Nowadays we tend to define our health and fitness mostly through numbers (body mass index, target heart rate and so on) and performance (ability to touch the toes, run a marathon or do a certain number of squats). It is easy to bring the same mindset to a yoga class and celebrate being able to hold Extended Side Angle for two minutes or master a Handstand. Our minds feel more comfortable with concrete goals. Setting goals like that is perfectly fine as long as we don’t loose sight of the big picture.
Nowhere in the traditional yogic text will you find any talk about muscles, fitness or physical accomplishments. Instead yogis concerned themselves with nourishing the Annamaya (physical body) to provide a suitable container for our energy and support our mental development.
For the yogis health and fitness were defined in the following terms:
1. Sthira – stable structure that can remain upright and balanced within gravitational pull.
2. Sukha (which literally means “good space, free of suffering”) can be defined both as ease of movement to enable us to do whatever we want to do, and freedom from physical pain that can be distracting for our energetic and mental pursuits.
3. Angalaghavam – feeling of lightness in the body; it could also be described as agility. It allows us to move through the day with fluidity, grace and confidence.
4. Dvandvanabhighatah – ability to withstand change. Every day brings a new challenge and we need to make sure that it doesn’t knock us off our feet. We can call this resilience.
To summarize, our yoga practice is supposed to make us structurally stable, enable us to move with grace and ease, free us from physical suffering and enable us to withstand changing circumstances.
Asana is the most useful tool to work with our physical bodies. Practicing asana makes us stronger and more flexible, helps us relieve physical discomfort, cultivates agility and resilience.
Here is the trick though. Have you ever noticed that students who choose strong, fast and challenging yoga practices are usually the proverbial type-A personalities, who are already driven and demanding of themselves and others? And students who have trouble with self-discipline and self-motivation tend to gravitate toward slower pace and more restorative practices? This is a manifestation of a fundamental Ayurvedic principle that states that “Like increases the like”. It means that we are naturally attracted to the activities and practices that match our established inner qualities. If I am driven and demanding, I will seek out activities that make me even more driven and demanding. If I am slow-moving and not very ambitious, I will engage in activities that encourage those qualities.
This is NOT how we should approach our yoga practice, say the yoga sutras. According to sutra 2.47, one of the most important aspects of an asana practice is prayatna shaithilya, which means “appropriate effort”. Appropriate effort is the kind that BALANCES OUT our inner qualities, not amplifies them. So if we lead a very active demanding life, our yoga practice should be more soothing for the system; if we lead a mellow, low activity life, our yoga practice should encourage a bit more discipline, strength and persistent effort. That is why it is important for us to recognize our inner drives and then find or create a yoga practice that balances out our personality traits and the rest of our lives. To quote my teacher Gary Kraftsow: “Traditionally, the practice of asana was always considered as an integral part of a holistic practice, never as an isolated fitness system.” Whatever we do with our physical bodies has no value in and of itself unless we apply it to living a more balanced, mindful and conscious life.