What is the first thing that pops into your head when you think about the word yoga?
Perhaps you imagine a group of young, (most likely) white, able-bodied women with strong, muscular flexible bodies. You may think of yoga as people breathing and performing intricate and acrobatic postures with little clothing in a dimly lit room.
Those postures, the shapes that the practitioners make with their bodies, are known as Asana, and it is not yoga as a whole, but simply one of the many layers that truly encompass what yoga is; a body, mind, spirit practice.
In this article we will explore:
- Asana Meaning
- The Origins – the 8 Limb Path
- Ancient Texts about the Physical Practice
- Asana as a vehicle of Connection to ourselves
- Basic Postures to Explore
Let’s dive right in!
Asana is a word from Sanskrit: आसन āsana “sitting down” (from आस् ās “to sit down”), a sitting posture, a meditation seat.
The postures are in fact, yoga.
What you may not know is that asana, the physical practice, is only one of the eight limbs of the yogic path and that age, physical fitness and ability, and other similar stereotypes are not actual factors in a person’s capacity to practice yoga.
The Origins – The 8 Limb Path
The first to truly mention Asanas was Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras (c.2nd to 4th century CE), where he describes the asana as the third component, or limb, of the 8th limb path to enlightenment or self-realization.
The 8 Limb Path is the Following:
1. Yamas (social observances)
2. Niyamas (self-observances)
3. Asana (postures)
4. Pranayama (breathwork)
5. Pratyahara (sense withdrawal)
6. Dharana (one-pointed focus)
7. Dhyana (meditation)
8. Samadhi (bliss)
how asana came to the west
Even though the focus of this piece is on Asana, the postures, it is important to highlight the relevance of going beyond it when we embark on the yogic path of self-discovery and growth.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that the concepts of yoga and its philosophies began to extend through the Western world, and not until the mid-twentieth century did it truly experience its first boom, with Sri Krishnamacharya’s students spreading the teachings into Europe, the United States, and beyond.
Indra Devi, B.K.S Iyengar, K. Pattabhi Jois, and Yogi Bhajan were some of the most relevant and influential yogis of the time.
These disciples of Krishnamacharya brought an immense amount of knowledge to the Western world that had not truly been accessible before, and asana as we know it today, began to take shape.
Ancient Texts about Asana
When we search for the concept of asana in ancient yogic texts it is important to note, once again, the minute importance given to the physical practice as such.
Of the 196 yoga sutras of Patanjali, only 3 of them speak of asana directly.
sthira = steady, stable, fixed, still
sukham = pleasurable, pleasingly, easily, comfortably
asanam = postures, sitting
Meaning: Asana should be a balance between steady, stable, alert effort (sthira) and comfortable, easy, relaxed effort (sukham)
Prayatna shaithilya ananta samapattibhyam
prayatna = active effort, resilient effort
shaithilya = relaxation, laxity, ease
ananta = infinite
samapatti = coming together, merging
bhyam= exterior, outer
Meaning: the posture happens when the effort relaxes and we merge with the infinite.
Tatah dvandva anabhighata
tatah = in that manner, thus, then
dvandva = the dilemma, the pair (of opposites), the quarrel
gata = understood, ends, has meaning, banishes
Meaning: and so the dilemma of opposites is now understood and it banishes.
the purpose of asana
According to the texts of Patanjali, asana had a very distinct purpose, and it was not to gain flexibility for the sake of flexibility nor strength for the sake of strength; asana, the physical postures of yoga, were designed to balance out our bodies and minds, and build strength and flexibility in our bodies for the sole purpose of sitting.
Sitting for long periods of time, in stillness, requires our bodies to be strong and stable.
Have you ever tried sitting in the same position for more than a few minutes? It can get pretty uncomfortable quite quickly; almost forcing you to shift positions before aches and pains arise.
The purpose of the asanas is to explore this discomfort during the physical practice increasing our strength and flexibility, but most importantly, steadily increasing our resilience.
