Here’s a perspective-creating quote from the introduction to Edwin Bryant’s excellent and very highly-recommended translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

From the nine hundred-odd references to yoga in the Mahabharata, there are only two mentions of asana, posture, the third limb of Patanjali’s system. Neither the Upanishads nor The Gita mentions posture in the sense of stretching exercises or bodily poses… asana is not mentioned as one of the six limbs in the Maitiri Upanishad and Patanjali himself only dedicates three brief sutras from his text to this aspect of the practice. (“History of Yoga” p. xxx)

Only three brief sutras dedicated to asana by Patanjali and only two mentions in the entire Mahabharata (which weighs in at 100,000 verses)! So, the practice of asana which has become de facto synonymous with yoga in our time is barely worth mentioning. What are we to make of this? And how are we to approach asanas and how are they to be used if they are not the sum total of yoga practice?

When in doubt, it’s useful to return to Patanjali. Yoga is “chitta vritti nirodhaha” (I:2), the complete cessation of any and all activities within the mental-emotional spectrum. Asanas, therefore, are not yoga per se. They are however an effective tool to be used to generate good health and mental stability which are imperative for “chitta vritti nirodhaha.” The physical strength, flexibility and other benefits that accrue from asana practice are a necessary preparation for achieving the state of yoga. By definition, where there’s “chitta vritti nirodhaha”, there can be no thoughts, feelings, impressions, memories or physical activity of any kind whatsoever. Seen in this light, infirmity of the body and weakness and indiscipline of the mind and senses are obvious impediments to the prolonged concentration needed for the state of yoga.

So, asana earns its place as the third limb in Patanjali’s eight-limbed yoga as the means by which we learn to strengthen our bodies, concentrate our minds and discipline our senses. In II:48, the third and last sutra dedicated to asanas, Patanjali says that through asana practice, the practitioner is freed from all dualities. The steadiness of body, mind and senses that conquers these dualities is also iterated in the description of “the Man of Steady Wisdom” described in Chapter Two verses 54-72 of the Bhagavad Gita. Asana is not a synonym for the state of yoga, but it’s practice is still crucial to its eventual achievement.

Guruji also taught that asana practice serves an important role in allowing us to better understand and implement the yamas and niyamas of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga. While asana is the third limb in Patanjali’s system, after yama and niyama (limbs one and two, respectively), it can be much more useful to practice asana first. If we attempt to implement the yamas and niyamas first, without an established asana practice, each can feel like sets of rules and prescriptions that resonate on an intellectual rather than empirical level. Lasting changes in lifestyle and behaviour can only occur if there’s an foundation beyond our the intellect.

When I began practicing many years ago, I was an avid carnivore and had no particular inclination or interest in being or becoming a vegetarian. Problem is the first yama is ahimsa, non-violence. At the very least, ahimsa demands that we take a vegetarian diet so we are not causing harm to animals. Had I simply been told that I must be a vegetarian, I may not have been able to make this change in my life. However, through the practice of asana, I began to feel a greater connection between myself and other living things. This growing sense of connectedness led me to reconsider how my diet caused harm (and obvious death) to other living creatures. Each day’s practice reinforced this experience of connection which made my continued carnivorousness seem hypocritical and untenable. The ultimate change in my lifestyle to vegetarianism was the result of taking asana practice as a gateway to experiencing and more fully understanding the yamas and niyamas.

Guruji’s exhortation to take asana practice first is also useful if one ponders how distracted and multi-focussed most modern minds have become. In Yoga Sutras I:39, Patanjali says we can concentrate on anything that we find useful and helpful. Nowadays, we are bombarded at all times with myriad sources of information and distraction. Ashtanga Yoga teaches us how to concentrate.

My early experiences of Ashtanga Yoga practice were very physically challenging. Just trying to get through my practice in one piece left me with the experience of having concentrated for a period of time with no outside distractions. I didn’t think of anything other than my next breath. It was amazing to be free of all the other thoughts that generally filled my head. That I was learning to concentrate and purify my mind and senses while gaining strength, stamina and flexibility was icing on the cake for me. I was sold.

In the final analysis, it should concern us less whether we try to implement yama and niyama before asana. All three must be well established for practice to deepen into the subsequent limbs of Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga. We just need to remember that “chitta vritti nirodhaha” is the true goal of yoga and that our asana practice is a necessary and effective means of moving towards that goal.

If we don’t maintain our larger perspective of yoga, asana practice inevitably risks becoming “circus” as Guruji used to say. If asana is only about making cool shapes with our bodies, we will miss the point and become frustrated and dejected when we encounter obstacles.