By Dr Raghuram Y.S. MD (Ay) & Dr Manasa, B.A.M.S
These days, Yoga is equated to Yogasanas. If someone says they are practising Yoga, they mean to say they are doing Asanas. But does Asana refer to Yoga in complete?
Asana is one of the limbs / branches of Ashtanga Yoga i.e. eight limbs of Yoga practice. It is the third limb among the ‘eight branches of yoga’ enlisted by master Patanjali.
Read – Health Benefits Of Yoga: Mind And Body
Meaning and dimensions of Asana
Asana means body postures. Traditionally asana was limited to a sitting posture adopted during the process of meditation. In the later years of evolution of Yoga, the Hatha Yoga and the modern schools of Yoga included other poses. Therefore we can see all these poses included as part of modern day Yoga, which more or less defines Yoga as a comprehensive exercise for both body and mind.
Read – Yoga Darshana: Introduction, History, Definition, Shat Karma, Benefits
The word Asana is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘asana’ wherein ‘asa’ means ‘to sit down’.
Thus, asana means –
In simple terms, Asanas are ‘Yoga poses or postures’.
Read – Yoga, Meditation and Pranayama for Vata Balance
Definition of Asana according to Patanjali Yoga Sutra
‘Asana is a position that is steady and comfortable, one’s ability to sit for extended periods of time’.
Definition of Aasana according to Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Asan is the first step of Hathayoga. It produces lightness in the body, enhances strength and health.
Read – Easy Rules For Practicing And Mastering Yoga
Number of Asanas and evolution of the concept of enumeration
Goraksha Shataka (10-11th century), Hatha Yoga Pradipika (15th century) and Hatha Ratnavali (17th century) – have mentioned 84 Asanas. Hatha Ratnavali has enumerated different asanas in comparison to the previous scriptures.
Gurus like Yogendra, Kuvalayananda and Krishnamacharya (20th century) taught and preached new system of asanas blending exercise with the traditional Hatha Yoga. Pattahbhi Jois (Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga) and B.K.S. Iyengar (Iyengar Yoga) were disciples of Krishnamacharya. These people expanded the number of Yogas and described more than 100 Yoga asanas. They were responsible for bringing Yoga and asanas into the light and attract the modern world. Iyengar’s book ‘Light on Yoga (1966)’ has described 200 Asanas. The number of Asanas has increased ever since and many have been added to the list by the modern day Yoga gurus. Thus, the concept of Asana has been in constant cycle of evolution.
Read – Meditation By Watching Mind: Stages, Method, Benefits
Number of Asanas in the timeline of evolution of Yoga
Read – How To Do Pranayama – A Simple Pranayama Technique
Pashupati seal from Indus Valley Civilization (c. 2500 BC) –
Sir John Marshall in 1931 identified the central figure of Pashupati seal of the Indus Valley Civilization as a prototype of Lord Shiva, in a yoga position, as a Maha Yogi, i.e. the God of Yoga. This could be the earliest evidence and record of asana. But there is no serious evidence to clarify the yoga pose depicted in the seal due to absence of proof of origin of Shiva in Indus Valley.
In Patanjali Yoga Sutras (c. 2nd to 4th century CE),- it is mentioned that Asana is the third among the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga / Raja Yoga. The Yoga Sutras do not mention a single asana by its name. It only specifies the characteristics of a good asana.
Read – Types Of Pranayama – Effect on Health – Through An Ayurveda View-Point
‘Asana means a steady and comfortable posture’ – Yoga Sutras 2:46
The Sutras embedded in the Bhasya commentary names 12 seated asanas including Padmasana, Virasana, Bhadrasana etc. Some opine that these might have been specified by master Patanjali himself.
Read – Padmasana Lotus Pose, How to do, Benefits, Side Effects, Ayurveda View
Vimanarcana kalpa (10th – 11th century) – It is the first manuscript to describe a non-seated asana i.e. Mayurasana, the peacock pose.
Read – Mayurasana Peacock Pose Method, Benefits, Side Effects, Ayurveda View
Goraksha Shataka / Goraksha Paddhati /Early Hatha Yogic system (10th – 11th century) – This text describes 84 asanas. They claim that these 84 asanas have their origin and are revealed by Lord Shiva. The text has not detailed all 84 asanas but has mentioned only 2 among them i.e. Padmasana and Siddhasana.
Hatha Yoga Pradipika (15th century) – This treatise enumerates 84 Asanas. At the same time they specify that 4 asanas out of those 84 are the most important ones i.e. Siddhasana, Padmasana, Bhadrasana and Simhasana. All these four are seated poses.
Read – Salabhasana Locust Pose or Grasshopper Pose, Method, Uses, Ayurveda View
Yogic postures on the pillars of Achyutaraya temple – Pillars of Achyutaraya temple (16th century), Hampi, Karnataka, South India, depict numerous statues of Yogis doing Asanas. Asanas like Siddhasana, Chakrasana, Yogapattasana, a hand-standing-inverted pose with a stick and many other unidentified poses can be seen depicted on these pillars. This shows the popularity and practice of Yoga at the time of Vijayanagara Empire.
