In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali there is a concise definition of yoagasana:
“Sthiram sukham aasanam”, meaning that position which is comfortable and steady.
In this context, asanas are practised to develop the ability to sit comfortably in one position for an extended period of time, an ability necessary for meditation. Raja yoga equates yogasana to the stable sitting position. The hatha yogis, however, found that certain specific body positons, asans, open the energy channels and psychic centres. They found that developing control of the body through these practices enabled them to control the mind and energy. Yogasanas became tools to higher awareness, providing the stable foundation necessary for the exploration of the body, breath, mind and higher states. For this reason, asana practice comes first in hatha yoga texts such as Hatha Yoga Pradipika. In the yogic scriptures it is said that there were originally 8,400,000 asanas which represents the 8,400,000 incarnations every individual must pass through before attaining liberation from the cycle of birth and death. These asanas represented a progressive evolution from the simplest form of life to the most complex: that of a fully realized human being. Down through the ages the great rishis (sages) and yogis modified and reduced the number of asanas to the few hundred known today. Of these few hundred, only the eighty- four most useful are discussed in detail. Through their practice, it is possible to side- step the karmic (action- reaction) and bypass many evolutionary stages in one lifetime.
Many of the yogasanas described are named after and reflect the movements of animals. Through observation, the rishis (sages) understood how animals live in harmony with their environment and with their own bodies. They understood, trough experience, the effects of a particular posture and how the hormonal secretions could be stimulated and controlled by it. For example, bi imitating the rabbit, they could influence the flow of adrenaline responsible for the “fight or flight” mechanism. Through imitating animal postures, the rishis found they could maintain health and meet the challenges of nature for themselves.
Yogasanas and prana
Prana, vital energy, which corresponds to ki or chi in Chinese medicine, pervades the whole body, following flow patterns, called nadis (energy channels), which are responsible for maintaining all individual cellular activity. Stiffness of the body is due to blocked prana and a subsequent accumulation of toxins. When begins to flow, the toxins are removed from the system, ensuring the health of the whole body. As the body becomes supple, postures which seemed impossible become easy to perform, and steadiness and grace of movement develop. When the quantum of prana is increased to a great degree, the body moves into certain postures by itself and asanas occur spontaneously.
Yogasanas and kundalini
The ultimate purpose of yoga is the awakening of kundalini Shakti, the evolutionary energy in man. Practising asanas stimulates the chackras (energy centres), distributing the generated energy of kundalini all over the body. About thirty- fife asanas are specifically geared to this purpose: chakrasana (wheel pose) for manipura chakra (navel centre) sarvangasana (plough pose) for vishuddhi chakra (throat centre), sirshasana (headstand) for sahasrara chakra (crown of the head) and so on. The other asanas regulate and purify the nadis (energy channels), facilitating the conduction of prana throughout the body. The main object of hatha yoga is to create balance between the interacting activities and processes of the pranic and mental forces. Hatha yoga, therefore, not only strengthens the body and improves health, but also activates and awakens the higher centres responsible for the evolution of human consciousness.
Yogasanas and the body- mind connection
The mind and body are not separate entities, although there is a tendency to think and act as though they are. The gross form of the mind is the body and the subtle form of the body is the mind. The practice of asanas integrates and harmonizes the two. Both the body and the mind harbour tension or knots. Every mental knot has a corresponding physical, muscular knot an vice versa.
The aim of asana is to release these knots. Asanas release mental tension by dealing with them on the physical level, acting somato- psychically, through the body to the mind. For example, emotional tension and suppression can tighten up and block the smooth functioning of the lungs, diaphragm and breathing process, contributing to debilitating illnesses in the form of respiratory disorders.
Muscular knots can occur anywhere in the body.
The result of eliminating these knots, is the release of dormant energy: The body becomes full of vitality and strength, and the mind becomes light, creative, joyful and balanced. Regular practice of asanas maintains the physical body in an optimum condition and promotes health even in an unhealthy body. Through asana practice, the dormant energy potential is released and experienced as increased confidence in all areas of life.
Yogasana and exercise
Yogasanas have often been thought of as a form of exercise. They are not exercises, but techniques which place the physical body in positions that cultivate awareness, relaxation, concentration and meditation. Part of this process is the development of good physical health by stretching, massaging, and stimulating the pranic channels and internal organs, so asana is complementary to exercise. Before the difference between the two can be understood, it is necessary to know that exercise imposes a beneficial stress on the body. Without it the muscles waste, the bones become weak, the capacity to absorb oxygen decreases, insulin insensitivity can occur and the ability to meet the physical demands of sudden activity is lost. There are several differences in the way asana and exercise affect body mechanisms. When yogasanas are performed, respiration and metabolic rates slow down, the consumption of oxygen and the body temperature drop. During exercise, however, the breath and metabolism speed up, oxygen consumption rises, and the body gets hot. Yoga postures tend to arrest catabolism whereas exercise promotes it. In addition, asanas are designed to have specific effects on the glands and internal organs and to alter electrochemical activity in the nervous system.
