What is the Purpose of Āsana?

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Please Refer to Both Traditional Pre-Modern Indian Yoga Systems and Modern Transnational Yoga

 

Within the discipline of yoga, āsana is a tool for the accumulation of power leading to transformation, transcendence and liberation. The power acquired is the result of the purification and knowledge that is cultivated through this postural practice. Many scholars, such as David Gordon White, will argue that yoga today has only the most tenuous links with the yoga of the Yoga Sūtras and other ancient yoga treatises (White, 2012, p.). However, whilst contemporary yoga in its dissemination in the Western world has undergone extensive transformation in a response to the divergent worldviews, aspirations and logical predispositions of modern audiences, as a means to power the purpose of āsana has remained relatively consistent. What has radically changed is the framework in which power is perceived, whilst the conceptualisation of possible transcendence and liberation has largely contracted and shifted, albeit persisting as a motivating force. Exploring the purpose of āsana from Patañjali to haṭhayoga, this essay will delineate the continuing emphasis on power leading to liberation and the functional role of āsana within this scheme. In the development of modern transnational yoga, in which the embodied practice rose to ascendency, the purpose of āsana as a tool for power has remained. While ‘physicalisation’ has led contemporary yoga to appear potentially profane and materialistic, this essay will argue in the line of Lars Jørun Langøien and Joseph Alter, that within the expanded conceptualisation of ‘health’, embodied practice is not sought for self-aggrandisement in a superficial sense, rather it is part of a process of transformation towards a liberation from dominating constructs, both internal and external (Langøien, 2012, p.35; Alter, 2005, p.140).

 

The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, composed between 325-425 CE, are often cited as the quintessential expression of Classical Yoga (Wujastyk, 2012, p.33). The Pātañjalayogaśāstra is the earliest text to advance a systematic description of an eightfold yoga practice (Mallinson, 2017, p.86). Within this system āsana is the third of the eight auxiliaries necessary for mastering yoga. The first five are ‘external’ (bahiraga) limbs, preliminary and preparatory meditative exercises. Once mastered, the yogin moves to the final three ‘internal’ (antaragna) limbs. There are no details in regard to the nature of āsana apart from it being a simple seated posture in which the yogi can be steady and comfortable to then practice the remaining five auxiliaries (YS 2.27). The yoga of Patañjali is a discipline for the cognitive apparatus to discern clearly, leading to true cognition that results in salvation, release from suffering existence (moka) (White, 2012, p.7). Grounded in Sāṃkhyan metaphysics, suffering is seen as the result of a profound confusion, a fundamental ‘mixing up’ of materiality and consciousness (Larson, 2012, p.78). Therefore, Patañjali advances a system of meditation that aims at the cultivation of pure, content-less consciousness, identical with the attainment of ‘isolation’ or spiritual liberation from the realm of materiality (Larson, 2012, p.79). Although holding a preliminary status and with just a few verses addressing it, āsana is by no means superfluous as without the ability to perform āsana one would never reach the ultimate liberation, ‘the radical freedom at the heart of sentient existence, an experiential clarity that radically transforms self-understanding, thereby providing relief from the suffering that has been brought about by the afflictions attendant upon mistaken or muddled awareness’ (Larson, 2012, p.78).

 

The role of yogic āsana gained more authority as Tantric notions of the ‘subtle body’ were developed and disseminated. In the composition of Sanskrit texts on haṭhayoga in the first half of the second millennium CE we start to see systematic descriptions of āsana-s that are increasingly complex than the seated postures of earlier texts (Mallinson, 2017, p.86). Whereas the yoga of Patañjali was based on Sāṃkhyan

