You may remember the wonderful book, Be Here Now, by Ram Dass. On the cover of the book in the center of a web of crisscrossing lines is a chair. A chair. I have wondered for so long why he chose a chair for the cover. How did a chair come to symbolize being present? Now, after 20 years of teaching yoga, I think it illustrates the meaning of the word “asana.”
We usually translate the word asana to mean posture. According to the eight limbs of yoga, described by Pantanjali in The Yoga Sutras, asana is the third limb. It is one of the ways by which we can achieve a sense of union, or yoga. It is the physical practice of yoga. In doing asana, also known as Hatha Yoga, we achieve a state of union by focusing all of our efforts, physical, mental and even spiritual, on the activity of the body and the response of the mind. With this active and focused form of moving meditation we can become fully engaged and watchful, observing both the subtle and overall experiences of our bodies, our thoughts, and feelings.
The Sanskrit word asana means sitting, as in seated in one’s place on Earth. It describes the process of becoming grounded. That process includes being attentive, being present, and creating stability in our postures. In The Yoga Sutras, verse 2:46, sthirasukham āsanam, we're told that "a stable, comfortable posture is asana" (translation, Pandit Rajmani Tigunait). Our yoga postures should be steady and sweet.
Nearly every posture in Hatha Yoga ends with the tag-word asana: Trikonasana, Sukhasana, Baddha Konasana, Natarajasana, etc. To me this implies that in every posture we are meant to feel grounded, actively seated upon the earth, fully present. Trikonasana then becomes Grounded Triangle Pose and Natarajasana becomes Grounded King Dancer and so forth. As there are few, if any, postures without the asana ending, I would say that if we aren’t grounded we aren’t doing yoga. Every pose requires constant attention to an active foundation, and our sense of union extends to union with Earth (place) as well as with body, mind, breath, and spirit. This could also imply that if this process of becoming seated upon the earth defines yoga, then anything and everything we do in which we seek that mindful and active connection to Earth is yoga. Thinking of asana as a verb, our postures and actions become: be here in Eagle, be grounded in Mountain, be a grounded Warrior, a present Warrior, be grounded doing dishes, be present with your grandchildren, Be Here Now!
The word asana also refers to how we’re seated, “situated” in the world around us. Our yoga practice literally moves us through constantly shifting perspectives, helping us to get out of our habitual or limited point of reference and see through a wider lens, even as we’re looking within.
Our yoga, whether observing Yamas and Niyamas, performing Seva (service), sitting in meditation, or standing in a forward fold is a process. Not a noun, a verb. Being seated is yoga. Being present is yoga. So, maybe that’s the story behind the chair on the cover, a gentle nudge towards sitting down, literally for meditation, or metaphorically in asana. Yoga then becomes even more accessible. Any of us could do it, if we could just stop resisting gravity and settle into it more fully. We can rise from there.