Asana (yoga posture) practice is a process of being present in the moment with a permanent sense of freedom and wholeness that gives us the experience of being fully alive, energized and blissful. As a practice of self-transformation, yoga asanas give us a set of tools to untie those knots that bind us and create patterns of resistance and stagnation deep within us. Joel Kramer states that this ingenious practice consists of learning how to concentrate and generate energy towards different parts of the body, listening to the body’s messages (feedback) and letting yourself go where the body directs you. On the one hand, it is a practice that involves physical precision; however, on the other hand, as Dona Holleman explains, it has a poetic side, in which the body loses its clear dividing line between itself and the space around it, and the asana becomes part of that unified field, the continuous flow of space/time in which we all have our being. In thinking about asana we can identify several important essential elements: being present, relaxing, breathing, grounding, stabilizing, aligning, moving, and energetically engaging. Actually this in an integrated practice (i.e., when we do yoga), these elements cannot be separated, but are part of the whole practice. While the practice is about moving towards these qualities, we also start with the qualities themselves, gradually fine-tuning and refining them through practice.
We can think of yoga asanas as part of the deeper practices of yoga, but they can also be practiced simply as an exercise or as a therapy. Many people in the West practice yoga asanas as an exercise. The practice itself has become the meaning of yoga for them and they associate yoga only with postures. Asanas should not be viewed as just a form of exercise or therapy, as they have a deeper significance in classical yoga. Keep in mind that Yoga should not be reduced to asana alone, as asana is only one part of a larger system. Yoga, which is meditation in the true sense, usually takes place when the body is in a sitting posture. When deep meditation takes place, thoughts disappear over the horizon; the physical body and how it is standing is forgotten. We must remember that many great yogis were not great asana practitioners, for example Swami Vivekananda, who first brought yoga to the West in the last century, was not good at yoga asanas, except for a few sitting postures. Similarly, many people who are good at asana are not adept at deeper yogic practices. Among the different paths of yoga, Jnana Yoga places the least emphasis on asana. From the point of view of this movement, the main issue is the cultivation of attention. Similarly, Bhakti Yoga is not asana-oriented. It emphasizes divine love and the attitude of the heart. Raja Yoga emphasizes meditation and considers asana important only as a prerequisite. Hatha yoga, on the other hand, is the main stream of yoga that uses asana as its primary tool.
Purpose of Asanas
The primary objective of Asanas is to balance the physical body through a variety of postures and movements. They incorporate various forms of stationary stances and physical exercises which are effective in releasing tension, improving flexibility, maximizing energy flow and reducing friction. The purpose of the asana is to unblock energy flow and focus the mind internally. But this energy flow can also be focused on the body to treat illness. Our physical stance has a direct impact on our well-being, vitality, and awareness. The mind-body complex is made up of various interconnected channels, from the one that carries food to the one that carries thoughts. The musculoskeletal system holds together the channels of energy in the body, and our posture shapes it. An improper posture creates stress, leading to constrictions that block the proper flow of energy through these channels. This interference with the flow of energy and nutrients results in the accumulation of toxins and waste materials, leading to discomfort, reduced functioning, pain and disease. Blockages in energy flow can lead to physical discomfort and impair bodily functions, potentially causing pain and illness. Yoga asanas has a tremendous therapeutic effect on the body and mind, our physical constitution, life force and creative intelligence. Unfortunately, many of us today ignore our posture and do very little to improve flexibility. Whatever exercises we do, they are usually somewhat challenging and stressful. Aerobic exercises such as running or lifting weights can sometimes cause more tension to build up and only provide a one-way improvement. Anyone who works at an office desk, especially in today’s computerized world, tends to sit badly. Anyone who does a job that requires them to do uniform physical activity will have a posture that is skewed in the direction of their work. Often our comfortable recliners also distort our posture when relaxing or watching television.