metaphysics, the yoga of the Nāths in the tenth to twelfth centuries was a syncretic amalgamation of Tantra with elements of Śaivism, Mahāyāna Buddhism, asceticism alchemy and magic (Liberman, 2008, p.101).  Kenneth Liberman states that distrusting academia and its concomitant reasoning and discussions, the practical investigation of adepts’ own bodily experience was their source of genius (Liberman, 2008, p.104). The path to liberation was predicated on approaching the body as the epitome of the universe, seeing metaphysical correspondences between the bodily microcosm and the universal macrocosm (White, 2012, p.19). White explains that in a new variation of the idea of consciousness-raising-as-internal-ascent, haṭhayoga represents the subtle body ‘as a sealed hydraulic system within which vital fluids may be channelled upward as they are refined into nectar through the heat of asceticism’ (White, 2012, p.16). The practitioner’s semen, lying inert in the coiled body of the serpent kuṇḍalinī becomes heated through different techniques of āsana and prāāyāma, thus awakening and entering into the medial channel (suu) that runs along the spinal column up to the cranial vault whilst piercing the cakra-s (White, 2012, p.16). Liberation and realisation of ultimate reality became achieved through different physical practices such as viparītakarani, a bodily inversion that reverses the downward flow of life force (prāa) so that yogins could cleanse their nerves (īs) and control and direct the energies of the ‘subtle body’.

 

Through the purificatory physical techniques of āsana, prāāyāma (restrained breathing) and mudrā (sealing off of the subtle body) yogis performed ‘bodily alchemy’ (Farmer, 2012, p. 146). James Mallinson contends that the development of haṭhayoga was a reaction against the complexity and exclusivity of esoteric Tantric cults and practices (Mallinson, 2012, p.257). Taking Tantric physiology as a template, the modes of accessing and controlling the energies became physical, thus negating the need for elaborate initiations or secret mantras and mandalas handed down within the occult tantric lineages (Mallinson, 2012, p.257). The physical practices of āsana and prāāyāma facilitated the exploration of the inner environments of the body and their effect on consciousness, creating increasingly exoteric pathways to liberation based on embodied experience. It is interesting to note that as āsana-s proliferated in texts composed between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, with their therapeutic benefits of ridding the body of disease being highlighted, their practice was still allied with control of the mind (Mallinson, 2017, p.92). For example, while most of the eighty-four āsana-s taught in the eighteenth-century Jogpradīpakā are said to have therapeutic benefits, all postures require the yogi to fix his gaze in meditation at the tip of his nose or centre of the eyebrows (Mallinson, 2017, p.92). Nonetheless the elucidation of therapeutic effects of āsana was original to the haṭhayoga

corpus, an innovation whose influence has persisted until today.

 

While the ultimate goal of early yoga traditions was the realisation of an eternal, unchanging principle, the accumulation of power(s) was a perpetual undercurrent, whether as a motivating force or as indication of progress. Alter persuasively argues that any consideration of pre-twentieth-century haṭhayoga literature and the Yoga Sūtra must directly address the question of embodied siddhi powers (Alter, 2005, p.128). Siddhi means success or attainment, but in a yogic context denotes perfection and the embodiment of perfection (Alter, 2005, p.128). Mallinson’s research gives evidence to the ancient relationship between physical postures and power arguing that although non-seated āsana-s are not delineated in yoga texts until the end of the first millennium CE, ascetics had been performing them ‘for at least 2500 years’ (Mallinson, 2017, p.88). These postures, held for long periods of time, resulted in an accumulation of tapas, ascetic power that purifies one’s old karma and prevents the accumulation of new karma, thus liberating one from the cycle or rebirth (Mallinson, 2017, p.92). These Vedic ascetics, some of whom would stand upright for a year, believed they would be granted immense powers and boons from the gods (Jacobsen, 2005, p.6). Both Mallinson and Jacobsen argue that it is likely these bodily postures were precursors to the later āsana-s of yoga (Jacobsen, 2005, p.6; Mallinson, 2017, p.92). Whereas Tantric and haṭha traditions accept the attainment of power as goals, traditional commentaries of Classical Yoga denies them as objectives, demoting them to mere distractions on the path to liberation (Jacobsen, 2005, p.6). However, Lloyd Pflueger argues that the surprising amount of attention devoted to powers in the Pātañjalayogaśāstra must demonstrate that ‘Patañjali saw them as an intrinsic part of the yogic path to liberation’ (Pflueger, 2005, p.52). Pflueger highlights that as the concept of the deity becomes divested of supernatural glory, the human rises to fill the vacuum as a range of supernormal powers are attributed to the yogin through the purification of mind and body via ‘the so-called external subdivisions of yoga’ (Pflueger, 2005, p.46). The Pātañjalayogaśāstra states, ‘When the impurities are destroyed by the performance of the [different] subdivisions of yoga, the light of knowledge [extends all the way] up to the perception of difference [of buddhi and purua]’ (YS 2.28).  Pflueger asserts that the apparent ‘embarrassment’ of many modern scholars’ towards Patañjali’s interest in in ‘the powers’ or power, if we wish to make this distinction, is the result of ‘enlightenment prejudices about what Indian philosophy ought to be’ (Pflueger, 2005, p.54). Yet, the element of power is intrinsic to the structure of Yoga, entwined within the fundamental concepts of purification and knowledge and considering them ‘as spurious elements or magical residues has no textual basis’ (Pflueger, 2005, p.56).

