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Why it's not all about the Asana

If you search 'yoga' on instagram, tiktok or google, you could end up thinking it's about making shapes with your body.

woman practicing forearm stand
Is this really yoga?

Maybe it's about making shapes that your body struggles with: bending into a pretzel, fully straightening out your legs, standing on your hands or head.

Perhaps you decide that's fine and you want to give it a go. Or perhaps you think it's not for you and you prefer other ways to excercise.

The thing about this is that yoga isn't really about making shapes with your body, and the idea that it is actively puts a lot of people, who would benefit greatly, off ever trying a yoga class.

So what is yoga about if it's not the postures (asana)?

'Yoga' is usually translated from Sanskrit as "to yoke" or "to unite". I interpret this as the concept of bringing all the parts of our being into line with one another- mind, physical body, emotions, energy, consciousness. When we're in accordance with ourselves, we're more likely to be accepting, happy, balanced and able to deal with whatever life throws at us. That's pretty universally helpful, right?

There are different techniques available to bring about this alignment.

Most people have something they find themselves absorbed in, where worries just melt away. Playing music, dancing, playing sport, or spending time with loved ones may give us a glimpse of unity within ourselves.

They do, however, depend upon outside conditions, e.g. the availability of loved ones, or physical fitness. Yoga should give us techniques to bring about alignment from within.

In the yoga tradition, there are eight distinct and intersecting ways to approach yoga (or unity).

the eight limbs of yoga
The eight limbs of yoga attributed to Patanjali

These are: how we behave in the external world, how we behave internally to ourselves, how we work with our physical body, how we work with our energy, how to not be constantly distracted by our senses and the world around us, having and developing focus, absorption and concentration, and finally experiencing the state of unity.

Working with the physical body (asana, or postures) is only one part of this picture. Through asana we can work into the other aspects, which is what most yoga teachers encourage students to do.

Discipline through regular practice. Developing focus through attention to the postures, alignment or the sequence. Encouraging right thoughts and actions through meditations or thought provoking insight. Sensing and changing our energy levels through movement.

The problem is however, it's still dependent upon outside conditions since the entry point is entirely via a physical practice. If you're injured and unable to practice asana this week, you can't "do" yoga... if you don't believe you're flexible enough for a vinyasa flow, you can't "do" yoga!

A broader understanding of yoga as a set of techniques to experience inner and outer unity is more esoteric, but also more

available. If I'm injured, I can concentrate on my breath to train my focus and sense my energy. If my mind or emotions are too busy to sit in meditation, I can move my body in any way (not only in a set sequence of approved postures) to bring my mind and feelings better in line with my body and my energy (ever noticed how much better you can feel after a cuppa if you're upset?). If I have an unhelpful or unhealthy attitude to something in my life, I can find ways to work on it even if I can't touch my toes.

That's why it's important that we don't only see yoga as a physical practice, and when we do move as part of yoga there are options available to all physical capabilities (eye yoga, anyone?), so everyone can move towards unity of being.

Yoga isn't all about the asana, and we don't always "do" yoga on a mat. I hope to help more people discover this and realise that yoga can be for them, too.

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