Āsana in Yoga Therapy: Learn about Yoga Benefits
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 āsana as correct posture for meditation is from the Bhagavad Gita from approx.300 BCE
To practice Yoga, one should make an āsana (seat) in a sanctified place…The āsana should be neither too high nor too low. Seated firmly on it, the yogi should strive to purify the mind by focusing it in meditation with one pointed concentration, controlling all thoughts and activities. He must hold the body, neck, and head firmly in a straight line, and gaze at the tip of the nose, without allowing the eyes to wander. BG 6; 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 āsana practice.
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.
- sthira sukham āsanaṁ
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.
- prayatna śaithilyā ‘nanta samāpattibhyāṁ
(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.
- tato dvandvā ‘nabhighātaḥ
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 prakr̥ iti.
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.
- Practice warm-ups from table position (Sandharasana 11) including Cat/Cow (Marjariasana – 11) and then the Tiger Stretches, holding Tiger (Chakoravakasana -12b) with the leg raised, followed by Sun Bird (Chakoravakonasana – 12) to experience a balance of strength, stability and flexibility.
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.
- A for the arms. Practice the Plank Pose (Chaturanga Dandasana – 13), followed by Sphinx (Purushamrigasana -37), Infinity Pose (Anantasana – 49) and Eagle arms (Dhyana Virasana) to sense the pressure placed upon the bones from various angles.
- B. for the legs and pelvis. Practice Seated Hero (Virasana-27), Camel (Ustrasana-44), Reclining Hero (Supta Virasana-45), Reclining Eagle (Garudasana-63).
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.
- Practice Cow’s Head (Gomukhasana – 23) with the arms in Eagle position (Dhyana Virasana). Press the arms and legs together tightly, then release and lie back with the body in an ”X” position, sensing the enhanced circulation to the extremities.
- Practice Locust or Half Locust (Shalabhasana – 39) allowing heart rate and blood pressure to rise to the maximum comfortable level. Rest in Child Pose (Garbhasana – 52) and sense how quickly, heart rate and blood pressure adjust.
- Enter Half Shoulderstand (Sarvangasana – 71) and sense the slight activation of the cardiovascular system to pump blood to the legs and feet. Also sense the enhanced circulation to the head, face and brain.
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4. Optimizes the functioning of the respiratory system
Āsana strengthens and stretches the muscles of respiration while maintaining elasticity in the lung tissue.
- Practice Rotated Head to Knee (Parivritta Janushirshasana-55) (f) to sense the opening of the lungs on each side. Accentuate the effects by practicing Anuloma Krama pranayama on the upper side. Also, actively contract the muscles of the rib cage on the lower side of the body.
- Practice Restorative Cobra Pose(Bhujangasana-38)with a cushion supporting the chest. Open the front of the chest cavity fully, while contracting all the muscles at the back of the rib cage.
- Practice Rabbit Pose (Shashangasana – 53), fully opening the back body and the space between the shoulder blades, while fully contracting the rib cage at the front of the body.
5. Supports the functioning of the digestive, eliminatory, urinary, and reproductive systems
Āsana provides a direct massage of the abdominal and pelvic areas, promoting circulation and releasing muscular and psycho-emotional constrictions in the abdomens and pelvis.
- Practice Bhunaman Vajrasana to feel the effects on all organs in the pelvic region. Relax in savasana and allow the pelvic area to receive a fresh supply of blood.
- Practice Knee Down Twist (Jathara Parivartanasana–34) to sense the massage of the abdominal and pelvic areas.
- Practice Supported Bridge Pose (Setubandhasana-42) with a block to sense release of tension and enhanced circulation to the pelvis and abdomen, followed by Knee to Chest pose (Apanasana-19).
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 āsanas squeeze 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.
- Practice Cow’s Head (Gomukhasana – 23), followed by Cow’s Head variation with the arms crossed in front of the body, Cow’s Head Lateral Bend, Cow’s Head Twist, Cow’s Head Forward Bend.
- Practice Z Sit (Shaitilyasana-25a) with Dolphin movements. Then, hold Z Sit with Kapalabhati.
- Half Shoulderstand (Sarvangasana-71) with legs in Eagle Pose
- Pose of Devotion Twist
- Reclining Hero (Supta Virsana – 45)
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 āsana practice.
- Practice Rabbit Pose (Shashangasana – 53) to sense the effects on the pineal, pituitary, thyroid, adrenal, and pancreatic glands.