 

 

The notion that God’s grace and phenomenal power is neither bestowed nor granted but rather discovered in oneself is consistent from Classical Yoga to the developments of Tantric and haṭhayoga. Mallinson points out that while techniques differ, the results of haṭhayoga are the same as Tantric rituals: supernatural power and liberation (Mallinson, 2012, p.257). However, in contrast to Tantrism, haṭhayoga asserts that you can achieve liberation while being alive, ‘in a body immortalised by the means of hat.ha yoga’ (Mallinson, 2012, p.257). Purification of the body through āsana and pranayama can be likened to what alchemists do to base materials (Alter, 2005, p.130). Physical techniques of āsana and prāāyāma were practiced with reference to the logic that the gross body can be transformed into ‘a body of golden, immortal, perfect permanence’ (Alter, 2005, p.133). Alter states that the purposes of āsana within haṭhayoga texts is often an amalgamation of their ability to impart miraculous powers and with the destruction of death and decay (Alter, 2005, p.129) For example, the Hathyogapradipika describes the purpose behind mayurāsana (the peacock pose) as being able to destroy all disease, removing abdominal disorders, improved digestion and destroying the most deadly poison (Alter, 2005, p.129). The close proximity between these more health-orientated benefits and the siddhis is because āsana was, and still is, used as a tool of purification which is itself intrinsic to the acquisition of phenomenal powers. Alter explains that the curative powers of āsana were not framed as ‘mundane’ but as fundamental to the development of siddhis (Liberman, 2008, p.100). White states that the medieval yogis of the tenth to twelfth centuries used āsana not for meditative or health purposes but to ‘awaken kuṇḍalinī and gain such siddhis as human flight, alchemical abilities, and escaping death’ (White, 2003, 221). Although this may have been the case, it is important to realise the interdependency between these seemingly different motivating forces noting that the acquisition of bodily purity and good health bolsters the ability of meditative insight and supernatural powers. The correlation between power and haṭhayoga was so strong that Nāth Yogis, who lived beyond the boundaries of society, were considered superhuman allies who could protect individuals ‘from the supernatural entities responsible for disease, famine, misfortune and death’ (White, 2012, p.19).

 