General notes for the practitioner
The following practice notes should be thoroughly understood before going any further. Although anybody can practise asanas, they become more efficacious and beneficial when performed in the proper manner after correct preparation.
Breathing: Always breathe through the nose unless specific instructions are given to the contrary. Coordinate the breath with the asana practice.
Awareness: This is as essential to the practice of asana as it is to all yoga practices. The purpose of asana practice is to influence, integrate and harmonize all the levels of being: physical, pranic, mental, emotional, psychic and spiritual. At first it may appear that asanas are merely concerned with the physical level because they deal with the movement of different parts of the body, but they have profound effects at every level of being if they are combined with awareness.
Awareness in this context may be understood as consciously noting sensations on the body, the physical movement the posture itself, breath control and synchronization, movement of prana, concentration on an area of the body or chakra and, most importantly, witnessing any thoughts or feelings that may arise during the practice. Implicit in the concept of awareness is the acceptance of any thought or feeling which comes uninvited to the mind. This awareness is essential in order to receive optimum benefits from the practices.
Right or left side: An example of the necessity for continual awareness is that most right- handed people will find it easier to commence an asana on the right side first, which is more developed due to habitual patterns of behaviour. It is recommended to start with the right side because of the colon function which works from the right side to the left side so it get supported.
Relaxation: Shavasana (death-relaxation pose) may be performed at any point during asana practice, especially when feeling physically or mentally tired. It should be practised minimum 20 minutes after asana program.
Sequence: After asanas should follow pranayama (breathing techniques), then pratyahara (bring the senses inside) and dharana (concentration) which lead to meditation.
Counter pose: It is important that the program is structured so that backward bends are followed by forward bends and vice versa, ant that whatever is practised on one side of the body is repeated on the other side. This concept of counter pose is necessary to bring the body back to a balanced state. Specific counter poses are recommended for certain asanas.
Time of practice: Asanas may be practised at any time of the day except after meals. The best time, however is the two hours before and including sunrise. This period of the day is known in Sanskrit as brahmamuhurta, the most conducive time for higher yogic practices, when the atmosphere is pure and quiet, the activities of the stomach and intestines have stopped, the mind has no deep impressions on the conscious level and is empty of thoughts in preparation for the day ahead. The practitioner will probably find that the muscles are stiffest early in the morning compared to the late afternoon when they become more supple. Nevertheless, this time is recommended for practice. In the evening the two hours around sunset is also a favourable time.
Pregnancy: Many asanas are helpful during pregnancy, but it is important to check with a midwife/doctor/competent yoga teacher prior to practising. Do not strain. Do not use inverted asanas in the later stages of pregnancy.
Place of practice: Practise in a well- ventilated room where it is calm and quiet. Asanas may also be practised outdoors, but the surrounding should be pleasant. Do not practise in a strong wind, in the cold, in air that is dirty, smoky or which carries an unpleasant odour. Do not practice in the vicinity of furniture, many accidents occur because people fall against an object.
Blanket Yoga mat: Use a folded blanket of natural material or a Yoga mat for the practices as this will act as an insulator between the body and the earth.
Clothes: During practice it is better to wear loose, light and comfortable clothing. Before commencing, remove spectacles, wristwatches and any jewellery.
Emptying the bowels: Before commencing the asana program, the bladder and intestines should preferably be empty. If constipated, drink two or three glasses of warm, slightly salted water and practise specific asanas against constipation.
Diet: There are no special dietary rules for asana practitioners, although it is better to eat natural food and in moderation. Contrary to popular belief, yoga does not say that a vegetarian diet is essential, although in the higher stages of practice it is recommended. At meal times it is advised to half fill the stomach with food, one quarter with water and leave the remaining quarter empty. Eat only to satisfy hunger and not so much that a feeling of heaviness or laziness occurs. Eat to live rather than live to eat. Foods which cause acidity or gas in the digestive system, which are heavy, oily and spicy, should be avoided, especially when asanas are practised with a spiritual aim.
No straining: Never exert undue force while doing asanas. Beginners may find their muscles stiff at first, but after several weeks of regular practice they will be surprised to find that their muscles are more supple.
Contra- indications: People with fractured bones or who are suffering from acute infections or backache, or chronic ailments and diseases such as stomach ulcer, tuberculosis, cardiac problems or hernia, and those recuperating from operations, should consult a competent yoga teacher or doctor before commencing asanas, carefully observe the contra- indications given in the introductions to each section, and those given for individual asanas.
Inverted asana: People with heart problems, high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis, glaucoma an active ear infection or any disease of the brain should refrain from inverted postures. Those with cervical problems should not practise postures where the neck is weight bearing.
Termination of asana: If there is excessive pain in any part of the body, the asana should be terminated immediately and, if necessary medical advice sought. Do not stay in an asana if discomfort is felt.