When I began to practice yoga twenty-five years ago, the emphasis was on the physical. In fact, it would be closer to the truth to say I wasn’t practicing yoga at all – I was practicing asana. And while my early training included work on the philosophy and history of yoga, I listened about as carefully as I did during fifth-grade arithmetic (and my friends are all too aware that my ability to add and subtract leaves much to be desired).
What was I afraid of?
I convinced myself that asana was enough. But I was only swimming on the surface. To me, deeper work meant something physical, nothing more than graduating from half to full lotus without damaging my fragile left knee. The thought of moving deeper spiritually was too uncomfortable. My asana practice strengthened but I failed to see beyond its gifts. Deeper examination meant diving into the unknown. And I was uncertain of what I might find.
But twenty-five years after my first utthita trikonasana I now see awesome beauty in the unknown. I’ve yet to reach center – do we ever? But to paraphrase one of my teachers, I know that when I do find my center, freedom will be waiting for me.
Although I have no proof, I think it is reasonably safe to assume that most yoga practice in the West is asana-centric. There’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, what’s not to love about asana practice? It brings us to a place where we feel balanced and alive. It calms or energizes depending upon our needs and our sequencing. And if we pay attention to the sensations we feel after our practice we’ll realize they are more than physical. More than skin deep. Our asana practice influences our emotional state. It influences how we perceive the world around us.
But this is just a tease.
When we broaden our yoga practice with elements of pranayama and meditation we build a practice that is deeply integrated and holistic. The physiological and spiritual sensations that asana practice hints at become intensified. We begin to dive beneath the surface.
The same teacher who taught me where to find freedom also offered a metaphor. He suggested that our day-to-day lives, our random thoughts, our unconsidered reactions to the world around us are like the surface of the ocean: rough and unsettled with white caps and tides that rush in and just as quickly rush out. But beneath the surface of the ocean there is calm. If we can turn away from chaos and turn toward the calm found in a measured breath and silence then our spirits – and our asana practice – will be nourished.