Asanas are an integral part of Yoga. Yes, they are a part of Yoga, like one limb of the body and not itself the entire body. We more often come across a general understanding that Asanas (bodily postures) are all that is, about Yoga. However, in actual, it is not so.
Asana is just one limb (anga), a certain set of practices, backed by a profound and systematic body of philosophy; which along with other limbs, belong to the superset of Yoga. Yoga has both the aspects – Practice and Philosophy, which are like the two wings of a bird, both equally substantial to take any leap, into the Higher.
The primary idea of writing this post is to share briefly the basic philosophy of Asanas (as per the Yogasutras of Patanjali), which may come handy to any yoga enthusiast to reflect upon and incorporate those concepts while on (or off) the mat. But to do this, I realize, I cannot, not first touch upon how Yoga is placed in the entire scenario of the Ancient Indian wisdom.
In the philosophical traditions of India, there are six major schools (shad darshana), Yoga being one among them. Termed as Aastika Darshana (orthodox), all these systems accept the authority of Vedas as a valid source of knowledge. Also, there are other three systems, the Naastika Darshana (heterodox), which reject the Vedic authority. We can understand the word ‘darshana’ here, simply as ‘philosophy’.
All these systems, both orthodox and heterodox, as they continued to exist for centuries through unbroken chains of successive followers, were formalized sometime between 1000 BCE and 200 CE, as chief schools of Indian Philosophy, precisely Bharatiya Darshana. They withstood rigorous competition and integration (between various schools) during the formative times, which the numerous other schools of thoughts could not and hence diminish into oblivion.
Coming back to Yoga Philosophy, as we know, it is one among the chief systems of Indian Philosophy and is aligned with the Vedas. The Paatanjala Yogasutra (PYS) is the principal text of this system, compiled by Sage Patanjali, who synthesized and organized the knowledge about yoga from much older traditions.
PYS explains Yoga as means to ‘the cessation of all mental modifications, a ground which leads to a state where the Seer (or simply the seeker) remains established in one’s own Truth.’ It lays forth the Ashtanga Yoga (eight- limbed path of Yoga) – Yama, Niyama, Aasana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi. So, Asana is the third limb of the Ashtanga Yoga.
Interestingly, PYS has total 195 sutras (aphorisms), in Sanskrit, out of which only 3 sutras elucidate on (just the concept of) Asanas [PYS 2.46 – 2.48]. However, there are other prominent classical Hathayoga texts, which have more detailed description on Asanas, their techniques, physiological and spiritual effects.
Again, these classical texts and few minor Upanishads also present Asanas as one out of many limbs (anga) of Yoga, which systematically leads to the climax of Self- Realization. Some of these texts are HathaYogaPradipika – Chaturanga Yoga (4 limbs), Gheranda Samhita – Saptanga Yoga (7 limbs), Saandilya Upanishad – Ashtanga (8 limbs), Tejobindu Upanishad – Pancadashanga (15 limbs).
The three sutras in the Yogasutras, about Asanas are:
स्थिरसुखम् आसनम् ॥ PYS 2.46॥
Posture is that which is firm and pleasant.
प्रयत्नशैथिल्यानन्तसमापत्तिभ्याम् ॥ PYS 2.47॥
By lessening the natural tendency (for restlessness) and meditating on the unlimited, posture becomes firm and pleasant.
ततो द्वन्द्वानभिघातः ॥ PYS 2.48॥
Seat being conquered, the dualities do not obstruct.
All sutra translations above are taken from the book ‘Raja Yoga’ by Swami Vivekananda.
Sutra 2.46 defines what Asana is.
Sutra 2.47 states how to master it or attain AsanaSiddhi.
Sutra 2.48 outlines the results of AsanaSiddhi.
The four pointers (for Asanas) from these sutras are Sthiram (firm, still), Sukham (comfortable), Prayatna shaithilya (loosening the efforts) and Anant samapatti (awareness of the Infinite).
(PYS 2.46) Asana is a posture that one can hold still without any discomfort. A steady posture is meant to prepare the body and mind to sit for longer hours of meditation. Through correct practice of the posture, one can progressively transcend the body consciousness, a must to dive deeper into the oceanic Consciousness within. (PYS 2.47) To perfect the posture, one must loosen the constant effort to deal with the limitations (of the body) and rather bring the awareness to or contemplate upon the infinite essence within. A fine balance between exertion and relaxation, between control and letting go, is to be achieved, to remain longer into the posture. (PYS 2.48) Once the Asana is mastered, one remains unruffled by the dualities of life, at all levels; eg. hot / cold (physical), pain/ pleasure (mental), praise/ criticism (intellectual). The two strong opposite poles of ‘likes and dislikes’ gets increasingly neutralized and one progressively gains calmness and control over the mind.
The subject matter of the Yogasutras is the mind (citta) and the path of meditation, so the word ‘Asana’ here technically refers to any meditative posture, the seat. Yet when we reflect on these concepts, they can very well be applicable to deepen the practice in any classical asana.
Just one posture at a time. No rush. Stay there. Conquer.
P.S. I write here with my limited understanding, yet humble sincerity. I hope this post was worth your time. Thank you for sharing your love by reading this through.😇🙏
Hope to see you here again. Take care. 💮🌈