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Asana: Your Body is Your Mind

By Philip H. Farber

Originally published in The Journal of Hypnotism

Newcomers to meditation are often either fascinated or intimidated by the idea of “asana,” the postures and positions used during practice. These range from the classic cross-legged sitting positions, lotus and half-lotus, to the complicated and dynamic stretches of hathayoga. Almost every school of meditation teaches specific postures for practice and while there are some commonalities between them, there is also a huge amount of diversity.

Some schools of meditation require the student to master asana as a separate skill prior to the actual practice. Some schools of meditation are about sitting, exclusively. If you’ve ever simply attempted to sit very still for an extended period of time, you already understand the basic challenge. As with every other form of meditation concentration, the distractions and temptations start quickly and usually get much worse before they begin to abate: itches, aching muscles, twitches, cramps, fidgeting and much more arise to seemingly torment you from your position.

I usually ask beginning meditation students to use a chair and simply sit with the spine straight. A straight and erect spine is a common factor among the seated postures used in many different kinds of meditation. Later, if their interest grows, they can learn other asanas and perhaps find one that suits them even more. Even the chair posture can be a challenge at first, indeed, once you learn a traditional asana you’ll realize that these were designed to encourage proper posture and, once you get used to them, are much more stabile than our usual concept of sitting on furniture.

So what’s the point of encouraging particular postures during meditation? There are factors both practical and esoteric. Sitting with a straight spine allows for greater expansion of the chest and fuller, deeper breathing during meditation. And the position that our body is in both reflects and affects our consciousness. If you know someone well enough, you can tell what kind of mood she might be in, maybe even what she is thinking, from the way she slouches or stands tall. And similarly, standing, stretching, moving, lying down, or whatever you choose, can easily break or influence a state of consciousness.

That the position of our body, which muscles are tensed or relaxed, what part of our bones are supporting weight, which internal organs are experiencing pressure or expansion, is related to our state of consciousness is a simple and sometimes even obvious concept with wide ramifications. It is a concept that is even coded into our language. The word “attitude” means both “position” and “state of mind.” That’s no coincidence, I believe, but a metaphoric appreciation of the implicit link between mind and body.

Hypnotists and NLP practitioners may have a greater appreciation of this than most, as we are frequently called upon to observe the attitude of clients, often in minute ways. After a while we learn to calibrate various states by observing changes in posture, breathing, and general position. And the more obvious changes resulting from mental states are our set of ideomotor movements, tests and signals.

I strongly encourage practicing the traditional asanas. It is a way of establishing rapport with the lineage of meditators that stretches back to the dawn of history. It is a way of taking part in mental states that may have been enjoyed by the sages of ancient time. And these asanas have been developed and honed for centuries. They work as practical enhancements to meditation. I also strongly advocate exploring postures and attitudes that are unique to you, self-generated expressions of your consciousness.

This can be a simple process. One possible method for exploring your own relationship between attitude and attitude is as follows:

1. Sitting or standing, recall a time when you had a powerful, positive experience of some kind – perhaps a moment of great pleasure, or a feeling of confidence, or a moment when you felt perfectly relaxed and in harmony.
2. Remember the visual components of this experience: what colors were in your field of vision, whether you could see movement or stillness, whether it was light or dark, and anything else you can recall.
3. As you recall what you saw, remember what you heard during this experience: sounds or silence, voices or tones, rhythms or noises, background sounds, and anything else you may have been able to hear.
4. As you remember what you saw and heard, remember what you felt during this experience: notice where in your body the feeling begins and where it moves to as the feeling develops. Notice what kind of feeling it may be, pressure, temperature, movement, texture, or whatever it was that you felt.
5. Give the feeling a color or colors. “If this feeling were a color, what would it be?” Apply the color to wherever you feel the feeling so that you end up with a colored map of the sensation in your body.
6. Make the color brighter, richer, more vibrant, or whatever also makes the feeling more intense. For most people and most feelings, making the color brighter or more vibrant will increase the feeling, although for some people and some feelings making the color more muted or dimmer will increase the feeling. Use what works for you.
7. Breathe deeply and make or imagine the color flowing through more and more of your body.
8. Feel how the feeling has intensified. Savor it.
9. Take a deep breath and then express the feeling as a gesture or movement.
10. Some time later, make the gesture or movement and learn how much of the memory, state, or feeling is attached to the gesture.

Over time, exploring a range of such relationships between body and mental state can serve as a long-term meditation on the connection between mind and body. A catalog of such self-generated movements, gestures, and postures will also serve as a collection of anchors that are useful in re-activating these states at appropriate moments.

© copyright 2006 Philip H. Farber