It is about positive transformation, not commitment to placing the body and mind in discomfort
Yoga is a way of bringing positive changes in our life. Positive change requires opposing past habits. But asanas can also become habits. If we practise asana like riding a bicycle, we lose a large part of its transformative potential. Movement becomes mechanical because our brain learns movement patterns. If we do a movement some hundreds of times, we can then repeat it easily with little awareness. But awareness is the key to sustaining transformation; awareness helps us recognise what we need to change and prevents us from slipping back after we change.
For asanas to be a powerful agent of transformation, we must do them not purely from the force of habit but with a stream of awareness. Even for the health of the body — to improve posture and alignment, to increase strength and flexibility effectively, and to explore our limits safely — awareness is necessary in asana practice. Injuries and imbalances in alignment often arise in asana practice because of practising from habit instead of practising in awareness.
The best pathway to awareness in asana practice is the connection between the body and the breath. Focusing the mind on the breath, and noticing how the body and breath influence each other, is a profoundly healthful method of developing and maintaining awareness in asana practice.
Asana practice should be a harmonious experience. The manner of breathing into a wind instrument, a flute for instance, can create either a grating screech or a melodious song. The body too is an instrument. If used skilfully, as in the union of movement and breath, the resulting posture is a useful and harmonious experience. When performed with the graceful orchestration of all its parts, asana can become a music of the body, breath and mind.
Remember that your own experience trumps the hatha yoga texts. That is, if a practice makes you feel unwell or uncomfortable, it is a good idea to stop it and examine why or if there are alternatives that make you feel better.
Your constant observation and self-reflection will signal when a change is necessary. While persistence is a virtue, blind adherence is risky. Consequently, we must learn to differentiate between the healthful discomfort of resistance from past habits and the unhealthful discomfort of trauma and upset to the body or mind.
The pathway of yoga is about commitment to positive transformation, not commitment to placing the body and mind in discomfort and harm for no clear reason.
Some people say, “Challenge yourself.” But if the mind challenges the body indiscriminately, it may ruin the body.
Some hatha yoga practices can appear weird, such as some forms of the cleansing like swallowing a cloth and removing it; or be unhealthful, like some prolonged fast breathing practices; or be injurious, like forcing oneself into asanas one is not ready for.
It can appear attractive to do some of these things because they are mystic or because the classical texts hard sell them. But it is important to be clear of their benefits when doing them and of their limitations as well as our own.
In short, if you are in doubt, do not persist in doing it. Research, reflect, and then return to the practice, clearer.
This article appeared in The Hindu newspaper.