Asana is the most well-known and practiced limb of Patanjali’s 8 Limbs of Yoga, usually described as the “physical practice”. In the Yoga Sutras, the Sanskrit word Asana is defined as “a position that is steady and comfortable” and the practice of Asana involves the ability to sit for long periods of time in one posture.
So, if Patanjali intended it to be a seated practice, why is it that nowadays the typical Asana practice involves hundreds of elaborate body-bending poses and dynamic sequences? In this article we will explore how the interpretation of Asana has developed over centuries.
sthira sukham āsanam
Asana means a steady and comfortable posture.Yoga Sutras 2:46
The Early Asanas
The earliest records of Yogasanas are contained within the Hatha Yoga Pradipika where the 4 most important seated postures are described. These are:
Sitting cross-legged with the hands resting on the kness or forming a mudra. This is a good position for beginners to sit in long meditation.
Soles of the feet together, drawn in as close to the body as possible.
This pose is good for activating the muladhara chakra.
Also known as Lion pose. You can perform it by sitting kneeling with ankles crossed, opening the mouth wide and extending the tongue. Exhale with a loud ‘ha’ and feel the stress-relieving benefits.
Beyond the Seated Poses
As centuries passed, gradually more and more Asanas were described. They were developed to aid the seated Asanas by making the joints more loose, muscles more flexible and circulation better. Most people cannot immediately sit in Padmasana for three hours without a great deal of discomfort, which is not condusive to effective meditation. Instead, we need training to prepare our bodies for the seated Asanas.
Teachers like B.K.S. Iyengar worked to make Yoga more accessible to all kinds of people, whether they were flexible or inflexible, healthy or unhealthy, fit or injured. Iyengar was taught by Krishnamacharya (often called “the father of modern Yoga”), alongside K. Pattabhi Jois who also had a huge influence on modern Yoga by bringing Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga from Mysore to the Western world.
20th Century Yoga
More recently, Yoga has been used by many as a physical exercise and millions have experienced the healing benefits of practicing just the Asanas, especially in the Western world.
While some say that Yoga has lost its way by straying from tradition, there are positives to modern Yoga – the physical benefits (healing, weight loss, stress relief, strength building, etc.) invite people in who would otherwise never be interested in Yoga. The spiritual aspect can be intimidating to many, so it is good that they can enjoy the Asana practice without having to embrace anything else before they are ready. Eventually, consistent Asana practice changes a person’s mindset, making them calmer and more compassionate. This often results in the student becoming interested in learning about the spiritual side of Yoga after some time.
The Ultimate Goal of Asana
It can be confusing to learn how the interpretation of Asana has changed so dramatically over the years, but at the end of the day, no matter which branch of Yogasana or style you practice, you can always do it with the ultimate goal in mind: to be able to sit comfortably in a position for meditation for a long time. This in an invauable skill to have because it enables us to achieve deeper states of meditation, and, combined with the other aspects of Ashtanga Yoga, achieve a state of oneness with the object of meditation – Samadhi.