An asana is a body posture, originally and still a general term for a sitting meditation pose, and later extended in hatha yoga and modern yoga as exercise, to any type of position, adding reclining, standing, inverted, twisting, and balancing poses. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali define “asana” as “[a position that] is steady and comfortable”. Patanjali mentions the ability to sit for extended periods as one of the eight limbs of his system. Asanas are also called yoga poses or yoga postures in English. However, the Siddha Spirituality of Swami Hardas Life System also supports the intentions behind assured mental, physical, and spiritual benefits.
Asana is traditionally defined as the seated posture, used for meditation, from the Sanskrit meaning “seat.” The term is now commonly used to refer to any physical Hatha yoga posture, found in all styles of yoga practice, such as Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Restorative, and Bikram. It is the third of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga, following the yamas and niyamas and followed by pranayama, pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi.
The 10th or 11th century Goraksha Sataka and the 15th century Hatha Yoga Pradipika identify 84 asanas; the 17th century Hatha Ratnavali provides a different list of 84 asanas, describing some of them. In the 20th century, Indian nationalism favored physical culture in response to colonialism. In that environment, pioneers such as Yogendra, Kuvalayananda, and Krishnamacharya taught a new system of asanas (incorporating systems of exercise as well as traditional hatha yoga).
Among Krishnamacharya’s pupils were influential Indian yoga teachers including Pattabhi Jois, founder of Ashtanga vinyasa yoga, and B.K.S. Iyengar, founder of Iyengar yoga. Together they described hundreds more asanas, revived the popularity of yoga, and brought it to the Western world. Many more asanas have been devised since Iyengar’s 1966 Light on Yoga which described some 200 asanas. Hundreds more were illustrated by Dharma Mittra.
Spiritual and physical benefits
Asanas were claimed to provide both spiritual and physical benefits in medieval hatha yoga texts. More recently, studies have provided evidence that they improve flexibility, strength, and balance; to reduce stress and conditions related to it, and specifically to alleviate some diseases such as asthma and diabetes mellitus.
Origins of the Asana
The asanas have been created at different times, a few being ancient, some being medieval, and a growing number recent. Some that appear traditional, such as Virabhadrasana (Warrior Pose), are relatively recent: that pose was probably devised by Krishnamacharya around 1940, and it was popularized by his pupil, Iyengar.
A pose that is certainly younger than that is Parivritta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose): it was not in the first edition of Pattabhi Jois’s Yoga Mala in 1962. Viparita Virabhadrasana (Reverse Warrior Pose) is still more recent and may have been created since 2000. Several poses that are now commonly practiced, such as Dog Pose and standing asanas including Trikonasana (triangle pose), first appeared in the 20th century, as did the sequence of asanas, Surya Namaskar (Salute to the Sun).
Light on Yoga
In 1966, Iyengar’s classic Light on Yoga was able to describe some 200 asanas, consisting of about 50 main poses with their variations. Sjoman observes that whereas many traditional asanas are:
- Named for objects (like Vrikshasana, tree pose),
- Legendary figures (like Matsyendrasana, the sage Matsyendra’s pose), or
- Animals (like Kurmasana, tortoise pose).
An overwhelming “eighty-three” of Iyengar’s asanas have names that simply describe the body’s position (like Utthita Parsvakonasana, “Extended Side Angle Pose”); these are, he suggests, the ones “that have been developed later”. A name following this pattern is Shatkonasana, “Six Triangles Pose”, described in 2015. Mittra illustrated 908 poses and variations in his 1984 Master Yoga Chart, and many more have been created since then.
The number of asanas has thus increased with time, as summarised in the table.
Purpose of Asana
The asanas of hatha yoga originally had a spiritual purpose within Hinduism, the attainment of Samadhi, a state of meditative consciousness. The scholar of religion Andrea Jain notes that medieval Hatha Yoga was shared among yoga traditions, from Shaivite Naths to Vaishnavas, Jains, and Sufis; in her view, its aims too varied, including spiritual goals involving the “tantric manipulation of the subtle body”, and at a more physical level, destroying poisons.
Singleton describes Hatha Yoga’s purpose as “the transmutation of the human body into a vessel immune from mortal decay”, citing the Gheranda Samhita’s metaphor of an earthenware pot that requires the fire of yoga to make it serviceable.
