By SFCY instructor Austin Barry
Why do we show up to practice asana, day after day, year after year, with our busy lives and volatile bank accounts, why make asana a priority? What can asana do? I think this is a reasonable question. Well, there are the physiological benefits of an asana practice. Creating more strength and flexibility in the body, improving circulation, oxygenating the blood, gently, yet vigorously supporting the body and it’s systems to function at their most optimal levels through mindful breath and movement. There are the mental and emotional benefits of practice; reducing stress and cultivating discipline in our lives through showing up, even when we don’t want to. There are the basic emotional benefits of physical exercise, wherein the mind is generally in a happier, calmer state when the body is regularly in motion, (especially what with the relatively sedentary lives we tend to live in the first world and especially in the U.S.). There is that incredible gift of present moment inhabitance that can begin to take hold when the breath and the body are syncopated with one another. And there is certainly that correlation that exists between strength in the physical body, and strength on the inside; Practicing physical flexibility on the mat and cultivating more flexibility in our lives; Honoring ourselves and respecting our edges in our poses, and knowing where our limits are off the mat; showing ourselves love and compassion, regardless of the way our practice looks, feels, or shows up for us, and using that same lens of love when we are out in the world, with ourselves and with each other.
These are just some of the most basic benefits of an asana practice, and each one is made up of many, many layers that cannot help but to reveal themselves as we keep showing up to our mats. It’s sort of like school; You study the civil war in middle school, then again in high school, then again in college, then perhaps again when you pursue a masters, and at each krama, new aspects of the subject are revealed to us and new questions begin to draw our attentions. We are constantly peeling back the layers to access a deeper understanding of the same stories as we progress. Asana practice has a very similar trajectory.
There is also that never ending practice of finding one’s limit on a given day, or of assessing what we need today verses what we needed yesterday. Unfortunately, there is no universal prescription for balance in our lives. It is a scale that is constantly shifting within and around us. How we support ourselves in the summer is very rarely the same kind of support we need in the depths of winter. Our self care when we are spread very thin should likely be different from periods of time when we have more space to integrate and check in with ourselves, just as our lifestyles when we have the flu should be different than our lifestyles when we are feeling well. Our asana practice is very similar in that it rarely shows up for us in the same way two days in a row. We all know those practices where it just comes so easily, so steadily, and we feel so instantly connected within our own bodies. We are also just as familiar with the days when physical balance just seems to allude us. High lunge? Not happening. It’s very easy to get lost down the road of, “I could do this pose yesterday, so what’s wrong with me today?” We all like to think of our baseline in this life as our favorite version of ourselves. Or perhaps that our baseline practice is the one that comes most easily to us and the parts that aren’t so graceful are just the residue of an off day, when the reality is that we are all in a constant state of flux, and your practice is no less your practice just because you had a wobbly tree pose. It’s part of our learning to inhabit our lives exactly as we are, when we are, where we are. And it changes, moment to moment, season to season.
Our asana practice is an opportunity to cultivate the kind of compassion and discernment that is required to navigate our ever-changing needs in this life. Where do I need to be more vigilant, verses where do I need to settle into the space of allowance? Where should I be offering more, and where might I be offering too much? When to exert, and when to allow. To be able to distinguish the needs of a given moment can have monumental implications in our day to day lives. Our being able to walk in the world with more patience and more love, for ourselves and for others, reverberates into the lives of those around us. We are of no use to anyone when we are not able to care properly for ourselves. A tree with great branches that expand outward, but who’s trunk is flimsy and who’s root system is shallow, will not be capable of holding much in it’s canopy. In fact the very act of expanding might be enough to take the tree down. Our asana practice has the potential to be about strengthening our core and growing our roots so that we may expand outward into this life and be of the utmost service in this universe; So that we can truly be vessels of light and love for all beings in all places, and so that we may experience the light of this universe, in all of it’s many forms.
The highest purpose of any practice must be to orient ourselves in a way that we may revolve around love more consistently. If this isn’t the ultimate purpose, then why bother? Bob Dylan said that ‘you’re gonna have to serve somebody, it may be the devil, or it may be the lord but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.’ So perhaps it’s that simple. Our natural tendency is to orbit something, so we must make an awakened effort to ensure that whatever it is that we revolve around is in alignment with love. In the land of many, many choices, we must choose to serve love. Asana can be a vessel for that effort, if practiced in the spirit of compassion and light. However, to practice for the affection you feel for your six pack abs is not quite the same thing. It’s wonderful to love your body and to feel that it is beautiful, but that sort of conditional love, is not the kind I’m trying to emphasize here. I’ve read that in sanskrit there are 96 words for love. If only english could be a little more specific- but alas, it is not, so let me be clear; The love you feel for your body when it looks the way you want it to look, or the love you feel for your practice when it goes the way you want it to go, or the love you have for a yoga class that lets you feel like you’re at the top of your asana game, is not the kind of love that I’m referring to. The kind of love I mean, is the one that is free. No strings attached. A love for your body, regardless of whether it be a six pack or a whole damn keg. A love for another being, no matter what they do for you in return. A love that offers no validation, no stroke to your ego, and makes no distinctions. A love like the sun, who shines on all our faces, regardless of our intentions, our wrong doings or our accomplishments. A love that cares enough to not care at all.
While these aspects of asana are significant and sparkle with the manifestation of possibility, another important lens through which we might experience asana, is that of of devotion. When we inhabit our bodies and our breath completely, when we take a moment to honor that divine spark of life within us which fills our lungs with sacred breath roughly 20,000 times a day, then we honor the divine itself. There is no distinction to be made between the breath of life in you and the breath of life in all things. When we connect to that breath, when we celebrate the rare miracle of our own physical existence within these bodies, then we connect to the miracle of the existence of all things. And many would say that god is the essence of that very miracle. The details of the story vary, but the end result is the same; god is how all this came to be, whether that creation is seen through the prism of science, or through the lens of one of the many religious traditions devised thus far, the result is still this body, this breath, and the incredible ecological and interstellar systems of which we are all a part. Bowing to that miracle is an expression of devotion and gratitude, and many have found gratitude to be one of the steadiest bridges to grace. 20,000 breaths in one day is 20,000 opportunities to connect to our supreme divinity. Asana offers the possibility that it is in fact, that simple.
So I suppose the answer to the question of why we practice, is that there are so many reasons and those reasons are in such a constant state of evolution, that it is very challenging to pinpoint exactly why we keep showing up. And perhaps one of the aspects of asana that continues to draw us back, is that the answer may be different each time. And perhaps the answer is too, so consistent and so unshakable that we are able to access a feeling of home, each time we unroll our mats. So it would seem that I am unable and unqualified to answer the question, why practice, and that would seem to be entirely an acceptable place to be at present.