The Expectation of an Easy Asana from Paul’s Blog
In a previous post, I wrote at length about how to approach kapotasana, a difficult backbend from Ashtanga’s Intermediate Series.
On the Sunday that this video was taken, I was tired, my body was stiff and the asanas were very challenging. It led me to think a little after practice about what it means to be “comfortable” and “consistent” in an asana, especially in one that is difficult and brings up a lot of physical, mental and/or emotional triggers. It also got me to thinking about how we can deceive ourselves into equating ease in an asana with the elimination of physical sensation.
After having practiced for nearly 20 years, I’ve seen many asanas become easier as my body changed in the sense that I don’t have as much negative physical sensation as when I started. I have also, however, accepted that some asanas might always be difficult. Having proficiency or even mastery of a posture does not mean that there will be an absence of physical sensations, thoughts or feelings which may not be positive. When students have asked me whether such and such asana will ever be “easy”, I say that it might still be physically challenging but it will be easier because it won’t cause the mental and emotions stress that it once did. “Easy” does not imply an absence of sensations. After all, we have central nervous systems so not feeling isn’t an option in this world.
So, how do we find comfort and consistency?
We can find comfort in an asana by learning to use only as much energy as necessary. If we use too much effort, it adds stress to the body and restlessness to the mind (chitta). It’s no coincidence that Sharath will say to relax when he’s giving someone a deep backbend. If we can relax, even a little, the asana becomes more comfortable. For each individual in each asana, there is an optimal energy level that achieves “comfort” in the pose. Like I suggested above, comfort is not an absence of sensations or thoughts, it is the ability to hold the pose without generating stress despite the existence of strong sensations, thoughts and emotions.
The optimal amount of energy used in an asana is facilitated through correct regulated breathing. Over time, proper breathing also works to stabilize and strengthen the mind. Unregulated breathing makes the mind unsteady and increases any difficulties we have in challenging asanas. Activated bandhas and focussed dristhi are equally important to reduce strain and effort in difficult asanas.
Consistency comes slowly over time as we learn to manage the levels of sensation we are experiencing without panic, judgement or commentary. We gain a level of equanimity from doing an asana repeatedly and learning to breath correctly. Ultimately, we learn to trust that we can do an asana despite the strong sensations. We also internalize that we can do an asana despite how we are feeling (energetic vs tired) or despite the weather (January polar vortex vs July heat wave) or any of a myriad reasons that our minds get agitated.
Some practices will be harder than others for any number of reasons but we can still do difficult asanas if we use our breath, bandhas and drishti to minimize effort and strain and to keep the mind focussed.