The Cultivation of Grace and Ease
by Jim Kulackoski
The word “yoga” may conjure up images of Indian gurus in far-off places or crowded classrooms of devout students in fashionable but comfortable clothing, contorting their bodies into bizarre poses. This once obscure Sanskrit term has become a staple in the English language, with connotations spanning health, fitness and spirituality. Despite its popularity and recognizability, the definition of what “yoga” actually means is still largely a mystery.
“Yoga” means “to bring together, coalesce or connect.” It refers to a system that aims to cultivate unity between oneself and ātma, the singular entity of consciousness that forms the basis of the universe. Numerous methodologies, such as meditation, seek to accomplish this transcendence of personal identification. Another of these is āsana.
Although the path of self-realization can take myriad forms, āsana is the practice most identified as yoga. sana means “seat,” and it refers to the cultivation of the physical body as the proper seat of ātma. In other words, āsana allows one to experience wholeness or oneness within a state of activity.
Still, the practice of āsana or yogāsana, is only one of many ways to attain that state of transcendence that is yoga. For instance, in the Yoga Sutras, a treatise on the process behind yoga, āsana is only mentioned twice. In its first mention, author Patanjali states that the practice of āsana is “…steady and comfortable.” His second mention discloses the actual experience of āsana being “…when effort relaxes and the individual merges with the experience of the infinite and eternal.”
Although āsana is increasingly popular, its aim of transcending effort is rarely achieved. Surprisingly, in many of our modern yoga classes, effort seems to be the point, while the attainment of transcendent yoga goes by the wayside.
This is because āsana is generally thought of in terms of an exercise with a desired end result. However, as with anything else, āsana’s magic lies not its end result, but rather in how it is
In stretching or exercise, the end result is the achievement of a particular level of flexibility, the accomplishment of a certain challenging pose, the attainment of a certain level of physicality, such as toned arms or a yoga butt, or even an apparent state of short-lived euphoria or inner peace.
As appealing as those results of āsana are, the true purpose of āsana is the cultivation of grace and ease through physiological integration. To understand physiological integration, it is important to understand “physiology” from a yogic perspective.
The physical body is only one aspect of physiology, the end result of a series of consecutive levels of the body from subtle to gross. Each level, or kośa, is the result of a more subtle level; the most subtle of which being consciousness itself (ātma). In yoga philosophy, consciousness is coalesced into a form of attention (budhi), which is directed by the mechanism of the mind (manas). This attention is synonymous with prāna, the energy inherent in all sentient, living organisms. This prāna inhabits a complex web of channels (nādī) or meridians that underlie and unite the trillions of cells of the physical body.
Asana works by stimulating certain integrative points within the body, called bandhas, and aligning them with key points called marma points, thereby creating powerful relationships between the different parts of the physical body. Alignment of these key points regulates and equalizes the flow of prāna throughout the entire body, creating a state of harmony, balance and integration. The trillions of individually functioning cells become unified into a singular holistically-functioning organism. The process of integration occurs not only in the physical body, but also the other levels as well.
Moving toward integration requires confronting the aspects of dis-integration within each level and ultimately transcending them. This process involves the development of awareness of who and what one truly is at each level, ultimately arriving at the conclusion of their true nature, ātma, or unbounded consciousness.
The benefits related to physiological integration include a strong, flexible and healthy body and psyche. However, these benefits are really just byproducts of the actual practice, not the end result.
Each and every āsana is an opportunity to practice and experience physiological integration. No matter the level of difficulty of a pose, if practiced correctly, the experience is of relaxation of effort and merging with the unbounded. In other words, āsana is the practice of how to be in the body in the most efficient manner in any situation. Therefore, the scope of āsana is not limited to a set of poses. Rather, it is a way to approach how to use the body in any situation,with grace and ease.
Jim Kulackoski has developed programs for and taught at Loyola University Chicago and Rush Medical College. He is the founder of Darshan Center, where he leads and develops programs such as teacher trainings, workshops and a healing clinic.