Definition & Purpose of Asana

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, we examine the Yoga Sutra’s teachings on asana and explore additional wisdom regarding the purpose and benefits of asana.

Objective

Memorize and understand sutras 2.46 to 2.49 and study additional expert teachings regarding the purpose and benefits of asana.

Description

Recite and translate sutras 2.46 to 2.49 from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, defining asana, explaining what constitutes proper practice of asana, and describing the results of practice. Explain the traditional goals of asana practice and explore words of wisdom from teachers of various lineages regarding the purpose and benefits of asana. Give multiple answers to the question, “What is the purpose (or benefits) of asana?”

Sutras 2.46 to 2.49

Sutras 2.46 to 2.49 in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra define asana, explain what constitutes proper practice of asana, and describe the results of practice.

Wisdom

Ancient yogis defined health and fitness not as being able to hold or master a posture, but rather as being structurally stable, having the ability to move with grace and ease, the elimination of suffering, and the ability to withstand change.

Traditional Goals of Asana

For yogi,  health and fitness were [traditionally] defined in the following terms:

  1. Sthira – stable structure that can remain upright and balanced within gravitational pull.
  2. Sukha (which literally means “good space, free of suffering”) can be defined both as ease of movement to enable us to do whatever we want to do, and freedom from physical pain that can be distracting for our energetic and mental pursuits.
  3. Angalaghavam – feeling of lightness in the body; it could also be described as agility. It allows us to move through the day with fluidity, grace and confidence.
  4. Dvandvanabhighatah – ability to withstand change. Every day brings a new challenge and we need to make sure that it doesn’t knock us off our feet. We can call this resilience.

– Olga Kabel

Purpose / Benefits of Asana

Some of the many reported benefits of asana include:

  1. Release mental and physical tension.
  2. Prepare the body for seated meditation.
  3. Mobilize and stabilize the body.
  4. Promote balance, strength and flexibility.
  5. Explore.
  6. Release “excess stuff.”
  7. Direct attention inward.
  8. Feel more deeply connected with all of life.
  9. Experience meditation flowing spontaneously.
  10. Balance the energies and forces throughout the body.
  11. Reduce stress.
  12. Increase concentration.
  13. Open energy channels.
  14. Integrate mind and body.
  15. Release impurities.
  16. Increase awareness.

Meditation Flowing Spontaneously

Richard Freeman: It Does Not Destroy Happiness

The great eighth-century yogin and philosopher Shankaracharya said, ‘Yoga asana is that in which meditation flows spontaneously and ceaselessly, not that which destroys happiness.’ In other words, when yoga poses are well aligned, they feel so good internally that the mind is practically stunned with awe, and the breath flows right up the front of the spine into the spacious radiance of the body’s central axis.  – Richard Freeman

Balance Energies

B.K.S. Iyengar: Mastering Yoga

 “Mr. Iyengar, what’s the key to mastering yoga?” He said, “To master yoga, you must balance the energies and forces throughout the body.” To demonstrate, he held up one hand and, with his other pointer finger, indicated the outside of his index finger and then the inside, and so on through all of his fingers and the front and back of his wrist, explaining that the energy should be balanced on both sides. “You have to do this throughout the body in each pose, on each side of each joint, according to the forces needed for each position,” he told me.  – Ray Long, MD

Reduce Stress, Increase Concentration

Larry Payne PhD & Richard Usatine MD: Decrease Stress & Increase Immunity

Many yoga practices counter the fight-or-flight response and invite the body to move in the opposite direction toward peace and calm. Gentle stretching lengthens your muscles, reducing physical tension. Yoga breathing slows your respiration. Inverted postures can help lower your blood pressure by decreasing your heart rate, relaxing your arteries, and reducing levels of the stress hormone noradrenaline. Resting yoga postures allow you to let go of physical and mental effort. Meditative practices help you put fear and anger into perspective. With increased calm and relaxation comes a decrease in your level of cortisol, an adrenal hormone that inhibits immune system function. This keeps your body at optimal alert against disease.

Improve Concentration & Relationships

Students who practice yoga regularly tell me that they find it much easier to become engrossed in their work and to remain undistracted for extended periods. They also report that their intimate relationships improve because they can stay present and available to partners and friends far more readily than before.

