The Eight Limbs of Yoga – Asana

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“The physical body is not only a temple for our soul but the means by which we embark on the inward journey toward the core.”

B. K. S. Iyengar

Photo by Eneko Uruñuela on Unsplash

In the third article of our “Eight Limbs of Yoga” series we are going to look into the physical postures used in yoga, or the asana. What most people associate with yoga is exactly the intricate postures performed by the yogis, however, as we have already started to uncover, in yoga there is more than what meets the eye. In this article, we will discuss the meaning and significance of asana in the context of yoga philosophy and practices. Of course, we would also add some practical information in the mix.

Patanjali’s classic text “Yoga Sutra” describes asana as a position of the body that is comfortable and stable. Asana is a pose where the yoga practitioner can be comfortable for a long time as the postures are used for concentration and meditation. The physical position of the body is meant to support the mind and consciousness of the yogi on their journey. Therefore, asanas are not an end in themselves, but only an instrument the spiritual development of a person.

The root of the word “asana” means “to sit”. Therefore, asana literary means a seating position. In fact, Patanjali did not mention any specific postures in his text on yoga. The 15th century text Hatha Yoga Pradipika describes a total of fifteen asanas, and other classical texts enumerate more postures. Thus it becomes clear that yoga postures developed through the centuries in a way which allows the yogi to train and achieve a supple, strong and healthy body. Yet, the importance of asana comes from the way the postures help to train and focus the mind. A yogi strives not only to perfect their body and movements, but also to develop their senses, mind and soul. And health is achieved through this balance of the body, mind and soul. Hence, the practice of asanas helps unify the being in the single aspiration towards infinity.

The names of yoga asanas are often very difficult for beginners to master. They are Sanskrit words which represent the names of plants, insects, amphibians, fish, birds and mammals. They also bear the names of Hindu gods, heroes and sages. It is important to try to learn and understand the names of the poses. It is not obligatory to memorize the Sanskrit name of each pose, however knowing the translation of the names is very significant. The naming of asanas honors the world around us and the living creatures in it. Understanding of the names of the postures can help us embody the unique qualities and characteristics which have been encoded in the posture by the sages who named them. The poses should represent different aspects of the being of their namesakes and keeping their archetypes in mind helps us transcend our practice to a deeper level. The asana names help us perceive ourselves as part of nature, equal to all other beings.

The asanas represent a stable foundation for the yoga practitioner to explore their body, breath, concentration and everything beyond that. To master an asana, you have to be mindful of the correct and aligned position of the body and of your breathing. It is helpful to envision yourself performing the postures perfectly while you are in the posture itself. Developing control over the body through the practice of yoga postures also helps in controlling the mind. Therefore, asanas are used as a key tool for entering into the realm of yoga and of self-development.

As far as types of asanas are concerned, they can be broadly divided in two groups. Dynamic yoga asanas involve energetic movement. They are meant to increase flexibility, improve blood circulation, tone the muscles and help detox and balance the body. These postures or series of postures are especially beneficial to beginners. On the other hand, static asanas are performed with little to no movement, where the practitioner assumes the same posture for up to several minutes. The aim of static asanas is to calm the mind of the yoga practitioners and prepare them for more advanced yoga practices, such as meditation.

Another common classification of the postures has to do with the type of movement during the asana:

  • Seated and kneeling asanas allow a meditative exploration of your inner world, therefore they often start or end yoga sessions.
  • Standing asanas help improve your stance and balance. The posture of your body when standing affects all systems of your anatomy, your confidence and energy levels and working on your correct posture is very beneficial, even outside the yoga mat.  
  • Inverted asanas turn your body upside down (your head is below the level of your heart). They carry the benefit of boosting circulation and aiding lymphatic drainage. Full inversions can lead you on a path to find new perspectives (metaphorically and literary speaking).
  • Backbends and twists assist with spinal movement and are especially valuable for people who spend a big portion of their day sitting down.
  • Asanas for balance not only help you improve your stability, but also help you find a focal point and concentrate. This sense of being in the moment is the first step towards achieving the focus necessary for to further your journey to mindfulness.

In any case, you should seek comfort and correct alignment when practicing asanas, so an experienced teacher would be able to advise on variations to modify the posture and find and ease of body and mind.

Whichever asanas you choose, it is important to remember the goals of your practice. improving health and getting extra energy are great motivation at the beginning of the journey. However, understanding that asanas are a key to opening new horizons of mindfulness and consciousness can provide you an even better perspective to your practice. In our next article we will look into another tool to enrich your yoga practice – pranayama.

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