review: inner life of asanas by swami lalitananda

In the winter, my tendency is to slow down and go inwards. The chilly Montréal air and long nights make me feel like spending a lot of time indoors ~ and correspondingly, my yoga practice has become slower and more restorative. I hold the postures, breathe, and allow whatever thoughts to arise.

The Inner Life of Asanas, a collection of columns by Swami Lalitananda originally published in ascent magazine*, is the perfect guide for this kind of internal process. The short essays in this book are based on the practice of Hidden Language Hatha Yoga, a reflective approach designed to illuminate the physical, psychological and mystical dimensions of key yoga asanas.

The book is made up of 26 postures, which have been organized into 5 thematic chapters: Awareness, Choice, Action, Devotion and Union. Each posture is structured with a short reflection/anecdote related to a greater theme, followed by a practice – a description of how to do the form of the pose (very basic and applicable to all systems of Hatha Yoga), keyword prompts and questions.

For example, the section on dhanurasana (bow pose) features an anecdote by Swami Lalitananda about service and putting ideals into action, relating the pose itself to the image of a bow. “I think about the bow and how it is created from a strong but flexible piece of wood, tempered and shaped to serve its purpose.”

She then gives us questions such as “What is your purpose? Can you find the place of balance where you exert effort and let go at the same time?” The practice itself is very loose and fluid, with no directions for timing or sequencing. The only expectation is that practitioners are working with a pen and paper, to capture their responses to the postures and the questions.

Swami Lalitananda bases all of her columns on the Hidden Language Hatha Yoga (HLHY) system. It has been around since the mid-1950s, when Swami Sivananda Radha (one of the first Western women to be initiated into sannyas, the path of renunciation) was instructed by her guru, Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh, to discover the mystical aspects of Hatha Hoga. She pursued this study in India, and continued quietly from her ashram in Southeastern BC.

For 30 years, she offered the HLHY teachings, then published a book, Hatha Yoga: The Hidden Language, in the mid-80s and started to offer HLHY trainings at Yasodhara Ashram.  Over the years, Hatha Yoga: The Hidden Language became a classic book on yoga, respected by many prominent teachers such as Sharon Gannon, Geeta Iyengar and Amy Weintraub. The Inner Life of Asanas is almost like a companion piece to the original book, taking a more contemporary and personal approach to the HLHY method. Swami Lalitananda was a student and friend of Swami Radha, and is committed to continue offering the HLHY teachings.

Swami Lalitananda’s eloquent and brave prose makes the HLHY process accessible and relevant to modern life. While the premise of presenting the “mystical aspects of the yoga asanas” might sound lofty and esoteric, it’s actually very concrete and practical. By exploring the symbolic nature of Hatha Yoga, the asanas become tools for reflection and deeper awareness of self. HLHY becomes a way of connecting asana practice to what is happening in our bodies – emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

“What if we slow down and discover what is hidden – within ourselves and within yoga?” asks Swami Lalitananda. It’s a beautiful invitation, as the air is frosty and the cityscape is blanketed with snow. Now is the perfect time to approach the yoga mat with this book, a notebook and a cup of tea, and discover your inner life.

* As you all know, I used to be editor of ascent magazine, and I actually edited some of these pieces in their original form. Even if I didn’t have this bias, I would still think The Inner Life of Asanas is a beautiful and intelligent book, and I would still recommend it to everyone I know.

5 Comments

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  1. I think this sounds like a wonderful antidote to winter weariness. I’m putting it in my cart! Thanks for the recommendation.

  2. Thanks fro highlighting such a great book!

  3. This does sound interesting.
    One of the deepest points of disagreement, as well as confusion, among yogis appears to be the value of asanas. When I first started practicing, the first things I read on the subject were Light on Yoga and that other big colorful book of asanas by Iyengar, both of which started with contained informative essays on yoga philosophy and descriptions and illustrations of asanas, but if there was any connection drawn between the two, I certainly couldn’t see it at that time. Since then, I’ve read and heard everything from “asanas are purely physical” (a view, interestingly, held by both a lot of hardcore religious yogis in India and western gym teacher types), to “they’re simply to loosen up the body and mind to meditation,” to “they ARE meditation,” to seeing them more as metaphors(which, as might not be surprising, has a particular appeal to an English major yogi like myself).
    My one question is: should I seek out The Hidden Language to read first, or can the Hidden Life of Asanas stand on its own?

    • i completely agree with you, dr jay, about the confusion around the value of asanas. one of the things i love about this book is that it values the asanas in their own right – and not as a technique that needs to be perfected, or a form that needs to be performed.

      i also find the idea of asanas as metaphors very appealing. i also love combining an asana practice with written reflection. it’s a way for me to relate to the world, and to my self.

      this book, Inner Life of Asanas, completely stands on its own. it’s actually a very good introduction to HLHY practice because it’s so concrete and accessible. swami la does a wonderful job of bridging her modern yoga experience with simple practices and profound questions. Hatha Yoga: The Hidden Language is deeper and broader, with a lot of information on symbology and mythology. but both books are valuable additions to the literary yogi’s library!

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