Can you have Yoga Without Asana?

What asana means, and how I yoga without it

Four years ago I completed my yoga teacher training.

I can’t really remember who I was as a person before I started, and I can’t quite remember my reasons for doing it.

From what I do recall, shamefully, it was a rather superficial thing about seeking a job I could do on the side, and at the same time actually becoming better at yoga myself.

I wanted to do all the cool stuff like headstands and handstands in dramatic locations — and mega ego trip if I could teach that to others.

Getting the certificate was important to me.

The course itself changed all of that.

It changed me too.

Midway through it, I went into existential crisis and, to be brutally honest, I’m not sure if I’m truly out of it.

12 months of training had passed, and I still couldn’t do a headstand.

But worse, I found out beyond a shadow of a doubt that my chakras were well and truly fucked.

Of particular significance was my root chakra — which obviously represented my home, and my finances. That explained a lot.

But my solar plexus chakra was also a mess — my will power, my self-esteem, my courage, even my digestive system. On all levels, this chakra was legit screwed.

To make matters even worse, I’m pyrophobic too — afraid of fire. That’s the element of the solar plexus. How was I going to heal this one, then?

Simultaneously I started to gain hope — and it — that yoga could fix me.

Then there was the stuff about myself that I actually did know about already — like fear of public speaking.

Learning to be a teacher, to stand up in front of a class and talk, impart knowledge — that scared the heebie-jeebies out of me.

Yeah, I knew my throat chakra needed some work. But after my yoga teacher training, of course I no longer admitted to a fear of public speaking (glossophobia.) I could just say my Vishuddhi was out of whack.

…. Like knowing the Sanskrit for our bullshit makes it somehow valid.

Yoga helped me see myself in all my glorious layers — and it showed me what needed work.

Suffice to say, it could all do with some attention.

But it plunged me into doubt and made me feel extremely incompetent to share the yoga path with others, as a teacher.

Yeah, I could sequence and cue postures.

But yoga is so much more than deep stretches and feeling calm.

It’s a real commitment to yourself, it is knowing yourself, it is everything. It’s the stilling of the mind, it’s the way you interact with the world and everything in it.

It is the journey to the self, through the self.

And as my self doubt ran wild, it convinced me that I had no right, and nowhere near enough experience, to guide others through this journey.

It was way too big a responsibility for my tiny young shoulders.

Yoga became my own personal practice while I project managed my own transformation.

T-h-i-s was the tool that I came for.

This is what I was seeking.

For a time I stopped caring about the headstand (kind of), and I started instead obsessing about the personal development aspect.

This was what I ended up falling out the other end of my teacher training with — a complete obsession for everything else about yoga except the postures, the asanas.

I was tired of my Instagram feed full of pictures of beautiful bendy bodies.

Firstly. They weren’t my goals.

Secondly. It’s just not what yoga means to me.

Over and over again, I kept coming back to Yoga Without Asana.

Learning the tools of yoga: the philosophy, the codes of conduct, the traditions.

The asana just started to become a superficial distraction in my mind.

Here’s the thing: we tend to think of asana practice as the physical part of yoga — the postures.

We can do it hot, we can do it fast, we can do it slow, we can do it with partners, we can do it to music, and we can do it in the air.

In classes today, you can literally practice yoga in every single way, but — with the rare exception — in its true, traditional sense.

But asana, as taught today, is a relatively modern invention.

  • 500 years ago, the Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā described 84 postures.
  • In the early 20th century, Ashtanga and Iyengar branched off, giving us a heap more postures (see the excellent Light on Yoga, in which BKS Iyengar sets out 200 postures)
  • Then in the 21st century…. Well.

We’ve had an asana explosion.

We’ve had an asana revolution — this is what globalisation has done to yoga.

Before this though, in the 4,500 or so years that came before, asana literally translated as “seat”.

There was just the one posture.

Traditionally speaking, in the eight limbs, asana is simply the part about preparing the body for seated meditation.

Asana just means — take a seat.

Not jump, hop, balance, and throw shapes like a contortionist.

So the yoga that we think of today is really very modern.

There is a very heavy focus on the physical practice — ask anyone if they “do” yoga, and this is what they will think of.

Not that there is anything wrong with this of course. The physical practices are undeniably good for us.

To me though, since delving into the philosophy (and never really re-emerging), I’ve almost come to regard yoga classes as a cardio workout — mainly because my practice is Ashtanga. It is f-a-r from a relaxing practice.

It’s a hot sweaty mess, is what it is.

It’s often gruelling — and though I battled on with it a bit, I started to develop this really gnarly love-hate relationship with asana.

Until I gave it up.

So … Can you practice yoga without asana?

Isn’t that just meditation? Isn’t that what ultimately yoga is designed for?

I actually gave up my yoga posture practice for a while to concentrate on the mental aspects, like gaining control over the mind.

Yoga Sutra 1.2:

yogash-chitta-vritti-nirodhah ||2||

योगश्चित्तवृत्तिनिरोधः ॥२॥

yogaś-citta-vr̥tti-nirodhaḥ 2

When you are in a state of yoga, all misconceptions (vrittis) that can exist in the mutable aspect of human beings (chitta) disappear. ||2||

Translation: Yoga is the stilling of the mind.

Man, that is juicyyyyyy.

But I did get stuck up in there, in the mind, and that’s not so fun.

Nor the point.

The physical practice grounds us.

It’s the bridge back to the human body, to the earth — to life.

No way are you really meant to spend your days meditating in a cave.

I didn’t exactly do this, but maybe I did spend two years in the modern day version of it: rumination.

And it was ashtanga that brought me out the other side.

There has been a marked transformation.

My life literally looks nothing like what it did four years ago, or even two, for that matter.

I am having to get to know this new version of myself — and that’s just plain weird, to be truthful.

As I feel my life starting to gear back up, the daily habit of both meditation and a physical practice creates a framework for me to hold my shit together as I continue on in my new direction.

I’m back to the Ashtanga primary series with a vengeance, after our little break. (Undeniably, we were on a break).

But I haven’t forgotten my Yoga Without Asana.

To be honest, that’s still the bit I find much more interesting and valuable as I continue my personal and professional growth.

It’s colourful, it’s multi-dimensional, it’s expansive, as infinite as the universe.

But truly I believe that you need both.

I had to drop my ego piece about the physical practice, I needed a physical practice to discipline my body enough so that I could discipline my mind — both sides of the coin were required for that third eye tune-up.

This is what I love about yoga — it’s everything.

Yoga is both the journey and the destination.

Yoga without asana is a thing. It’s probably the main show, but you wouldn’t know that from social media and gym timetables.

There really is so much more to yoga than asana.

But my longwinded conclusion is that asana is a pretty, and vital, piece of it too.

And PS. I learnt to headstand 18 months ago — and it is all that it is cracked up to be ;)

Founder, feminist, entrepreneur, coffee + self care

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