“Prior to everything, asana is spoken of as the first part of Hatha Yoga. Having done asana one gets steadiness of the body and mind, diseaselessness and lightness of the limbs.” – Hatha Yoga Pradeepika Chapter 1, Verse 17
Asana is the practice of physical postures. Yoga is about bringing symmetry, union and harmony to body and mind. Bringing alignment to the body through asana practice equally contributes to a balanced mind.
There are various systems and traditions of asana practice. It is important to balance strength, flexibility and stamina by practicing a variety of styles so we don’t get conditioned in the limitations of a single tradition. Each system has a particular focus and something unique to offer.
Hatha Yoga Asana practice was originally taught in India as a helpful preparation for meditation, where we sit in a steady pose for extended periods of time whilst remaining comfortable. The Sanskrit term ‘asana’ means ‘to sit down’, and this is how Patanjali refers to it in the third step of his eightfold path.
‘Shtira sukham asanam’ – Asana is a stable, comfortable posture. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Book 2, Verse 46.
In total there are considered to be 84,000 asana variants. It is said in the Vedas that originally there were as many asanas as there were animal species and many postures are named after animals as they cultivate the special qualities found in nature. For example Eagle posture (Garudasana) develops focus, stability and strength, the qualities represented by an eagle when it is poised in mid air targeting its prey many meters below. Crocodiles have enormous strength in their abdomen and tail and Crocodile posture (Makarasana) strengthens the stomach muscles and thighs.
Asanas are divided into five main categories
Asana keeps the body supple and healthy by working on seven different internal systems
- Excretory system
- Reproductive & urinary system
- Digestive system
- Cardiorespiratory system
- Cranial nervous system
- Autonomous nervous system / central nervous system
Practicing a particular series of asanas benefits each of these systems. Sitting postures for instance work on the reproductive and urinary system, standing postures on the spinal column and the ANS, prone postures on the digestive system and supine postures on the cranial nervous system. Through therapeutic yoga, we can treat any area of the body that is affected by illness with a range of suitable asanas.
In traditional yoga, asana is practiced in a sequence that addresses the different areas systematically, respecting the elements of which we are comprised: earth, water, fire, air, space, consciousness and super consciousness. We create a flow of energy upwards from one plexus (chakra) to the next, from muladara chakra at the base of the spine, to sahasrara chakra at the crown of the head. We follow this journey from the most solid element through to the finest by starting with standing and balancing postures to elongate the spine and to prepare and warm the body. These are followed by sitting postures, prone postures, supine postures and inversions before the final relaxation in Savasana.
Traditionally, each of these five categories is sub divided into a series of ‘vargas’, which means a group of postures. Each varga works on a particular system of the body and one varga leads to the next. Within each varga, there is a specified sequence of asanas that also works in a flow. We balance the vargas in order to work on all the systems equally, therefore creating overall balance within the body.
More about Vargas
The traditional sequence of asanas
- First we practice standing postures. They work at the level of the muscular skeletal system. Within the body, the bones have the highest density and are the heaviest matter. These postures balance the earth element.
- Second come sitting postures that move energy upwards from the coccygeal to the sacral plexus. They work on the excretory, urinary and reproductive system balancing the solid and liquid elements.
- Third we practice prone postures, lying on the stomach. These work on the solar plexus and cardiac plexus, moving energy upwards through the digestive and then circulatory and respiratory systems, balancing the fire and air elements.
- Fourth are supine postures, practiced lying down on the back. Supine postures work on the cardiac plexus, followed by the pharyngeal and forehead plexus, moving energy through the circulatory/ respiratory system, autonomous nervous system and pineal and pituitary gland. These balance the air, space and consciousness elements.
- Fifth we practice inverted postures, working on the hypothalamus centre and the central nervous system. These are a preparation for developing supramundane consciousness through the practice of Raja Yoga.