Now that I’m currently spending very little time actually on my mat (a browse through my January archive of posts will tell the story why) I’m asking myself not just about the role of asana practice within yoga, but also how I can practice yoga without asana.
Actually I think this is a pretty funny question, since it was only about 6 months ago when I first started to have any understanding of what people might mean by ‘taking your yoga off the mat’. Back then, metaphysical concerns about what yoga asana teaches us about ourselves were far from my mind — all I cared about was not spending more than half the class (please!) panting in child’s pose, and resisting the inclination to rush out of the studio midway through class on a tide of intense and unwelcome emotion. Had I known earlier how to listen, of course, both those things would have taught me a lot about how I live my life off that mat.
So now I’m a tiny bit wiser, I’m a tiny bit more able to observe myself in asana practice and to practice modifying my natural inclinations in a way that might serve me better out in the real world. Because I increasingly realise that while asana is cool — and, be honest, who hasn’t had an ego-inflating eureka moment when a pose that seemed impossible just happens and in that moment feels so intensely right? — asana is not the whole of yoga: unless asana somehow teaches us something about acting in the world, it’s just gymnastics. And if I’d wanted to be a gymnast, I wouldn’t have faked so many notes from my mum when I was at school excusing me from physical education classes!
So now my over-taxed hamstring is teaching me something fundamental about asana. I think I’m beginning to understand the internal nature of asana, and why the outer form isn’t the be all and end all. I can’t deny that a perfectly executed pose is a beautiful thing, but so is the perseverance, the courage, the joy, the letting go that contribute to any shape I might make on the mat. And surely it’s that internal experience that’s at the heart of yoga, not the seemingly effortless poise of a carefully selected instagram pic or a Yoga Journal cover shoot.
So this is humbling stuff, leaving me feeling not a little stupid that it takes an injury to teach me something I’m sure my teacher has been trying to tell me forever. And I always thought I was a good listener…
So while I’m wrapping my apparently superficial and shallow brain around the value, if not the purpose, of asana practice, I’m also forced to ask (or rather my physio’s restrictions are forcing me to ask ) what’s yoga without asana? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Meantime I’ll work on my answer. And if my asana practice has taught me anything so far, it’s that it’s in my nature to tend towards difficult answers to simple questions. And this, dear reader, is far from being a simple question.