The term “Asana” literally means “seat”. By practicing asanas, we gain the ability to seat ourselves comfortably and steadily. Rather than getting caught up in the discomforts of the body, we can direct our life to more important things. Such as to experience and express the most beautiful parts of our selves… like peace, joy, friendliness, creativity, etc; ability to direct our life towards our intended purpose. While this is the primary reason described in the classic Yoga texts for doing Asanas, we can enjoy multitude of health benefits that accrue when we practice Yoga postures regularly.
Imagine driving on the country side and enjoying the beautiful scenery. If our car is in good condition, it serves us well on our journey. On the other hand if the vehicle is in bad shape, our focus in not fully on the scenery. Much of our mental energy is consumed by the concerns for the vehicle.. as the troubles and torments of the vehicle reveal themselves to us. A run-down car serves as an obstacle towards experiencing & enjoying the beauty of the scenery. In like manner, our body is the vehicle we use in the journey of life. Is the vehicle serving our intentions we have set forth in life? When the body is troubled with lack of ease, or disease, we are stuck at the gross level of our existence; it becomes difficult (but not impossible!) to experience harmony with life, with ourselves. In fact, Maharishi Patanjali, the Father of Yoga, mentions disease of the body (vyadhi) as the first of the nine obstacles towards the path of Yoga.
A healthy and disease free body helps to live our life to the fullest, to participate and contribute effectively and positively in all areas of our lives. Today, the practice of Yoga postures has been embraced worldwide by millions of people in order to establish health and well being in their lives.
But what is a Yoga posture? Is it just a nifty way to move the body in complicated postures?
Asana and its place in Yoga
Maharishi Patanjali, in his treatise Yoga Darsana ,, lists eight limbs — or eight parts — to the practice of Yoga. Yoga recognizes that the body is just one aspect of our existence. In order to experience true well-being, it is important to bring harmony to all aspects of our self – including the body, mind, the breath, and even our relationship to the outside world – people and things. The eight limbs of Yoga provide a blueprint on how to do that, by bringing harmony to each of the layers of our existence. In this sense, the practice of Yoga is holistic – it attends to our system as a whole.
Yoga Darsana consists of short, terse, sutras or aphorisms that capture the essence of Yoga. Of the 196 sutras (or 197, as some sources claim an extra sutra) penned by Patanjali in Yoga Darsana, only three of them are related directly to the practice of Asanas.
Asanas comprise the third limb (anga) of the eight-limbs of Yoga described by Patanjali.
Only three sutras!! The physical postures occupy only a miniscule fraction of Yoga! Surprisingly, the popular perception of Yoga today is almost entirely about body postures!
Yet Asanas can serve as a great entry point into Yoga. Most people who practice yoga – myself included – began Yoga thanks to postures. Some are inspired towards postures when they see their flexible yogi friend or pictures in Yoga magazines. Some others are drawn to Yoga because of the health benefits.
Before long, many find that the postures comprise a tiny part of Yoga; they discover a whole new dimension relating to subtler practices for the “inner world”, like recognizing the power of the breath and experience of deep meditation.
Asana is just the appetizer!!
Let’s look at the three sutras Patanjali has given, on Asanas. These key sutras lay the foundation for the practice of Yoga postures. An understanding of the principles described here will powerfully enhance the quality of Yoga asana practice!
What is Asana? And how to do it?
In the first of the three sutras, Patanjali defines Asana, or Yoga posture. Asana happens when there is steadiness (sthiram) and comfort (sukham). When the pose is stable and brings joy, it is Asana.
What a simple and elegant definition!!
Note that straining and torturing the body into a posture is not Asana. New students of Yoga are (pleasantly) surprised by this revelation!
Even if the posture looks perfect from outside, while the inner experience is not one of joy or comfort, it is not an Asana. Furthermore, if the posture is unsteady – for example, if the body is shaking while holding the pose, it is not an Asana.
On the other hand, regardless of the appearance, if the pose is stable and the body is experiencing comfort, it qualifies as Asana. When we practice Asanas this way, the body naturally develops health, lightness, strength and flexibility in due course of time.
While doing poses, check with these two metrics. Is the body steady while I am holding the pose? Am I feeling good? If the answer is no to either of the questions, then perform some adjustments to the pose. Listen to your body; use the body sensations as guidance to find your perfect place in the Asana. One of the aspects of Yoga is body awareness, and how sensitive we are to the messages of the body.