In Aldous Huxley’s utopian novel The Island, Will Farnaby, a journalist who has survived a shipwreck, arrives on the fictional coast of Pala. Will is a Westerner whose cluttered mind is far from aware of where he is, let alone “what’s what.” As he scales the island’s desolate jungle-covered cliffs, the words “attention, attention” and “here and now, boys, here and now,” echo from several directions. Your adventure will eventually lead you to discover that the voice belongs to a particularly erudite tropical bird chanting mantras in the heart of Pala’s ecological Taoist Buddhist and Tantric culture. The idea of “being here now,” which is how Ram Das would later title a book that was popular in the 1960s, is the starting point of yoga asanas practice: focusing one’s attention fully and directly on what is happening in the moment, in this place, in this body, in this breath, in this sensation.
The intensity of many styles of yoga asanas practice can seem anything but relaxing because of the effort required to do certain asanas or asana sequences. This common dissociation of effort and comfort, rather than their integration, arises primarily from the idea of relaxation associated with leaving the body completely relaxed. In relation to the yoga asana practice, relaxation refers to the ability to release nervous tension while remaining actively engaged in the necessary muscular and energetic actions required to maintain proper alignment. This involves finding a balance between letting go of unnecessary tension while still actively participating in the movements and positioning of the body. By releasing nervous tension, students can work intensely with purposeful determination while integrating effort and comfort in a way that allows the body to open in a stable manner during asana. The integration of effort and comfort in expanding and deepening body awareness requires practice. The key is to examine what it takes to support the skeletal structure without exerting too much effort and to be aware of the entire body.
Conscious breathing is both the most important part of asana and often the most elusive. Breathing nourishes and guides the asana practice. In the normal course of life, conscious breathing tends to disappear from our awareness in the midst of everything else that is going on, including the natural tendency to lose focus and allow attention to wander away from the “here” and “now”. In Patanjali’s Yoga sutras we can see the emphasis on breathing immediately following the definition of the word asana as “sthira sukham asanam” and the use of the word prayatna, which is usually translated literally as “effort”. The fundamental idea is to continuously connect the breath to the body and mind while exploring asana practice through breath stability and comfort.
Grounding and Radiating with Energy Currents
When we stand or sit without paying attention to posture, we tend to connect with the earth in a passive way. The result is that the body sinks into itself, the joints compress and the body slumps and sags. But the moment you consciously root yourself into whatever is in the ground, the immediate result is that bodily spaciousness is created. This relationship between roots and extension, which Dona Holleman calls the “rebound effect,” is an expression of the “normal force ” which is explained by Isaac Newton’s third law of motion: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. To the extent that you apply force through an intentional muscular action (for example, by pressing your feet more firmly into the ground while standing), there is the “equal and opposite reaction” of energy moving up the body. Yoga teacher Chuck Miller, underlining the importance of awareness in discovering the basic elements of each asana, has defined it as the purpose of seeking the origin of each action. By grounding ourselves we naturally stimulate muscle tension and create space through the joints, particularly through the spine, establishing the foundation of structural stability and comfort that becomes more important as students move into more and more advanced asana. The specific point or points vary in the different asanas, but the practice of establishing and exploring from the base of this foundation is maintained throughout.
While maintaining this initial foundation, practitioners can find greater stability and comfort in the yoga asanas by consciously feeling what Joel Kramer termed as “energy currents”. By radiating outward from the core to the periphery, these energy currents expand your body from the inside out in all directions creating amplitude while maintaining stability by drawing the body’s muscular support system into the skeletal structure. Consciously sending energy currents through the body is one way to emphasize the principle of roots and extension. Practitioners can apply this technique in various ways by exploring the level of intensity that is appropriate to their personal practice, listening to the body-breathing-mind as feedback that suggests when, where and how to intensely move energy through the body. By applying the concepts of grounding-irradiation, rooting-expanding, and energy currents outlined above, we can identify various actions in which the body moves in opposite directions. This is an essential part of the foundation of the asanas and their adjustments, as it creates space and relaxes pressure on the joints, while allowing for the freer and more conscious movement of subtle energy. Opposing movements, or dual actions, are guided through connected instructions that guide students into an alignment that creates balance, stability, and balance.
