ASANA – the third limb
The word ”asana” is only mentioned on a few occasions in Patanjali’s yoga sutras, in chapter 2 aphorism 46 -48.
The main tenet of ”asana” is ”STHIRA SUKHAM ASANAM”, an aphorism that means a posture should be steady, stable, comfortable and enable meditation.
The aim of asana (in this sense “meditation posture” ) is to allow the attention to merge with the endless or infinite and to achieve freedom from duality and suffering.
This is it. No more mention of asana or any specific instruction on which asanas to do in Patanjali’s sutras.
Other texts such as the Goraksha Samitha or Hatha Yoga Pradipika, however do give a classical set of 84 asanas, of which some are more important than others.
According to researcher Mark Singleton’s phD. research (book: The yoga body), though, it appears that many asanas that are used in modern yoga really only appeared over the period of the last 100 years or so and got greatly popularized through the work of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya and his students B. K. S. Iyengar (Iyengar yoga) , K. Pattabhi Jois (Astanga yoga) and his son TKV Desikachar ( Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram) as well as Indra Devi.
Mark Singleton also makes a strong argument by pointing toward the fact that many of the now popular asanas appear to be more of a mixture between western gymnastic fitness practice and the Indian yoga tradition.
And today when somebody tells you they are “doing yoga” they often mean they do asana practice of whatever style takes their fancy, and there are many styles available now that were unheard off in the past.
Now, given the tenet that yoga has become a worldwide phenomenon and having done yoga asana for the past 12 tears or so myself, there are several important facts I want to mention here:
1. “SHTIRA SUKHAM ASANAM” is a wonderful description.
Any asana should be easy, comfortable and enable meditation. Therefore, if any asana causes injury, pain or discomfort and makes a deep inner ease impossible, there is something not right in the asana itself or the way it is practiced.
I have observed in yoga classes that people try to put themselves into complicated body postures because of “the teacher says so” or “this is part of your practice, just do it”. In other words, don’t question too much.
Other people may have read a book or seen asana practice in Youtube videos. That is ok, but there is always risk of misunderstanding.
Unfortunately, the outcome of a misunderstood, misaligned yoga practice is injury at a later stage (knee problems, hip problems etc.)
Injury usually takes a long time to develop, so knee problems, back problems and the like often only show in an “advanced” yogi”. (simply meaning years of misalignment in asana practice, which could have easily been avoided by learning more about the body in the first place).
The other aspect that I often encounter is that many people think of asanas as something to be achieved (especially the complicated ones); the west loves to achieve things.
Or beginning yogis fall prey to yogic peer pressure like “you can’t really meditate when you don’t know lotus”.
I am talking here mostly about western people doing yoga, and western people tend to take their normal subconscious attitudes in life (stress attitudes) into whatever they are trying to do, even yoga practice. Yoga is meant to relax you, not stress you.
There is nothing to achieve.
2. It is absolutely vital that the physical body needs to be taken care of rightly.
In my experience it is vital for any yoga practitioner to know which movements and postures are anatomically (structurally) and physiological (functionally) beneficial of harmful for the human body.
And this is particularly so because we are always dealing with individuals. Not all bodies are the same. We are not yoga robots.
It is equally important to know about the fascial tissues of the body. The fascia is gaining rapidly importance in modern physiotherapeutical approaches and this is because the fascia tends to dry out and shrink when not being taken care off.
Here is a wonderful 5 minute movie that demonstrates this: – ”THE FUZZ SPEECH” by Dr. Gill Hedley).
3. To be able to meditate in any asana it is vital to be able to hold a pose easily for an extended period of time.
In my own experience I can only do that in Tadasana (standing pose), the sitting asanas and shavasana (lying pose).
But if for instance I am trying to squeeze my legs into lotus (because it’s cool, it’s yogic) and I experience pain in the knees or joints, meditation is not possible. Better to sit simply cross-legged or on a chair.
Meditation involves me to be able to connect to my inner consciousness on a very deep level and in asana I have never been able to reach that stage. I get insights, sure, but those are of a different quality than in meditation.
4. To me asana also has a very strong aspect of SACRED GEOMETRY.
Sacred geometry talks about energy configurations or “grids” that are underlying our physical existence. Doing asana practice rightly, I can tap into this grid..
Here is a copy of Leonard da Vinci’s “Vitruvian man”, which clearly shows the alignment of hands and arms in relation to circle and a square. Da Vinci’s work is proof that he was student of secret knowledge.
In my own experience an asana done rightly brings me into alignment with a certain energy lines. This means asanas follow straight lines, horizontal lines, up and down directions, spirals, circles, helixes and spheres.
This creates alignment, balance, power and purpose, because a practitioner actually taps into a sacred geometry that is aligned with the physical structure of the the whole of existence.
Meridians are one of those energy systems that is well known and doing asana brings the meridian flow into balance. You can feel this because after doing a good asana practice you feel in a flow.
5. There is also a strong sense of being together with other yoga practitioners. This allows for people with similar interests to meet each other and to learn from each other.
This aspect is very important in our trainings, as we always encourage individual practitioners to communicate and work together – in other words yogis together.
In this way yoga has a great potential to be a wonderful social forum where people actually meet in person.
So, ASANA does a great good job at all of those aspects, which is why we love teaching it and people love doing it.
There is only one health aspect that I find is not accounted for in yoga asana and these are the aerobic exercise needs of the body.
Aerobic exercise has many benefits such as fat burning, regulation of the heart beat and blood pressure or increased alertness.
Aerobic exercise is exercise that involves a steady rising of the heart rate and a continuous aerobic energy production.
You get that when running, bicycling, doing any interval training or similar form of movements.
However the basic rule of asana is that your heart rate stays stable and does not rise.
So in fact you may get more aerobic exercise by riding your bike to the yoga shala.
Next one up is limb no.4: Pranayama