The Eight Limbs of Yoga (Part 3 – Asana)

23 January 2013

Asana is a Sanskrit word literally translated as “to sit”, although, generally speaking, asana refers to an assumed body position, pose or posture. Asana is the third of Patanjali’s “Eight Limbs” of Raja Yoga (or classical yoga).

Yoga asana can be static or dynamic. Many asanas look static from the outside, but they are dynamic by their very essence. When the yogi or student uses the body to perform any pose, this requires engaging their muscles to assume and maintain that form. So therefore, all asanas involve muscle work and stretching, and are by definition, not static because any tension is related to the dynamic process and this holds true for all bodies. There are of course, exceptions to the rule, being Shavasana, the posture of “conscious self-shutdown”, and Padmasana the “perfect meditating posture”, done with the body fully balanced and relaxed in the sitting cross-legged position. Asana when intended as a dynamic set of movements between poses generally refers to the transfer of a student’s posture from one stage to another, or even to a completely different pose.

Basic categories of Asana are…

  • Seated (with twists)
  • Standing
  • Core
  • Backbends
  • Arm Balances
  • Foreword bends
  • Inversions
  • Restorative
  • Meditation
  • Pranayama
  • Mudra & Bandha

You will find there are many varieties and techniques of actual asana practice available and plenty of opinions about content, but most teachers start by having their students focus on structural alignment, methods of breathing during the practice, and increasing awareness.

Asana simultaneously produces both contraction and expansion, massaging the muscles, connective tissue and the skin, keeping them moist and elastic. Joints are moved through their complete range of motion safely, although some precautions and contra-indications may be given by a responsible Yoga teacher since not all body types have the same immediate capacity. Because correct alignment is emphasized, the stretching muscles will move along certain planes, increasing blood flow to specific areas without putting a strain on other body systems.

Asana has many proven health benefits and continued personal experience affirms the effectiveness of its practice, though the benefits will vary with the individual. Asana does not just affect skeletal muscles and their associated joints, it also has added value for the body’s circulatory, lymphatic and respiratory systems. Additionally, it is designed to produce health giving affects on connective tissue, the nervous system, and the various organs of the body.

*In summary: While asana practice is a set of postures designed to enhance health and harmonize us with our inner consciousness, according to Maharshi Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras, the original intent and purpose of asana is the attainment of a sustained and comfortable sitting posture to facilitate meditation. To achieve this asanas help in balancing and harmonizing the basic structure of the human body which is why, if performed regularly and consistently, they have a wide range of therapeutic benefits, both physical and mental.

Related article, click on: The Eight Limbs of Yoga (Part 2 – Niyama)

Check back soon for “The Eight Limbs of Yoga (Part 4 – Pranayama)”

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