Scientific Study of Asana, Affect on Problematic areas in the body

One of my clients right shoulder

hurts badly, when she tries to get into

Gomukhasana’s hands arrangement.

What is the right way for getting

into this hands arrangement,

and how to reduce the related stiffness

in the shoulders?

The yogi of the bygone age speaks to us in his old works about the goal of Yoga, the various techniques to reach the goal, the correct way of learning etc. He uses a language which is so difficult to comprehend, s.g., the prana, the nadis, the cakras etc. Probably there are old traditionalists today who can intune themselves through their experience and observation to catch the meaning of the Yogi’s exposition of his goal and methods.

There are however a much larger group of people who lack such tradition or who are not able to go deep in subjective experience. This group is very vocal in announcing the true import of Yoga statements in old work. To some of them Kundilini is the vagus nerve, ida and pingala are the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, etc. Much of the fragmentary modern research is thus made to bear on proving similarities, between modern physiological advances and Yoga. This is of course, a prima facie wrong approach.

If we were to study some older works dealing with Yoga asana, this point will be much clearer. Let us study references to asanas in the commentaries of Yoga Sutras, Yoga Upanishads, Hatha Yoga works like Hathayogaprqdipika, Siva-Samhita, Gherandasamhita, Yogacintamani and to works refered there in etc. For the sake of convenience, we should study meditative asanas and cultural asanas separately.Even amongst the cultural asanas we may try to see if we can classify them from any particular point of view.

Curative Affects of Asana on Problematic Areas

Scientific Study of Asana

Very strangely most Yoga works generally do not speak on the curative value of asanas. Such references occur only in the case of few asanas. Of these, very general references of attaining Siddhi, controlling prana, giving quick deliverance, abrogating sin, removing fear of disease,destroying all poisons and disease occur with reference to meditative poses like Bhadra, Padma, Siddha, Vira etc.

Much is said about curative value of Mayurasana, while Mastyendrasana and Paschimottanasana are the other two about which some physical benefits are mentioned. The benefit of Paschimottanasana and Matsyendrasana is physical as well psychophysical and possibly more. The later helps in awakening Kundilini, while the former makes for prana movement, Of course, the former creates gastric juices, reduces the waist and prevents rogas (ailments). The latter is a weapon against major diseases, and reduces the abdomen and strengthens the male sex organ.

Savasana removes fatigue and freshens the mind. It is only about Mayurasana that we get repeated references about its medical value. This asana destroys all sins and, all diseases that affect the body, perish. Poison is assimilated without any evil effect, and diseases of Gulma, Jathara, and Dosas are over powered. Besides these, few asanas have been ascribed very general physiological value. Usually, there are many descriptions on the guidelines to perform asanas at other places.

It is on this very slender textual reference that moderners see many virtues in the traditional asanas. Some of the benefits ascribed to asanas are a result of certain hypothesis put forth by some scientists in the West. Such are the theories, for example, of effects on specific glands of asanas, special effects on the proprioreceptors etc.

More successful seem to be writers who have kept to explanation of asanas from point of common sense. The statement, for example, of Shri Yogendra on the beneficial effect of asanas have not much changes inspite of a gap of over forty-five years. His writings are more in the nature of proto-scientific working hypothesis which are respected.

In physical education, it is believed that “the larger, older, and central muscles and nerve centres play a major part in the voluntary control of muscles and should be developed.” In Yogic asanas, when we look at it from the point of locomotor system, the larger muscles of trunk and hip joint receive much attention.

Asanas impact on back as a Problematic Area

The following chart shows how many yoga asana exercise the supporting muscles of the back in different ways :-

Name of AsanaPredominant AffectOther Affect
KonasanaLateral stretch of lumbar portion
of spine / twisting of spine in
Exercise to shoulder.
ChakrasanaAnterior nd posterior stretches of
spine combined.
Stretching of knee joint, extension
of hip joint.
YogamudraPosterior stretch of thoracic spine.Flexion of knees, ankles, extension
of shoulders.
PaschimottanasanaPosterior stretch of spine.Increase of intra-abdominal pressure.
UstrasanaAnterior stretch of spine.Increase in intra-abdominal pressure,
extension of hips and shoulders.
ArdhmatsyendrasanaTwist of spine in general.
HalasanaPosterior stretch in general.
KurmasanaPosterior stretch.Flexion of hips, ankles, elbow joints.
HastapadasanaPosterior stretch of spine.
BhujangasanaIncrease in intra-abdominal pressure.Anterior stretch of spine.
DhanurvakrasanaTension in abdominal muscles against resistance.Anterior stretch of spine, extension of shoulders.
SalabhasanaIncrease in intra-abdominal pressure (rectus).Hyperextension of hip joints.

Besides the above, asanas which directly or indirectly affect the spine, many others not included, contribute to the posterior stretching of the neck (hyper flexion), causing tension to shoulder joints e.g., head-low poses, etc. Some asanas like Padma, Vajra, Bhadra, Vira, Utkata, Paryanka, Tala, Garuda etc. cause either flexion of knees, abduction of hips, hyperextensions of ankles, or exercise ankle joints, shoulder joints etc., besides causing pressure on inguinal canal (Padma), causing pressure on pelvic diaphragm (Vajra and Bhadra).

Postures like Lolasana, Bakasana, etc. cause tension in the muscles of the abdomen wall, besides exercising shoulder and wrist against resistance. There is no doubt that the asanas as a constitutional measure do much good to our health. It is however, difficult to prove to the satisfaction of the modern man as to how exactly the asanas contribute to the health and cure of diseases. We should not be carried away by the available hypothesis of medical science.

Because these theories on hypothalamus, or proprioreceptors, etc. are themselves still in an infant pre-scientific stage. We should be content by describing merely the actual physical processes involved in performance and rely on the high-conceptual psychic theories of Patanjali and others, for whatever they are worth, on the beneficial effect of asanas which are, in fact, so evident.