Experience Peace Amid Difficulty

In some cases, the practice of yoga works not to eliminate a disorder completely, but to minimize its physical, mental, and emotional impact. A yoga lifestyle can help heal your heart and mind, bringing you to a state of peace and well-being. This is where the true joy of living comes from, and you can have it even if you’re living with chronic illness or disability. –  Larry Payne, Ph.D & Richard Usatine, MD

Open Channels, Integrate Mind & Body

Swami Satyananda Saraswati: Open the Energy Channels & Psychic Centers

In raja yoga, asana refers to the sitting position, but in hatha yoga it means something more. Asanas are specific body positions which open the energy channels and psychic centers. They are tools to higher awareness and provide the stable foundation for our exploration of the body, breath, mind and beyond. The hatha yogis also found that by developing control of the body through asana, the mind is also controlled. Therefore, the practice of asana is foremost in hatha yoga… The ultimate purpose of yoga is the awakening of kundalini shakti, the evolutionary energy in man. Practicing asana stimulates the chakras, distributing the generated energy of kundalini all over the body.

Integrate Mind & Body

The mind and body are not separate entities, although there is a tendency to think and act as though they are. The gross form of the mind is the body and the subtle form of the body is the mind. The practice of asana integrates and harmonizes the two. Both the body and the mind harbor tensions or knots. Every mental knot has a corresponding physical, muscular knot and vice versa. The aim of asana is to release these knots. – Swami Satyananda Saraswati

Release Impurities, Increase Awareness

Nicolai Bachman: Impurities Are Released, Allowing Prana to Flow More Easily

Doing these postures purifies and prepares our body for seated meditation. Our physical health affects our heart-mind and vice versa. As we twist, jump, stretch, and invert all parts of our physique, impurities are churned up and released, allowing our life force (prana) to flow more easily and improving our overall well-being…. The body needs to be strong and pliable to ground the prana flowing through its subtle energy channels. The aim of asana is to reduce any hyperactivity in the nervous system and prepare the body for pranayama. – Nicolai Bachman

Leslie Kaminoff: Stabilize Body in Space

Breath is how we mobilize the spaces in our body. Posture is how we stabilize our bodies in space. – Leslie Kaminoff

Erich Schiffmann: Promote Balance, Strength & Flexibility; An Awareness Process

The physical yoga promotes balance, strength and flexibility. These qualities are invaluable. The more balanced you are, the more centered you will be. The stronger you are, the lighter you will feel. And the more flexible you are, the harder it is for pain and tension to lodge in your body. In becoming balanced, strong and flexible, you actually erase all the tensions andinternal conflicts that would otherwise accumulate and eventually erupt as discomfort or pain in your body and life. Pain and tension are forms of blocked energy. Yoga opens these energy blockages and frees your energy circulation. This makes you feel good and your life runs smoother. The physical yoga, however, is essentially an awareness process wherein you attend to subtle shifts in sensation and feeling. In so doing, you exercise your sensitivity and cultivate the ability to ‘listen’ inwardly. This becomes more and more important as you understand that in listening to your own body and mind you are actually listening to the universe. Listening inwardly allows you to access information you previously had no access to, information that will help you live in a more harmonious and fulfilling way. – Erich Schiffmann

More Perspectives

Foundation for a Deeper Practice

Asana is a foundation for developing a deeper practice, not an end in itself. It helps to balance the body and master the mind in preparation for greater awareness and experience.  – Lacks attribution

Opportunity for Release

As students move into each posture, Baptiste suggests they consider them as “just tools for exploration” and an “opportunity for release.” He notes that poses may bring up emotion and:

Though your instinct may be to stuff these back down, they are coming up now so that you can feel them, finally release them and be free. And, ultimately, being free from your excess “stuff” is what this is all about. – Baron Baptiste

Direct Attention Inward

Connecting the mind, body, and breath helps us to direct our attention inward. Through this process of inward attention, we learn to recognize our habitual thought patterns without labeling them, judging them, or trying to change them. We become more aware of our experiences from moment to moment. The awareness that we cultivate is what makes yoga a practice, rather than a task or a goal to be completed. Your body will most likely become much more flexible by doing yoga, and so will your mind. – Cyndi Lee

Learn How to Focus, Listen & Surrender

[Yoga asana is] learning how to focus and generate energy into different parts of the body, in listening to the body’s messages (feedback), and in surrendering to where the body leads you. – Joel Kramer

Feel the Body as a Microcosm of the Universe

We take the shape of the tree, the fish, the warrior, the turtle, and the sage so that we can begin to understand their essential natures. We can literally feel the wisdom of the sage and the stability of the tree. We can feel the power of the warrior and the steadfastness of the turtle. As a result, we experience ourselves as more deeply connected with all of life around us. Through asana practice we can feel that our body is a microcosm of the universe. – Alanna Kaivalya & Arjuna van der Kooij

See Also