Introduction to yogasana
Yogasanas, or simply asana, means a state of being in which one can remain physically and mentally steady, calm, quiet and comfortable.
“ Sthiram sukham aasanam ”
The above concise definition of yogasana comes from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. It means “that position which is comfortable and steady”.
We practise yogasanas in order to develop our ability to sit comfortably in one position for an extended length of time, as is necessary during meditation.
However, in raja yoga, asana refers to a stable sitting position. Whereas in hatha yoga, it has another meaning.
The hatha yoga practitioners also found that by developing control of the body through asanas, they could also control the mind. They discovered that certain specific body positions, asanas, open the energy channels and psychic centres. The asanas are specific tools to higher awareness. They found that developing control of the body through these practices, enabled them to control the mind, energy and beyond.
History of yogasana
According to the vedic scriptures there are 8,400,000 different forms of living entities in the universe. As a result, the Gheranda Samhita states that Lord Shiva taught 8,400,000 asanas. These asanas represented a progressive evolution from the simplest form of life to the most complex, that is of a fully realized human being.
Down through the ages the great rishis and yogis modified and reduced the number of asanas to the few hundred known today. Through their practice, it is possible to side-step the karmic process and bypass many evolutionary stages in one lifetime. Of these few hundred, 84 asanas are the preeminent ones, and “32 are useful in the world of mortals”.
The ancient sages and rishis were greatly inspired by animals. Maybe that is the reason why there are many yogasanas which are named after and reflect the movements of animals. The ancient sages were great observers. They understood how animals live in harmony with their environment, with nature and with their own bodies. Through experience, they understood the effects of a particular posture and how the hormonal secretions could be stimulated and controlled by it. They carried out experiments upon themselves by imitating the animal postures. They found that they could maintain health and meet the challenges of nature by doing so.
Yogasanas and vital energy (prana)
The Sanskrit word prana (vital energy, life force) is a combination of two syllables, pra and na (qi or chi in Chinese culture). It denotes constancy, a force in constant motion. Prana exists in sentient beings as the energy that drives every action, voluntary and involuntary, every thought, every level of the mind and body. Scientific research describes prana as a complex multidimensional energy: a combination of electrical, magnetic, electromagnetic, photonic, ocular, thermal and mental energies.
Prana or vital energy pervades the whole body, following flow patterns, called nadis, 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 prana 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 increases to a great degree, the body moves into certain postures by itself and asanas, mudras and pranayamas occur spontaneously.
Yogasanas and primal energy (kundalini shakti)
The ultimate purpose of yoga is the awakening of kundalini shakti, the evolutionary energy in man. Practising asanas stimulates the chakras, distributing the generated energy of kundalini all over the body. There are about 35 asanas specifically geared to this purpose. The other asanas regulate and purify the nadis, facilitating the conduction of prana throughout the body.
The main objective of hatha yoga is to create a balance between the interacting activities and processes of the pranic and mental forces. Once achieved, the impulses awaken the sushumna nadi (the central pathway in the spine), through which the kundalini shakti rises to the sahasrara chakra (crown chakra). This action illuminates the higher centres of human consciousness. 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
We tend to believe that the mind and body are two separate entities. We even think and act as thought they are different things. But that’s not the case. The gross form of the mind is the body and the subtle form of the body is the mind. When we practise yogasanas, it harmonizes the mind and the body.
Both the body and the mind harbour tensions or knots. Every mental knot has a corresponding physical, muscular knot and vice versa. One of the reason why we practise asanas is to release these knots. Asanas release mental tensions by dealing with them on the physical level, acting somato-psychically, through the body to the mind.
For example, emotional tensions and suppression can tighten up and block the smooth functioning of the lungs, diaphragm and breathing process, contributing to a very debilitating illness in the form of asthma. But we can eliminate these knots by practising a well chosen set of asanas. For better results, we can combine these asanas with pranayama (breath control), shatkarmas (body purification), meditation and yoga nidra (yogic sleep). These practices will eliminate the knots, tackling them from both the mental and physical levels. The result is the release of dormant energy. The body becomes full of vitality and strength, 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. The practice of asanas releases the dormant energy and this in turns increases self confidence in all areas of life.
