Asana as Eros

May 3rd, 2011 by Dearbhla Kelly

Let me outline a not untypical scenario: Sue starts going to yoga classes at her local gym because she heard it’s a great way to increase muscle tone, improve all-round fitness and generally get in shape. That those who’ve recommended yoga to her say it’s also really relaxing seals the deal. After attending class twice a week for several months, she does notice a difference, not just in her ability to do the postures, but also in her mind. It feels somehow more spacious, more quiet, at least while she’s practicing, and for the rest of the day. It’s almost as if there’s an inner smile spreading throughout her entire self all the way to her skin. Without necessarily even being able to describe why, Sue just knows that her life is better because of her yoga practice; when she practices her day goes better, when she skips class, she notices a difference. One day she stays after class to talk to the teacher who, it turns out, also teaches at a yoga studio in the neighbourhood. Sure enough, Sue goes along to the studio to take more classes with her teacher and pretty soon has dropped her gym membership and is going to the yoga studio 4/5 times a week. Sound familiar anyone?

She loves taking class at the studio, particularly chanting Om at the beginning and end of the practice and the time spent meditating at the start of the class. She finds herself becoming really interested in what the teacher says during class and pretty soon starts browsing the bookshelves in the lobby after class and before she knows it is reading ‘Light on Yoga’ by Iyengar and learning about the yamas and niyamas. And it doesn’t stop there! Having become accustomed to hearing chanting on playlists during yoga classes, she decides to check out a kirtan at the studio, dragging her husband along for company. At first it’s a bit weird to be singing Sanskrit mantras to deities, (particularly since she’s an atheist!) but pretty soon an infectious joy starts to replace the weirdness and she’s in a full-on bliss fest.

Hang on a second – from taking a class a couple of times a week at the gym to get a tighter butt, to chanting to God in a yoga studio on a Saturday night…WHAT?

Based on my own experience, and that of   so many others I’ve spoken to this scenario is not too far-fetched. You started practicing yoga asana because you wanted to get fit/a tighter butt/meet hot guys/girls/get rid of insomnia/deal with stress/you could get two weeks for $25 at your local studio, but over time you started to meditate, you started to educate yourself about yoga philosophy and teachings by reading and going to workshops, you started to chant and discovered your inner Ganesh-loving bhakti self, you found yourself part of a vibrant, inclusive community that imbued your life with meaning? You started talking about chakras and sadhanas? Your life became more enjoyable, you started to laugh more, when you finally got into that arm balance, you felt good about yourself in every aspect of your life?

Why is it that hatha yoga is so potent, that, for many people, it becomes a catalyst  for all kinds of shifts in their lives? To fully answer this question could take years and is way beyond my ken, but as a daily (okay almost daily) practitioner for the last nine years, and teacher for just over seven of those years, I have some insights from my direct experience. My philosophical training has also given me some insights into how (I believe) the yoga tradition coming out of India parallels other great traditions with rich philosophical systems, such as that of ancient Greece.

In my last blog I wrote about the eros of yoga, understood as the ability of physical practices and chanting of holy names to take to us a place of deeper connection with the boundless source of all that is permanent. At some point in my philosophical training I read Plato’s ‘Symposium’ in which he talks about the ladder of love and how eros (the realm of the sensuous) draws us into love’s fold and thereafter Love itself pulls us towards the place where there is only love, only coming to rest in the formless. When we’ve reached the top of the ladder of love we have moved beyond identifying love with (only) physical attraction and have come to love Love itself. I remember that when I read this account of the progression from the realm of the purely physical/sensuous to that of the spiritual/transcendent, I was immediately struck by how the same schema could be applied to yoga and the move from the physical to the non-physical.

A while back I wrote a piece about the ability of physical practices to take us beyond the physical to the spiritual and here I am again writing about asana as eros (in the Platonic sense). Clearly there’s a pattern here!  While my philosophical training gave me access to Plato’s view and the acuity to see the links between the ancient Greek and Indian worldviews, it was yoga practice that made the similarity so obvious to me. It is because of my own experience of moving from yoga as just a physical practice (which I began because I knew it could help me deal with stress and anxiety) to yoga as gateway to the mystery of my own heart and deeper connection to the mystical teachings that I was already aware of, that I have come to this view that yoga (even hatha yoga) is about so much more than the physical.

I am aware, of course, that I’m not exploring virgin territory here.  The yoga tradition itself tells us that yoga is a system, or set of techniques, for attaining union and for refining our connection to ourselves (and everything else) and for working with the mind. Hatha yoga as we know it is a 20th century phenomenon and certainly not part of the ‘ancient practice’ of yoga that so many people talk about! But, it seems that, particularly here in the States, undue emphasis is placed on the physical culture of yoga as an end in itself, and this to me seems mistaken.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love practicing and teaching asana, and I love that my body is longer and leaner as a result of my practice. I love that my arms are cut and that I’m in better shape than I was in my mid-twenties.  I love the endorphin rush I get from a strong physical practice, the fact that I feel integrated body/mind/spirit in a way I don’t before I practice.  And I’m so, so grateful for the fact that the practice helps me manage my anxiety and reminds me who I am, that it brings me back to a place of deeper equanimity and stillness.  I love how my mind gets quieter as a result of practicing and how I feel more spacious after practicing.

