Āsana means “seat,” and in its earliest usage refers to seated postures for meditation. The importance of appropriate posture for meditation is emphasized in all the major traditions of Indian spirituality beginning with Buddhist and Jain scriptures from 500 BCE. One of the first uses of the word āsanaas correct posture for meditation is from the BhagavadGitafrom approx.300 BCE
To practice Yoga, one should make an āsana (seat) in a sanctified place…The āsana should beneither too high nor too low. Seated firmly on it, the yogi should strive to purify the mind by focusingit in meditation with one pointed concentration, controlling all thoughts and activities. He must holdthe body, neck, and head firmly in a straight line, and gaze at the tip of the nose, without allowingtheeyestowander.BG6;11-13.
The usage of the word āsana within the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is clearly related to the seated poses for meditation, but, as we will see, a philosophy of āsana is presented which encompasses the entire tradition of āsanapractice.
While āsana as a seat for meditation is the most common usage, there is an earlier tradition of posture as a vehicle for spiritual transformation in the austerities of the ancient ascetics collectively known as Śramaṇas going back to the time of the early Upanishads from 3000 years ago. In the fourth century BCE, members of the entourage of Alexander the Great came across ascetics maintaining different bodily positions for long periods of time. The use of such positions is common in description of early ascetics and many of the positions are similar to Hatha Yoga poses including standing on one leg as in tree pose or hanging upside down which is called the “Bat” pose. The chair position, called Utkatkasana is similar in name to the chair pose which appears in Hatha Yoga texts 2000 years later. Though these ascetics normally maintained a single pose rather than a variety of poses that evolved later, the intention of burning away karma and developing strength in order to attain spiritual freedom are clearly related to the intention of Hatha Yoga.
It is important to note that the group of āsanas that are considered to be modern and origin are the standing poses including the Triangle and many of the Hero variations which may have influences from Western gymnastics as well as Indian martial arts. It is also clear that postures have been evolving throughout the history of āsana and there was never an absolute consensus of what constituted an authentic āsana. Perhaps the best guide to authentic āsana is not the form of the pose but the way it is practiced, embodied in the three sutras on the subject provided by Patanjali.
While referring to seated poses for meditation, the three sutras on āsana within the Yoga Sutras embody a complete philosophy for the practice of all Yoga postures.
Āsana is steady and comfortable posture.
These words sthira, steady and stable, and sukham, comfortable, easeful and pleasant are related to abhyasa, practice and vairaygya, non-attachment from Sutra 1.12. They can also symbolize relative Yoga Therapy in the form of technique and absolute Yoga Therapy as the journey of recognition of our true being, inherently whole and complete.
(Attained by) releasing effort and tension to merge with the infinite.
The second sutra presents the methodology for achieving this posture; all effort and tension is released, allowing us to merge with the infinite, Ananta, which is our limitless inner Being and merging with the infinite.
Thereby, invincibility, immunity to the pairs of opposites (is attained).
The third sutra presents the benefit attained from steady and comfortable posture, which is invincibility in relation to the pairs of opposites, all the polarities that characterize the realm of prakr̥iti.
Benefits of Asana
1 – Creates a balance of strength, stability and flexibility
Āsana practice optimizes the functioning of the bones, joints, muscles, and fascia as an integrated system, allowing for healthy movement for all age groups. This is especially key in relation to the spinal column where Āsana, practiced adequately, maintains the integrity of the vertebrae while nourishing the spinal discs.
2 – Strengthens the skeletal system by placing pressure on the bones from all directions
Bones develop and maintain density partly through the stresses placed upon them from various angles. Āsana is unique in placing forces upon the bones both horizontally and vertically. Yoga postures also strengthen the ligaments and connective tissue as well as improving circulation to the bones.
3 – Optimizes the functioning of the heart and circulatory system
Āsana produces a squeeze and soak effect on all arteries and veins by constricting them fully and then relaxing them completely. Yoga postures also exercise the heart by raising blood pressure, followed by complete relaxation which supports heart rate variability, the ability of the heart to respond to changes in the inner and outer environment quickly and smoothly in order to meet perceived needs. Inversion poses help to regulate blood pressure by exercising the baroreceptors in the carotid arteries and enhancing circulation to the head, face and brain.
4. Optimizes the functioning of the respiratory system
Āsana strengthens and stretches the muscles of respiration while maintaining elasticity in the lung tissue.
Āsanaprovides a direct massage of the abdominal and pelvic areas, promoting circulation and releasing muscular and psycho-emotional constrictions in the abdomens and pelvis.
6. Supports the functioning of the lymphatic and immune systems
Lymph transports a range of antibodies and specialized white blood cells designed to fight disease, flowing through lymph nodes that filter out bacteria, foreign matter, and dead tissue. Its optimal functioning is therefore essential for a healthy immune system. The lymphatic system depends on gravity as well as on adjacent muscles contracting to squeeze fluid through its vessels. Many āsanassqueeze and stretch the tissues surrounding lymph node clusters in the neck, armpits, and groins to support a healthy lymphatic system and boost immunity.
The contraction and release of the musculature of the legs supports the movement of lymph and the contraction and internal massage of the abdominal area is also important. Additionally, Inversions assist in this process of returning lymph to the kidneys where toxins are filtered out through the urine. The functioning of the immune system is also supported by the enhanced balance in the autonomic nervous system cultivated by Yoga as a whole.
7 – Optimizes the functioning of the endocrine system
The āsanas directly massage the sites of the endocrine organs, releasing muscular tension from these areas and optimizing circulation. The functioning of the endocrine system is also optimized by balance in the autonomic nervous system which is supported by āsanapractice.
8- Optimizes the health of the brain and central nervous system
Through enhanced body awareness, optimal circulation, and reduction of muscular and psycho-emotional tension, the āsanas support the health of the brain and nervous system. The inversions support optimal circulation to the brain as well as the functioning of the baroreceptors, the mechanisms that control the flow of blood and nutrients to the brain. The alternating movements of the spine support the movement of cerebral spial fluid within the spinal cord.
The proprioception required in all the poses maintains the functioning of the peripheral nervous system which sends and receives messages from the entire body, especially the extremities.
9- Optimizes the functioning of the senses
Asanas release muscular tension from the shoulders, face, neck, and jaw, supporting optimal functioning of the senses.
10- Improves and maintains balance
Aāsanas,especially the balancing poses, support healthy balance through activating the balance receptors in the feet with a variety of weight bearing poses in varying planes of movement. This is especially important for seniors who may sustain serious, and even life-threatening injuries from falls.
11- Supports the functioning of the Autonomic Nervous System, enhancing the ability todeal with stress effectively
The ANS has two branches. The parasympathetic branch is responsible for relaxation and regeneration of all major organs and systems of the body. The sympathetic branch is responsible for liberating the energy needed for all activities. Balance of these two is essential for the health of every system of the body.
The stress response is mediated by the autonomic nervous system together with the endocrine system. Together they produce the energy needed for daily living with extra energy provided in case of emergencies. This balance allows us to relax and restore completely when energy is not needed. A main component of the ANS is the vagus nerve, the longest nerve in the body, whose principal connections to the spinal cord are at the neck and digestive tract. The vagus nerve elicits the relaxation response in all the main systems of the body including, circulatory, respiratory and digestive. It is the main channel of communication between the enteric nervous system in the abdomen and the brain. It inhibits the effects of the stress response activated by the sympathetic branch of the ANS and supports the health of the immune system.
Āsanasregulate the ANS and subsequently the stress response in many important ways including:
By Joseph Le Page
Professor and cofounder of Integrative Yoga