What is Asana?

What is Asana?

Over the past few months, we have been exploring the yamas and niyamas, the moral principles and qualities that form part of the philosophy of a “yogic” lifestyle. The yamas and niyamas form the beginning of ashtanga yoga, or the eight-limbed path. Small-a “ashtanga” is different from, although related to, large-A “Ashtanga.” The first is a traditional yoga pathway that leads towards enlightenment, or Samadhi, while the second is a specific sequence of poses that was created and spread by K. Patthabi Jois.

This series of articles, which began by going through the yamas and niyamas, will explore the rest of the eight limbs, beginning with Asana. Stay tuned over the following months while we break down each of the limbs in detail!

What is an Asana?

Asana is probably the part of yoga that you are most familiar with, as it is the entry point for most people into the system of yoga. Asanas are usually defined as physical yoga postures like Warrior 1 or Downward Dog, although there is more to the term than that.

Asana is the third “limb” of ashtanga yoga as defined by Patanjali, an unknown sage who wrote the Yoga Sutras. The Sutras are a collection of 196 aphorisms that include a description of the eight-fold or eight-limbed path of ashtanga yoga. Asana originally referred only to a single pose: seated with the legs crossed comfortably.

So how did all these poses come about?

The goal of Asana practice, according to Patanjali and the sages and scholars who followed him (her? them?), is to ready the body for meditation. Patanjali advised that “sthira sukham asanam“: the yogi’s seated posture should be steady and comfortable. Of course, everyone has aches, discomforts, and imbalances, so moving through yoga postures, or Asanas, helps to address those imbalances so you can sit comfortably and meditate without your body distracting you.

Sthira and sukha are essential properties of an Asana practice. Sthira means “steady” or “grounded,” and sukha means “comfortable,” “ease-ful,” or “peaceful.” Within an Asana practice, every pose should be both grounded and peaceful – and therein lies the challenge.

In order to make the poses steady and comfortable, you need to be flexible enough to get into a version of the pose and strong enough to perform the pose. Imbalances, tension, injuries, and habitual movements and thought patterns will all prevent you from sitting in a pose in a steady and comfortable way.

Most of the goal of holding a pose in a steady, peaceful way has to do with the breath, and that’s why you’ll hear your yoga teacher constantly asking you to return to your breath. Your breath will always tell you how your body is reacting to a certain shape; for example, go too far past your edge into a physically challenging pose and you’ll start to hold your breath automatically. Everyone’s “edge” is different; it depends on your body and daily habits.

Discomfort and holding your breath can come up for different reasons; they don’t have to happen only because you are in a physically challenging posture. Sometimes, a simple stretch can trigger your fight-or-flight response for various reasons, and that will always be reflected in faster breath and heartbeat. Your body may also react to stillness or grounding with a reaction of aversion, particularly if there is something on your mind that you would rather avoid.

When your breath constricts or stops within your Asana practice, it’s always worth noting and adjusting to a place where you can breath steadily and easily. The eight-limbed path is not about getting into the deepest Warrior 2; it’s about making your body comfortable so you can peacefully meditate.

Asana in your yoga practice

You’re likely already practicing Asana in your yoga practice, unless your practice primarily consists of Savasana (which is technically still an Asana!). But practicing the shapes is not necessarily yoga unless you are focusing on practicing each Asana in a steady, comfortable way. In yoga, we don’t generally believe in the “no pain, no gain” mentality that characterizes most exercise platforms; instead, the goal of a practice should be to listen to your body and practice within your edge instead of pushing past it.

Next time you go to practice, try sitting in a meditative posture before class and notice how your body is feeling. What would you need to do to get more comfortable in this position? Do your back muscles need to be stronger? Do you need to open in the hips? See if you can use that information to inform your practice.

As always, talk to your yoga teacher if you have any questions. Happy practicing!