“The shadows in the early morning don’t tell much. The shadows rest at that time. So it’s useless to gaze very early in the day. Around six in the morning the shadows wake up, and they are best around five in the afternoon. Then they are fully awake.”
Carlos Castaneda

The Second Ring of Power

If an Asana is a Koan …


There is a lot I do know about asanas in my practice:

  • I know the core position – the ideal form.
  • I know how to modify it to suit me – the form I am able to meet.
  • I know how to get into it and how to leave it
  • I know if I am engaging it statically (staying in the posture) or dynamically (moving in and out without staying)
  • I know where to place my attention
  • I know my breathing capacity in that asana
  • I know what breath ratio I am using
  • I know what asanas come before it and help to prepare me for it
  • I know what asanas come after it and can counter its effects
  • I know what roles it plays in the greater picture of practice.
  • I know how to identify improvement in an asana
  • I know when there is improvement

I also know that if I take a direct approach and focus on physical aspects, that improvement is less likely. But I don’t know how improvement has actually happened … what has improved? what has changed inside me? has my body changed? has my energy changed? has my mind changed?  I don’t know … over time (weeks, months, years of practice) there are accumulative effects that may seem more clear and apparent … but for the most part I know that I have changed, but I don’t know how.

Today I came out of practice wondering if an asana (when done appropriately) is like a physical Koan? A verbal Koan seems to evoke a mind’s thinking capacity. An asana-koan activates something else … I am tempted to say the body … but that doesn’t feel right. While an asana seems, superficially, to be physical … it is really a tool aimed at mind … perhaps a more embodied experience of mind? A concept of mind that includes not just brain, but heart, gut, bone, muscle, tissue and blood?

In my experience, engaging with an asana well evokes a quieting of mental capacities … for practical reasons: thinking disrupts. The medium of “engagement” in asana is breath. Different asana create different demands (in different people, in different phases of life, in different seasons of the year …) on the breath  – and so invite different explorations.

Breath is a unique intermediary: it both happens autonomously and can be consciously affected. If mental activity attempts to dominate, breath responds clearly and sharply, if mental activity leads you to use force, breath responds with even more force (on the other hand: if mental activity softly surrenders, so does breath!) . Breath invites mental activity into a dynamic and subtle lived experience.

As with a verbal/mental koan, asana does not provide a mentally satisfying answer … hence the experience that I don’t know what actually happened or changed inside me. In a way an asana becomes a practice for a kind of mental-not-knowing.  “Not-knowing” is not some big mystical secret … we walk and talk without “knowing” how we do it … if I look closely it seems that most of my lived experience is like that. Yet, somehow my mental processes seem to carry a desire and expectation for knowing. Asana practice, for me, tempers that expectation.

This is true not just for Asana. Pranayama (breathing practices) are an even more subtle and evolved experience of this. In Pranayama there is a clear quantitive development that I  (and you) can see by looking at the numbers. There is also a qualitative development which I can describe verbally but would come across as more personal and subjective. But as with asana (see list at the beginning of this post) I can plan and do a practice to evoke a developmental change … but I can say even less than with asana, what has changed.

I trust this embodied form of learning more than I trust whatever mental realizations may accompany it. My mental-mind is capable of confusion and delusion without knowing it. My breathing-mind is always clear, direct and honest. My mental-mind would strive to “solve” a koan. My breathing-mind knows no resolution, so it more easily inhabits the asana-koan and in doing so invites my mental-mind into a more peaceful co-habitation.

Viewed in ths light, asana practice is, in a way,  a kind of willful exploration of not-knowing. It is a playground where I train to be in complexity. I can get a sense of how everything is tied together in a web that my mental facilities cannot grasp, but that I (body-breath-mind) can intentionally inhabit.

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