Asanas are the third step in Ashtanga Yoga as given in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Asanas make the body healthy, provide strength, trains the restless mind and builds body awareness. Asanas provide are a complete form of exercise and include cardiovascular, weight bearing, stretching, strengthening, anaerobic and aerobic exercises.
There is a misconception these days that asanas mean Yoga or vice-versa. This is incorrect. Asanas are a very small part of one of the paths to Yoga which is Ashtanga Yoga. It is probably not even five percent of Yoga. In fact, there are many other paths to Yoga where asanas as a practice do not even figure.
Why This Focus on Asanas in Yoga?
Yoga started become popular in the last fifty years or so with the physical aspect of Yoga and Hatha Yoga. Also asanas, kriyas and breathing techniques started getting focused on as effective therapies. This brought in the misunderstanding that Yoga is mainly asanas. Also, Yoga went to the west as physical practices and came back as acrobatics, something for muscles, energy, fitness, slim bodies and therapy. So the entire essence of asanas as well as Yoga is lost.
What are asanas?
Asanas are the third step in Ashtanga Yoga as given in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. There are one hundred and ninety five sutras and only three of them refer to asanas. These have been defined as sthiram sukham asanam. This means the following:
– Any pose which is correctly done.
– The posture and the anatomy should be correct.
– The pose should cause no discomfort at all.
– We should be able to hold the pose for a reasonable length of time without pain, discomfort or fatigue for at least two minutes and going up to three hours. Of course this is not possible initially.
Progress with Asanas
Once we progress and are able to hold a pose for longer durations, we are actually supposed to give up asanas and only focus on breathing and meditation. The best and the only asanas to do even as per the Hatha Yoga scriptures are meditative postures. It is clearly mentioned, that attachment to asanas is incorrect unless these are practiced as meditation and to build internal awareness. However, we have to practice them due to the following reasons:
– Asanas and kriyas start making the body healthy. If we have illnesses, diseases or low immunity we will not be able to practice pranayama or meditate.
– We have to be physical fit right up to the cellular level. This can happen only with asanas and no other physical activity or sports.
– Our body should be capable of sitting in an upright position for long hours without getting physically fatigued or getting back aches. Asanas provide this training and prepare the body.
– Asanas help train the mind which is initially very restless. The whole mind has to be focused on the body and breathing, else you will not be able to get into or retain a posture.
– Asanas help build up body awareness. Yoga as therapy works, but to actually progress on Yoga, one has to build awareness. If you do not practice with awareness, it just becomes an acrobatic exercise.
– The mind is lazy. Asanas train the mind. Imagine doing the same practices in the same order for the same length of duration, at the same time and in the same place for months in a row. It is scary. If you can manage this, a lot of positive changes occur with the mind and in your life.
Why Focus on Asanas?
Even though we have seen that asanas are not Yoga, they are one of the most important aspects of Yoga. Asanas provide complete exercise to the body at all levels;
– Cardiovascular exercise
– Weight bearing exercising
– Stretching and strengthening
– Anaerobic and aerobic
This is essential as we are all becoming sedentary. Asanas also involve the breath and has a positive impact on the entire breathing process. In addition, they help calm the mind and make it focused. So For all beginners on the path to Yoga, the first three steps for quite a few years are more than enough; Yama, Niyama and Asanas.