In the development of modern transnational yoga the occult underpinnings of much yoga philosophy were stripped away, however the correlation between āsana and the accumulation of power remained. Aspasia Leledaki and David Brown suggest that modern yoga pedagogies are more clearly comprehended within a globalised modern framework as being (re)-invented traditions that appeared during a period of social change and therefore fulfilled the particular needs of its new audience (Leledaki and Brown, 2008, p.312). Mark Singleton elucidates that the Indian pioneers of postural yoga sought to break free from internalised colonial myths of Indian effeminacy and degeneracy, asserting that some patriotic Hindus even touted yoga as a eugenic fast track to a stronger, better nation (Singleton, 2010, p. 83). Although concerned with spirituality and realisation, Vivekananda in his 1896 publication of Raja-Yoga, can be credited with ‘revolutionising Hinduism by advocating a no-nonsense, self-confident muscular—and therefore, masculinised Spiritualism’ (Farmer, 2012, p.150). While Vivekananda focused more on mental practices of contemplation, having little time for āsana as it was associated with occult haṭhayoga and therefore backwardness and sorcery, he was impressed and influenced by the late nineteenth-century American health movement and launched yoga in the direction of medicine and health (Alter, 2005, p.135). The West proved to be fertile ground for the dissemination of ‘medicalised’ yoga as Leo Strauss argues that health and freedom were fundamental features of late modernity, with low rates of mortality being the marker of development and progress, and thus power (Bailly, 2014, p.60). Catherine Albanese argues that physical training became equated with moral education as will-power became associated with muscle power, characterized in the notion of ‘muscular Christianity’ (Albanese, 2007, p.361). The nineteenth-century was saturated by health movements such as calisthenics and gymnastics, advancing human health and glorifying God through advancement of the human physique (Newcombe, 2009, p.14). Thus, whilst the occult dimensions of yoga were stripped back in the face of modernity, āsana grew to prominence as individual health and strength became equated with national and religious development and power.

 

By the 1930s āsana had great authority within the yoga renaissance (Singleton, 2010, p.114). This was largely down to Shri Yogendra and Swami Kuvalayananda who allied yogic practices with contemporary trends of therapeutics and physical culture. Both figures were concerned with providing scientific corroboration for the health benefits of yoga and creating accessible and simplified āsana courses for the public (Singleton, 2010, p.117). The ‘medicalisation’ of yoga and predominance of āsana escalated as Krishnamacharya, today considered the Grandfather of modern postural yoga, also emphasised the benefits of āsana as compatible with biomedical science (Newcombe, 2009, p.11). Krishnamacharya writes in his famous Yoga Makaranda, ‘The practice of postures regulates blood flow in the body. The efficiency of the nerves and muscles increases. The internal organs function properly’ (Krishnamacharya, 2012 (trans.) p.347). It was during this period that yoga, predominantly being the practice of āsana, became seen as both a form of physical fitness and an applied medical therapy. Although medicalization may appear as a more mundane purpose and thus a contraction of āsana as a tool for supernatural powers, liberation and transcendence, one must recognise the changing understanding of what came to be constituted as ‘health’ towards the end of the twentieth-century. Body maintenance is no longer constricted to fitness regimes but encapsulates systems for physical, mental and emotional health also (Newcombe, 2009, p.12). With research proving that stress and anxiety contributes to chronic disease and decreased quality of life, yoga offers a way of achieving a more harmonious experience of being both in the world and in one’s own body (Li & Goldsmith, 2012, p.125).  In the context of modernity, what some have claimed to be the ‘Age of Insanity’ due to a mental health epidemic, postural yoga is employed as a means to greater health in its expanded sense through a host of different therapies such as alternative medicine, physical therapy, humanistic psychology, physical fitness and alternative spirituality (Schumaker, 2001, p.3; Farmer, 2012, p.156).

 

Intimately connected with new ideas of ‘health’ are notions of power, which reflect medieval haṭhayoga practices that advanced purification of the body as a means to attaining powers and eventual liberation. The concept of the jīvanmukti (the liberated while living) denotes that through yogic bodily practices such as āsana one radically ‘transform the body-of-ignorance into a powerful vehicle for liberation’ (Bailly, 2014, p.70). As Alter argues, postural practice still serves this purpose and that regardless of the fact that yoga can alleviate stress, relieve symptoms of different ailments and promote healthy lifestyles, its real contemporary popularity and significance must be explained by the fact that ‘no matter how basic, crudely described or radically modified, every āsana evokes the possibility of embodied immortality’ (Alter, 2005, p.142). This is corroborated by Farmer’s research into contemporary American yogis who he states consistently emphasise āsana as ‘the physical route to transcendence’ (Farmer, 2012, p.156). While embodied practice has remained as a means to power, this power is sought not for supernatural abilities and liberation from the cycle of rebirth and concomitant suffering, but as a means of transcending disempowering states of physical, emotional and mental existence and the psychologically corrosive effect of modernisation (Schumaker, 2001, p.2).  

