‘The posture should be steady and comfortable’
Chapter ii verse 46 Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
Asana is often translated as ‘pose’ or ‘posture but literally it’s meaning is ‘seat’. Asanas are the physical postures of yoga and the third limb in Patanjali’s Yoga system. Through the practice of asanas, we develop the habit of discipline and the ability to concentrate, both of which are necessary for meditation.
Asanas were developed as a vehicle for meditation – preparing the body, and particularly the nervous system, for stillness, by creating the necessary physical strength, flexibility, balance and stamina required to sit still, meditating. Any disturbance, caused by any movement in the body has its natural reaction upon the mind diverting it from meditation.
Asana, according to Patanjali (see quote above), means disciplining oneself to maintaining for a long time an absolutely steady and still posture-motionlessness. Meditation is always done sitting because standing may lead to falling down and lying down may induce sleep.
In Yoga Mind, Body and Spirit, Donna Farhi explains that ‘Yogis discovered a vast repertoire of energetic expressions, each of which had not only a strong physical effect on the body but also a concomitant psychological effect. Each movement demands that we hone some aspect of our consciousness and use ourselves in a new way.’
She continues to explain that by exploring both familiar and unfamiliar body movements we not only expand our consciousness but ensure that we remain centred in unfamiliar situations and surroundings.
In Light on Yoga, BKS Iyengar says that ‘the Yogi conquers the body by the practise of asanas and makes it a fit vehicle for the soul. He knows it is a necessary vehicle for the spirit.’
Generally the wide variety of yoga asanas offers a well rounded physical training programme which will lead to a strong and toned body, well functioning organs and an alert mind.
The stretching in asana practise also requires counter stretching and resistance which aligns muscle, skin and bone together with improving flexibility, strength and tone, leading to Patanjali’s Sthira Sukham asanam – the steady and comfortable posture.
Postures can be grouped into a practise to effect stimulation, calming, energisation, stamina, concentration or relaxation. Students can practise according to how they feel or how they would like to feel!
Asanas primarily overcome ‘angamejayatva’ which is disturbance in the tonic rhythm of the body (such as from illness or disease)and re-establish harmonious functioning of the body. There are many books available on the subject of Yoga Therapy because many common physical conditions both chronic and acute can be improved with Yoga practise. The joints, liver, kidneys and heart can be directly affected by yoga postures as the body is oxygenated and inner organs squeezed and relaxed.
Asana practise brings flexibility to the joints. Different asanas bring benefits to different joints and muscles. Joints can become tense inflexible with age and stress and asana practise helps to relax them and keep them mobile.
Specific Postures in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika are attributed with specific benefits:
Matsyendrasana – ‘stimulates the digestive function and works like a weapon to destroy the hosts of several ailments. It helps arousal of Kundalini and gives stability to the spine’ (Ch II v 13)
Paschimatanasana – ‘causes the currents of prana to pass through the Sushumna, increases the gastric fire, reduces the belly and gives good health to the person’ (Ch 2 v 16).
Mayurasana – ‘quickly removes all the diseases of the spleen and stomach and alleviates the imbalance caused to the humours. It also digests excess of food and accelerates digestive fire to such an extent to digest even poison’ (Ch2 v17).
The benefits of asana practice reach far greater than skin, muscles and joints. More than other physical practices, asana practice directly affects the endocrine system, the spine and the digestive system. It is strongly integrated with psychological processes too and often leads to wider benefits in general life and attitude to life.
Yoga asanas stimulate and balance the glandular secretions of the endocrine, particularly with committed daily practice. This leads to:
* Healthier physical body
* Reduced rate of aging
* Balanced metabolism
* Strengthened immune system
* Feeling energized
* Feeling calm
* Expanded consciousness
* Improved self-confidence
Asana and emotion
Asanas can have a startling effect on the emotions. Tension caused by physical distress can lead to tense muscles, particularly in the head, neck and back. Asana practise helps to relax these muscles during acute stress and also tones the muscle to much better deal with future stressful occasions. In ‘Yoga Therapy’ Dr M L Gharote explains that ‘ through tensions and various pressures in daily life the muscles contract. These tensions are brought about psychologically but we can influence the mental tensions through dispersing the physical ones and thereby create a complete sense of well-being.’
Asana practice can lead to tremendous health benefits and profound spiritual realisations but it does have it’s limitations. Infectious processes or acute disease will not be cured by practising Yoga, but Yoga will improve the students’ general resistance and immunity as well as providing rehabilitation.
BKS Iyengar, Light on Pranayama, The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2002.
Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Inner Traditions International, 1989.
Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition, Homh Press,1998.
M.L. Gharote & Parimal Devnath, Kumkhaka Paddhati of Raghuvira, Lonavla yoga Institute, 2002.
M.L. Gharote & Parimal Devnath, Yuktabhavadeva of Bhavadeva Misra, Lonavla yoga Institute, 2002.
M.L. Gharote, Applied Yoga, Lonavla yoga Institute, 1989.
Dr M.L. Gharote & Parimal Devnath, Hathapradipika, 10 chapters, 2002.