Asanas are performed to improve flexibility, strength, and balance. The use of breathing and focus can help relieve stress and anxiety. The poses are not meant to simply be physical exercises but rather used holistically as a mind-body practice to improve physical, mental, and spiritual health.
How can asana’s help us grow spiritually?
There is a vast difference between the way asanas were thought of and taught originally and how they are taught now. In ancient times, meditation was the goal and asanas were a means of enhancing the capacity of the body and mind so that a person could sit in meditation for long periods with as few distractions as possible. Only when the body is healthy and the mind one-pointed and inward does a person have a chance to discover the inner dimensions of life. This self-discovery is the essence of spiritual practice.
In the process of self-discovery an aspirant begins to see the connecting link between body and breath, breath and mind, mind and soul. But today, people often go to “yoga” classes to enhance their physical fitness, and in most classes asanas are taught as a means of addressing the concerns of the body, with little or no attention given to cultivating this inner connection between body, breath, mind, and soul. Yoga is the path of union, and yoga practices help you come to the realization that there is a connection among the different aspects of ourselves. The physical level of asana practice is not yoga and does little to help you grow spiritually.
For example, the practice of pranayama (control of the breath) is said to be one of the surest ways to attain mastery over the modifications of the mind, making the mind one-pointed and inward. Separating the asanas from breathing practice is a modern invention. Nowhere in the scriptures are asanas taught without pranayama. In spite of this, many modern teachers do not include the discipline of pranayama when they teach asana, yet they call what they teach hatha yoga. While this kind of asana practice may promote health, it will fail to increase clarity of mind and cannot therefore engender spiritual awakening.
In other words, the classes you describe are not hatha yoga classes. According to the scriptures, hatha yoga is a complete path leading to physical health, mental clarity, and spiritual illumination. Hatha yoga practices combine asanas (physical postures), pranayama (breathing exercises), concentration, and meditation. The word hatha is itself an indication of the goals and objectives of this practice: ha means “sun,” and tha means “moon.” Thus, “hatha yoga” is the practice that enables a practitioner to balance his or her solar and lunar energies. Hatha yoga practices create a state of harmony in body and mind by balancing the solar and lunar, masculine and feminine, active and passive aspects of oneself. Unless you combine the disciplines associated with breathing and meditation with the physical postures, you cannot expect to achieve this harmonious state.
Unless asana practice is accompanied by pranayama and meditation it is not hatha yoga.
Why in the West do we isolate the physical asana practice from pranayama and meditation?
Spending an hour or more systematically stretching the body is both calming and energizing. The results are immediate and unmistakable. The result of working with the breath and the flow of energy throughout the body, which is one of the benefits of pranayama, takes longer to manifest; although these benefits are powerful, they are more subtle. Subtler still are the fruits of meditation. When yoga was introduced in the West, the postures were easy to popularise — people readily understand the concept of working with the body. But they are not as receptive to the concept of working with the breath and mind. Therefore, asana practice has been easy to market, while the subtler practices of pranayama and meditation are not nearly as marketable. Thus the practice of asana has been divorced from the practice of meditation and cultivated for its own sake, and “asana” has become synonymous with “yoga” in the minds of most people. They have no idea that meditation is the essential technique of yoga 🧘🏼♀️🙏🏽🧘🏼♂️