General Properties of Asanas
For the purposes of sequencing, the asanas have been classified into families within which they share postural characteristics and functional anatomical behaviors. The various families of Asanas have different properties and effects, and it’s important to examine the specific properties of individual Asanas and their relationship with other postures. Some Asanas may fit into more than one category, and the classification may seem arbitrary. Asanas are usually classified in their respective families. In addition to these families, there are two other categories: Surya Namaskaras (sun salutations), a combination of asanas from several families but widely considered a separate element of the asana practice. Since the majority of asanas contain components that satisfy multiple categories of criteria, such a scheme may appear somewhat arbitrary or questionable. Such is the case with Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward dog), clearly a forward bend (which stretches the back of the body), a hip opener (it requires 90° of hip flexion), an arm-supporting posture (the position of the hands, arms, shoulders and torso borders on hand-support), and an upright posture (as the weight is gradually shifted to the feet and the active legs create support for the lengthening of the spine). There are some asanas that fall into two or three of the families of hip opening, forward bending, and twisting. Not to mention a multitude of variations among the asanas that add to the already blurred boundaries between these families. And yet, the distinctions thus established are widely recognized by the mainstream of the worldwide yogic community. They provide a starting point for clearly identifying the interrelationships among the asanas. When a posture qualifies for more than one family, I have placed it in one and explained the reason for my choice.
They are the physical foundation of a powerful anchor throughout the asana practice. Students begin to experience the upward support provided by a solid foundation through their legs, pelvis, spine, arms, and heads as soon as they stand up. They also discover how strong a stable foundation feels with the activation of the bandha pada in their feet. With the addition of Sthira (stability, intent, and strength) and Sukham (comfort or quiet joy) to the standing postures, the practitioner begins to experience Samasthiti (standing evenly), an invocation of an attitude and awareness of equanimity when one feels the connection of body, breath, mind and spirit. As they develop this sense of equanimity, practitioners incorporate within themselves the idea of how the clarity of being is dependent on being grounded. They then proceed with greater ease and joy in their yoga practice and daily life. Standing postures fall into two categories: 1-Externally pivoted femurs, 2- Neutral or internally pivoted femurs. The externally rotated standing asanas generally stretch the inner groin and thighs while strengthening the external rotators and abductors. Inwardly rotated standing asanas generally strengthen the adductors and internal rotators while stretching the external rotators and abductors (neutral rotation is close to internal rotation in its actions and effects, but the rotational effort is very light).
Standing poses strengthen the pelvic girdle and each weight-bearing leg. They provide an opportunity to address the instinctive fear of falling as we shift to a more stable balance. As we discover how the feet are connected to the legs, pelvis, spine, heart center, head, and arms, and ultimately to the breath and mind, these asanas teach us a lot about how to integrate the practice. Standing asanas are the best family for warming up and opening the whole body in preparation for more complex asanas when practiced after the initial warm-up and awakening movements (such as cat and dog pose, Surya Namaskara, or Kapalbhati Pranayama). They are energetic stimulators, contributing to the concentration of the mind and the awakening of the body in the implementation of the practice.
Arm Supporting Asanas
Balancing the body on the hands requires absolute concentration. During their asana practice, this takes practitioners deep into the meditative state of Dharana (concentration of the mind). Balancing on the arms also provokes in them the perfectly rational fear of falling -a fear inextricably linked to the ego and at least the desire to appear in control of oneself. Because of this, arm balances are the ideal family of asanas for improving self-assurance and humility. These asanas are the ideal way to question the practice with humor and a playful approach because most practitioners will struggle with at least some of these balances. Patience and repetition, as with any asana, will make them easier to access and repeat, whereas impatience invariably leads to frustration and even injury. The wrists are most at risk in all arm support asanas. People with severe wrist injuries, including carpal tunnel syndrome, should not perform the entire asana. Those with even a slight wrist strain are advised to limit the pressure on the joint and wear a tight hand accessory until they are pain free. Before attempting any arm balances, everyone should have enough wrist range of motion to place their palms flat on the floor and move their forearms perpendicular to the mat without pain. While arm balances require strength and stability in the shoulders, arms, and wrists, they also activate and awaken the abdominal muscles. The abdominal work done before the arm balances will help students create the feeling of power and radiation from their central core. However, balances on the arms also require the flexibility of this core, not tense or contracted muscles. Achieving this balance between active engagement and radiant core energy is one of the keys to balancing the body on the hands.
