What Are Yoga Asanas?

You might have heard the term before, but what are they really?

Asana is a Sanskrit term which is often translated as “posture” or “pose.” Asana can also be translated as “a steady, comfortable seat,” particularly for the purpose of meditation.

Many people equate asana with the act of performing fancy, advanced poses. However, anyone of any level of experience can practice (whether beginner, intermediate, or advanced). Individual asanas can also be modified to suit all practice needs and desires.

Why Practice Postures?

In the contemporary world where many of us are perpetually on the go, practice can slow us down and help us bridge disconnections between the body, mind, and breath. It can also be practiced to increase strength and flexibility, improve balance and core strength, and bring a sense of mindfulness into our everyday lives. Scientific research is also suggesting that a regular practice can provide the following benefits:

Relieving chronic pain

Teaching you to control your respiration

Improving sleep and self-reported quality of life

Reducing anxiety and depression

Styles of Practice

Tirumalai Krishnamacharya is commonly referred to as the founder of modern postural yoga. He is credited for reviving hatha practices in India, and he was the teacher of some of the most influential yogis of the 20th century: T.K.V. Desikachar (his son), Pattabhi Jois, and B.K.S Iyengar.

Both Krishnamacharya and his son Desikachar took a fully customizable approach to asana by adapting their teachings to suit the individual and providing one-on-one instruction. Desikachar went on to found the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram—a center for yoga therapy that continued his father’s teachings. Jois founded Ashtanga Yoga, which is known for its breath-focused, progressive sequences. Iyengar founded Iyengar Yoga, which is known for its innovative approach to props. Iyengar invented new ways to modify poses, making them more effective and accessible for all types of practitioners and levels of experience. (You can learn more about props and their application here.)

Other styles include Jivamukti (founded by Sharon Gannon and David Life), Forrest Yoga (founded by Ana Forrest), Bikram (founded by Bikram Choudhury), Kundalini (the most widespread form was founded by Yogi Bhajan), and more.

Philosophical Background

Yoga asana is the third limb of the eight-limbed path outlined in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali—a seminal yogic text. The eight limbs are: the yamas and niyamas (moral and ethical codes), asanas (postures), pranayama (breathwork), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (spiritual absorption).

Chapter 2, verse 46 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra states that asana should strike a balance between steadiness and ease (sthira-sukham asanam). Practice shouldn’t be painful. If you are experiencing an excess of emotional and/or physical discomfort during your practice, either come out of the pose you’re doing, or ask your teacher how you can adjust the pose to suit your body and your practice needs. It could also be that you’re attempting an asana practice that is too advanced. If you’re new to asana, start with a beginner’s class.

Pose Names

Many poses have Sanskrit names and these pose names often describe the pose’s appearance. For example, one can see that adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog) emulates a dog stretching. And trikonasana, or triangle pose, asks the practitioner to take on a triangular shape. Utthita hasta padangusthasana means hand to big toe pose, and this standing pose literally involves just that: extending one leg and grabbing your foot with your hand (and you can always use a strap if you can’t reach). Also: Don’t feel too overwhelmed by the Sanskrit. You don’t have to know the Sanskrit name of each pose, or any Sanskrit at all to practice them. Allow your teacher to guide you through the experience and gradually you’ll become more and more proficient in this practice.

Starting Your Practice

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