This month’s ‘limb’ of the eight stages of yoga, as described by Patanjali, moves us onto the third level, and probably the one familiar to everyone – asana, or what we know as yoga postures. When you say ‘yoga’ to someone they’ll probably picture someone putting their body into a funny position.
Asana comes from the root -as, which translates as ‘to sit’. Patanjali introduces asana in the following way: “sthira sukham āsanam” (Ch 2, sutra 46). These three words are generally translated as: sthira – fixed, firm, steady, steadfast; sukham – happiness, delight, ease; asanam – postures, poses. As a full sentence it is often interpreted as ‘The posture should be steady and comfortable’ or, “Asana is perfect firmness of body, steadiness of intelligence and benevolence of spirit” (Iyengar, p. 157). Patanjali goes on to explain in two further lines that the perfection of an asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless, and then practitioner’s mind is less affected by the problems of dualities (e.g. between body and mind, mind and soul) (sutras 47 and 48 in chapter 2).
In total there are only three sutras (lines) on asana in Patanjali’s text – and no actual descriptions of what any of the postures might be. This detail would have been provided by the yoga guru as supplementary commentary on the sutras, as yoga teaching was passed directly from guru to disciple in person. Later texts outline varying numbers of asana: the Hatha Yoga Pradipika describes 15 (most of which are sitting ones) and says there are 84 in total but the four main ones are siddhasana, padmasana, simhasana and bhadrasana; several other classic texts refer to 84 asana; and in the mid 1970s Dharma Mittra photographed himself in over 1300 poses and made a seminal poster with 908 of them.
Asana can be sitting, standing, prone or supine, twists, balances, forward bends, backbends, balances, inversions etc. But according to Patanjali, the purpose is the preparation of the body for the stilling of the mind (explored in the later limbs of yoga). That is, we need to be able to sit comfortably in order to mediate. For many Western people used to sitting in chairs all day, sitting on the floor in cross-legged sukhasana (‘easy pose’) can be a real challenge. With an uncomfortable body the mind is already distracted towards the pain and there is probably considerable effort to maintain the asana. One class I taught recently focused particularly on the hips and preparing the body for sitting, so that when we came to meditate towards the end of the class, those who found it harder to be in a comfortable sitting position were able to find a new freedom.
But although the original purpose of asana may have been to enable someone to sit comfortably in meditation, research from the last couple of decades or so has shown various physical benefits from practising yoga asana. These include helping improve lower back problems, lowering blood pressure, reducing stress, lowering the risk of heart problems, improving circulation etc.
Interestingly though, what we tend to assume are ancient postures are probably not very old at all. A further complication is that what each asana is has changed over time. For example, the 15 asana in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika have brief textual descriptions, but several of them do not match what we would call XX-asana today.
To explore more on this aspect of asana I recommend the Yoga Body book by Mark Singleton, and also The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace by N E Sjoman. A summary of the current thinking presented by these and other recent books is that around the 1900s a number of influencing factors led to yoga in India adopting physical exercises from the British Army, gymnastic moves from Europe, distancing itself from the fakirs and ‘stranger’ elements of yoga, and promoting a ‘physical body’ culture. Some of the instrumental teachers in this include T. Krishnamacharya, BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois.
Since then, yoga asana have been created and modified, put to music, incorporated into night clubs raves, combined with acrobatics, done in the nude, and some yogis have even attempted to trademark certain sequences and patent specific asana (with a counter move in India to establish the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library of asana) or to ban some asana from their yoga studios. There’s clearly more going on than just trying to sit comfortably.
To guide you through this a yoga teacher can help, but some basic online asana guides are also useful, such as the Yoga Journal directory, or this one which includes pronunciation, images, different variations and descriptions of how to practise the asana.
For more detail, you could turn to books. Yoga asanas are the focus of hundreds of yoga books. Here’s a selection of the asana-based books which I like or return to (look for them on World Cat, and your local library):
- Light on Yoga by BKS Iyengar (Widely seen as the ‘bible’ for Hatha yoga, with 200 postures pictured and described in detail)
- Intelligent Yoga by Peter Blackaby (For being unafraid to challenge the ‘bible’ as well as provide alternatives)
- Jivamukti Yoga by Sharon Gannon and David Life (For the sequences and wider context)
- The Book of Yoga by Sivananda Yoga Centre (My first yoga book, lovely pictures and suggested practices)
- Ashtanga Yoga for Women by Sally Griffyn and Michaela Clarke (For a strong practice)
- Relax and Renew by Judith Lasater (For times when restoring postures are needed)
- Office Yoga by Julie Friedberger (For those stuck at desks)
- Yoga for pregnancy and birth by Uma Dinsmore Tuli (For helping when pregnant)
- Yoga by Linda Sparrowe (For the glossy pictures and stunning bodies showing what is possible, one day!)
Whilst there can be no substitute for a teacher, especially when you’re learning, yoga books and videos can be very helpful. There’s lots of free and subscription videos online – two good free ones include Do Yoga With Me and Ekhart Yoga.
And of course, asana are great for the yoga selfie on instagram. Whilst you’re mesmerised (or depressed) by stunning people doing amazing things, don’t forget that the original purpose of asana was to train the body for the demanding practices of pranayama and meditation, requiring a firm but supple body, good physical and mental health, patience and self-discipline. Being able to balance on your head is an added bonus!
Iyengar, B. K. S. (2002). Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
Online text of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra (chapter 2)