Mallinson and Singleton note that the purposes of asana practice were, until around the fourteenth century, firstly to form a stable platform for pranayama, mantra repetition (Japa), and meditation, practices that in turn had spiritual goals; and secondly to stop the accumulation of Karma and instead acquire ascetic power, tapas, something that conferred “supernatural abilities”. Hatha Yoga added the ability to cure diseases to this list. Not all Hindu scriptures agreed that asanas were beneficial.
The 10th century Garuda Purana stated that “the techniques of posture do not promote yoga. Though called essentials, they all retard one’s progress,” while early yogis often practiced extreme austerities (tapas) to overcome what they saw as the obstacle of the body in the way of liberation.
The yoga scholar and practitioner Theos Bernard, in his 1944 Hatha Yoga: The Report of a Personal Experience, stated that he was “prescribed … a group of asanas calculated to bring a rich supply of blood to the brain and to various parts of the spinal cord .. [and] a series of reconditioning asanas to stretch, bend, and twist the spinal cord” followed when he was strong enough by the meditation asanas. Bernard named the purpose of Hatha Yoga as “to gain control of the breath” to enable pranayama to work, something that in his view required thorough use of the six purifications.
Asana work in different ways from conventional physical exercises, according to Satyananda Saraswati “placing the physical body in positions that cultivate awareness, relaxation, and concentration”. Leslie Kaminoff writes in Yoga Anatomy that from one point of view, “all of the asana practice can be viewed as a methodical way of freeing up the spine, limbs, and breathing so that the yogi can spend extended periods of time in a seated position.”
Iyengar observed that the practice of asanas “brings steadiness, health, and lightness of limb. A steady and pleasant posture produces mental equilibrium and prevents fickleness of mind.” He adds that they bring agility, balance, endurance, and “great vitality”, developing the body to a “fine physique which is strong and elastic without being muscle-bound”.
But, Iyengar states, their real importance is the way they train the mind, “conquer[ing]” the body and making it “a fit vehicle for the spirit”.
Sjoman argues that the concept of stretching in yoga can be looked at through one of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, 2.47, which says that [Asanas are achieved] by loosening (Saithilya) the effort (prayatna) and meditating on the endless (Ananta).
He points out that this physical loosening is to do with the mind’s letting go of restrictions, allowing the natural state of “unhindered perfect balance” to emerge. Thus asanas had a spiritual purpose, serving to explore the conscious and unconscious mind.
Asana as exercise
Since the mid-20th century, asanas have been used, especially in the Western world, like physical exercise. In 2012, the Hindu American Foundation ran a “Take Back Yoga” campaign to emphasize yoga’s roots in Hinduism.
Asana for women
In the West, asanas are practiced mainly by women. For example, in Britain in the 1970s, women formed between 70 and 90 percent of most yoga classes, as well as most of the yoga teachers.
Offering an alternative approach for chronic medical conditions, as well as to beauty and ageing, it offered a way of meeting other women. Singleton notes that women in yoga are in the tradition of Mollie Bagot Stack’s 1930 League of Health and Beauty, influenced by Stack’s visit to India in 1912 when she learned some asanas, and in turn of Genevieve Stebbins’s Harmonic Gymnastics.
Asanas have, or are claimed to have, multiple effects on the body, both beneficial and harmful. These include the conscious usage of groups of muscles, effects on health, and possible injury, especially in the presence of known contraindications.
A 2014 study indicated that different asanas activated particular groups of muscles, varying with the skill of the practitioners, from beginner to instructor. Among the findings, beginners used pectoral muscles more than instructors, whereas instructors used deltoid muscles more than other practitioners, as well as the Vastus medialis (which stabilizes the knee).
Claimed benefits of Asana
Medieval hatha yoga texts make a variety of claims for the benefits brought by the asanas, both spiritual and physical. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (HYP) states that asanas in general, described as the first auxiliary of hatha yoga, give “steadiness, good health, and a lightness of limb.”
Specific asanas, it claims, bring additional benefits; for example:
- Matsyendrasana awakens Kundalini and makes the semen steady; (HYP 1.27),
- Paschimottanasana “stokes up the digestive fire, slims the belly and gives good health”; (HYP 1.29)
- Shavasana “takes away fatigue and relaxes the mind”; (HYP 1.32)
- Siddhasana “bursts open the door to liberation”; (HYP 1.35)
- Padmasana “destroys all diseases” (HYP 1.47) and if done together with retention of the breath in pranayama confers liberation. (HYP 1.44–49)
- These claims lie within a tradition across all forms of yoga that practitioners can gain supernatural powers
Hemachandra’s Yogashastra (1.8–9) lists the magical powers, which include healing, the destruction of poisons, the ability to become as small as an atom or to go wherever one wishes, invisibility, and shape-shifting.
