This is an amended version of William Robertson's article, "Are Advanced Asanas Useful or Necessary, and How do they become safely possible? The Nature of a Progressive Hatha Yoga Practice" previously published in DIPIKA, the Journal of the Maida Vale Iyenga Yoga Institute, in July 1996. Part two of the article compares two of the most popular forms of hatha yoga practiced in the West: Iyengar and Astanga vinyasa.
What is the point, it might well be asked, of developing an advanced asana practice, especially when we sometimes hear that all of the postures exist within Utthita Trikonasana (the Triangle pose); or that all one really has to do to maintain well-being and move toward enlightenment is Padmasana (Lotus), or Sirsasana (Headstand)? Furthermore, are there dangers of physical or psychological harm if we exceed our readiness, experience or appropriate knowledge, and perform asanas with inadequate preparation? Resultant injury may not even be as immediate as a torn muscle or a broken toe; perhaps conditions such as endometriosis may arise as the result of the practice of inverted poses by women during menstruation, or distortions to one's skeletal structure from inappropriate or one-sided practice. I have come across long-time practitioners with bowed legs from too much sitting and insufficient standing and squatting, and those with a thoracic kyphosis (humped upper back) from years of forward bends and insufficient progression into back-bending.
In Patanjali's Yoga Sutras the qualities of asana practice are described, for example: comfort and firmness, effort and detachment; whereas knowledge of asanas themselves is disregarded or assumed. Possibly the details of asanas were common knowledge at the time the Sutras were composed, or were not considered as important as the overall philosophy of practice. It is also quite possible that it was not common practice to attempt to develop the full range of asana, if one hadn't begun yoga practice at an early age, or was not naturally flexible. Many of the preparatory positions most people today find most difficult - such as lotus, kneeling and squatting - were commonplace to those accustomed to spending more of their time sitting on the ground or floor. However, practice of the more difficult standing postures, twists, sitting positions, balances and backbends has probably always been uncommon, despite their substantial benefits. The spiritual goal of the subject was probably always considered foremost, with the techniques regarded as transient tools, and the physical and psychological benefits less-than-important bonuses, which could nevertheless indicate the practitioner was on the right track!
Apparent advantages of advancing practice
So to what advantage is the practice of the more difficult asanas so well catalogued in B.K.S. lyengar's "Light on Yoga"?. The physical and mental benefits of each are expounded and the full range of postures are utilised in his therapeutic schedule for various diseases (LoY, Appendix 2). Many of these asanas must be modified, simplified and adapted through the use of props to meet the capacity of the individual, but the primary level poses described in his Course One (LoY, Appendix 1) include a full range of movements adequate for the average individual to optimise and maintain health during his or her lifetime, "and bring harmony to the mind".
The challenge to progress
Our potential continues to be beyond our envisioned limits, not unlike the initial physical changes in our body when we first start practising. Ideally then we can be a light to others as we begin to develop some strength, spaciousness and freedom, within our minds as well as our bodies. When I was last studying at the Ramamani Iyengar Institute in Pune, in late 1995, Mr Iyengar admonished, as perhaps he has before, that once he had imagined that some of his students might surpass him; then shaking his head, laughing and seeming to feign disappointment, said that it now seemed very unlikely! It is probably the intention of B.K.S. Iyengar not only for us to venerate his own practice and teaching, but rather and perhaps more to the point, for us to emulate his example, according to our own capacity and potential. Just as he has revolutionised the practice of hatha yoga and propagated a systematic method throughout the world, beyond the achievement of his own teacher, perhaps his intention for us is, through our own greater effort and commitment, we attempt something similar. The challenge to consciously transcend perceived limitations is the clear objective. Hatha yoga, as it becomes increasingly established throughout the world, is becoming an opportunity for a lifelong commitment to a progressive external ("physical") evolution and an interior ("spiritual") transformation.
William Robertson holds an Iyengar Teaching Certificate, is a registered general & psychiatric nurse (NZ), and holds a Diploma in Counselling. His principal teacher is Shandor Remete. William teaches in London and holds retreats throughout the world. For more information see William's website.