 

Fundamental to āsana is embodiment, an opportunity to (re)negotiate the quality of engagement between the practitioner and the world. Leledaki and Brown depict embodiment as a cultivation of body-mind unity (Leledaki & Brown, 2008, p.303) When the body is habitually experienced as a neutral backdrop to goal-orientated actions and thoughts, the body is not experienced as ‘alive’, producing a non-dynamic, disengaged and disempowered perception of ourselves. Nervin Klas’s research into contemporary yoga practitioners influenced by Krishnamacharya argues that āsana, as an embodied practice in which one attends to the body, is said ‘to existentially empower the practitioner by making him or her feel more ‘whole’, ‘alive’ and so on’ (Nervin, 2008, p.130). As a reflection of yoga philosophy itself, embodiment theory challenges the Cartesian duality between mind and body, instead asserting an intrinsic, although culturally mediated, interconnection between the two (Bailly, 2014, p.61). Krishnamacharya advanced āsana as a form of meditation in action whereby the practitioner focuses on extending, balancing and aligning the breath with postures, the performance and sequencing of āsana-s themselves and the focus of the gaze (Nervin, 2008, p.121). In this sense āsana enhances a direct involvement with movement. Negative habits and unconscious behaviours can be transformed by learning how to employ the power of the body differently (Nervin, 2008, p.126). Notably, Phillip Zarrilli claims that heighted awareness of the body (such as movement or breathing) ‘allows for a shift in one’s experience of the body and mind aspects from their gross separation, marked by the body’s constant disappearance, to a much more subtle, dialectical engagement of body-in-mind and mind-in-body’ (Zarrilli, 2004, p. 661). In this way, āsana practice offers a part to liberation and empowerment as negative modes of existence are transcended. 

 

The practice of āsana also serves the purpose of liberating one from enslavement to unconscious and habitual emotional reactions and attitudes. Interviews of modern-day yoga practitioners conducted by Leledaki and Brown demonstrate the empowering results of embodiment in that practitioners feel more able to ‘choose’ to focus on productive emotional dispositions rather than restrictive dispositions (Leledaki & Brown, 2008, p.319). Scholars such as Langøien argue that despite increased physical practice, modern yoga still has fundamental links to the philosophical and spiritual traditions of India for many practitioners (Langøien, 2012, p.27). However the goals set forth in the Yoga Sūtra are achieved through increasingly embodied modes. Patañjali advances that at the ‘higher state of purification . . . the yogi is disconnected (viyoga) from all patterns of action motivated by the ego’ (Leledaki & Brown, 2008, p.330). As such, through emotional attunement via embodiment the practitioner is able to transmute anger into compassion, fear into excitement and so on, so rather than denying emotion it is channelled ‘in alternative ways by means of an open, embodied and creative mode of responding and engaging with themselves, others and their environment’ (Leledaki & Brown, 2008, p.330).

 

Yoga and the practice of āsana serves as a powerful tool for those seeking authentic meaning in what might increasingly be experienced as an otherwise meaningless world. Anthony Giddens has highlighted the deep disturbance to both philosophers and ordinary individuals facing the reflexivity of modernity and science with its pervasive methodological principle of doubt (Giddens, 1991, p.21). The rise of individualism, privatisation and corrosion of religious institutions has led Chris Shilling to argue that the body may ‘provide a firm foundation on which to reconstruct a reliable sense of self in the modern world’ (Shilling, 1993, p.415). Research suggesting increased popularity of religious traditions emphasising experience supports Langøien’s statement that increasingly, ‘people have turned inwards in their search for meaning and for answers to the great questions of life’ (Langøien, 2012, p.30). The practice of āsana as a mode of embodiment offers a spirituality ‘of’ and ‘for’ being authentically human. As Paul Heelas elucidates, ‘of ’ because it is experienced and understood to emanate from the depths of subjective life, if not life itself; ‘for’ because of its practicality – its (apparent) ability to make a positive difference to subjective life and the life around us: as well as elsewhere’ (Heelas, 2008, p.17). Julian Holloway challenges the supposed duality between the sacred and profane, similarly introducing the body as the producer of sacred space-time and a locus for signification in and of itself in accounts of spirituality and religion (Holloway, 2003, p.1962). Holloway considers a sense of divine comportment as attained through utilising spiritually appropriate ways of doing, therefore spiritual practice of the everyday occurs through a revaluation of the moment-by-moment construction and actuality of lived corporeal existence (Holloway, 2003, p.1972). Thus one transcends the profane and is liberated from disenchantment as they sanctify everyday spaces and times in embodied action in the world.

