, and advanced asana practice is a vehicle for that growth.

It is a lot like the blooming of a flower. The gardener waters the plant, fertilizes the ground, removes the weeds, and in due course, the plant blooms. Advanced asana practice is just the same. Take handstand (ado mukha vrksasana or downward facing tree) as an example. In my own practice it took the best part of seven years to develop the combination of flexibility in my shoulders and hamstrings with strength and control in my abdomen and hands before I could float into it in the center of the room. During that time there wouuld be long periods where I wouldn’t go upside down even once — either because it wasn’t being taught by any of my teachers or I was just thinking about other things. But one day, after a class of deep forward folds, I felt like it would be really natural to just take it that tiny extra step...and I was so surprised at how easy it was to press up that I almost fell down again. Fortunately, I had also learned the mental discipline to stay focused on the sensation in the body rather than try to think about what I was doing.

Since then handstand has become a regular practice for me, and I find it especially effective at settling my mind to focus when a whirlwind of problems comes my way. This is precisely because it is un-natural and difficult. My body has learned that by patiently doing what is possible, the impossible becomes accessible and even (sometimes) joyful. That sustained practice towards ado mukha vrksasana was a practical meditation that affected both body and mind. And that is the magic which keeps me motivated in my practice every time I roll out my mat.

There are more reasons for practicing advanced asana, but this has gone on long enough. Stay tuned for part two.

Om Shanti

This document was translated from LATEX by HEVEA.