In the Yoga Sutras, we learn that asana—the “physical exercise” part of yoga—is one of eight limbs that comprise the yoga lifestyle. Often, students of classical yoga philosophy point out that Western yoga overemphasizes asana and mostly neglects other aspects of the practice. But that doesn’t mean we should overlook the benefits of a physical yoga practice.
While the role of asana has changed somewhat from the original classical practice, our bodies still play an important role on the path to enlightenment. It may just be that our bodies need more help now than they did in Patanjali’s time!
Benefits of a Physical Yoga Practice: What Patanjali Taught in The Yoga Sutras
Originally, there were few physical yoga postures. In the Yoga Sutras, three verses sum up the purpose of asana, or the physical practice. Here’s what Patanjali tells us in sutra 2.46 (translation by Reverend Jaganath Carrera):
Asana is a steady, comfortable posture.
Perhaps this is a bit different from your experience. Today, we learn many yoga postures, and they’re not always immediately comfortable. The goal, though, is to take a comfortable position eventually. In modern classes, we do usually end our practice in a comfortable pose, such as savasana or easy sitting pose, though it can take an hour or more to get there!
Patanjali give us a few tips for mastering posture in the next sutra (2.47).
By lessening the natural tendency for restlessness and by meditating on the infinite, posture is mastered.
Why is it so important to sit comfortably or to be physically comfortable? It’s important, we’re told, because it puts us in a neutral state from which to observe reality.
Thereafter, one is undisturbed by dualities. (2.48)
We do what we can to become still, that is, to lessen restlessness. The next step is mastery of the breath.
Physical Benefits of Modern Yoga Exercises
Have you ever wondered why there are now dozens and dozens of yoga poses and styles when yoga was originally simpler in terms of physical practice? I don’t know the answer, but I wonder if the postures of modern yoga are designed to fill needs the ancient yogis didn’t have.
Many of us lead relatively sedentary lives and develop many stress-related physical issues that get in the way of the flow of life. We modern yogis have headaches, bad backs, stiff necks, digestive problems, anxiety, racing thoughts, and a host of problems that show up in our bodies in undesirable ways.
If you’ve practiced for even a short time, you know that yoga helps with many of these problems. Overall, yoga reduces stress, calms the mind, and reduces pain. Many people turn to yoga to deal with the “side effects” of modern life. The fact that most of us come first to the physical practice is not surprising.
Once we’ve practiced yoga for a while, many of us are drawn in and want to go deeper. We experience the benefits of a physical yoga practice and achieve the goal of exercise, pain relief, or stress management. One day we realize we’re in a much better place; we feel great! Then an amazing thing happens. We begin to see there is more to the practice—and to life—than we expected.
And we continue along the eight-limbed path to enlightenment.