Yogasanas and exercise
Most people think that yogasanas is a form of exercise. But that’s not the case. In fact, it is a technique which places the physical body in positions that cultivate awareness, relaxation, concentration and meditation.
However, we can consider part of this process as an exercise as it involves the development of good physical health by stretching, massaging and stimulating the prank channels and internal organs. This, we can conclude that asana is complementary to exercise.
Nonetheless, exercise is very beneficial to the body. Without it the muscles waste, the bones become weak, the capacity to absorb oxygen decreases, insulin insensitivity can occur, and the body loses its ability to meet the physical demands of sudden activity,
During exercise, the breath and metabolism speed up, oxygen consumption rises, and the body gets hot. Also, exercise promotes catabolism.
Whereas during yogasanas, respiration and metabolic rates slow down while the consumption of oxygen and the body temperature drop. Also, yoga postures tend to arrest catabolism. In addition, asanas have specific effects on the glands and internal organs. Moreover, practising asanas alters the electrochemical activity in the nervous system.
Dynamic yogasanas involve energetic movements of the body. They are usually more inclined to body flexibility than developing muscles or making. They also speed up blood circulation, loosen the muscles and joints, release energy blocks and remove stagnant blood from different parts of the body. These asanas tone the skin and muscles, strengthen the lungs, encourage movement in the digestive and excretory systems. If you are a beginner, then dynamic yogasanas is for you. It comprises of postures such as the pawanmuktasana (gas release pose), surya namaskara (sun salutation), chandra namaskara (moon salutation), dynamic paschimottanasana (seated forward bend pose) and dynamic halasana (plow pose).
Only intermediate and advanced practitioners should perform static yogasanas. These asanas have a more subtle and powerful effect on the pranic and mental bodies. They require little or no movement, the body often remaining in one position for a few minutes. These asanas are intended to gently massage the internal organs, glands and muscles as well as to relax the nerves throughout the body. They are specifically concerned with bringing tranquillity to the mind and preparing the practitioner for the higher practices of yoga, such as meditation. Some of them are particularly useful for inducing the state of sense withdrawal (pratyahara). Static postures include chaturanga dandasana (four limbed staff pose), Adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog pose), Urdhwa mukha swanasana, (upwardward facing dog pose), maha mudra pose (the great gesture pose), janu sirsasana (head to knee forward bend), sarvangasana (shoulder stand).
Asanas are classified into 3 main categories: beginner, intermediate and advanced. However, you should not perform all the asanas in a particular group.
If you are new to yoga, you must start with asanas from the beginners group as these are elementary techniques to prepare the body and mind for major meditation asanas.
If you can proceed with the beginner group without any discomfort or strain, then you are ready to start the intermediate group. These asanas require a greater degree of steadiness, concentration and coordination with the breath.
Finally, the advanced group is for those who can extensively control their muscles and nervous systems. These practitioners must be very proficient at mastering the beginner and intermediate groups. It is advisable for any practitioner to start the advanced group under the guidance of a professional teacher.
However, before starting with any asana practice, the practitioner must first comply with some rules. Maharishi Patanjali emphasized a lot on the Budhist philosophy of yama (moral codes) and niyama (self restraints). In his Yoga Sutras he divided raja yoga into 8 steps. Yama and niyama are the first two. Then come asana (postures) and pranayama (breath control). The final four are pratyahara (abstraction), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (contemplataion).
But in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, we notice that there is not much emphasize on yama and niyama. The order here is very different. This classic states that we should first purify the whole body (the stomach, intestines, nervous system and other systems). Thus, shatkarma (neti, dhauti, basti, kapalbhati, trataka and nauli) comes first. Hatha yoga begins with these practices.