What are you actually doing in asana?

There’s a question that’s been floating around the yoga world for the past few years that asks, “what are we actually doing in asana?”. The question comes wrapped up in a whole critique on what’s been called modern postural yoga, and a movement to reassess the way yoga is taught and practiced in the West.

While I’ve got some issues with this movement and the motives of the folks behind it, I do think it’s useful, as a personal inquiry, to question what each of us is actually doing when we practice — what our intention is and what effect the practice has on our mental and physical state. As both a practitioner with a longtime daily practice and yoga teacher, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to reframe the question and ask myself, “what am I actually doing in asana?”.

Checking In
My practice is an opportunity to check in with my body every morning, and ask the following questions: How am I feeling today? Where am I holding tension? Where is there pain? What’s my energy level? What feels good for me right here and now?

This inquiry gives me a starting point to observe the effects that certain activities have on my mental and physical well-being. Did I get enough sleep? If no, why not? Have I been eating too much? Too little? What’s the cause of the tension in my shoulder? The pain in my knees?

Empowered with this insight, I can then make conscious choices that help me feel my best, starting with the asanas I choose in my practice, and carrying over into the decisions I make throughout the day.

Finding Balance
When I practice conscious breathing in asana, it brings balance to my nervous system. At the end of practice I feel alert but relaxed. This seems like an optimal state to be in, because I find I’m able to move through the rest of the day with much more presence, skillfulness and ease. If I find myself becoming tense or overwhelmed by mental activity I can return to my practice later in the day to unwind my body and clear my mind.

Letting the Mind Roam Free
Conscious breathing allows me to disengage from my thoughts, and my mind is able to roam freely. Sometimes this leads to finding a creative solution to a problem, sometimes it leads to a spontaneous insight into my life (or Life in the larger sense). Often it feels like I’m panning for gold, allowing thoughts to flow freely like water through a sieve, catching the useful or meaningful insights and letting everything else wash away.

Out of Time
There is something deeply satisfying about linking breath and movement. When I pay close attention to moving in unison with my slow, steady breathing, I fall into a rhythm and flow that takes me outside of time where a 15-minute practice can seem like two hours (or more). I find this incredibly refreshing and revitalizing.

When my mind, breath and body come together, it creates an experience of integrated wholeness that feels really, really good. In those moments, I have the sense that there is no problem in a way that feels like the polar opposite of escapism. By completely merging body and mind with the flow of breath, with the rhythm of Life, I feel that no matter what else is going on in my life, that Life is taking care of me, that Life wants me here. That realization fills me up with positive, creative energy and washes away all doubt and depressive thoughts, leaving only one golden question: “so, what now?”.

What are you actually doing in asana? I’d love to hear your answers!