Asana are not dead
When I teach children about meditation and asana, I always teach them meditation first and explain them that the ancient yogis got stiff from all the sitting in meditation and started to look at the animals to see how they could move and stretch their bodies after sitting for long periods in the same posture. This is a great access to teaching kids asana in a playful and understandable way. Plus it is quite an accurate reflection of our lives in the West. So many people spend hours sitting in the same posture and we take a yoga or movement class to ‘break through’ our ‘fuzzed up’ stiff bodies.
When we look at the sacred Sanskrit (and translated) terms for the shapes we make with our bodies in a Yoga class, it is clear that the majority of the shapes are inspired by animals.
This makes me wonder: why do we express these shapes as if they are stuffed animals, rather than creatures in the midst of life? We can learn so much more from how animals move, rather than trying to copy their lifeless state.
A cobra has a spine so flexible and with access to so many ranges of motion, and so does a cat. How is it that we tend to freeze up when in Bhujangasana (Cobra pose) and why do we only flex and extend our spine when doing a combination of Marjariasana (Cat pose) and Bitilasana (Cow Pose), to loosen up the spine? We cannot all be flexible like cats but a cow even has more range than only flexion and extension. Especially regarding Cat – Cow combinations I have had conversations with other teachers that claim that for people with back pains, more than just flexing and extending causes more pain. I think this pain sits in the tissue that has dried up due to lack of movement. And our tissue needs movement in all ranges in order to get juicy again. We have 21 layers of tissue on our Lumbar spine (lower back) and with most people this is all dried up due to lack of movement and/or poor posture, so you can imagine 21 layers of a gooey substance, glued together so it becomes one or a few layer(s) of stuck-ness that limits movement and could cause pain pressing against our nerves.
When we look at a few more basic and popular poses, like the variations of Virabhadrasana (Warrior poses), my understanding for the widely taught rigidness in this pose (even our hands need to freeze up) decreases every second I give it a rational thought. Which warrior is so rigid that he annot respond quickly, fiercely and concentrated while hunting on something that moves?! Let it be fighting something that moves!
A dog, frog, pigeon, monkey, heron, cockerel, tortoise, crocodile, fish, peacock, locust, rabbit, lion, camel, horse, eagle, scorpion; just to name a few, are also moving and alive. We can learn so much more from how these animals move and how their bodies are shaped, rather than trying to copy their shape when lifeless.
There are not only animal-named poses in Yoga, but many other asana invite for a bit more physical motion rather than ultimate physical stillness. To give a few examples; a boat, a bow, crane, wheel, garland, lotus and thunderbolt also invite us to be a bit more buoyant while expressing these shapes. The one more than the other but these are moving objects when used. A dancer, fetus, child or moon added to this list.
Even a plough and a candle are not motionless. In these poses, we should consider that the base of the item/shape/ asana is and should be motionless, but there is movement around a steady base. We could refer to this steady base as an invite for preset alignment rules for a body part, like the hips. But our arms don’t need to freeze up. This could only result in a frozen breath.
Triangle, couch, mountain and corpse pose seem to be one of the few exceptions, where we are invited to practice absolute physical stillness. A mountain adjusts to its environment and is full of life too, but I shall not be anal about that one 😉
Bottom line: investigate the shape that you are trying to express in your posture practice before blindly following someone else’s instructions. As it might very well be that you can learn so much more from them and find ranges in your body that you didn’t know you have. The latter takes lightness, patience, feel, grace and a lot of time, as we humans have lived a rigid life for such long time already, sitting in the same posture daily and practicing bodywork with linear movements. But you might be surprised how much more mobility, stability, flexibility and strength you can accumulate inside your body, just following the flow of nature. It’s the unification with nature that gets us closer to the unification with ‘the source’ and it is the stillness we find within the motion that enables us to find stillness within the fluctuation of our minds in a day-to-day life.