Asana – Yoga Postures
Asana or Yoga Postures form the third step in Ashtanga Yoga. Maharishi Patanjali describes asana in Yoga Sutras as “Sthiram Sukham Asanam”, which means that asana is to stay in position or pose with ease. The purpose of yoga asana is to develop strength, balance and steadiness of the body which eventually leads to mastery over the mind.
The ancient Rishis had created these yogic poses or asanas by observation of animals and other creatures in nature. In fact, many of the asanas are named after those creatures; the crocodile pose, the serpent pose, the scorpion pose, the hare pose, the camel pose, the eagle pose, etc. are just few examples.
Asanas were first taught by Lord Shiva to his consort Devi Parvati. According to tradition there are 84 lakh (8,400,000) asanas, but not all of them are known or followed. These yogic poses or asanas are mentioned in various yogic texts. The Gheranda Samhita mentions about 84 yoga postures out of which 32 were considered important and are described in detail. Hatha Yoga Pradeepika too indicates about 84 asanas but describes only around 15 asanas. Similarly, Goraksha Samhita and Siva Samhita also mentions about the yogic postures.
Yoga postures have to be perfected in stages. The 3 stages for perfecting any Yoga Asana are:
- Sthira – The first step is to make the posture stable and firm. This is done with effort. There is stress involved in maintaining the position at this stage.
- Chira – This step involves staying in the position for a prolonged period of time. This is achieved by relaxation. One has to learn to relax in a given pose. With this relaxation, one can continue in any posture for a long time. There should not be any pain or discomfort while maintaining the pose.
- Sukha – The last stage is the stage of bliss or joy that is experienced by holding the posture effortlessly for a long time. At this stage, Maharishi Patanjali has recommended the practice of visualization (for example, visualizing the vastness of the blue sky) to calm down the mind and to experience the bliss.
How to learn Yoga Asanas or Yogic Poses?
The Yoga Asanas vary in difficulty from beginner to advanced levels. It is always advisable to learn Yoga postures from a qualified yoga instructor. Also, make sure you consult a doctor for any pre-existing health conditions before taking up yoga practice. Make sure that you do not cross your physical limits and cause any injury. Most Yogic postures are practiced on an empty stomach. Wear comfortable and loose clothing during the practice.
Benefits of Yoga Asana or Yogic Poses
According to Maharishi Patanjali, Yoga Asanas when perfected gives freedom from pairs of opposites such as heat and cold, good and bad, pain and pleasure, etc. This leads to stability of the mind. The mind maintains equanimity in all situations. Hence, yoga poses start working from the gross physical level to the subtle levels of the mind.
Relaxation Poses like Shavasana, Jyestikasana, Advasana, Makarasana, Matsya kridasana are used for relaxing the body and mind. They are also used as resting poses between other asanas.
Meditative Poses like Padmasana, Siddhasana, Ardha Padmasana, Vajrasana and Bhadrasana are used for sitting still in meditation for a prolonged duration.
Most of the other asanas are classified under the cultural category. Sirsasana, Bhujangasana, Halasana, Sarvangasana, Ustrasana, Paschimottanasana, Ardha Matsyendrasana, etc. fall into the cultural category. Each asana has its own physical and spiritual benefits. For example: Peacocks are known for good digestive power. Hence by performing Mayurasana or the peacock pose, one gets good digestive power and relieves constipation.
Other series of poses like the Surya Namaskara or sun salutation gives a good workout to the entire body and burns enough calories and hence good for weight management.
Most yogic postures help to develop strength, flexibility and Balance. They also tone the internal organs and maintain optimum physiological health. Some of the asanas can also be used in therapy to cure mild as well as chronic disorders. It is a known fact that Yoga Asanas can help to relieve medical conditions like lower back pain, sciatica, spondylitis, hypertension, diabetes, anxiety, obesity, allergies, headaches and migraines, depression, constipation, reproductive disorders, seminal weakness, hernia, piles, insomnia, etc.
Yoga asanas, as opposed to exercises, are practiced slowly and the positions are maintained for a long duration. By doing so, there is reduction in muscle tone and leads to deep relaxation. There is reduction in the metabolic rate. The breathing rate and heart rate can be reduced during slow yoga practice. There is conservation of energy and the excessive speed of the mind is reduced leading to removal of stress, worries and tensions. Yoga asanas are ideally suited to eliminate life style diseases caused by a sedentary life style.
Hence, we see that Yoga Asana form an important limb of the eight steps of Ashtanga yoga. Yogic poses along with breathing exercises or pranayama prepares the practitioner for higher practices of meditation and Samadhi.