A Deeper Understanding of Yoga Asanas

I thought explaining the Sanskrit word "asana" would be fairly straightforward. However, like many aspects of yoga, even the term asana has many different meanings, levels of complexity and types. In modern times, especially here in the West, we think of asanas simply as poses or the physical practice performed during a yoga class.

The father of yoga, Maharishi Patanjali, defined asanas as that which gives “bliss and comfort”. He classified yoga practices in two categories: Bahirang Yoga and Antrang Yoga. All visible practices of yoga, including Yama (restraints), Niyama (observances), Asana, Pranayama (breath) and Pratayahara (withdrawl of the senses) are Bahirang Yoga, which literally means External Yoga. Antrang Yoga includes the meditation practices of Dharna (intense focus), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (the state of oneness). These are the Internal Yoga practices.

Thus, asanas are one type of Bahirang yoga or the external/outer aspect of yoga, which is a primary part of a modern yoga class, and some classes may also involve some pranayama (breathing).

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali defines asana as seated in a position that is “firm, but relaxed” or “steady and comfortable”. Patanjali mentions the ability to sit for extended periods of time as one of the eight limbs of yoga, which is known as ashtanga (8) yoga. Asanas are the third limb called “Raja Yoga”. This should not be confused with “Ashtanga Yoga”, which is a specific system of yoga developed by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, India. When asanas or physical movements are combined with pranayama, breathing techniques this is a style of yoga called Hatha Yoga.

The three types of asanas are Dhyanatmaka asana or meditative asanas, Sharira Sanvardhanatmaka or energizing asanas and Vishramatmaka asana or relaxing asanas.

The first type of asana is Dhyanatmaka asanas or seated positions, which can lead into Dhyana or meditation. These seated asanas allows the flow of energy through the chakras to move upward. Examples of these seated asanas are siddhasana (master’s pose), padmasana (lotus pose), swastikasana (ankle-lock pose), vajrasana (steel pose), and sukhasana (easy pose).

The second type of asana is Sharira Sanvardhanatmaka or energizing asanas. These asana are commonly practiced in a typical yoga class, which is one reason we in the west think of yoga as a form of exercise. These poses are divided into 8 groups. Gatyatmak asana or dynamic poses (example: surya namaskar- the sun salutations); Viparita sthiti asana or inverted poses (shirshasana-headstand or sarangasana-shoulder stand); Purvi asana or forward bending poses (padahastasana-standing forward fold); Purva Pratana sthiti or backward bending poses (ushtrasana -camel pose, bhujangasana-cobra pose); Parivartta sthiti asana or twisting poses (ardha matsyendrasana); Parshv sthiti asana or side bending poses ( trikonasana-triangle pose, chandrasana-half moon); Uttihista sthiti asana or standing poses (tadasana-mountain pose); santulan sthiti asana or balancing poses (tiryaka tadansa).

The third types of asana is Vishramatmaka asana or relaxing poses, which require no effort by the mind or the body. The body is without tension and has become relaxed. Examples of these would be savasana-yoga sleep pose, balasana-child pose, and makarasana-crocodile pose.

As previously stated, there is quite a bit of depth to explaining asanas, so I think I’ll just close by saying have a great yoga practice, focus, don’t judge yourself or others and of course…. Namaste!

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