- Practice Fish Pose (Matsyasana – 46) to stimulate the glands with the torso in the reverse direction.
- Practice Rotated Half Circle (Ardha Mandalasana – 50b) or Rotated Triangle (Parivritta Trikonasana – 9) to sense the massage of the entire endocrine system.
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.
- Practice Wide Legged Standing Forward Fold (Yoga mudra – 54c) and sense the enhanced circulation to the face and brain and the regulating effect of the baroreceptors.
- Practice Balancing Half Moon (Tulatta Ardha Chandrasana – 64) and sense the optimal flow of messages to and from the brain and spinal cord to every area of the body, especially the extremities.
- Practice Cat/Cow (Marjariasana – 11), Lateral Cat and Table Twist (Sandharasana 11) in synchrony with your breathing as you visualize cerebral spinal fluid lubricating your entire spinal cord and brain.
9- Optimizes the functioning of the senses
Asanas release muscular tension from the shoulders, face, neck, and jaw, supporting optimal functioning of the senses.
- Practice Yogamudra (54) with the top of the head on the floor to feel the Enhanced circulation to the senses.
- Practice Lion Pose to release tension from the face and jaw.
- Practice neck warmups to release tension from the neck.
- Practice eye exercises to release tension and enhance circulation.
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.
- Practice the Stork posture (Uttanasana) with its variations of internal and external rotation.
- Practice modified Hero III pose ( Virabhadrasana III – 65) with the hands in prayer position.
- Practice modified Balancing Half Moon Pose (Tulatta Ardha Chandrasana – 64) with the arm resting alongside the body as needed.
11- Supports the functioning of the Autonomic Nervous System, enhancing the ability to deal 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.
Āsanas regulate the ANS and subsequently the stress response in many important ways including:
- Āsanas massage the vagus nerve directly, especially in the area of the neck and sacrum, increasing vagal tone.
- Āsanas massage and increase circulation to the organs that mediate the stress response including the endocrine glands, especially the thyroid and the adrenals.
- Āsanas release tension from the musculature in all areas of the body, especially from the neck, shoulders and arms, areas that are especially activated in the fight or flight response thereby deactivating this response.
- Āsanas cultivate stress hardiness, the ability to hold the pose in daily life, through moving beyond psycho-emotional resistance in holding the Yoga poses.
- Āsanas teach the ability to move from tension to relaxation quickly and voluntarily.
- Āsanas release tension from the face and jaw, especially the temporomandibular Joint (TMJ), which supports reduction of the stress response.
- Āsanas release psycho-emotional tension from the chest and pelvis, where psycho- emotional tension that sustains the stress response is held.
- Practice Mountain pose (Tadasana – 1)for an extended period, gently moving beyond your limits to develop stress hardiness.
- Practice Down Dog Vinyasa (Adho Mukha Svanasana – 14) of with a leg in the air to Pigeon (Kapotasana -25) then rest in Child Pose (Garbhasana 52), sensing the increase in HRV and Vagal tone.
- Practice supported Bridge pose (Setubandhasana – 42) with a block under the pelvis, focusing on releasing psycho-emotional tension from the chest and pelvic area.
- Practice Butterfly pose (Baddha Konasana – 22), using each exhaling breath to move deeper into the posture, relaxing physical and psycho-emotional tension from the hips and pelvis.
- Practice Lion pose to release tension from the jaw.
- Practice Cow’s Head (Gomukhasana – 23) w/variations to release tension from shoulders, arms, hips, legs.
- Practice a seated twist from side to side, allowing the eyes to move in the opposite direction of the head with a focus on the cranial vagus nerve.
- Perform Somatic trapezius release movements with a focus on the cranial vagus nerve. I: Perform Happy Baby Pose with Asvini mudra with a focus on the pelvic vagus nerve.
- Perform Agni Sara Kriya to release the diaphragm with a focus on the pelvic vagus nerve.
- Perform Fish pose (Matsyasana – 46) followed by Rabbit pose (Shashangasana – 53), concluding with Child pose (Garbhasana 52) with a hug to release tension from the adrenals and thyroid.
- Practice the Reclining Spinal Twist (Ardha Matsyendrasana-30), entering more deeply into the twist with each inhaling breath, sensing the release of tension, especially from the hips and shoulders.
By Joseph Le Page
Professor and cofounder of Integrative Yoga