08/21/2013 01:16 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Is a Yoga Pose?

In each teacher training that I lead, we start by discussing whether or not certain postures qualify to be called yoga asana, the Sanskrit word for pose. It's a great place to start because it puts in place the cornerstone upon which all of the work that follows is based. That building block states that defining poses as asana or not has almost nothing to do with the shape that the body has moved into. There is no shape that can't be an asana, and there is no shape that is always an asana. There is no list of authorized poses.


The author in Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana

Using the physical body as the main component of a spiritual practice is newly popular and barely existed just a few decades ago. Prior to that, asana was viewed as a single limb on a larger tree, and it was mostly used as a way to get the body ready to sit in meditation for a long time without distraction.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the ancient go-to authority on yoga practice, discusses asana in only three of its 198 terse aphorisms, or sutras. Fortunately, these three statements contain enough wisdom to fuel a lifetime of yoga practice.

Sutra 2.46: sthira sukham asanam

Here, Patanjali defines asana as a posture where two seemingly opposite things, called sthira and sukha, co-exist. This pair can be simply translated to mean steadiness and ease, respectively. But, to really understand why they matter so much, it's helpful to understand a little more about the cosmology of yoga philosophy.

For thousands of years, the dominant yogic worldview has held that all things are a combination of three gunas, or qualities: rajas, tamas, and sattva.

Rajas refers to qualities that involve movement, volatility, or change. Rajasic things include instability, reactivity, ambition, desire, momentum, and irritability.

In contrast, tamas refers to things that are heavy and still. Qualities like groundedness, stability, and inertia are tamasic.

Both rajas and tamas can be beneficial or harmful, depending on the context. For example, steam, a rajasic form of water, can be used to great benefit or great harm. Water that is in the form of ice, predominantly tamasic, can be helpful or harmful, depending on when, where and how the ice is presented.

What Patanjali says here is that we do asana when we balance groundedness and stability with ease and potential for change. He calls them sthira and sukha, which correspond with the more universally applicable tamas and rajas. There is no mention here of poses named for warriors, cobras, or dogs facing up, or dogs facing down. Instead, asana pairs two of the opposing qualities that are present everywhere in nature. In the next two sutras, he explains why this pairing matters to a yoga practice.

Sutra 2.47 prayatna shaithilya ananta samapattibhyam

When we make the body do asana, our mind is doing the directing. In Sutra 2.47, Patanjali says that, when, in our minds, we experience the cognitive blending of effort and release, we get a glimpse of the infinite. I believe that to be a fine reason to give it my full attention when I am on my mat.

The state of mind that has an open door to the infinite is called sattva, and it's the third and final guna, or quality, in yoga's worldview. Sattva is the condition of pure mind, unclouded by heavy tamas or volatile rajas, in which we can experience insight into our perfect spiritual essence. And, while sattva itself is not a balance of rajas and tamas, in asana we use the experience of balancing heaviness with volatility to get to a sattvic, illuminated state.

Think again of water. In its sattvic state, water is simply water being its pure watery self. And while you could mix steam and ice to make liquid water, once it's water, it is neither steam nor ice. Authentically practicing Patanjali's yoga on a yoga mat means metaphorically mixing ice and steam to get yourself some pure water.

At the heart of the technique is a purposeful awareness of two simultaneously occurring and opposing qualities happening in the body. When we do that, since the mind is the conductor, it is stocking itself with content that mirrors the actual layout of the universe. Quantum physics teaches that we do not live in an either/or world. Rather, we are discovering in atoms, that more than one thing can, and often does, happen in the same time and place.

When we experience effort and release together in the mind, we host two opposing things at once, and thereby allow our minds to behave as the world always has done, on an atomic level, with concurrent and blended opposing states. Only then, our state of mind mirrors the state of things outside of it. Then, perceived boundaries between the individual and the rest of the universe fall away and, for a moment or two, we are no longer bound to the conceit of ourselves as separate individuals.

When not observing this unified state of things, our mind manufactures and shores up ego. It does everything it can to tell us that we are separate. It is this mistaken perception of separated-ness that Patanjali, in earlier sutras, defines as the root cause of all human suffering.

Sutra 2.48: tata dvandva anabhighata

What Patanjali says in this final sutra about asana is that the glimpse of the infinite that asana gives us is one way to cure that suffering. He states, "From that (experience of the infinite that we get by balancing effort and release), we are freed from the affliction of pairs of opposites."

Humans have a tendency to constantly label and pigeonhole. We are either hot or cold, rich or poor, fat or skinny, single or in a relationship. We like something or we don't like it, and we are either happy or sad about things. This result is always pain, no matter which side of each pair you're experiencing, because there is a palpable dissonance between this mistakenly dualistic, solid state point of view, and the reality of nature.

Nature isn't black and white, and we rarely find absolutes there. So, when our mind tries to define each thing as one or the other, we end up disappointed and disillusioned. The result is a make-believe, bipolar world where one thing happens at a time. When yoga practice works, we accurately experience the whole at once and we see our own place in it.

Asana is one way to do that. The way it works is by providing a context for simultaneous, merged experience of both parts of an opposing pair, which opens the door to the real truth: there is no such thing as opposites. Everything is everything, and that includes you, your yoga mat, and any pose. The poses that make space for you to be cognizant of this balanced mental content are perfect expressions of asana. You are the only real authority on which body shapes help you do that and which do not. That is asana.

For more by James Brown, click here.

For more on yoga, click here.