the poetics of asana

embodying metaphorical language in a hatha yoga practice

with photographs by daniel séguin

In the Sanskrit language speech has tremendous power, for it is through speech that the spiritual aspirant can invoke the great and mysterious force that sustains all life. Speech is intimately associated with prana, the life breath of the body. By refining the breath, one can clarify speech, and by refining speech, one can clarify prana.

The ancient rishis, the mystical seers of the yoga tradition, held speech in the highest esteem. Speech was thought to be sacred, imbued with a curious power to awaken and animate the most profound and subtle life force hidden within. The mystical seers chanted cryptic hymns of devotional offerings to the deities of fire, water, earth and sky. The rishis’ vocal chanting was similar to pranayama training in that their breath and vocal intonations, along with the rhythm and meter of the Sanskrit verses, activated their prana. The mantras they chanted, as they called in the spirit that pervades all life, had the resonance of lyrical poetry.

The poetic power of Sanskrit and the potency of the language used by the ancients to articulate the yogic experience have inspired me to teach with a metaphorical imagination. Speech, like writing, is a creative process, and when I teach classes I draw from a palette of analogies, metaphors, similes and stories. As a student of literature, I was inspired by the voices of James Joyce, Fyodor Dostoevsky, T. S. Elliot and John Ashbery. Influenced by these and other poets and writers, I have been impelled to weave figurative and colourful language into my asana teaching.

One of my intentions as a yoga teacher is to inspire, and I find that metaphorical language can elevate the practitioner. The word metaphor is from the Greek meta, meaning beyond, and pherein, meaning to carry. Metaphors, like opening the eyes of the heart, carry or transport the listener from one meaning to another. They guide the listener from a singular meaning to, potentially, a plurality of meanings. Like yoga asanas, metaphors are meant to loosen.

I use inspirational language to help students get out of themselves, to loosen restrictions and cut through the cobwebs of sticky thoughts. For instance, when I teach meditation, I describe a rising cumulus cloud to encourage students to elevate and broaden their chest in order to circulate more air through their lungs. The image of the heat and billowy vapour rising inside a midsummer’s cloud provides a palpable sense of expanding lungs.

In the yoga tradition, there is an abundance of naturalistic metaphors to illustrate the body. The esoteric yogic anatomy of the body includes rivers of pulsing fluid (nadis), bands of shimmering light (susumna) and potentially blooming floral buds (cakras). The ancient yogis perceived in the subtle human body a richness and effulgence evident in the natural world. By evoking naturalistic metaphor today, the student of yoga awakens and animates the full energy dormant within.

Poetic language that evokes beauty and elevates awareness can increase one’s capacity for sensitivity and gratitude. In the practice of asana and meditation, language helps attune the practitioner to movements within the body and build greater awareness. Imagery that evokes great feeling generates bhava, a profound state of affinity, soulfulness, devotion and heartfelt connection.

Tias Little brings to his teaching a wonderful play of metaphor and imagination. He combines the precision of Iyengar Yoga, the grace of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and the compassionate wisdom of the Buddhist tradition. He currently directs Prajna Yoga in Santa Fe, New Mexico (

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life