asana practice is meditation II – learning to be presentby Rob Lieblein December 7, 2014 0 comments
You’ve just rolled out your yoga mat and you’re ready to stretch, strengthen, and challenge your body. If there’s some time left after savasana maybe you’ll meditate. But probably not. Meditation is a luxury that will have to wait until you have some free time on your hands.
Or is it?
In the previous article, we began to explore the deep connections between the practice of yoga’s physical poses and meditation. Now we’ll dive into more of the details of why that is the case, and how we can approach asana practice to maximize those meditative qualities.
Kripalu is a style of yoga that illustrates the connections between meditation and asana in ways that are easy to understand and put into practice, so I’ll use it as a frequent reference point, but the fundamental ideas are definitely not limited to Kripalu Yoga alone. (Full disclosure: Kripalu is the style I practice and teach, so I have a natural bias to this approach!)
When we first come to yoga our learning curve may be extremely steep, and there’s usually a certain amount of anxiety that comes with unfamiliar situations. So it’s helpful to focus on simply becoming present in the early stages of practice. While that may sound simple, consider how quickly the mind starts jumping from thought to thought as soon as you sit down to meditate (sometimes referred to as the Noble Failure).
It’s a real wake-up call to observe how un-present we truly are, and yoga offers a path to find that sense of presence through our bodies.
In Kripalu Yoga, this is referred to as “Stage 1,” or willful practice. As soon as we hit the mat, we take inventory of where we are physically, energetically, mentally and emotionally in order to establish a starting place for the practice. This is also a way to filter out some of the distractions we may encounter.
Next, we set an intention for our practice, which further guides the mind away from distractions. An intention can be as simple as loosening a tight hamstring or as complex as resolving a deep internal conflict, and it can serve as a road map throughout the practice.
When we move into the asanas themselves, we’re invited to come more deeply into the presence of our own bodies, and Stage 1 practice requires attention to the details of each pose and finding the proper alignment. That alone can give the mind plenty to focus on!
As the body gets used to finding physical alignment, we become more aware of breathing, and how conscious, flowing breath supports each pose. Each breath is linked to a movement, and we can come back to those elements of breath and movement over and over again, each time our focus slips.
In Stage 1 our bodies offer our minds very specific targets for focusing awareness, which has a stilling effect on the frenetic activity of our minds—a fundamental principle of meditation.
Yoganand Michael Carroll describes this experience nicely in Kripalu Yoga: A Guide to Practice On and Off the Mat:
“When body, breath, and awareness are aligned, a certain kind of magic happens. Distraction falls away and all of you comes together into a greater whole. The posture not only stretches you in just the right place, it teaches you something about yourself.”
So, even in the early stages of yoga practice, the purpose of asana transcends physical exercise. And as we’ll see in upcoming articles, asanas can take us much deeper into the meditative experience.