What Makes a Movement an Asana?

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Are ‘asana‘ movements we do with our body? Or, are they ways of being in our body?
Take sirsasana: is it ‘a headstand’? Or, is it a way of being in a headstand: ‘a headstand as an asana.‘
I believe asana are ways of being in the body and I view sirsasana as a way of being in a headstand.

The differences between ‘something’ as a movement and ‘something as an asana’ are subtle but significant. A deep knowledge of the principles of movement proves extraordinarily helpful when helping practitioners construct personalized practices.

It’s All About Intention

Intention differentiates a movement from an asana. To practice ‘something’ as an asana requires a heightened attention to the interior qualities of stability and ease (“sthira sukham asanam“).

Patanjali offers a two-fold strategy for realizing those qualities: economize your efforts (“prayatna shaithilya“) and bring an expansive orientation to what you’re doing (“ananta samapattibhyam“).

How Do You Cultivate Movement Quality?

It’s worth considering how and when a movement’s inner qualities should be cultivated.

From the beginning, regardless of the practitioner’s current mastery of a movement?
Later, once the practitioner has sketched out the rough edges of a particular posture?
Or, from the get-go but in a progressive way: breaking down the components of ‘something’ to gradually develop the practitioner’s mastery of them and their inner qualities.
Each approach has its merits, but I’m partial to the latter strategy. It’s never black and white, however. One of the challenges about practicing ‘something’ as an asana, is needing first and foremost, to know how to do that ‘something.’

What am I Doing Here?

In order to do “headstand as an asana‘ or “standing as an asana” (tadasana) or “balancing on my hands and kicking my criss-crossed legs out to the side in order to create eight angles as an asana” (astavakrasana), I have to first learn to get on my head, or stand upright or balance in an eight-angled way.

Realistic Expectations

I think it’s unrealistic to expect practitioners to infuse stability and ease into something that extends them beyond their threshold of success; they’re in survival mode at that point. For that reason, I think it’s important, as teachers, to assess practitioners’ movement thresholds, and as practitioners, to include strategies of progressive complexity in our practices.

Anticipating Compensations

I think the ‘wait til later’ approach recognizes that certain movements are complex and require time to master but delaying the introduction of the sthirasukham concept has its own drawbacks. To say, “Okay, now that you’re upside down [e.g.], relax your efforts and rest your attention in your breathing and we’ll start turning this into an asana,” disregards the compensatory patterns that may have brought the practitioner into that position. Those likely will resist her attempts to relax, especially if she is at the end range of her abilities.

Thoughtful Preparation

Instead, I’ve come to appreciate the strategy of breaking down movements into their component parts. I have re-doubled my efforts to dive deeply into the art/science of progressive sequencing.

In seeking ways to help fellow practitioners more effectively transform their movements into asana, I realized that required a lifetime of learning as much as I could about the principles of movement.

The Similarities Between A Movement & An Asana

For too many years, and perhaps distracted by talk of chakras, nadis and koshas, I lost sight of the reality that when I’m practicing Yoga it’s not like I’m stepping into another realm where a different set of rules apply. In asana, pranayama and dhyanam something profoundly brilliant is occurring: movement.

Regardless of intention, the principles of movement reign:

• movement is dynamic;
• movement is individualistic;
• movement is 3-dimensional;
• movement is directed;
• movement is driven (internally or externally or through a combination of both);
• movement occurs within the context of gravity;
• movement is impacted by mass, momentum and inertia;
• movement actively triggers a subconscious chain reaction;
• movement is complex; and
• movement is variable, et al.

If I take the principles of movement seriously, then I’m contemplating…

• dynamically moving
• this uniquely individual
• three-dimensional mass of mine
• from a particular starting place (standing, sitting, kneeling, lying on my belly, lying on my back, side-lying or being inverted in a different way), along a particular path, using one or more body parts • to drive my movements (hands, a leg/legs, head, my pelvis, my eyes or some combination thereof),
• to generate neither too much, nor too little, but instead just the right amount of momentum to get me from ‘here’ to ‘there’ and to position me to go ‘somewhere else’ afterwards in a way that gives my body the information it needs
• to subconsciously respond
• to the complexity in and around me that is beyond my conscious comprehension and which is continually changing.

I know: it’d have been so much simpler if the principles of movement dictated that using 26 postures, two times apiece, was the answer for each and every one of us. I wish it was that simple. (No, really, I do.) And for some people it is. For a time. Sometimes for a long time.

Instead, reflecting on these movement principles has me continually reconsidering some of the strategies I’ve acquired over the years.

• Can I really cue someone into proper form and alignment?
• Is there even such a thing as ‘proper form and alignment?’
• Can asana be achieved through self-practice alone – without cueing, hands-on assistance or anything else?
• Are techniques I’ve picked up across the years universally applicable?
• Can really I tell if someone is doing ‘something as an asana’ instead of just doing ‘something’? Unless it’s me – does that matter?

But in addition to churning up doubts and pointing to areas I might make changes, reflecting on these movement principles has also been liberating.

They have pointed me towards developing three-dimensional asana matrices; they’ve taught me to pay attention to the vinyasa within the vinyasa (the chain of movements within each movement); and they’ve helped me experientially understand the flow of movement from its grosser extremes in asana to its more subtle aspects in pranayama and dhyanam.

Most importantly, reflecting on these movement principles has helped me better serve to my existing client-practitioners and created opportunities for me to work with a more diverse group of new ones.

Even more encouraging is the network of colleagues (physical therapists, athletic trainers, personal trainers, osteopaths, massage therapists and chiropractors) I’ve discovered who are as passionate about applying these principles of movement to their fields as I am passionate about sharing them with you, and our Yoga community.

Much like the principles of Yoga, the principles of movement come from an ancient lineage. They are what they are and they wait patiently as each succeeding generation takes up the question of how to understand, engage, apply and be transformed by the wisdom they offer.

There are millions of people practicing asana as part of their Yoga practice. Each individuated, complex, three-dimensional, movement-loving meditator is going to arrive at a moment when a generic solution no longer creates the stability and ease she was seeking.

In that moment, I hope you will be there waiting for that person – with your full heart, a generous spirit, an expansive mind – to walk her through the valley of complexity to get to the mountaintop of simplicity.

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Stepping Out: The Vinyasa within the Vinyasa (transformationzoneyoga.com)
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