An ancient guide to Yoga!
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is a cornerstone text in Yoga.
It was written around 2000 years ago and is probably the culmination of oral tradition rather than being created by one person. The focus of The Yoga Sutras is Raj Yoga (meditation).
The Yoga Sutras do not have a lot to say about asana (posture work) but what it does say is worth listening to.
There are two verses in particular that we should bear in mind when we come to our practice on the mat :
Asana is steady, comfortable posture.
By the loosening of effort and by meditating on the infinite, posture is mastered.
The Yoga Sutras, Book II, v 46 – 47
Sthira Sukham Asanam : Asana is steady comfortable posture
Some commentators think this verse is referring only to the sitting postures used in meditation; whether that is true or not this verse works very well as an approach to posture work.
First of all, if the body is steady in a posture or a sequence of movements we are not going to hurt ourselves. It is when we are struggling, or trying to force things that we become unsteady and we risk injury.
Steadiness is a sign that the body has the strength and flexibility necessary for whatever posture work we are attempting. We can build up to the most challenging asana in the world and if we develop the strength, balance and flexibility to be steady with it there is no problem. It is when we are struggling and uncomfortable and unsteady that we get problems.
Steadiness is the foundation from which we can find ease in our posture work. If we are steady we can let go of tension, that’s when muscles can lengthen and we develop a healthy flexibility.
Steadiness is the foundation from which we can release tension in the body and from which we can learn and reinforce patterns of movement which are free of tension.
In our Yoga practice we should create an ease of movement and of being which can help us in our daily lives. What we do on the mat is ‘practice’ for real life. If we are steady and at ease in our Yoga practice we can learn to be steady and comfortable in our body … and gradually more steady and comfortable in our mind.
Prayatna Saithalyananta Samapattibhyam : By the loosening of effort and by meditating on the infinite, posture is mastered
In our asana practice we should let go the urge to struggle, to push things further and further. We should learn to let go the restlessness that is so often there in our body & mind.
BKS Iyengar said this about posture work:
‘Perfection in asana is achieved when the effort to achieve it becomes effortless’
If we let go of the effort, then steadiness and comfort come more easily and we can be ‘present’. We can interpret the phrase ‘meditating on the infinite’ as being present.
In our posture work ideally we should always be present and engaged, the mind steady and concentrated.
There are many things we can do to be present. We can be aware of the body itself, how it feels, where there might be tension. Is it steady? Is it struggling? We can be present with our breathing. We can use a mantra to hold the mind steady, we can focus on a chakra point, we can be present with the activity of the mind itself.
It doesn’t really matter how we maintain our awareness in our posture work, but it is important that we are present with what we do.
In our Yoga practice we aim to harmonize all the various aspects of ourselves – body, movement, breathing, mind, energy all come together in our practice.
If we are steady, at ease and present in our Yoga practice the effect is one of profound relaxation in body and mind, we find a peacefulness and harmony within ourselves.
This is the essence of Yoga practice.
So … How to practice Yoga postures – according to the ancients!
- Whatever posture, sequences or movements you’re doing, be steady!
- From steadiness you can let go of tension, you can find ease in the body & mind.
- Be present!
When these three things come together ‘posture is mastered’.
There are many translations and commentaries on the Yoga Sutras. Every verse has many different interpretations. The interpretation given here is our own, it forms a basis the teaching of posture work & movement in classes at Sheffield Yoga School.
Other translations and interpretations are available!