The Perfect Pose: Perspectives from Ashtavakrasana


As we age, sustain injuries or develop neuro-muscular conditions, our bodies are no longer able to do those poses that we once did with ease, let alone do new advanced poses. In this article, I aim to give some perspectives from ancient texts that go beyond the "look good" aspect of asanas so we get the benefit that these asanas were originally designed for, thousands of years ago.

I, personally, have physical limitations due to my prosthetic right hip which offers a limited range of motion. Therefore none of my poses are anywhere near perfect. Yet, I have benefited from Asana practice and would like to offer some perspectives on how anyone can benefit irrespective of their flexibility level by paying heed to the subtle dimensions mentioned in the Yoga Sutras.

There was no facebook during the times of the ancient yogis 

As Krishnamacharya's grandson, Kaustubh Desikachar, points out in this video (13:35-15:40), most yogis in ancient times practiced alone in remote places. This means the only feedback they had on a pose was from how the pose felt in their body and mind. 

Patanjali in Yoga Sutra 2.46 defines asana as any posture which one can hold with steadiness (Sthiram) and comfort(Sukham). 

In the subsequent sutra (2.47), he says that in an asana one first puts in appropriate effort (Prayatna) and then relaxes (Shaithilya) which takes one to a state of meditation (samapatti/samadhi) on the infinite (Anantha)

 प्रयत्न शैथिल्य अनन्थ समापत्थिब्यां

Prayatna Shaithilya Anantha Samapatthibyam

This is an important sutra because it tells the most important aspect of Asanas, which is relaxation and descending into our body. This is where the therapeutic dimension of asanas start. 


Ashtavakra teaching king Janaka

Ashtavakra was a brilliant sage and yogi who wrote the famous Ashtavakra Gita, a treatise on the nature of the Atman. He was born with eight deformities in his body. Ashta means eight, and Vakra means curved or bent. He is nevertheless considered one of the greatest yogis. 

The story goes that Ashtavakra, while in the womb of his mother, would correct his father when his father made mistakes reciting the scriptures. 

The father curses his own son to be born with eight deforminities for correcting him eight times (Ashta is eight in Sanskrit). However, when Ashtavakra was born, he never felt lowly of himself due to his deformities. in fact, he knew that his body was different from the atma and the atma has infinite potential due to it being Brahman itself.

The incident in Janaka's court

When Ashtavakra was twelve, he entered the royal assembly of Janaka, the king of Mithila, to request a debate with Varuna, the finest debater in the kingdom, to rescue his father who was enslaved by Varuna, when his father lost the debate. When Ashtavakra entered the royal assembly, everyone there burst into fits of laughter at the sight of his severely deformed body. Ashtavakra received their laughter with silence and without any sign of anger, sadness or frustration. When King Janaka asked them all to calm down, Ashtavakra began laughing at them.

Perplexed, Raja Janaka rose from his throne and approached the deformed boy. He asked Ashtavakra why he was mocking his assembly. “I beg your pardon, but it appears to me that your assembly is full of shoemakers, O King!”, said Ashtavakra.

“Shoemakers?” Janaka was perplexed further, “Why do you say so?”. To this Ashtavakra replied, "It is only shoe makers who give such importance to the exterior. The Pandits focus on what is within". Ashtavakra not only rescued his father but went on to become the teacher of king Janaka himself.

The asana, Ashtavakrasana, is dedicated to sage Ashtavakra. It comes in the third series of the Ashtanga yoga tradition. The well known yoga teacher, Kino Macgregor, says in this video that this asana is by itself not a difficult asana inspite of being placed in the advanced series of Ashtanga Yoga. The symbolism here is that anyone can do yoga irrespective of bodily deformities.

The Perfect Pose

How do you define a perfect pose when there are so many variants between various schools of yoga ? Take, for example, Trikonasana, as shown in the picture to the left by BKS Iyengar (above) and by Dr. Steiner (below) in the Ashtanga Yoga tradition. The distance between feet are different and so is the hand/finger placement. Add to this the fact that no two bodies are alike. Therefore there can be no standardization of asana practice.  

So what is a perfect pose ? The answer lies in sutra 1.39 together with Sutras II.46 and II.47 mentioned above.

In Sutra I.39, Patanjali says that any method used to calm the mind to get it into a meditative state is a valid method. With the end goal of Asana being to relax and to get into a meditative state, a posture that results in this state is a perfect pose. This is where the benefit of asanas begin.