The Aftertaste of Asana
This article first appeared in issue 45 of Australian Yoga Life.
Any practitioner of yoga is familiar with the strong stance their body naturally begins to adopt with regular asana practice. We stand tall, feel strong, and begin to experience a sense of newfound power and potency in our day-to-day lives. With commitment, not only do we observe the long-term effects of our asana practice but the subtle effects, or residue that each individual asana leaves behind.
When we begin to observe the after effects of each asana – the natural progression is to realize that at every moment of each day we are in posture. Whether we are consciously in posture is irrelevant – the way we align our body from moment to moment will always have physiological, emotional and spiritual effects.
Danny Arguetty in his book Nourishing the Teacher says “The Sanskrit word mudra is usually defined as ‘seal’ or ‘sacred gesture’. As such, asanas are essentially forms of mudra. When we position our bodies in asana, we are in fact embodying a sacred gesture that facilitates deeper absorption with consciousness and moves us towards greater awakening from the inside out.”
As an active exploration of this, suggests Arguetty – observe as you move through your asana practice and ask yourself – what is the energetic imprint that this posture or asana is leaving behind?
What’s in a posture?
The physical benefits of regular asana practice are well known and apply to all the major systems of the body – not just the musculoskeletal system. Although asana is considered the most physical limb of the eight limbs of yoga, its effects run much deeper. According to the tantric model – the reason for our asana practice is to awaken the subtle physiology of the body and purify the nadis in order to release impurities or samskaras.
“The term ‘samskara’ (past impression) refers to the way we carry the past; the way it shapes our present and can be seen in the way we hold our bodies, the way we think, the way we feel; how our habits and history are formed and reformed in our day-to-day lives. Whether conscious or sublimated these impressions color our outlook on the world.” Says Alan Goode in his essay Light on Knowledge from Iyengar: Yoga Master.
We literally carry the past in our body, which affects our posture and causes us to get stuck in patterns of similar experiences. If the postural habit is broken, either through the physical practice of asana or simply more conscious choice of body positioning; the pattern is broken and the space for new experiences is created.
So if samskaras are the way that we carry the past – asanas are a process of cleansing and purifying our memory with conscious new experiences. Through the practice of asana we gently restore the body’s own healing intelligence and release the scars and holding patterns of past traumas and negative experiences that continue to unconsciously shape our everyday existence.
What is your common posture?
Our day-to-day body language is essentially another form of asana if not somewhat unconscious. Consider the effects of your most common daily postures: How do you sit in conversation with friends, work at the computer or eat at the table? What postural attitude do you adopt whilst driving the car? How do you stand while waiting for the bus or in the line at the supermarket?
A study in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that posture significantly affects self-confidence. Participants were asked to complete a mock job application in one of two potential postures; sitting slumped or upright and straight. The application required that they list their strengths, weaknesses and give themselves a rating to indicate their perceptions of themselves. No surprises to the yogis in the room – sitting straight up was associated with higher levels of work-related confidence.
In yoga we learn to stand tall, feet grounded, spine straight and heart open. Then, often spend the rest of the day sitting slumped at computers or standing small with our shoulders curled around our heart, guarding our own greatness. Imagine how much more powerful we would be if we became as consciously aware of our posture off the mat, as we are in the midst of practice?
In practice – On the mat
Last year I was fortunate enough to be on teacher training with senior teacher and founder of YogaMaze, Noah Mazé. He directed the group into an advanced transition for the arm balance Astavakrasana (Eight-Angle Pose). Close to half the students in attendance (myself included) attempted to transition into the posture from standing and ended up in a defeated slump on our sticky mats.
Noah stopped us to communicate this idea of the aftertaste of asana. ‘Be careful’ he said ‘of the posture you find yourself in after attempting a difficult asana. Each posture leaves behind an energetic imprint – an aftertaste on your body and on your psyche. If you try, you fall and you sit slumped in a posture of defeat – then that is the aftertaste your asana leaves behind. If, however you come back to a neutral posture such as Tadasana and stand tall and strong, the next time you approach this asana you do so with a clean slate.’