As we learn to sit in stillness, the door to the other limbs of yoga begins to open, eventually, who knows, getting a glimpse at Samadhi, bliss, the final limb.
With the steadiness and focus of asana, yoga practitioners can then progress to higher states of consciousness and intentions.
why is asana the most prevalent limb of yoga today?
Hatha Yoga Pradipika, one of the most relevant Hatha Yoga texts by Swami Svatmarama explains that the physical practice is described first because the postures are the first, most accessible step of Hatha.
Hatha is a Sanskrit word that when broken down means: Ha (sun) and Tha (moon), indicating its relation to finding balance.
It can also mean willful or forceful.
At most yoga studios in the west, asana is the main limb of yoga that is being taught.
One of the main explanations for this phenomenon is the fact that the body is one of the easiest points of access for many of us, as Swami Svatmarama had suggested.
“Yama & Niyama…cannot be practiced,” says TKV Desikachar in his book The Heart of Yoga “What we can practice are asanas and pranayama, which make us aware of where we are, where we stand, and how we look at things.”
BKS Iyengar adds: “It is through the practice of asana, that the body is made into a fit vehicle for the spirit.”
Asana as a vehicle for a deeper connection with ourselves
Our body is not only a big part of our identity but it is also something that, whether we like it or not, we are in contact with every moment of every day. There are people who even identify as the body itself.
When persons that have recently gained interest in exploring yoga decide to go to the first class, they will most likely be invited to join a beginner’s or basic asana-focused class.
Most of these classes will create space for students to ask questions and familiarize themselves with basic yoga shapes and postures as well as basic breathing techniques.
When we practice the physical postures, we start to attune to how we feel.
At first, it may be more difficult to access or even be able to understand what you feel, but when you find a rhythm and practice with consistency, your ability to know how you feel will increase. Your capacity for being present will also increase.
Whether you decide to dive deeper into the other layers of yoga or not, your life will be positively impacted by these practices way beyond your yoga mat, and into the world.
Basic Postures to Explore
Although there are hundreds, if not thousands of yoga poses, here are a few basic, foundational ones that you can explore.
** Please, consider how you feel before attempting these postures, and always consult with a trusted yoga teacher if you have any questions or need support.
1. Sukhasana – Easy Pose
2. Bharmanasana – Table Top Pose
3. Anjaneyasana – Low Lunge Pose
4. Balasana – Child’s Pose
5. Adho Mukha Svanasana – Downward Facing Dog
6. Virabhadrasana II – Warrior II Pose
7. Tadasana – Mountain Pose
8. Utkatasana – Chair Pose
9. Virasana – Hero’s Pose
10. Savasana – Corpse Pose
Tips for practicing asana
As you explore these shapes and others, consider staying in them for 3 to 5 breaths, always paying attention to how you feel and taking care of yourself.
You can practice these postures individually or you can bring them together into a little yoga flow, making sure to do both sides of each posture and again, keeping the focus on your breath and the sensations that arise.
If pain shows up, please remember that “no pain no gain” isn’t necessarily true. Focus on exploring sensation, which contrary to pain, can bring growth into your practice when approached with love, compassion, and the simple intent to see what is available for you in the moment;
“Shtira Sukha Asanam”: finding the balance between too much and too little, just like with everything else in life.
Some would say yoga has been appropriated by the west, some would say it has simply evolved; there are as many opinions on the subject as there are yoga postures.
The truth is that we can practice asana purely as exercise, but when we begin to understand the true benefits and the amazing gateway that it can be for us, it is hard to only practice the postures for the sake of practicing the postures.
Remembering to stay true to ourselves and considering what may make the practice more accessible to us, whether it be a specific style of yoga asana, or the use of props or other accessibility tools, the important thing to remember is that the asana practice should fit you, and not the other way around.
Find an asana style to suit you with our Yoga Styles resources.