The image of a yoga posture is merely a crude guideline for the authentic expression of the pose. The image of the shape functions as a signpost, pointing us towards a felt experience. The diverse variations of a pose are like landmarks on a map. However, the road to an asana (posture) is one that is never-ending.
In the media, postures are presented to us like polished finished products, when in reality there is no end-point to a pose, only the endless refinement of your physical experience and of your perception. In yoga, we’re not interested in a finished product or a standardised shape (in a way, the shapes and pose names are irrelevant), we're interested how we live the experience of being consciously embodied.
The body is never really still – even a pose that looks static is highly dynamic for the person practising it. Neither is there any one linear journey into asana; there are no straight lines in the body, so we have to find our way in through spirals, detours, side-roads and frequent rest-stops. I have distilled this journey into a process of pause, pose, re-pose, repose, which endlessly repeats just as our call to presence does in a sitting meditation.
Pause – Be still, become present.
Pose - Move towards the shape
Re-pose - Follow the sensations into a truer expression
Repose – Rest in presence until the body feeds back to move again
To authentically embody a yoga posture, you have to start by stopping. Listen to the sensations, which are like your internal sat nav, and use them as your guidance as you begin to move. Listen, respond, wait for feedback and then respond again, entering into the internal experience of embodiment through a conversation that includes your body, your mind, your breath, the ground beneath you and the space around you. If you listen carefully, you will always receive the feedback that will take you deeper (experientially deeper, but not necessarily into a big stretch!). The ideal asana is not one that shows a high level of flexibility but one which brings you into a deeper understanding of yourself. Yoga is a process of integration and asana is only one tiny small part, but nevertheless it is a tangible part that we can make a start with.
Images are responsible for our love of yoga in the West, and also responsible for our misunderstanding of it. Photographic images of yogis doing impressive asana routines made their way over to the West in the early 20th century and caught the attention of people attracted by the nascent leisure industry and the new fashion for “gymnastics” – which we now call “exercise”. The performing of yoga poses was popularised as a way to stay fit and limber. Yoga gradually became part of the wellbeing and self-help industries when we became aware of the benefits to mental health that a yoga practice could bring. It would be unthinkable to the ancient yogis of India that you could do a yoga pose right or wrong – that kind of polarity is exactly what they aimed to escape in their endeavours to integrate with the Universal. Correct alignment was something propounded by BKS Iyengar and which caught on amongst yogis hungry for validation (aren't we all?).
The ancient yogis would certainly puzzle over the way yoga has metamorphosed from a path to spiritual enlightenment into a self-help regime, lifestyle statement and billion dollar industry.
It can be all those things.
The vast behemoth of yoga has mopped up endless new ideologies, approaches, angles and applications over the several millennia it has been around. There is no such thing as the “pure” yoga. We make it what we need it to be, and many of those who come to yoga as a way to get fit or de-stress will find their way to spiritual development over the course of time. And many won’t, but they'll still be able to thank yoga for making their time on this planet a bit easier.
On the Into Yoga Pre-foundation course, we spend two whole days feeling into the authentic expression and alignment principles of asana. The course is open to anyone who has been doing yoga for a year or more, and is an excellent preparation for the 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training Course which takes place November to July in Weston-super-Mare.
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Morven Hamilton is a yoga teacher and trainer living and working in Weston-super-Mare, North Somerset and internationally.