Read – Chakrasana (Urdhwa Dhanurasana) Wheel Pose, Method, Benefits, Side Effects
Hatha Ratnavali (17th century) – The Hatha Ratnavali by Srinivasa listed 84 asanas. 4 out of these asanas cannot be translated to its meaning. At least 11 of those asanas are just mentioned and there is no description about them. By this time, asanas had become important component of Hatha Yoga practices. More non-seated poses had appeared in the scenario.
Gheranda Samhita (late 17th century)–This treatise too stresses that Lord Shiva had taught at least 84 lakh asanas. Out of these, 84 are prominent and 32 are useful in the world of mortals.
Read – Kati Chakrasana Standing Spinal Twist Pose Method, Benefits, Side Effects
1850s and beyond – In this period a culture of physical exercises developed in India.
Tiruka – taught exercises and unarmed combat techniques in the name of Yoga.
K.V. Iyer – combined Hatha Yoga with bodybuilding techniques.
Imported Asanas – Poses like Hanumanasana, Ganda Bherundasana, Durvasana were found in ‘Anatomy of a Contortionist’ article by Thomas Dwight (1889). Poses close to Warrior pose, downward looking dog, Uttha Padangushtasana, Supta Virasana etc were found described in Grundgymnastik eller primitive gymnastic, a Danish text written in 1924 by Niels Bukh. All these asanas were derived from a Scandinavian tradition of gymnastics from 19th century. The same asanas made their way into India and became part of Yoga practices in India by early 20th century.
Yogendra – Master Yogendra called as ‘the Father of Modern Yoga Renaissance’ was the one who in 1919 brought Yoga Asanas to the land of America.
Read – Pincha Mayurasana Forearm Stand Pose How to do, Benefits, Ayurved Details
Kaivalyadhama Health and Yoga Research Center – This center was founded in 1924 by Swami Kuvalayananda in Maharashtra. He had combined the traditional asanas with Indian systems of exercise and modern European gymnastics. This had a profound effect on the evolution of Yoga.
Self Realization Fellowship (1925) – was set up in Los Angeles by Paramahansa Yogananda. They taught Yoga which included asanas, breathing, chanting and meditation to thousands of Americans. We can find the description of the same in ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’ (1946).
Read – Shavasana Corpse Pose, How to do, Dosha Effect, Benefits, Precaution
Tirumalai Krishnamacharya – the father of modern Yoga (1888-1989)–He created a unique blend of Hatha Yoga, wrestling exercises and modern gymnastic moment. This was never seen before in the tradition of Yoga practice. Most of his modern standing asanas resembled with Scandinavian gymnastics. Many of Krishnamacharya’s disciples went on to become influential Yoga teachers’ like Eugene V. Peterson or Indra Devi, Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S Iyengar, T.K.V. Deshikachar, Srivatsa Ramaswami etc. All these masters popularized Yoga in the modern and Western world.
Read – Right Time To Exercise, Benefits Of Workout As Per Ayurveda
Vishnudevananda Saraswati (1959) – published a compilation of 66 basic postures and 136 variants of these postures.
Light on Yoga: Yoga Dipika (1966) – published by Iyengar was a revolution. It came with more than 600 photographs of Iyengar demonstrating around 200 asanas. It was a bestseller Yoga book and was translated into 17 languages worldwide. Millions of copies were sold and revolutionized the trend of Yoga and asanas.
Dharma Mitra (1984) – He compiled about 1,300 asanas and their variants from various ancient and modern sources. It is said that he himself has created 300 asanas out of the lot.
Read – Adho Mukha Svanasana – Downward Facing Dog Pose, How to do, Benefits
Origin and distribution of Asanas in the timeline of evolution
All asanas have not been created at a time. They have been evolved at different time periods. Some of them are ancient, some are added in the medieval period and many asanas have been added to the list in the present day by the modern day Yoga Gurus.
Some asanas have their origin in India and some have been imported from other countries, getting an Indian touch in due time. Some are pure asanas described in the scriptures of Yoga while most asanas in the modern enlisting are a combination of exercise, asana and gymnastic poses. Thus, the asanas and the concept of asanas have undergone a wide transformation and evolution in the timeline of its emergence and popularity.
Read – Tittibhasana – Firefly Pose, How to do, Benefits, Ayurveda Details
The traditional asanas are named after –
Spiritual purpose –
The asanas enumerated in Hatha Yoga originally had a spiritual purpose of attaining Samadhi (a state of meditative consciousness). The medieval Hatha Yoga was shared among various traditions, from Shaiva, Naths to Vaishnavas, from Jains to Sufis. According to Andrea Jain, a scholar of religion, the aim of yoga (and asanas) included spiritual goals involving ‘tantric manipulation of the subtle body’ and at a more physical level it aimed at destroying poisons (detoxification).
