Ashtanga Yoga With Antonella
Jun 2012


What is asana?

I could start off with a definition from the Yoga Sutras, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, or some other definitive text saying that asana means "x,y and z". But I'm not a scholar, and most yoga practitioners have heard these definitions countless times; so why repeat them here?

OK then...this might be a short essay.

In the city where I live, and maybe in the West in general, asana has become the standard by which we practice yoga. Because of this, most people look at poses (accomplishing them, imitating the execution of someone they’ve seen on YouTube, etc.) as the “end” of doing yoga.

The more controlled a handstand you can do, the better you are. People will clap for you in class, take pictures, pat you on the back...hmmmm....

In the Ashtanga practice, in particular, because you have a linear “progression” people assume that more poses = better. People ask for poses, covet the ones they see their neighbors performing, and set out to prove themselves to other students and teachers by doing the hardest variation of a pose, or playing with poses they haven’t been told to do. On a superficial level, this is backed up by the fact that the more poses you can do, the more poses you get.

On my most recent trip to India, I actually asked my teacher if he would ever stop giving poses. That’s right, I went there.

After a particularly grueling week at the Shala, and having the realization that I’m in for a very long and difficult journey with my practice over the next few years, I asked:

“If a student gets to the end of a series, would you just stop giving them poses?”.

The blank look that I received should have been enough of an answer, but I pressed on:

“You know, would you say ‘this is good enough, they can stop here, they don’t need any more’?“.

The response was a definitive “NO”. He continued: “As long as there are asanas in the bag the student will keep getting poses.” And then he smiled, and I sighed, resigned to the fact that my work is only just beginning.

But really, that’s it in a nutshell. The answer is in the work that we do. In overcoming our fears, our indecisions, our complacency. By progressively working on poses that challenge us in different ways, we tap into the heart of what an asana practice is about. It’s nice to be able to do things well, to work our strengths, to be comfortable in our little bubble. But that’s not what the poses are there for.

Many people have heard the statements: “poses are empty”, “it’s not about the poses”; but then I’ve also heard that Guruji would say that “poses have a Godlike quality”. So which is it, it can’t be both, can it?

One analogy that I’ve been rolling around in my head, is that poses are like tools.

A hammer and chisel are just inanimate objects sitting in a toolbox. Without the person wielding them, they could be paperweights or doorstops. It’s not until you take them and decide to make something with them that their potential is released. Likewise, asanas exist in a potential state until we execute them.

In the hands of someone like me, the hammer and chisel would make a nice hole in something. In the hands of Michelangelo, you get the David...’s not about the tool, it’s about how you use it.

The “Godlike” quality comes from the ability of the person to tap into divine inspiration. To elevate a hammer to something that creates, that uplifts the wielder from a mere “user” to a conduit for that inspiration.

You could take your tools and make something practical, utilitarian. You could take your tools and destroy something. You could take your tools and make something that serves no purpose other than to occupy space. You could use your tools to make yourself popular, or famous, or expand your ego. Or you could take your tools and use them to uplift yourself and others.

That is the power of asana.