Yoga is a way of bringing positive changes in our life. Positive change requires opposing past habits. But asanas can also become habits. If we practise asana like riding a bicycle, we lose a large part of its transformative potential. Movement becomes mechanical because our brain learns movement patterns. If we do a movement, some hundreds of times, we can then repeat it easily with little awareness. But awareness is the key to sustaining transformation; awareness helps us recognise what we need to change and prevents us from slipping back after we change.
For asanas to be a powerful agent of transformation, we must do them not purely from the force of habit but with a stream of awareness. Even for the health of the body — to improve posture and alignment, to increase strength and flexibility effectively, and to explore our limits safely — awareness is necessary in asana practice. Injuries and imbalances in alignment often arise in asana practice because of practising from habit instead of practising in awareness.
Body and breath
The best pathway to awareness in asana practice is the connection between the body and breath. Focusing the mind on the breath, and noticing how the body and breath influence each other, is a profoundly healthful method of developing and maintaining awareness in asana practice.
If a practice makes you feel unwell or uncomfortable, it is a good idea to stop it and examine why or if there are alternatives that make you feel better. While persistence is a virtue, blind adherence is risky. Consequently, we must learn to differentiate between the healthful discomfort of resistance from past habits and the discomfort of trauma and upset to the body or mind.
The pathway of yoga is about commitment to positive transformation, not commitment to placing the body and mind in discomfort and harm for no clear reason. Some people say, “Challenge yourself.” But if the mind challenges the body indiscriminately, it may ruin the body. In short, if you are in doubt, do not persist in doing it. Research, reflect, and then return to the practice, clearer.
Look at the word habit. If you remove the ‘h’ ‘a bit’ remains. If you remove the a, bit of the habit remains. Even when you remove the ‘b,’ it remains! Habits take time to change, and we need to chip away at them bit by bit! Every yoga practice should have a goal and a challenge. However, why is modern yoga dominated almost entirely by postures as goals of practice?
The primary reason is that setting a physical goal is easier than setting a psychological one. Another reason is that a physical goal, like doing a handstand or placing one’s head on one’s knees, is tangible and easy to appreciate. Psychological goals are harder to appreciate, especially in a group. Life is fast paced. Many of life’s goals are material. Competition is encouraged, and ambition is feted. Transplant this mind-set into a yoga class, and each person wants to do the complex asanas that another person is able to do, regardless of whether doing so is wise. The goal of doing some of these asanas seems attractive as it is a visible achievement. Psychological goals are inner achievements whose rewards are not immediately visible, though they are more meaningful in time.
(A.G. Mohan and Dr. Ganesh Mohan are yoga practitioners and authors of several books)