It is for this same reason that alignment is important. Correct alignment is necessary to protect students from injury, yet the necessity for proper alignment runs deeper than that. Without gentle guidance into correct postural alignment, it is not uncommon for students to perform asanas from the experience of past samskaras and the way they are stored in that particular students body. While it is important not to perpetuate the idea of the “perfect asana” it is imperative that the student can be guided into the posture in order to experience the energetic effects that will begin to purify past holding patterns.
We are always in posture (even off the mat)
“You are never not in asana; a posture of consciousness. Body, mind, heart; you are in asana whether you are awake, dreaming or in deep sleep states.” Says Mazé
“As Krishna says to Arjuna in the Gita; you are always acting, the question is whether or not you are skillful and virtuosic in your action.”
So even when we are not consciously choosing a posture or a stance of potency – the energetic imprint is still left – the impression still made.
Each day brings new experiences and reactions that shape the way we look, feel and act tomorrow. We literally begin to embody our past experiences and associated postures. If we come from a past where we constantly feel a need to protect ourselves (either physically or emotionally) over time our posture will come to reflect this. Our shoulders will likely tense and lift, our back round and we take on a consistently armored posture or protective stance.
People who come from a life situation where they have never been given permission to shine or be themselves, tend to try and make themselves smaller through their body posture. In both examples the posture re-enforces the corresponding mental belief and vice versa.
“Each act in daily life leaves an imprint that influences the next act. Each practice forms the imprint for the following practice. If our experience is continually negative, then the cumulative experience is negative.” Says Alan Goode in an excerpt from Light on Knowledge.
Peter A. Levine, author of Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma says, “Traumatic symptoms are not caused by the “triggering” event itself. They stem from the frozen residue of energy that has not been resolved and discharged; this residue remains trapped in the nervous system where it can wreak havoc on our bodies and spirits.”
Levine explains that often humans hold these experiences in their bodies whereas animals in the wild literally shake of these experiences and release this energetic residue so they don’t become victims of trauma.
The depth of practice
When the new student of yoga begins their yoga journey – most are simply practicing the outward form of the postures. This affects the student at the level of the physical or gross body (annamaya kosha). With continued practice and constant awareness we awaken to the sensations of the subtler levels of anatomy. Each of the five pranic bodies (koshas) infiltrates and affects the next layer, and even the physical practice of asana becomes transformational at the deepest level.
Changes in patterns on the level of the physical or gross body (annamaya kosha) will give rise to changes at the level of breath, blood and cerebrospinal fluid – considered the entry into the more subtle anatomy of the body or pranamaya kosha. Going deeper again, changes will soon be seen in the mental and emotional sphere that corresponds roughly to our nervous system or manomaya kosha. As the student begins to expand their practice to include the deeper aspects or limbs of practice such as sense withdrawal (pratyahara), concentration (Dharana) and meditation (Dhyana), change at the most subtle levels of the anatomy including the wisdom body (vijanamaya kosha) and the bliss body (anadamaya kosha) begin to take place.
This is not to say that changes do not occur at these more subtle layers from asana practice alone. It just means that in order to affect deeper change at the more subtle levels, subtler practices will have a more significant result – once the work has been done at the level of the gross body.
This seemingly purely physical exercise, through time and continued practice becomes transformational at the deepest levels of our being. From modest goals of physical wellbeing and a desire to simply reduce stress in our lives our practice can take us on a journey whereby we invite the embodiment of the divine not only into our practice of asana within the confines of our mat – but eventually our daily postures and actions too.
Arguetty, D., Nourishing the Teacher: Inquiries, Contemplations, & Insights on the Path of Yoga, Nourish Your Light, Canada, 2009, p. 98
Busia, K., Iyengar: The Yoga Master, Shambhala Publications, Inc., Massachusetts, 2007, p. 90 & 91
Goode, A., Light on Knowledge Essay from Iyengar: The Yoga Master, (The above publication), p. 90 & 91
Levine, P. A., Waking the Tiger, Healing Trauma. North Atlantic Books, California, 1997, P. 19
Bailey, S.R., Hatha Yoga as a Practice of Embodiment, Thesis for University of California, Los Angeles, 1997
Kelly Ryan is a yoga teacher & meditation facilitator, writer & photographer. She is based in Wollongong NSW.