The purpose of the asana should be the most important factor
Despite people’s tendency to assign a general purpose to particular asanas, there is no standard intrinsic purpose for any asana. People hope that one posture will be the cure for a sore lower back; another, the remedy for constipation. In fact, while a posture may have a certain function, such as to stretch the back, the posture’s effect will vary according to the body, the movements, the age, psychological state, and lifestyle of the student. The effect will also vary according to how the student performs the posture.
All asanas have a name, form and characteristics. For example, paschimatanasana (seated forward bend) is the name of a posture, which has a particular form, and whose function is to stretch the back. The characteristics describe this function and are therefore its most important aspect. So, you adapt the form for the individual, in order to preserve this intended function at a given point in his or her practice.
The goal of yoga
Unfortunately, quite often a student’s only goal in asana is to achieve the final form of the posture. In trying to copy an ideal form, he or she frequently distorts or loses its real function. This forcible distortion is counterproductive to one’s progress and, in fact, should not occur in any aspect of yoga. Asana should not simply be an external form into which you fit your body, but should arise from within you. What you see in the mirror is the form. What you feel is the function of the posture. Unity, not uniformity is the goal of yoga.
This is only natural since uniformity is not what we observe in people. People differ on many levels, so their needs and priorities will necessarily be different. The vast spectrum of body types and conditions assures that any particular posture or movement not only will, but should, look different in every student. Therefore, imitation of another person’s position in an asana is not relevant to one’s own purpose and may, in fact, be counterproductive or harmful. The adaptability of postures makes asana different, but useful, for all people.
Adaptation is based largely on the recognition and reduction of resistance. A student or teacher must determine the areas of resistance, and then adapt the movements and positions so their function is no longer hindered or changed by the resistance.
Take, for example, two students — one with flexible hamstrings, hips and back, and another with stiffness in those same areas. They require very different versions of paschimatanasana (seated forward bend) if that posture is to produce its desired effect. If the two were to attempt the identical posture strictly according to a pictured ideal, the flexible student might derive no benefit from it and the stiff student might hurt him or herself, or, at the very least, find the experience uncomfortable and frustrating.
In other words, you must redesign the posture both to achieve comfort and stability, and to fulfil its intended function. Rigid adherence to the ideal form is simply habit or conditioning, whereas adaptation to ensure function is an act of creativity.
In addition to physical resistance, other types of resistance can affect your practice and must be considered in planning a course. Your mental and emotional states in general, and with regard to asana itself, are major components in a well-conceived practice. Physical activity without careful consideration of these factors yields only limited results in terms of the larger context of yoga. All facets of your being must be included in any movement toward wholeness.
This article appeared in The Hindu newspaper.