Read – Sufferings And Health Of Spiritual People – Ayurvedic Analysis
According to Singleton, Hatha Yoga’s purpose is – ‘transmutation of human body into a vessel immune from mortal decay’. Gheranda Samhita’s metaphor of an earthenware pot that requires the fire of Yoga to make it serviceable forms the backdrop of Singleton’s mention of the purpose.
Other purposes –
Exercise – Yogasanas are used more as a form of physical activity, now a days.
Effects and Benefits of Asanas
2014 study – different asanas activate particular group of muscles, varying with skill of the practitioners, from beginner to instructor. The activation of 14 groups of muscles was measured with electrode on the skin over the muscles in beginners, advanced practitioners and instructors performing 11 asanas in Surya Namaskar sequences A and B (of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga).
Read – Impact of Cloth Colour And Material On Body And Mind
Hatha Yoga Pradipika (HYP) – This treatise praises the spiritual and physical benefits of asanas. They quote – ‘asanas give steadiness, good health and lightness to the limbs’ (HYP – 1.17). Some examples of benefits of asanas as proposed by HYP are as mentioned below –
Yogashastra (written by Hemachandra, 1.8-9) – enlists the below mentioned benefits of asanas –
Benefits of asanas as per western world – Asanas have physical and psychological effects of exercise and stretching on the body.
Yoga, especially asanas should not be practiced indiscriminately. They need to be practiced under guidance of an experienced Yoga tutor. Practice of asanas comes with their own set of restrictions. Yoga is said to be generally safe when done properly says the National Institutes of Health. People with some conditions, older people and pregnant woman may need to seek advice and take caution.
Read – How Long To Exercise? How Much Time To Workout?
People with glaucoma should not practice inverted postures.
Separate list of asanas which should be avoided or modified for each of the below mentioned conditions has been enlisted in ‘The Yoga Journal’. They are –
Rules, regulations and specifications while practising Asanas
The postures of the body should be steady and comfortable. The body is held poised with the practitioner experiencing no discomfort while doing asana. It is all about mastering the body control. When the person gains control over the body movements, the practitioner becomes free from dualities like heat and cold, hunger and satiety or joy and grief. This is the first step towards getting relieved from the sufferings by letting off the attachments. (Patanjali Yoga Sutras)
Read – 10 Exercise Tips To Get Fit Over 40
Asanas are best practiced with rested body, on empty stomach, after having bath. (Iyengar Yoga and The Yoga Institute)
Asanas as part of sports medicine – Asanas need to be performed equally on both sides of the body since they function as active stretches helping to protect muscles from injury from the point of view of sports medicine.
Iyengar Yoga – emphasizes precision and alignment and gives priority to correct movement over quantity. Here, postures are held for a relatively long period compared to other schools of Yoga. This enables relaxation and lengthening of muscles. It also encourages awareness of one in the pose being done. To work out the asanas in proper way, use of props like belts, blocks and blankets are encouraged. The beginners start with standing poses.
Read – Virasana – Hero Pose, How to do, Benefits, Side Effects, Precautions
Shivananda Yoga – practices asanas as part of Raja Yoga. The goal is to enable the practitioners of asana to sit in meditation for a long duration. Teachers follow the basic instructions given in the book by Shivananda. This school identifies 12 basic asanas. Trikonasana is the last of the 12 basic asanas. Other schools use it as the first one, to loosen the hips as a part of preparation for other poses.
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga – Vinyasa means flowing. The poses are executed rapidly, flowing continuously from one asana to the other using defined transitional movements. The asanas are grouped into 6 series. They include 1 primary, 1 intermediate and 4 advanced group. The practice of asanas begins and ends with chanting of mantras followed by multiple cycles of Sun Salutation, followed by one of the series of Vinyasa yoga. Other than asanas, this school focuses on drishti (focus points), bandhas (energy locks) and pranayama.
Read – Chakra – Kundalini: Introduction, Meaning, Types, Location, Ayurveda View
Kripalu Yoga – This school uses focus on mindfulness rather than using effort in the poses. The goal would be to use the asanas as a ‘path of transformation’.
Bikram Yoga (Bikram Choudhury) – In this school, there is a fixed sequence of 26 poses. (read)
By Dr Shilpa SN
These are just few among enumerable health benefits of Asanas. Plenty of research works have been carried out to prove these benefits of Asanas.
Read – Stiff Neck Causes, Ayurvedic Treatment And Remedies
To conclude –
The true meaning of Yoga is Union with God or the universe. The ultimate aim of Yoga is attaining Moksha (salvation). The 8 branches of Yoga are the steps through which one can attain this salvation. In order to be able to reach the last stage, the practitioner of Yoga requires enough physical stamina and stability. This stability is provided by the regular practice of Asanas. Hence Asanas are an essential part of Yoga practice.
Read – Garudasana Eagle Pose, How to do, Benefits, Ayurveda View
Click to Consult Dr Raghuram Y.S. MD (Ayu) – Email / Skype