Asana

The sage Patanjali states in the Yoga Sutra that an asana should be understood, practiced and experienced with firmness, steadiness and endurance in the body, goodwill in the head and awareness and delight in the heart. The performance should be nourishing and illuminating.

Sthiram sukham asanam—Yoga Sutras II:46
(Asana is perfect firmness of body, steadiness of intelligence and benevolence of spirit)

Overview

It is a misconception that the sutra advocates comfortable postures. If that were so, these would be asanas of pleasure (bhog-asanas), not yogasanas. Practicing a variety of asanas clears the nervous system, causes the energy to flow without obstruction and ensures an even distribution of it during pranayama.

Each asana performs five functions—conative, cognitive, mental, intellectual and spiritual. Conative action is exertion of the organs of action. Cognitive action is the perception of its results. When the two are fused, mind's discriminative faculty guides these organs to perform the asanas more correctly. Rhythmic energy flow and awareness is experienced without interruption throughout the body. A pure state of joy is felt. This is the manifestation of dharana (complete absorption of the mind on a single point or task) and dhyana (meditation) in the practice of an asana.

Tatah dvandvah anabhighatah—Yoga Sutras II:48
(From then on, the sadhaka, or devoted seeker, is undisturbed by any duality)

Asana puts an end to any differentiation between the body, mind and soul. Dualities don't exist for the sadhaka . When body, mind and soul unite in a perfect posture, he is in a state of beatitude. In that exalted position, the mind, which is at the root of dualistic perception, loses its identity and ceases to disturb him. There is no longer joy or sorrow, heat or cold, pain or pleasure. This is perfection in action and freedom in consciousness. These two sutras should always be practiced while performing asanas.

As the sadhaka progresses, he develops physical firmness and patience to persevere in or sustain the practice. He also gains endurance, will power and concentrated attention to experience the divinity within.

In the beginning it requires effort to master the asanas. It involves hours, days, months and years of work. While performing asanas, the sadhaka has to relax the brain cells and activate the cells of the vital organs and structural and skeletal body. Then intelligence and consciousness will spread to each and every cell. The conjunction of effort, concentration and balance in asana forces us to live intensely in the present moment.

We shall describe here categories of asanas: standing, forward bends, supine, inversion, abdominal and lumbar, twisting, back bends and balancing.

Standing poses: Beginners should start with these as they bring elasticity in joints and muscles and build up stamina and physical stability. This constitutes the most basic training in the early stages of yoga sadhana (practice).

Forward bending asanas: In these postures the posterior half of the body is stretched. These prepare you to proceed further in yoga and bring consistency in the development of physical and mental pliability.

Sitting and supine postures: Sitting upright and supine extending positions help a sadhaka prepare physically and mentally for pranayama.

Inverted postures: These help recover from everyday stress. They give vitality, mental balance and emotional stability.

Toning of abdominal organs and lumbar: These tone and massage the abdominal organs and strengthen the pelvic and lumbar areas.

Twisting: It consists of lateral stretching and twisting of the spine, toning the internal organs and reaching new horizons while tranquilizing the mind.

Back bends: These bring physical and mental sharpness and alertness. The postures are the opposite of forward bends as are the effects. In forward bends the posterior spine is extended, bringing consistency and mental peace, whereas in back bends the anterior spine is extended and stretched. The effect is invigorating and enlivening.

Balancing postures: These strengthen the arms and wrists and exercise the abdominal organs. They also make the body feel light and help attain a good bearing.

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