Backward Tilting Asanas
In the name of the deep stretching of the entire front of the body, especially the center of the heart, the belly and both groins, the backward bends elicit a passionate response from the students. “Passion” tends to be both a boundless effort and a fearful refusal, giving everyone a new opportunity to achieve equanimity in these two emotional responses. The primary physical objective of the backward bends is to open up the fullness of movement of breath and energy to the front of the body, not to seek the stretch in itself for the sake of glory. The asanas of the backward inclination family are an important part of any yoga practice. These asanas are characterized by their focus on moving the body in a backward direction and can provide a wide range of benefits for the body and mind. To help practitioners understand and select the most appropriate asanas for their specific needs and goals, these asanas are appropriately classified into three main categories: contraction, traction and leverage inclination. Contraction asanas, as the name suggests, focus on contracting specific muscle groups. These asanas are great for building strength, toning the muscles and improving overall muscle endurance. They are also known to improve balance and stability. Examples of contraction asanas include the locust pose, bow pose and the cobra pose. Traction asanas, on the other hand, involve stretching and lengthening the muscles. These asanas help to increase flexibility, reduce muscle tension and improve overall body mobility. They are also known to improve posture and breathing. Examples of traction asanas include the camel pose, wheel pose and the fish pose. Finally, leverage asanas use the body’s own strength and weight to create a specific movement or action. These asanas are great for building core strength, balance and stability. They are also known to improve overall body coordination and control. Examples of leverage asanas include the bridge pose, the plow pose and the shoulder stand.
They penetrate deliciously deep into the central core, stimulating and toning the internal organs, starting with the kidneys and liver. They open the chest, shoulders, neck, and hips, and they give the spine flexibility and freedom of movement. Active supine twists, such as belly twist, strengthen the abdominal oblique muscles, the group most involved in many of the asanas that involve a twisting motion. Regular twisting will help maintain normal elongation and tone in the soft tissues of the spine, as well as the condition of the spinal discs and joint surfaces of the spine, restoring its natural range of motion. A beautiful poetic image full of irony: by twisting our body in all directions like a pretzel, we release the physical and emotional tension accumulated within us. As a bonus to this release of tension, the twists tend to give the “body-mind” a more neutral sattvic state. Therefore, they are not of a nature to warm up or to cool down, they provide both benefits: they warm up if they produce their effects in an organism of a relatively cooled nature, they cool down the states of being rather warmed up. Qualities that allow us to place the twists at various moments of any sequence.
Forward Bending Asanas
These asanas, which immerse us in the inner mysteries and dynamics of our lives, are deeply calming. The classic seated forward bend, translates from Sanskrit literally as “stretching posture” in the west, an allusion to the sunrise of a practice traditionally begun facing the rising sun. In this case, when we bend into ourselves, the asana naturally opens us up to greater self-reflection that can either nourish us spiritually or hinder us, depending on what comes out. We stay in this position during the nine months of pregnancy, and it is in this same fetal position that we return to feed or protect ourselves. Through the stimulation of the pelvis and abdominal organs, the subtle energy effects of forward bending are concentrated in the lower chakras, often bringing to the surface core emotions buried deep within our bodies. Students will be able to safely analyze their feelings if they hold these bends for at least a few minutes while improving the flow of their breath. The vulnerable back of our bodies, the majority of which we will never see directly, is stretched and made visible when we lean forward. And just as it is often most frightening to throw ourselves into the unknown of backbends, we tend to use our back muscles to limit our forward bends. In order to fully relax and let go in this posture, it is important to release tension in a comprehensive chain of muscles that run throughout the body, beginning with the plantar fascia in the feet, and continuing up through the Achilles tendons, gastrocnemius and soleus muscles at the bottom of the legs, the hamstrings and adductors located in the back and inner thighs, the gluteus maximus, piriformis and iliopsoas muscles at the back of the pelvis and core of the lower back. Additionally, it is important to release tension in the muscles that run along the back, such as the erector spinae, multifidus, and lumbar muscles. Ensuring the release of all these muscles is crucial for achieving a full, complete release in this posture. A movement that requires taking its time, the one for the back of the back to progressively relax and allow the forward bend to show all its amenity. If the movement is forced in a hurry, there is a great risk that the hamstrings or the lower back will be injured. Students with spinal injuries should try forward bending with knowledge and patience.
