What’s asana about?

The word ‘asana’ comes from the Sanskrit root ‘as’, meaning ‘to sit’ and also ‘to be’ and the sense of ‘abiding’. ‘Asandi’ is from the Vedas and refers to the seat on which a yogic sage would sit for meditative practice. Asana appears in some of the oldest Upanishads, the Brhadaranyaka and the Taittiriya, as a ‘sitting posture’, and is used in the Bhagavad
Gita in the same way. Asana was the body positions for meditation. Yoga in this ancient culture was meditative practice, whose sole aim was union with supreme consciousness.

Shamanism also informed yoga, with asanas named after animals and with the ecstatic technology of yoga. Statues of a horned deity, the lord of the animals, Pashupati, also known as Shiva, Rudra, Dios-nyasas or Dionysius, Cernunnos and many other names are commonly found in some form of seated asana. The name of Shiva, the god of yoga, as Pashupati, lord of the animals, implies one who has transcended animal nature. In Patanjali‘s Yoga Sutras, we find asana as one of the eight-limb, astanga system. Patanjali doesn’t mention any specific asanas, assuming you know them, and simply reminds you of their qualities, steadiness and comfort. Increasing evidence shows earlier than 8th century roots to Hatha yoga.

This systems wide range of physical asanas was well developed by the time that the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Gheranda Samhita and the Shiva Samhita were written in medieval times. Medieval Tantra arose from these masters of Hatha yoga, with evolutionary body based systems that created directional flows of life energy, cultivated optimal wellbeing and focused interior awareness onto authentic freedom. Hatha yoga changed what asana was and what it was for. British Raj India then made much of yoga illegal
and as the Raj began to collapse the post-colonial practices of yoga re-emerged, joined with British army gymnastics and cleared of the sex and magic of medieval Tantra. Much of modern yoga arose from these new roots and today we have asana practice as an end in itself and as a useful step to create a strong physique, healthy respiratory system and open clear flowing energy system, that in turn enables us to practice pranayama and meditation effectively.

Interestingly the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is clear in delineating exactly this kind of systematic progression. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika states that there is no meditational success (Raja yoga) without a Hatha practice (asana, breath and kriyas) and vice versa.

From a Hatha perspective, practicing meditation without body based asanas or energetically oriented pranayama is a mistake. The beneficial acceleration of progress offered through the tri-partite approach of body, energy and mind practices, to non-dual realization is invaluable.

Contemporary yoga is for many people a way of helping to keep relatively healthy and maintaining wellbeing in a stressful world. Yoga cannot offer cardio-vascular fitness but does invite structural, neurological and potentially spiritual fitness. Modern yoga also offers a means to combat the materialistic meaninglessness and social malaise of modern life, through creating a sense of purpose, connection and community, as well as inviting harmonious living. Lifestyle effects of yogic practice, such as these, are important, offering an integral approach to realization.


Integral realization also requires a community of supportive practitioners, a conscious engagement and respect for the environment and a realization of the deepest aspects of identity. So contemporary yoga is potentially way more than just physical exercise, more an aid to establishing a new way of life, one which has the potential to embrace transformation, and find ease and congruence with our inner and outer realities.

Tensions in the mind have a corresponding tension in the body and vice versa. Asana releases mental tensions by dealing with them on the physical level, acting somatically through body to mind. Breathing correctly, and coordinating movement and breath is of primary importance in asana practice. Improving the breathing process as you train the body to breathe deeply and to full capacity helps to counteract the effects of many  stress based diseases as we quieten the emotions and the mind.

Dynamic practice can provide an outlet for the play of hormones that the sympathetic nervous system releases to deal with a stressful situation. Without such an outlet, this heightened stress response could lead to any number of diseases. Asana practice, including relaxation and restorative asanas, in conjunction with concentration and meditation practice, can help both to still the mind and prevent this stress-related damage to the body.

Asana practice also stimulates blood and lymphatic circulation. Improved respiratory, circulatory and  immune processes have a beneficial effect on the health of the body and its ability to resist disease. The principle of counterpose with opposing muscle groups being activated in succession allows one to feel the difference between tension and relaxation, and encourages a more relaxed attitude to life’s changes as well as creating energetic equilibrium and restoring balance to the body, energy system and mind.
The side effects of asana include good posture, general flexibility and healthy and balanced musculo-skeletal and nervous systems. The regulated activation and relaxation of all the subtle and gross muscle groups also leads to neurological activation of the whole body map. This activation allows for functional neuro-plastic engagement that encourages full mind-body integration.

So with all these benefits, including the mediation of the stress response and its catastrophic effects on the body-mind systems in daily life, then maybe those medieval claims weren’t so far o! the mark? Asana provides us with the means for liberating our body, our energy systems, hearts and minds, where we understand all these elements of our living experience as holistic and interconnected.



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