Updated: Jan 19
Meaning of Yoga asana
The word asana literally means a way of sitting on something or sitting in any form. In Indian culture we even call the seat one is to sit upon as asana when we welcome the guests by saying " aasan grahan kijiye" please accept the seat, or please sit down. Kamadhenu Tantra sums up the meaning of word "asana" from the meaning of individual syllables comprising it:
A - Atmasamadhi ( Concentration on its own)
Sa - Sarvarogapratibandha ( Eliminator of all diseases)
Na- Siddhi Prapti ( achiever of Sidhi )
Yoga asana meaning as per Patanjali is any position of the body which is -
sthira - steady and stable
sukham - provider of comfort
asanam - body posture
Any body posture that is stable along with being comfortable as well. Thus a body position to be called an asana has to fulfill two criteria: stability and comfortable. Any body position which is not steady or is uncomfortable cannot be called an asana as per Patanjali yoga. Thus asana in general means the position of the body in which it can remain still ( niscala) or non moving, imparts a degree of comfort ( anudvijaniyam) to it, and generates pleasant feelings in the mind. The stillness in an asana is compared to the stillness of a dead body ( mrtavat sthitah in ancient literature). YogaAsana has a clear purpose, not the physical benefits of a good exercise, but to remove all tremors and tensions from within the body over a period of time so that the body can stay still for long, in order to impart this stillness to the mind held within it, like water is held within a glass, for meditation.
The Yoga asana meaning as per Yoga sutra 47, Chapter 2 of Patanjali is that any Body position, posture can only be called a yoga asanas if it is performed without any effort ( prayatnasaithilya) and with the mind focused on the infinite ( Ananatasamapatti). In case the body posture doesn't conform to these two requirements it cannot meet the basic purpose for which the yoga asanas are practiced. The spiritual knowledge to descend in the mind requires it to be firm and steady, which in turn can be achieved only within a fit and still body.
Since the main purpose of Yoga in its formative years was only to attain spiritual progress, the asanas which we come across from that era are only meditative asanas: Padmasana, Sukhasana, Vajrasana, Siddhasana, etc. The cultural group of asanas is the invention of the Hatha Yogis of the much later period. The meditative asanas were thought to have the powers to render the body spiritually strong.
Meditative asanas when practiced for long have been found to impart a kind of insensitivity ( non affection) in the mind to the feeling of pain in general or the discomfort provided by the pairs of the opposites in the universe: cold and heat etc. Ancient texts call the endurance as developed for the pairs of the opposites as dvandva sahana and when they use the word non affection they use the word dvandva anabhighata.
Shift in the Significance of Yoga Asanas over time
Patanjali, in his yoga sutra has only mentioned what postures qualifies as a yoga asana, know where has he mentioned the number and the names of any Yoga asanas. The significance of asana in the plan of the eight steps of yoga ( Ashtanga yoga) is just a step - for providing steadiness- essential for mastering the other steps ( pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana etc.) coming after it in the sequence of steps comprising Patanjali yoga.
The mention of the names and the number of yoga asanas is seen in the Hatha Yoga literature of later times; Siva Samhita mentions the number of asanas to be equal to the number of species existent in nature. From this correlation of Yoga postures with nature began the inclusion of the various qualities of the nature into the techniques of doing yoga asanas. The main premise on which this concept was based was that the the same natural elements which constitute nature also form the citta ( personality complex) of an individual. Thus, Smearing the Yoga asanas with the higher qualities of nature like lightness, flexibility, steadiness, repose, poise and equilibrium is expected to enhance their impact on the citta.
In the later years Tantra imparted the divine essence to the yoga asanas. The followers of tantra looked at the Yoga poses from the angle of the mysterious forces they had discovered inside the body. They found the presence of the entire universe within the man; the discovery of the energy channels ( nadis) and Chakras lead the tantrics to believe that the yoga asanas are the physical representations of the divine energy in their balance, poise and steadiness.
The significance of yoga asanas in modern world is just limited to the benefits they provide to the physical body. The spiritual significance of asanas is lost behind the hazy chaos of modern living. Number and variety in everything amuses the modern man more than the minimalist living. This is evident from the fact that even our spiritual places are being excessively commercialized. Today, this thinking has also spilled over to the understanding of yoga. A huge number and variety of yoga asanas, to slacken the thirst of modern man for numbers, have been invented. Yoga asanas today are seen at par with any other physical exercise like lifting weights in the gymnasium. Their main importance and objective has been reduced to being the remedy for various ailments inflicting the physical body or for beautifying the same.
Guidelines for doing Yoga Asanas
Yoga practices need to be done by adhering to certain basic pre-requirements for them to be effective. Yoga pranayama have their own common ground rules, so do the yoga asanas. Apart from the two criteria ( steadiness & Comfort) as mentioned by Patanjali a number of other considerations related to attitude, action, and alignment also need to be adhered to in order to intensify the benefits of Hatha yoga asanas as the right technique of doing yoga poses play an important role in the ways Yoga works out your body.
The best time for doing Yoga asanas is early morning or early evening
Yoga asanas must be done on an empty stomach at least 3-4 hours after a heavy meal
Dynamic asanas must be avoided during sickness
The mind must remain disconnected from the senses while doing the asanas
Yoga asanas must be practiced slowly and with the attention fixed on the body, remember to apply the yoga alignment principles to your practice
The rhythm of the movements and breathing as indicated must be strictly adhered to
Never do yoga asanas while in a rush or a state of restlessness
Avoid tiring yourself while doing asanas, do only what the body is capable of doing at a particular time
The mind must be focused on the recommended part of the body for each asana
Ladies must avoid dynamic asanas while they are menstruating
In case of any sickness, adhere to the related contraindications for each yoga asana
All yoga asana practice must end with relaxation, and do very light activity, for some time immediately after coming out of relaxation
Engage in some positive activity after practicing yoga asanas for fully utilising the potential of the positive energy generated within the body while practicing the yoga asanas
Practice yoga asanas 7 times a week at the same place and time
Start being aware of the body posture while being engaged in the day to day activities
The place for practicing the yoga asanas clear of any obstructions, and clean
Always use a yoga mat or a blanket as a base for practicing yoga asanas