Hip Opener Asanas
The family of hip openers includes seated, back, and stomach positions, in addition to the majority of standing asanas and all forward bends. The hips are the key to our earthly mobility when they are stable and open. Yet, sitting on chairs all our lives and engaging in intense athletic activity are just as likely, through the combination of our genetic characteristics, to result in our hips being one of the most fixed parts of our body: we are limited in range of motion, potentially handicapped in our lower back. Opening our hips therefore becomes one of the essential levers to safely practice backbends, pronounced forward bends, as well as to sit effortlessly in Padmasana (the lotus position) or any other cross-legged position during meditation. Keep an eye out for knee pressure as you perform the hip openers. The majority of postures that stretch the hip muscles will put pressure on the knees when the pelvis and feet come to rest in the position, increasing the risk of ligament sprains or strains. Standing asanas, bends, and flexes have multiple benefits that can be realized through a balanced practice that targets all of the associated muscles. This can help develop and maintain a healthy range of motion.
Effects of the Asanas
Regular yoga practice leads to a gradual resolution of spinal misalignment and the resulting vertebral blockages. The undisturbed circulation of the cerebrospinal fluid (fluid in which the spinal cord and brain are embedded) is an important condition for harmonious organ function and energy flow.
Several subgroups of cultivating asanas are distinguished as can be seen below.
Asanas that act primarily on the spine:
Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose), Shalabhasana (Grasshopper Pose), Dhanurasana (Bow Pose), Ardha-Matsyendrasana (Half Fishe Pose), Chakrasana (Upward Bow Pose), Vakrasana (Twisted Pose), Ustrasana (Camel Pose) etc. It is true that almost all asanas affect the spine. However, under this group we specifically mean those exercises that mainly act on ligaments, tendons, joints, muscles and associated nerves of the spine.
Vajrasana (Thunderbolt Pose), Baddha Padmasana (Locked Lotus Pose), Supta-Vajrasana (Reclined Thunderbolt Pose), Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose), Padahastasana (Hand Under Foot Pose), Matsyasana (Fish Pose), Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), Bhadrasana (Gracious Pose), etc. These postures primarily affect different proprioceptive mechanisms of the muscles responsible for movement of the bones. Stimulation of the proprioceptors (spindle-like organelles in muscles, ligaments and joints that mediate stretch stimuli) results in the triggering of stretch reflexes.
Visceral receptor-acting asanas:
Ardha-Matsyendrasana (Half Fishe Pose), Halasana (Plough Pose), Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), Supta-Vajrasana (Reclined Thunderbolt Pose), Pavanamuktasana (Half Wind-Relieving Pose), Mayurasana (Peacock Pose), etc. The visceral organs (innards) are very responsive to pressure changes in the abdominal cavity. The visceroceptors in the walls of these organs send impulses to the autonomic nervous system when stimulated.
Asanas that act on the vestibular organs (balance):
Kukkutasana (Rooster Pose), Sarvangasana (Shoulder Stand Pose), Viparita-Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose), Shirshasana (Headstand Pose), Padahastasana (Hand Under Foot Pose), Bakasana (Crane Pose), Garudasana (Eagle Pose), Vrischikasana (Scorpion Pose), etc. These asanas act mainly on and through the vestibular organs, which include the vestibular organs. These organs regulate the balance of the body. These asanas also affect circulation and blood pressure regulating mechanisms.