Definitions of āsana, Part 4: Sārva Aṅga Sādhana: Āsana is an all parts practice
If you’ve been practicing yoga for a while, you may find it difficult to describe to your non-yoga going friends what it’s doing for you. They can see that you get a lot out of it but can’t wrap their mind around how, exactly, ‘stretching’ can help you feel more peace around a difficult situation. Or how yoga can help can help you to heal – not just physically but emotionally, too. I’ve been in the yoga-game for over a decade and I talk about yoga for a living, but even so, it’s a great challenge to describe why and how yoga works to someone who hasn’t experienced it. I was at a party a few weeks ago and this very thing came up. A casual friend approached me about his injured back. He wants to feel better, and is curious about what I do, but is a great skeptic when it comes to yoga. I asked some questions and described a little of what I’m writing about here, but when it came down to it, he just doesn’t see the back injury as having anything to do with the stress at work and the chronic movement patterns that strain this area. He isn’t yet at a place where he can see all these parts of his life experience as interrelated. That’s okay. Seed is planted. He’ll know I’m right, eventually. 😉
This definition of āsana is known as sārva aṅga sādhana, literally meaning “all parts practice.” To me, this definition is a way of beginning to understand why yoga can help with so many aspects of our lives. When we practice yoga postures, we call on every part of our system to get involved. You might be wondering, what are all these parts we’re talking about? Yoga has a model to help us reflect on this very question.
The pañca maya model comes from the ancient Vedic text, the Taittirīya Upaniṣad, and describes our human system as having five (pañca) interconnected and interdependent veils or layers (maya):
5 Interconnected facets of our human system * Pañca Maya
Body * Annamaya
Breath and Prāṇa * Prāṇamaya
Mind * Manomaya
Behavior and Personality * Vijñānamaya
Emotions * Ānandamaya
Āsana invites each aspect of our being to the practice. When we are present in this way and all parts of us are activeley involved, then āsana has the potential to facilitate deep change in our lives. We breathe consciously and with technique [expanding the chest with inhales, drawing the abdomen toward spine with exhales]. The dynamic movements into and out of postures coordinate with the length of the breath. All of this requires a lot of attention and presence. Activity that requires attention and presence also reveals aspects of our personality. Some days, āsana might be a welcome practice, other days, not so much. Why? We have different moods and modes. Āsana lets us become aware of and work with these moods and modes. Linked to all of this is an emotional experience. There’s a feeling that comes with everything we do. Āsana is much more than stretching. It involves all parts of our being. If we stick with it, we can be present to what it is to be a person. Difficulties can begin to digest, old patterns begin to change, and we awaken to something within us that is steady and light.
Even with a beautiful description of this multi-dimensional system and how yoga works on all these levels, our attempts to explaining to our curious friend will fall short. Yoga is experiential. It’s something that you do and that does something to you. It’s something your friend will feel when they are in your presence, even if they can’t put words to how and why it works.