But becoming a contortionist or a strongwoman or man is not what asana practice is about.
Originally asana meant “seat.” When Patanjali used it in the Yoga Sutras it meant “seated meditation posture.” It wasn’t until Hatha Yoga began in the 10th century that it came to refer to postures meant to build physical and mental endurance.
In the records we have of early asana, up to the 19th century, nearly all of the postures are seated. There are a few inversions, like shoulder stand and plow, and a couple are done lying on your back. There are only two standing poses and they are both balances.
The original yogis held postures for very long stretches of time. It was during the era of the British Raj that asana practice the way we know and love it was born. In the quest for an Indian exercise regime to answer to British “physical culture” and to strengthen the populace in pursuit of independence, the postures of Hatha Yoga were blended with exercises from Indian wrestling and European gymnastics.
The genius was maintaining focus on one’s breath. This is what gives yoga asana its unique mental and spiritual benefits. Being able to touch your head with your foot gives you no assurance of personal development; but being able to stay present in this moment with what is – whatever that is – that makes sparks fly! It creates strong connections in the empathic, intuitive, and higher order thinking parts of your brain; it gives perspective on life that helps you escape a narrow view and gain the wisdom of the big picture; it creates a sense of spaciousness within that will help you transcend the ego and find peace.
The secret to every yoga asana is that it doesn’t matter what your body looks like in a pose. It doesn’t matter how deeply you can enter a posture physically. As long as your alignment is good and there’s no pain or strain, the posture itself is secondary.
What matters is your ability to be in the pose, to not let your mind wander away. It takes practice. There are a lot of thoughts that fight for our attention during an asana practice. When I started, mine sounded like this: “I should be able to go deeper. That person isn’t doing it right. Am I showing too much cleavage? I’m better at this than half the class. When will the teacher let us out? I shouldn’t have had that sandwich. Half the class is better than me at this.” And on and on. Because that’s what brains are built to do.
But keep coming back to your breath and your body with patience and compassion and eventually you’ll find acceptance and then peace of mind.
In the meantime you’ll gain all the physical benefits of yoga – strength, flexibility, balance, a healthier heart, better digestion, and a stronger immune system. And that will give you the physical stamina to take your newfound joy out into your relationships, your work, your world.
All you have to do is keep coming back, back to your practice, to your body, and to your breath. Eventually you will find freedom: freedom from your thoughts, from your ego, and from your cultural conditioning. And maybe you will become a freak. Not a contortionist or a strongwoman or man, but that rarest of all types of human, enlightened.