 

Modern postural yoga is employed as a means of challenging the recursive relationship between dominating cultural ideologies that restrict and the concomitant embodied internalisation of these narratives (Leledaki & Brown, 2008, p.304). Cartesian dichotomisation of the mind-body complex informs the logic of domination that lays foundations for further layers of dualisms such as male-female, culture-nature, reason-emotion, therefore constructing interdependent embodied social patterns of domination (Leledaki & Brown, 2008, p.309). Contemporary interpretations of the goal of yoga can be utilised as a means of transcending such dichotomies, defined as the uniting of body and mind, connecting with the supreme Self, or becoming one with the One, depending on what interpretation you choose (Desikachar 1995, Jois 2005 OR Z 28). Leledaki and Brown describe this embodiment as a ‘somatically-induced protective practice’ that impede the internalisation of repressive social discourses (Leledaki & Brown, 2008, p.331). Nervin furthers this line of argument stating that modern postural yoga offers practices that open up new spaces where alternative ideologies of the body can be explored, whilst offering social empowerment and the opportunity of alternative social interactions, ‘a resistance against conventional forms of sociality, as it were’ (R 134).  In Leledaki and Brown’s interviews of practitioners, one interviewee suggested that through āsana and concomitant ‘physicalisation’, he was able to cultivate a sense of self that was fluid, impersonal and free from stereotypes (Leledaki & Brown, 2008, p.321).  In sacralising embodiment he describes a connection to a Self that moves him from a sense of powerlessness derived from feelings of oppression to a sense of empowerment as he transcends his ordinary perception of his body-self and therefore transmutes his limiting emotional habitus to an increasingly productive one (Leledaki & Brown, 2008, p.321). This account of liberation from racist stereotypes illustrates how āsana facilitates a movement to resolving inner conflict through dissolving misidentifications while creating a more ‘authentic’, although subjective, sacred sense of Self (Leledaki & Brown, 2008, p.322). This mirrors the ancient notion of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra that ‘when the transformation of awareness ceases, the real identity of the human is realised’ (Jacobsen, 2005, p.21). Fundamental to yoga methodologies has always been the creation an altered sense of self that empowers one beyond the limiting confines of whatever is viewed to be ensnaring the individual.

 

Shared between the various yoga lineages is a pathway towards liberation in which purification, knowledge and the accumulation of power is advanced. Although perceived through differing conceptual frameworks, āsana has been a way in which suffering existence is transcended. The ideological underpinnings to how liberation is attained from Classical Yoga to contemporary yoga reflects the increased importance placed on the body, so while āsana has always been essential, it has become increasing pivotal. In spite of its medicalization, for many yoga practitioners health and fitness is not sought for their own sake, at least theoretically, but is part of a salvation and enlightenment project (Langøien, 2012, p. 35). Embodiment creates an active form of knowledge production that leads to self-transformation by facilitating an increasingly ‘open, panoramic sense of embodied awareness, which is simultaneously corporeal, cognitive and ‘scientific’ (Leledaki & Brown, 2008, p.315). Contemporary āsana practice remains as a method for the accumulation of power in the sense of transcending limitation and overcoming disembodied ways of living that produce excessive disengagement with ourselves (i.e. our bodies) and our surroundings, culminating in emotional disconnection and alienation. Whether as a means to final release from suffering existence or an unshackling from oppressive systems of thought, behaviour and social construction, āsana, with the results of purification, knowledge and a transformed sense of self, facilitates liberation.

 

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