Exploring Asana: A Journey to Understand The Essence of Yoga

Exploring the Asana

A Journey to Understand The Essence of Yoga -  By Tim Steel

Reading time: 6 minutes

Kisen was slowly walking around Zen Ki as Zen Ki struggled to hold Virabhadrasana one. Sweat formed in multiple clusters and challenged each other as to which one could roll down his back the fastest before taking a one-way suicide dive to the floor below.

For Zen Ki’s part, all he was aware of was the exhausting burning sensation screaming from his body as muscle, limb and sinew all worked together to hold what he hoped was the perfect pose.

Kisen had other thoughts and tapped Zen Ki’s back leg, ‘Straighten it!’, then his arms, ‘Lift them up, straighter!’ Then his spine. Kisen’s fingers worked their way up from the base all the way up to his head, each time indicating an instruction to lift beyond what might be regarded as straight by mere mortal men. This was the realm of yogic gods. A pure and undefiled expression of the classical poses, each one crafted over eons of time, handed down faithfully from teacher to student in an unbroken line of succession, ensuring each succeeding generation of student received them pure and unsullied.

Finally Zen Ki couldn’t hold it anymore, dropped his arms flopped forward and then let his legs collapse into a heap on the floor. ‘Oh, my good god, I can’t hold that anymore it’s savage!’ He rolled on to his back only to meet his teacher’s gaze staring straight down at him. ‘What are you doing now?’

‘Resting!’ came the somewhat depleted but honest reply.

Kisen frowned, ‘How on earth do you expect to master the finer subtle arts of practice if you can’t even work with such a beautifully exquisite basic pose as Virabhadrasana one? It requires your complete attention to every detail, a full commitment to master it and an unwavering ability to surrender to the characteristics it has to teach. In this case they are…?’ He paused waiting for Zen Ki to respond.

Zen Ki looked up somewhat blankly, ‘Hmm, a good question for sure!’

‘They are?’ Kisen’s voice was more insistent this time as he pressed the point.

Zen Ki felt obliged to respond but for the life of him had no idea what to say. Worse still, before he could stop himself, he found words were already dripping from his lips and he could tell by Kisen’s face that they weren’t necessarily the right words, nor were they necessarily in the right order, and it could certainly be regarded as a matter of doubt as to if they were being received with delight.

‘Well, I’m not really sure, but my mate Debbie that I often have a ‘coffee and a slice’ with said her teacher doesn’t make her hold and work these poses like we do. They just fly through them and on to the better-looking ones!’

Zen Ki wasn’t completely sure, but he seemed to be aware that Kisen was grinding his teeth and was seemingly making a growling sound. ‘Perhaps he had a little asthma coming on, or perhaps a smite of bronchitis, tricky to know really!’ ‘YOUR MATE! YOUR MATE!’ Kisen was clearly about to explode. Zen Ki thought it prudent not to be lying on his back looking up at the ceiling in case any falling debris from what looked like a complete nuclear melt down were to come cascading upon him, so stood back up and struck the pose.

Kisen however regathered his composure and breathed in the heady aroma of the incense that helpfully had introduced itself to his nose just the moment before.

‘Look,’ He paused briefly, as if feeling for the right notes on a Steinway piano when performing a solo at the Royal Albert Hall in front of thousands and hoping that the audience might appreciate the intimacy between the artist and the very notes being played. ‘It really doesn’t matter what anyone else does. There will always be someone more flexible, stronger, more handsome, more this and more that. It’s what you bring to the practice that matters. The passion and desire to embody the attitudes of each pose, bringing them to life, seamlessly expressed through your very being as the Asana.’


‘I bet no one loves cake more than me!’ chuckled Zen Ki. ‘I can definitely express that!’

Kisen frowned and soldiered on. ‘In the very earliest days there were not hundreds of poses, there were only eight and these were mastered over a lifetime. The sole purpose of practicing them was to make the body fit for purpose, supporting the consciousness into stillness through meditation so self-realization could be attained. Not so you can look good in class and then go and scoff your face with chocolate cake washing it down with coffee whilst chatting to ya mate Debs!’

‘Chocolate cake is good though to be fair!’ Zen Ki’s finely tuned sense of intuition and his inner voice all indicated to him that this was perhaps not the right thing to have said, but it was too late. The words had slipped from his lips and Kisen’s ears had received them. He shook his head and rolled his eyes, ‘Virabhadrasana two!’

Zen Ki extended his arms, one forwards and one behind him and bent his front knee just a little bit more, as if emphasising to Kisen he was back on board and more to the point back in the room! Kisen resumed his adjustments.

A tap here to indicate lift, a prod there to remember to engage the abdomen and not have it hanging down as if it were a repository for all things made in the tea rooms, rather than the muscular powerhouse it could become. Zen Ki had often liked the idea of being a muscular powerhouse, but his love of chocolate éclairs and aversion to a full embodiment of the Asana had taken its toll over the years, and his tummy had long since given up any such dreams, contenting itself snuggly under a wrap-around blanket!

‘Now lift forward, right leg off the floor, arms extended forward, Virabhadrasana three.’

Zen Ki did as he was bid and lifted his leg up until it was parallel with the floor and pointed his fingers and toes in opposing directions.

‘Now hold the pose and focus on regulating your breath, apply those grips, strong body, strong mind.’ Kisen seemed utterly driven to transmit clearly and without equivocation the path to full emersion within the pose.

Zen Ki’s body started to shake like a strawberry jelly as he held the pose for what he felt was the most unreasonable of durations, but refused to give in, mainly because he was a little terrified of being shouted at, partially because just a little bit of what had been said to him had actually struck home, but more over he was meeting his friend Debbie after the class for a cheeky coffee. Zen Ki felt it was a sign of deep wisdom and insight to not mention this last point!

As with all things, the class finally came to an end and Kisen smiled across to Zen Ki as he sat up from his relaxation. ‘Understand my young Zen Ki, you are each and every pose, they are your expression of them. Some will be strong, some more challenging, some flexible and some tight. All of which is absolutely fine, work on all of them mindfully but not competitively. That is the road to self-loathing and suffering. Even if right now you were to be at the very sharp end of your Asana game, like the flowers in the meadow, each one blossoms and then falls, it’s just the way, impermanence expressed through our physical practice. So just enjoy the ride and take time to smell the flowers.’

Zen Ki smiled. ‘What will you do today Kisen now you’ve finished with me?’

Kisen’s cheeks rounded upwards, ‘Oh me? I’m meeting my friend Anna for a coffee and a slice!’



Tim Steel

Tim has been teaching and practicing yoga for over thirty five years and is an ordained Soto Zen Buddhist monk.