Part of our “Eight Limbs of Yoga” series
Asana, the third of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, refers to the physical postures of yoga. The asana practiced in yoga classes today is almost recognisable from the asana taught in ancient times. Despite that, there is still plenty to learn from the ancient teachings about asana.
This article explores what the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali can teach us about the principles of asana, the role of the breath and why there are so many poses. A separate article explores practicing asana with MS and other limitations.
The traditional function of asana was to prepare the body to sit for long periods in meditation. It was a preparatory practice for exploring the other limbs of the eightfold path. These days, the physical postures are often treated as the goal in and of itself. People go to yoga classes to be stronger and more flexible. While still an admirable and important goals, there is much more to asana, and we have to go back to the Yoga Sutras to remember that.
2.46. Sthirasukhamasanam – asana must have the dual qualities of alertness and relaxation
2.47. Prayatnasaithilyanantasamapattibhyam – these qualities can be achieved by recognising and observing the reactions of the body and the breath to the various postures that comprise asana practice. Once known these reactions can be controlled step-by-step.
2.48. Tato dvandvanabhighatah – when these principles are correctly followed, asana practice will help a person endure and even minimise the external influences on the body such as age, climate, diet and work.Translation from T.K.V. Desikachar, The Heart of Yoga
Even in ancient times, Patanjali and his contemporaries thought about asana in the context of the health benefits. They talked about mitigating the impact of “age, climate, diet and work”, just like any modern health magazine. But, the crucial difference between then and now is the focus on how each pose feels. Many of today’s Instagram yogis seem all too focused on how each pose looks instead.
The qualities of asana
The Yoga Sutras describe two important qualities that should be present in all poses. The practice of the yogi is to keep these two qualities in balance, while moving into different posses. After all, if the goal was to be able to sit still for long periods of time, maintaining balance in the body is essential.
- Sthira – this is a sense of steadiness or alertness
- Sukha – this is a sense of ease and comfort
When sthira and sukha are balanced in a pose, the muscles of the body are alert and engaged, but with no pain. The best way to understand these qualities is to explore an example.
Seated Forward Fold – Paschimottanasana
Moving into the pose
To perform a seated forward fold, take a seat on the floor with your legs out in front of you. Gently pull your buttocks out to the sides and press your pelvic bones into the floor. Stretch up from the base of your spine and fold forward from your hips. Reach your hands forward and grasp your trousers, ankles or feet.
What you should be feeling
You should feel the forward movement from your pelvis and hips initially, and not your lower back. As you lower your knees and press your legs towards the ground, you should feel a stretch in your hamstrings.
Sthira and sukha
If you have tight hamstrings, hips or a large belly, the best version of this pose for you may be only a forward tilt of 10-20 degrees. This may be far enough for you, where you are balancing an alert body with a sense of comfort and ease. You are at the threshold of your comfort zone, so you feel challenged, but you don’t feel pain and aren’t at risk of injury. Sthira and sukha are in balance.
If you have the body of a ballerina, you may be able to comfortably fold forward so far that your torso rests on your legs and you can grasp your feet. In this case, sthira and sukha are not balanced, as you may be too relaxed to feel any sense of effort. In which case, you could look at adaptations or alternative poses to increase sthira and make your muscles work slightly harder.
The goal for everyone practicing asana should be to balance sthira and sukha in different poses. Adaptions and props such as straps, blankets and blocks are available to help everyone find their point of balance. In the example above, you could create more ease and comfort (sukha) by sitting on a blanket or block to tilt the pelvis forward, or by bending your knees. You could create for challenge (sthira) by putting a block behind the soles of your feet to mimic having longer legs.
The role of the breath in asana practice
A common definition of yoga (based on the Sanskrit translation of yoga – “to unite”) is the union of the body, breath and mind. In asana practice, the focus is on the movement of the body, and the mind is engaged by noticing how each movement affects the body. So what’s the role of the breath?
If you’ve lost the breath, you’re just doing exercise, not yoga.Yoga teacher, Emma Salmon @unherdyoga
The breath is instrumental in exploring the balance of sthira and sukha. The quality of your breath exposes your inner feelings. If you’re tense or stressed, your breathing becomes shallow and rapid. When you’re relaxed, your breathing becomes slower and deeper. When sthira and sukha are in balance, you should be able to maintain a steady, smooth pace of breathing, and be able to breath deeply.
As you progress through an asana practice, you can test this balance by holding poses for longer, going deeper into the pose or trying a new pose. As you do this, notice what happens to your breath. If you notice it speeding up or growing shallow (or you forgot it altogether!), ease back a step and bring your attention back to your breath.
The union between the breath and body also plays an important role in how we move into different poses. Breathing has a physical impact on the body which supports you as you move through poses. Let’s explore this in an example.
Upward salute – Urdhva Hastasana
Moving into the pose
Upward salute is usually done while standing, but you can try this sitting or even lying down. Wherever you are, draw your belly button in towards your spine and bring your pelvis to a neutral position, so your lower back is not arched, and is supported by your abdominal muscles.
Moving without the breath
Breathing normally, turn your palms face up, and sweep your arms out to the sides and up towards the ceiling to touch over head. As you move, notice how it feels in the muscles of your arms, shoulders and side body. Press your hands together for a couple of seconds, then lower.
Incorporating the breath
This time, let’s explore moving with your breath. Start by exhaling fully while drawing in your navel and pelvis. On your next breath, inhale down into your belly as you sweep your hands out and overhead. Notice whether your muscles feel different this time. Hold your breath as your hands touch overheard, then exhale as you lower your arms.
When you inhaled deeply, breath filled your torso, expanding and strengthening it. Your ribcage and shoulders naturally lifted as your lungs filled, making the movement of lifting your arms overhead easier. When you exhaled, you torso contracted, lowering your ribs and shoulders, making lowering your arms feel more controlled and perhaps even graceful.
Maintaining this connection between the breath and body can really help ease and strengthen your movements. As you inhale your chest and back expand, creating length in your spine and side body. This is really helpful in poses where you are reaching and lengthening, as your torso is supported from the inside by your breath. When you exhale, your torso contracts and relaxes, creating space that allows you to move deeper into folds and twists. When you match your movements to your breath, the length of your inhalation and exhalation will also determine the speed of your movements.
Why are there so many different asana?
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the 15th century manual on hatha yoga cites the existence of 84 different asana. When we include the various pose adaptions, as well as the modern inventions, this number is really somewhere in the hundreds, if not thousands. So what’s the point of them all?
Looking back to the traditional role of asana, the variety of poses allows the yogi to stretch and strengthen all the different parts of the body in preparation for meditation.
Looking at the Sutras and the principles of sthira and sukha, the variety means there is a suitable pose for everyone to explore the mind-body-breath relationship. No matter your ability or disability, there are poses for you to try.
For a beginner yogi, uniting the mind, body and breath while simply standing or in a seated posture can be tough. But eventually, they will master it. Moving to another posture allows them to continue to explore and strengthen that union. And let’s be honest, if you can maintain the mind-body-breath connection while holding a headstand, you can take that steadiness, calm and poise into any situation in life.
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