Asanas and Spirituality

I first exercised my interest in meditation practice at a Buddhist Center housed in the basement of the Social Security building in my town.  I would make great efforts to dress respectfully and comfortably, arrive in a timely fashion, take my shoes off, and quietly smile at others in the room. But when the time came for me to sit on the Zafu (meditation cushion), I would simply watch with great interest as my mind would play over happenings of the day, plan evening meals, and recall the trivial things I had forgotten to do earlier. When I finally got to the point where I realized I was daydreaming or lost in a train of thought, I tried to “let the thought float by like a cloud,” as I had been encouraged to do by so many teachers.  But I could never really fully understand what that meant. From here, I would begin to envision a cloud and get lost in some visualization of nature that made no sense and connected with nothing. Though it was always a peaceful and relaxing feeling, it didn’t feel close to any sense of bliss or energetic awareness, and certainly didn’t feel like meditation.

I often felt that I could easier find calmness of the mind while practicing Asana. It took me many sits, but the bliss of a quiet meditation practice is a different kind of stillness that I eventually came to appreciate as uniquely beautiful. However, on days when my mind is going a million miles a minute, I sometimes find it easier to attain that deeper sense of focus while twisted up in Garudasana than I do with japa (repetitive) mantra on my pillow. It frustrates me that this is the case, but often it takes my body and my breath moving in unison to physically pull me into that meditative space.  My mind can be such a little chatterbox. When I find myself in Savasana, I work on bringing my awareness to my chakra system and try to focus on my mantra practice. Though these feelings can’t compare to the stillness I have felt on my pillow, the brief reprieve from the world and the effort towards self care always feels to me like a triumph.

People don’t realize it, but they want meditation. They want an exit or a freedom from the hectic ways of their everyday lives. I firmly believe that is why yoga has become so popular in recent years. Life in the modern age can be incessant, trying, nagging, and paralyzing. People need an outlet to relieve stress, to bring their focus to the purely physical experience of challenging the strength and flexibility of their bodies. People need to forget the noise, the distraction, the need to always be working and pleasing others, at least for some period of time out of the day. I have seen asana practice provide that outlet for many. And for a few, this glimpse at peace can spark an interest in a contemplative or silent meditative practice.

Techniques involving seated meditation are difficult for some. The heat building element of asana practice, called Tapasia, assists in cleansing the physical body of impurities. It brings a physical shift and a sense of relief, which is a form of instant gratification. The happiness that comes from a regular seated meditation practice does not come so instantly, but it is worth the time and the effort. Meditation can find you when you aren’t really looking for it, at times. Perhaps the next time you get to the studio and the class is full or you find yourself with a bum knee and stuck at home, monitor your reaction and make an effort towards your spiritual growth. Turn off everything, find some quiet, and sit still, listening to your breath.

The true goal of yoga and a meditative practice is ultimately to find a sense of union between the finite and the infinite self. The tangible work that we do on a physical level in asana can bring us into the present moment, helping us discover a place of stillness and quiet inside of our very selves. In such moments of silence, there exists a feeling of vastness within that is said to connect all beings and bring about an expanded sense of awareness beyond the physical body. Attaining such an experience takes practice, discipline, and focus. Many people who practice asana may never have such an experience. For those who do, a greater sense of silence and awareness is realized, and it takes one beyond the realm of asana and pranayama. This may happen for a fleeting moment, but these moments become more available the more they are reached for and intended upon. In such a moment, it becomes apparent that the world of yoga goes far beyond the physical practice, beyond the breath, beyond the heart. Meditation, asana, and pranayama have the potential to bring us further than we have the capacity to even understand. Tangible results of such realizations can manifest as feelings of joy, openness, vastness, and compassion. It is here we discover that asana is not the end, but the means. These tools are here for us as mere vehicles, designed to take us to a far greater level of awareness and consciousness.

By Shanti Caiazzo

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