Asana is the third limb of yoga, which is responsible for our physical body. It is important because body discipline is as necessary for a person as discipline of the mind. As the body becomes stronger and healthier, it gradually returns to its natural state. The functioning of all organs and systems are adjusted and, consequently, a person’s mental health is improved. You just feel happier.
Patanjali did not mention any specific asanas in the Yoga Sutras, being confined to three brief but succinct Sutras.
“[Asana is] a steady and comfortable posture”
At first, this definition brings a smile to every beginner. However, when you master the basic postures well, you will perfectly understand what the “Father of Yoga” had in mind.
“[Asana is achieved] upon loosening tension and focusing attention on infinity”
Comfort and stability (referred to in the previous Sutra) is the result of ceasing efforts after entering into an asana. One simple way to make such an achievement is to reach the limit and to retreat a little. Meditation on infinity means dropping all thoughts, concentrating in order to be aware of one’s condition, and expanding this focus to infinity. First, beginners may be advised to concentrate on the breathing process and to move on, starting from this point.
“Thereby, [we achieve] the freedom from suffering [caused by] the pairs of opposites”
The pairs of opposites are hot/cold, tension/relaxation, softness/hardness, pain/pleasure, and good/evil. It is human nature to chase after what is good and to run from that which is bad; however, in this race, man constantly faces non-ideality, which causes suffering. Balancing in the field of the golden mean is a way to reduce the impact of opposites. As for the practical application of asanas, please begin by working with pairs, such as pain/pleasure and tension/relaxation.
It all started with these Sutras, although the well-known lists of asanas appeared later. Usually, about 100 basic asanas are practiced in yoga classes, and this is more than sufficient.
According to a 2008 study, doctors and therapists recommended yoga to 14 million Americans. Let us briefly review the major systems of the human body and the effects of asanas on them.
- In just a few months, your musculoskeletal system will show amazing flexibility and lightness throughout the body. The body is literally reborn.
- It has been proven that the best choice for the circulatory (cardiovascular) system is aerobic exercises. Asanas are different from these; however, their beneficial effect on your heart and blood vessels are achieved in another way. They increase blood circulation and decrease levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in one’s body. This system also offers benefits from weight loss, which is due to the fact that the body’s metabolism is normalized and that one only eats when really hungry (that is, when the body wants to do this, rather than when the mind wants to).
- Unlike the circulatory system, the lymphatic system has no pump of its own and needs help. Stretching, compression, and twisting (the so-called ‘static load’) are perfect for “pumping” lymph.
- Problems with the nervous system, which are directly caused by stress, mostly result from imbalance in the activity of the sympathetic and parasympathetic functions. Simply put, the first is responsible for exciting the nervous system while the second is responsible for relaxation. Medical research and feedback from diligent practitioners of asana and pranayama confirm the positive effect.
- The respiratory system is the domain of pranayama, about which you can read more here.
- The activities of organs in the digestive system and glands in the endocrine system
The mechanisms of asanas’ impacts on the human body have not yet been completely studied, but much scientific research has confirmed their comprehensive health benefits. A brief overview of several dozen publications on this topic, entitled “Health Impacts of Yoga and Pranayama: A State-of-the-Art Review”, can be found in the medical database PabMed following the link.
- Practice asanas only on an empty stomach (minimum 3-4 hours after meals). You can and should drink, but only before or after class. Disconnect the phone and all means of communication.
- Follow the structure and the sequence of the asana formation exactly. Listen carefully to the instructor.
- The asana is fulfilled upon exhaling. Enter the asana slowly and evenly.
- Pain is inevitable; it teaches you about bodily weaknesses and indicates the direction for growth. But you need to distinguish between constructive pain and pain that indicates your limit.
- Stretch yourself out of the center, and create a space inside.
- Upon fulfilling the asana, reach your limit but do not overcome it. Find the point of stability and balance, and stay there for the required time.
- Keep breathing smoothly and calmly.
- Relax your face and neck muscles, open your jaw, and relax your tongue.
- Keep your eyes open, but do not focus on external objects; look inside yourself.
- Be aware of your body in the asana; be here and now.
Commonly, yoga practice begins with asana as the most external of all external aspects of yoga. Many people limit their practice at the same point. We cannot say that this is bad, because even a single limb offers many benefits, such as strength, health, stamina, immunity, concentration, and awareness. But imagine that this is only one-eighth of the whole flower.