The second sutra talks about how we can deepen the experience of the Asana. Patanjali suggests releasing (Shaitilya) the struggle (Prayatna) that we offer while holding the pose. When we do that, we experience boundless bliss (Ananta samapatti).
As beginners when we enter into a Yoga pose, we offer much more effort than necessary in order to hold the pose. When we consciously release the struggle, the pose becomes effortless with practice. We are able to get into the pose, hold it for the intended duration, and come out of it, with graceful ease. Rather than dragging the body into the pose, we allow the body to flow in and out of the pose gracefully.
As an analogy, consider a student of music learning to play an instrument. In the beginning, there is so much effort and struggle as they learn to produce melody. With practice the struggle subsides. When mastery is attained, the playing is effortless. The awareness is now on the bliss of the music, not on the technique of the instrument. Likewise, when we release the struggle from the Yoga pose, we experience the unbounded blissful awareness as we experience lightness of the body!
How do we know if we are offering excess effort in a pose? Or struggle? The key is to listen to the breath. In fact, the Sanskrit word Patanjali uses for struggle – Prayatna – is also translated in the context of Yoga as the breath. If we are offering struggle, the flow of breath is uneven. Seek to make the breath long and deep, soft and even.
So listen to the body to check the stability and comfort. Listen to the breath to check the ease and effortlessness.
Benefits of practicing Asanas
Patanjali’s third sutra on Asanas states the benefits. In one sutra, Patanjali captures the essential benefit of doing Asanas, namely – removing “Dvanda”. Let’s look at what this Sanskrit word means.
“Dvandva” literally means “duality” or “division” (perhaps these three words are related etymologically?). It refers to a state that is in conflict, or broken. When we are confused, or when the mind is scattered in too many directions in a given moment, we are experiencing dvandva. Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar says that whenever one is confused, it is best to do Asanas. Right away, clarity comes because the dvandva drops. Try it!
Dvandva can also express itself at the level of the body in many ways – like lack of coordination in the body. A classic example of such lack of coordination is that between the tongue and the body’s innate intelligence. That is why for many, the tongue craves for junk food, while the body truly seeks nutritious food. The tongue and the body intelligence are not working together as one; they are divided. (I am sure many can relate to that!)
Our attachment to junk food reduces when we integrate the practice of Asanas in daily life. As a Yoga teacher, I have seen innumerable students come back and share how their food choices have changed after doing Yoga. Their attachment to junk food slowly withers away, and they are naturally drawn towards nutritious food. (Have you experienced this?? Do share in the comments below!) In other words the sense of taste starts working in harmony with the body’s intelligence.
Dvandva is an expression of “Rajas” or restlessness in the mind and body. Rajas is one of the 3 gunas or tendencies. Rajas is characterized by a disorganized flow of energy. The manifestation of Rajas is indicated by intense flow of energy, but one that is not life-supporting. For example – rage, craving, obsession and anxiety would qualify as expressions of rajas in the mind. Restlessness and fidgeting are expressions of rajas in the body. There is a verse in Yoga Choodamani Upanishad that says “Asanena Rajo Hanti”, meaning – the practice of Asanas eliminates Rajas in the system. (I am grateful to Yogacharya Srivatsa Ramaswami for pointing me to this verse). The benefits of Pranayama and Dhyana are very different: Pranayama reduces & eliminates Tamas (dullness, lack of clarity) and Dhyana promotes Satva (pure awareness, life-supporting, life-enriching experience of well-being). Together, the combination of postures, breath-work and meditation work in synergy; they complement each other to provide a holistic care for health and well-being. Detailed exposition on Pranayama and Dhyana will be considered in separate blog posts.
Many more benefits of Asanas are described in the classic Hatha Yoga texts. Hatha Yoga Pradipika says Asanas promotes strength, health and lightness in the body. It describes several Yoga postures and lists benefits for each of them.
The rewards of doing Asanas extend beyond the body. If you have done Yoga Asanas, you know the feeling – the well-being is felt at much deeper levels. The breathing is more relaxed and smooth; the mind is freed from restlessness and the quality of awareness is enhanced. This lays the perfect platform for the deeper practices including Pranayama (control / harmony of the Prana using breath-work), Dhyana (meditation) and other practices.
If you are doing Yoga postures everyday, try incorporating the principles of Asanas described by Patanjali, and notice the change in quality of the practice. If you have not done Yoga before, perhaps you can consider introducing it in your life; Asanas are a great way to start! Healthy body is just the beginning of the multitude of benefits you can experience.