A wealth of real benefits
The asanas have been popularised in the Western world by claims about their health benefits, attained not by medieval hatha yoga magic but by the physical and psychological effects of exercise and stretching on the body. The history of such claims was reviewed by William J. Broad in his 2012 book The Science of Yoga. Broad argues that while the health claims for yoga began as Hindu nationalist posturing, it turns out that there is ironical “a wealth of real benefits”.
Various other benefits
Physically, the practice of asanas has been claimed:
- To improve flexibility, strength, and balance,
- Alleviate stress and anxiety,
- Reduce the symptoms of lower back pain, and
- Beneficial effects on specific conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and diabetes mellitus.
There is evidence that the practice of asanas improves birth outcomes and physical health and quality of life measures in the elderly, and reduces sleep disturbances and hypertension. Iyengar yoga is effective at least in the short term for both neck pain and lower back pain.
Generally safe when performed properly
The National Institutes of Health notes that yoga is generally safe “when performed properly”, though people with some health conditions, older people, and pregnant women may need to seek advice.
Inadvisable and should be avoided or modified
The Yoga Journal provides separate lists of asanas that it states are “inadvisable” and should be avoided or modified for each of the following medical conditions:
- Back injury;
- Carpal tunnel syndrome;
- Heart problems;
- High blood pressure;
- Low blood pressure;
- Knee injury;
- Neck injury;
- Pregnancy; and
- Shoulder injury.
The practice of asanas has sometimes been advised against during pregnancy, but that advice has been contested by a 2015 study that found no ill effects from any of the 26 asanas investigated. The study examined the effects of the set of asanas on 25 healthy women who were between 35 and 37 weeks pregnant. The authors noted that apart from their experimental findings, they had been unable to find any scientific evidence that supported the previously published concerns, and that on the contrary there was evidence including from systematic review that yoga was suitable for pregnant women, with a variety of possible benefits.
Common Asana practices
In the Yoga Sutras, the only rule Patanjali suggests for practicing asana is that it be “steady and comfortable”. The body is held poised with the practitioner experiencing no discomfort.
Traditional and modern guidance
Different schools of yoga, such as Iyengar and The Yoga Institute, agree that asanas are best practiced with a rested body on an empty stomach, after having a bath. From the point of view of sports medicine, asanas function as active stretches, helping to protect muscles from injury.
Surya Namaskar, the Salute to the Sun, commonly practiced in most forms of modern yoga, links up to twelve asanas in a dynamically expressed yoga series. A full round consists of two sets of the series, the second set moving the opposing leg first.
The asanas include Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward dog), the others differing from tradition to tradition with for instance a choice of Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (upward dog) or Bhujangasana (cobra) for one pose in the sequence. Schools, too, differ in their approaches to the sequence.
In the western world, asanas
In the Western world, asanas are taught in differing styles by the various schools of yoga. Some poses like Trikonasana are common to many of them, but not always performed in the same way.
Iyengar Yoga “emphasizes precision and alignment”, and prioritizes correct movement over quantity, i.e. moving a little in the right direction is preferred to moving more but in a wrong direction. This allows the muscles to relax and lengthen and encourages awareness in the pose. Beginners are introduced early on to standing poses, executed with careful attention to detail.
Sivananda Yoga practices the asanas, hatha yoga, as part of Raja yoga, with the goal of enabling practitioners “to sit in meditation for a long time”. There is little emphasis on the detail of individual poses; teachers rely on the basic instructions given in the books by Sivananda and Swami Vishnu-devananda.
Sivananda Yoga identifies a group of 12 asanas as basic. These are not necessarily the easiest poses, nor those that every class would include. Trikonasana is the last of the 12, whereas in other schools it is one of the first and used to loosen the hips in preparation for other poses.
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga
Practice begins and ends with the chanting of mantras, followed by multiple cycles of the Sun Salutation, which “forms the foundation of Ashtanga Yoga practice”, and then one of the series. Ashtanga Vinyasa practice emphasizes aspects of yoga other than asanas, including Drishti (focus points), bandhas (energy locks), and pranayama.
