The Original Intent of Yoga Asana

Tim Keim


Current estimates of the number of yoga practitioners in the U.S. is somewhere around 20 million, which is good news by any measure. The popularity of yoga that has led to this burgeoning number is due to many factors.

Yoga, now that it is a commercial venture rather than an esoteric discipline passed on from guru to student, is sold under many guises. Magazines, websites, health clubs and yoga studios entice us with the prospect of a sexy body, a precisely shaped yoga butt, or greater cardiovascular capacity.

Such marketing has nearly erased any trace of the original intent of the practice of yoga postures. Yoga is now reduced to a mere fitness regime that is more akin to calisthenics than a comprehensive toolbox to transform the entire experience of being human.

The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit root “yug” or to yoke. Yoga is therefore construed to be the union of our minds, bodies and souls with the great, mysterious energy that has given birth to our unfathomable universe. That’s vastly and laughably different than merely bestowing a lean, sexy body upon us.

As defined by Patanjali, the scholar/sage who codified yoga sometime near the beginning of the Common Era, yoga postures were for the healthy conditioning of the human body. The word asana itself denotes the comfort of the healthy body in any particular posture. The purpose of this conditioning was to enable the aspirant to sit in meditation in order to gain union or yoga with infinite universal energy. In other words, yoga’s purpose is to lead us to lives of boundless creativity, compassion and humane accomplishment. This is why I call yoga the universal tool box, because it addresses every aspect of what it is to be human.

Patanjali identified eight limbs or facets of yoga. The word ashtanga means eight limbs. (You may have heard it used in reference to a particular style of yoga.) He begins with yama and niyama, or what yogini, Donna Farhi, calls codes of soulful living. These codes school us in the ways we are to relate to ourselves and others. The next limb on the tree of yoga is asana, or the physical postures with which we are familiar. Next, Patanjali directs us towards our breath. The word he uses, pranayama, is actually a contraction of the words prana and ayama. Prana is the vital force that animates the entire universe. Ayama means extension or expansion. Prana and ayama mean the extension or expansion of the vital force of the universe in our bodies through the physical act of breathing and concentrated attention.

Breathing is not the mundane mechanical action that we take for granted. Literally it is our life, and our connection to the fulfillment of the grandeur, grace and glory of all our dreams and yearnings.

Patanjali now makes a distinct transition within the eight limbs or facets of yoga. The next four limbs: pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi all concern the mental aspects of focusing the mind in meditation. Pratyahara is the withdrawal of the five senses from the general nourishment and stimulation of our everyday environment to prepare us for dharana, or concentration. Sustained concentration then naturally produces meditation or dhyana which then blossoms into samadhi or total oneness, union or absorption into a state of bliss which is our true nature.

So then, as you approach your yoga mat you can see that there is an infinite world awaiting you. As you explore your practice you will no doubt experience deep physical, emotional and mental healing. This is part and parcel of using all the tools in the yoga toolbox.

May you be healthy. May you be happy. May you flourish to your full potential.