Asana literally means ‘seat.’ It is taken today to mean a Yoga pose or posture. Each asana presents its own challenges and opportunities, and yet each is simply a new form or container for the breath to fill. Competence in an asana is not simply creating the physical appearance of the pose; it is when the breath is full and unlabored, the entire body is intelligent and participating fully in the effort, the is mind clear and focused. When we begin to work on a new, difficult asana, the breath is shallow, rapid, or held, and parts of the body are stiff, weak, painful, forgotten, injured, or immobile. The Ashtanga sequences are crafted to systematically uncover and rehabilitate these deficiencies, frequently ones that we were unaware of. Over time, with intelligent practice, each part of the body and mind becomes strong, light, and healthy.
In three Sutras, Patanjali gives this instruction:
Asana is both steady strength and ease, wherein effort becomes effortless and the mind is fixed on the infinite. Then, one is invulnerable to dualism.
-Yoga Sutra, II.46, II.47, II.48
This is the entirety of Patanjali’s instruction on asana, which has become partially or entirely synonymous with “Yoga” to many modern practitioners.
Patanjali gives no indication that an asana is physical movement, or what, if any, postures should be practiced. There are many who read asana to simply mean sitting comfortably in stillness while meditating.
To those who choose to practice asana as physical movement, these three sparse Sutras provide the ultimate instruction. We know that we are making progress as concentration, ease, stability, and strength develop. Ultimately, however, each asana and whatever strength we develop is empty and meaningless. The purpose of asana is neither strength nor ease. Rather, we find true progress in our increasing invulnerability to dualism: when we think less in black and white; react from discerning wisdom rather than anger or desire; when we are less identified with ephemeral structures of the mind.
Proper alignment and technique is essential. In order to have a sustainable, beneficial practice, both physical and mental techniques are necessary. Developing these skills helps to focus the mind and heal the body. At some point, however, technique is absorbed by concentration on the infinite. The Yogini may, over the course of an hour or a month, move between these states. If technique is approached rigidly, it can become an obstacle rather than a benefit.
To be clear, this does not condone listlessness or apathy, nor lack of awareness or ‘spacing out.’ Effortless effort is a paradox experienced after an extended period of consistent practice, in which effort and strain seem to dissolve into the background, and the body and mind have a feeling of clarity, of vastness. To an outside observer, however, this may not be apparent: the practitioner could be performing difficult or complex movements, or, conversely, sitting quietly.
Asana is indispensable, yet it is not a complete Yoga practice in and of itself. It is one part of a system, and the reward of a consistent asana practice is only a necessary tool from the perspective of Yoga.