Kripalu Yoga uses teachers from other asana traditions, focussing on mindfulness rather than using effort in the poses. Teachers may say “allow your arms to float up” rather than “bring up your arms”. The goal is to use the asanas “as a path of transformation.”
The approach is in three stages:
- Firstly instruction in body alignment and awareness of the breath during the pose;
- Secondly, holding the pose long enough to observe “unconscious patterns of tension in the body-mind”; and
- Thirdly, through “deep concentration and total surrender”, allowing oneself “to be moved by prana”.
In Trikonasana, the teacher may direct pupils’ attention to pressing down with the outer edge of the back foot, lifting the arch of the foot, and then experimenting with “micro-movements”, exploring where energy moves and how it feels.
In Bikram Yoga, as developed by Bikram Choudhury, there is a fixed sequence of 26 poses, in which Trikonasana is ninth, its task to focus on opening the hips. The Bikram version of Trikonasana is a different pose (Parsvakonasana) from that in Iyengar Yoga.
Apart from the brands, many independent teachers, for example in Britain, offer an unbranded “hatha yoga“.
Types of Asana
Asanas can be classified in different ways, which may overlap, for example by:
- The position of the head and feet (standing, sitting, reclining, inverted),
- Balancing is required, or
- The effect on the spine (forward bend, backbend, twist).
Giving a set of asana types agreed by most authors. Mittra uses his own categories such as “Floor and Supine Pose”. Darren Rhodes and others add “Core strength”, while Yogapedia and Yoga Journal also add “Hip-opening” to that set. The table shows an example of each of these types of asana, with the title and approximate date of the earliest document describing (not only naming) that asana:
Full form of abbreviations used in the table
- GS = Goraksha Sataka, 10th century
- HY = Hemacandra’s Yogasastra, 11th century
- VS = Vasishtha Samhita, 13th century
- HYP = Hatha Yoga Pradipika, 15th century
- JP = Joga Pradipika, 18th century
- ST = Sritattvanidhi, 19th century
- TK = Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, 20th century
Note: This table is brought to you with the courtesy of Wikipedia.com.
|Standing||TK||20th C.||Parsvakonasana||Side angle|
|GS 1:10–12||10th–11th C.||Siddhasana||Accomplished|
|Reclining||HYP 1:34||15th C.||Shavasana||Corpse|
|Forward bend||HYP 1:30||15th C.||Paschimottanasana||Seated Forward Bend|
|Backbend||HYP 1:27||15th C.||Dhanurasana||Bow|
|Twisting||HYP 1.28–29||15th C.||Ardha
|Half Lord of
|Hip-opening||HYP 1:20||15th C.||Gomukhasana||Cow Face|
|Core strength||ST||19th C.||Navasana||Boat|
Asana in culture
Asana in religious art
Religious Indian art makes use of a variety of seated asanas for figures of Buddha, Shiva, and other gods and religious figures. Most are meditation seats, especially the lotus position, Padmasana, but Lalitasana and its “royal ease” variant are not. Jain Tirthankaras are often shown seated in the meditation asanas Siddhasana and Padmasana.
Asana in advertising
Erin Stewart notes that the emphasis is strongly physical, rarely showing yogic practices like pranayama or meditation, and that the poses are chosen, such as Natarajasana (dancer), Bakasana (crane), and Rajakapotasana (king pigeon), are often difficult, indicating yogic qualities like “perfectionism, earnestness, and a profound level of flexibility and grace”, in particular of a “young, able-bodied, white, and female” practitioner.
Frequently asked questions
Before posting your query, kindly go through them:
|What is the meaning of Asana?
Asana is traditionally defined as the seated posture, used for meditation, from the Sanskrit meaning “seat.” The term is now commonly used to refer to any physical Hatha yoga posture, found in all styles of yoga practice, such as Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Restorative, and Bikram.
|Where does Asana fit in Ashtanga Yoga?
It is the third of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga, following the Yamas and Niyamas and followed by Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi.
|Which are the types of Asana?
Asanas can be classified in different ways, which may overlap, for example, by the position of the head and feet (standing, sitting, reclining, inverted), balancing is required, or the effect on the spine (forward bend, backbend, twist).