I’m deeply grateful for the fact that hatha yoga has made me more connected to my body, has made me love and appreciate my body more. And I’m thrilled by the fact that I can do things with my body, like deep backbends and arm balances, that are fun and exhilarating. But the longer I’ve practiced asana, the more I’ve come to understand that it’s not about the pose. There’ll always be a harder pose and there’ll always be someone whose body is more flexible, stronger, more open than yours (or mine). That doesn’t mean that they’re a ‘better’ yogi, it just means that their body is more flexible/stronger/leaner than yours (or mine).

Asana alone is not yoga; asana is a doorway to yoga. Sometimes yoga happens during asana practice, but merely moving your body, even if it is into supercool advanced poses, is not yoga. Yoga requires connection to the breath, intention and focus. I don’t want to sound all holier than thou, there are definitely times when I am practicing and notice that I’m not really present. Well, my body is present, but my mind is planning, remembering, blaming, wishing etc etc. Yoga is the practice of coming back to the present moment, to the breath, to the pose, and it is in the very merging of our awareness with our breath that we can transcend the fluctuations of the mind and experience ourselves as one with the flow, the universal pulse.  So when I say that asana is eros, I mean that it is that which is sensuous but draws beyond the sensuous to connection with something more eternal.

It’s really cool to be able to do advanced poses but its even cooler to be able to remain equanimous under pressure. What’s the point in being able to put your foot behind your head if you can’t stay calm and if you can’t feel compassion for other people?  Mere physical dexterity does not a yogi make! But tapas (effort, steadfastness, particularly when it’s challenging) in practice yields fantastic results. As we struggle to master a pose the struggle itself teaches us that it’s not about the pose, it’s more about who am I being – what qualities am I cultivating – as I practice the pose. I want to re-emphasize that I don’t mean to be preachy here. I’m someone who has struggled with becoming equanimous my whole life. I have a short fuse and I can be impatient and I’ve been told that I sometimes come across as harsh, although I don’t intend to.  Sustained and consistent yoga practice has helped me to soften and to become (significantly) more equanimous. Practicing asana has changed my body undoubtedly, but in a deeper way it has changed me.  I have become less reactive and more responsive, I am getting better at remembering to breathe when I feel stressed out, and some of the wisdom I’ve heard from the mouths of teachers far and wide in the form of yoga philosophy, prayers, Sanskrit mantras, Buddhist koans, and poetry of the mystics has lodged in my heart and in my mind.  In many ways I’ve become more empty, less attached. I’m better at practicing aparigrapha (non-hoarding), I’m softer, more open, because yoga has helped me to feel safe in my body and in the world, which I haven’t for most of life because I’ve been in a lot of accidents.

But maybe most importantly, I’ve learned from my own experience with this practice. I’ve learned to read the book of my own heart, to listen to my own inner wisdom.  I’ve confronted many different aspects of myself on my yoga mat: fear, joy, anger, sadness, self-hatred, vulnerability, strength and determination, tenacity,  open-heartedness. I’ve learned so much about myself through nine years of dedicated practice, in many ways I’ve learned more about what I’m not than what I am: I am not my thoughts. I am not my feelings. I am not the constant fluctuations of my mind, nor the multitude of sensations in my body. When I practice asana,  sometimes, when I’m connected to my breath and focusing on the rhythm of the inhale turning to the exhale and the poses are an extension of the breath, as if my body is surfing on the ocean of my breath, I experience myself as the whole.  Or, better said I become the pulsation of the universal throb. There is just yoga happening: body, breath, pose are one.  I take it this was Feuerstein meant when he said that the point of asana practice is for us to transcend duality and experience non-duality (Advaita). (I wrote about this in a previous blog ‘Can a physical practice get us to a spiritual place?) Shankaracharya, the renowned non-dualist philosopher wrote:

03 Shivo’ham, Shivo’ham

Mano buddhya hankara chittani naham

Na cha shrotra jihve na cha ghrana netre

Na cha vyoma bhumir na tejo na vayuh

Chid ananda rupah shivo’ ham shivo’ ham

I am neither the mind, intellect, ego nor memory,

neither the ears nor the tongue nor the senses of smell and sight,

neither ether, air, fire, water or earth.

I am consciousness and bliss. I am Shiva, I am Shiva.

Na punyam na papam na saukhyam na duhkam

Na mantro na tirtham na veda na yajnah

Aham bhojanam naiva bhojyam na bhokta

Chid ananda rupah shivo’ ham shivo’ ham

I am neither virtue nor vice, neither pleasure nor pain,

neither mantra nor sacred place, neither scripture nor sacrifice.

I am neither the food nor the eater nor the act of eating.

I am consciousness and bliss. I am Shiva, I am Shiva.

Apurvanam param nityam

Svayam jyotir niramayam

Virajam param akasham dhruvam

Ananda mavyayam

I am beyond all things.

I am everlasting, self-luminous,

taintless, and completely pure.

I am immovable, blissful, and imperishable.

Aham nirvi kalpo nira kara rupo

Vibhut va cha sarvatra sarvendri yanam

Na chasan gatam naiva muktir na meyah

Chid ananda rupah shivo’ ham shivo’ ham

I am without thought, without form.

I am neither detachment nor salvation nor anything that could be measured.

I am consciousness and bliss. I am Shiva, I am Shiva.

The bliss that he’s describing is not the feel-good high of ecstasy, which is so often followed by a corresponding low. Rather, it’s abiding equanimity and presence, beyond the peaks and valleys of our emotional lives. Everything that I’ve learned about the practice of yoga points in this direction far beyond deep backbends, jump backs and perfect handstands.

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Photos by Robert Sturman.

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