|[ Excerpt from The Science of Yoga, page 90 ]
Yoga Asana have evolved into a principle focus of yoga in modern times. The reason is that, throughout the ages, humanity has become more and more attached to the physical body, and hence, in need of greater preparation in order to be able to engage in the higher, meditative stages of yoga.
Yoga asanas now involve many different physical positions, and the intent of their practice is to re-create awareness, to re-connect the body and mind and energy from the state of nara, or psychic dissociation, via more conscious and varied efforts.
The need for efforts to improve physical health has undeniably increased in modern times, especially in Western societies. The average person struggles to even touch their toes, and the maintenance of a steady, comfortable, non-distracted posture for any length of time is a significant challenge for most.
The dwandwas, the mental and physical pre-occupations, the relentless distractions from our external environment, have taken on mass proportion, where today the average person may even have a difficult time understanding the concept of 'the pairs of opposites', merely because they have, and may have nearly always existed in nothing but this distracted state. As a saying goes, "A fish that has always lived at the bottom of the ocean does not even realize that it is in water."
Yet the need to overcome these distractions, the need to cultivate the ability to rise above them in order to be able to go undisrupted into deeper states of awareness and contemplation, remains a necessity for personal growth and spiritual advancement.
The term yoga asana today has become synonymous with a physical pose or yoga posture. From the very beginning, however, it is important that we consider the asanas to be more than mere gymnastics in our yoga practice. From the previous article, you can begin to see that asana represents a fundamental tool in the spiritual path.
Indeed the physical benefits of their proper performance alone cannot be denied, and the current state of awareness of most people who engage in yoga exercises today dictates that the practice of asana remains much on this gross, physical level.
Sadly, however, the practice of yoga in modern times has degraded to such an extent that in many cases it has become a purely physical practice, whereby the primary and often only goal remains on the physical level. As Yogacharini Meenakshi Devi Bhavanani writes in her article entitled “Yoga in Modern Times”:
"In recent times the materialistic, consumerist ethos has enveloped the ancient spiritual science of yoga and has altered it to an almost unrecognizable extent. The science of yoga, which was designed to free man of his body consciousness and enable him to rise above it, has now become a vehicle of [exactly the opposite], enhancing body consciousness. The 'Cult of Flexibility' has emerged which uses asanas as a means to produce 'the body beautiful'. Emphasis on hard physical use of the body, achievement, strength, enhanced efficiency, and sexuality, have become the goals of practice. Adrenalin surges stimulated by this hard physical work, become addictive.
Yoga now has become 'utilitarian'. It must have a practical material use and benefit to prove its worth. Thus, yoga (asanas, pranayama etc) is used to release stress, cure diseases, produce health, peace of mind etc. It has also become the basis of a lucrative career for some lucky few who have garnered name and fame as yoga teachers. Yoga has become a physical, materialistic science, in keeping with the ethos of the times."
But regardless of popular misuses, the psycho-mental and energetic influences from the practice of asana remain the supreme objectives for the serious practitioner.
As one progresses through the necessary levels of bodily purification, development of subtle awareness, and strengthening of the power of concentration, then asana begins to take on a much higher level of practice and benefits.
We should approach asana always keeping this in mind, and although our practice may reveal results primarily on the physical health level today, strive to ultimately realize these more advanced goals of yoga asana practice.
NOTE: This yoga article is an excerpt from The Science of Yoga, an online yoga training program with streaming yoga videos and 600 pages of step-by-step yoga instruction.
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