Most people are first drawn into the practice to reduce stress, develop flexibility, heal a physical or emotional injury, explore new social connections, or pursue physical fitness. But once in the practice, connecting body-breath-mind, something starts to happen. Students begin to experience a clearer self-awareness, a sense of being more fully alive; they feel better, more in balance, more conscious, clearer. The yearning that we have as human beings for a happy, wakeful, meaningful life and a sense of connection with something greater than our individual selves starts to become a powerful motivation for practicing over the long run of one’s life.
When used as a tool for self-transformation and a path of spiritual being, yoga starts the moment a student first pays attention to what he or she is doing in the practice. If a student is unsteady, falling, in pain, or distracted by discomfort, the tendency will be to go back into his or her analytical or agitated mind. Sthira and sukham—steadiness and ease—give the asanas their transformative foundation. Being steady does not mean being perfectly still in a pose that you hold for a very long time. Indeed, a “pose” is static, something a model does for a camera. Asanas, by contrast, are alive, in each moment a unique expression of the human being doing them. Opening one’s self to a feeling of inner peace amid the relative intensity of the asana practice—being calm and soft while strong and stable—takes the practice to a deeper level.
Even when staying with an asana for a long time and cultivating steadiness and ease, there is always movement: the heart is beating, breath and prana are flowing. An expanded view of asana practice thus takes in a practice of movement within and between what are often described as separate asanas, movement in which one is just as present, just as steady in body-breath-mind, just as at ease. The breath itself starts to become as though a mantra in the movement meditation that is asana practice. In this way the practice is that of mindful meditation, in which one is fully present in the moment.
This experiential process—not the religious worship of a deity or insistence on precise form in held poses—is what makes asana practice itself a spiritual practice. And it is precisely here, in creating a space that encourages mindfulness, that the yoga teacher becomes a spiritual facilitator. In guiding yoga classes that encourage self-reflective awareness, each asana, each moment within and between the asanas, every breath, every sensation, and every thought and feeling become windows into the nature of the mind, consciousness, and spirit. The practice becomes a process offering insight into the “stickiness and delusions of the mind,” which, Stephen Levine writes, “are seen more clearly when viewed from the heart.”
This is where doing yoga asanas becomes a practice of self-transformation and healing, and a profound sense of conscious awakening and connection begins to emerge.