Asana in Yoga: a Complete Guide

Introduction

Asana in Yoga is also known as Yogasana, Yoga Pose, or Yoga Posture.

It is highly unlikely that anyone has not come across the word Asana. Of course, it is one of most popular Sanskrit word. Moreover, it is also one of the words which has been discussed widely by the online community.

This being said, it is a no brainier that there exists a huge online repository of literature for the said word. Now, a question comes. What then is the necessity of a comprehensive guide ?

Before getting an answer to this question, let us have look into the branches of Yoga. Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga are two main branches of Yoga.

Asana in Hatha Yoga differs from Asana in Raja Yoga. The available sources mostly explain Asana in a Hatha Yogic perspective. So, a complete guide that includes all the perspectives is necessary. In this spirit, this article tries to serve as a comprehensive guide describing the meaning, history, approaches and benefits.

Meaning

In Raja Yoga, Asana means a sitting posture. Of course, a sitting posture meant for meditation. But in Hatha Yoga, Asana is more than that. It extends to mean other postures also like back bending, forward bending, and inverted postures.

The Sanskrit word Asana means “a seat.” Understandably, the word was initially used to mean a sitting posture only. That was why earlier Raja yoga or Ashtanga Yoga used the term to mean a seat. After the advent of Hatha Yoga, the extensive meaning came in place.

Meaning in Bhagavad Gita

We know that Asana literally is a seat meant for sitting. Verse 6.11 of Gita speaks of a seat meant for yogi thus;

śhuchau deśhe pratiṣhṭhāpya sthiram āsanam ātmanaḥ
nātyuchchhritaṁ nāti-nīchaṁ chailājina-kuśhottaram

To practice yoga, one should prepare an Asana (seat) at a clean place by putting Kush grass, a skin of a deer, and a cloth, one over the other. The Asana should not be too high or too low.

Bhagavad Gita 6.11

tatraikāgraṁ manaḥ kṛitvā yata-chittendriya-kriyaḥ
upaviśhyāsane yuñjyād yogam ātma-viśhuddhaye
samaṁ kāya-śhiro-grīvaṁ dhārayann achalaṁ sthiraḥ
samprekṣhya nāsikāgraṁ svaṁ diśhaśh chānavalokayan

Having seated firmly on it, he should strive for the purification of the mind by meditating with a single-pointed concentration.

He should keep the body, neck and head firmly in a straight line by gazing at the tip of the nose without any movement of eyes.

Bhagavad Gita 6.12 and 6.13

Here, in these verses, the term Asana refers to a Seat meant for meditation only. A seated posture is also mentioned. It is a general description of seated posture. We could not find any specific name of a posture mentioned. We can easily deduce that specific postures like Padmasana and the like did not exist at the time of Gita.

Gradually the meaning of the term Asana would have extended to refer the sitting posture at the seat of meditation. Later, the meaning would have further extended to denote postures other than seated postures.

Asana in Ashtanga Yoga

Though Ashtanga Yoga starts with Yama and Niyama, the real internal journey of yoga begins here with Asana.

In Raja Yoga or Ashtanga Yoga, Asana is a posture that makes one to remain for a long period of time. It is psychological rather than physical, in the sense that it should be comfortable and effortless. During the course of practice, there should not be any body-consciousness. The main intention is that the body should make any calls to the mind during the further stages of yoga.

Raja Yoga is the harmonisation of body, Prana and mind. So, the real practice of Raja Yoga starts with Asana, the disciplining of the body to equip itself for further stages of yoga. Further more, one should get rid of the body consciousness, otherwise meditation not possible.

Asana in Yoga Sutra of Patanjali

Patanjali defines Asana in two verses that include three terms.

sthira-sukham-āsanam

prayatna-śaithilya-ananta-samāpatti-bhyām

Yoga Sutra 2.46 and 2.47.

Let us have an insight into these terms.

Sthira-sukham-āsanam

It means “a posture which is firm and comfortable is known as Asana.” It should be firm and at the same time comfortable. In other words, you should not lose comfort for being firm. Or you should not have a shaky posture for maintaining your comfort. Pretty tricky. Isn’t it? But it will come by practice.

Patanjali did not mention a specific posture. Today, we have hundreds of postures: Standing postures, Sitting Postures and the like. Then how to select the right posture for this purpose?

Does a standing posture serve the purpose? Of course, No. In any standing posture, the total body weight rests on the legs and after some time, the legs would make calls. It is not suitable except in the extreme cases of austerity. Normally it is not suitable for longer duration. It is less comfortable and Patanjali didn’t mention this.

What about a lying posture? It is pretty comfortable. Isn’t it? But you are prone to fall asleep. You will not be steady. Having said that, it too is not suitable.

Evidently, Patanjali meant a sitting posture only. Moreover, we should recall that the literal meaning of the word is “a seat.”

We know, Yoga Sutra is one of the oldest yoga text. In those days, the term Asana would have meant “a sitting posture” only. In the absence of other yoga postures at his time, there was no necessity for Patanjali to be more specific.

Prayatna-śaithilya

Here he comes with another criterion: Prayatna Saithilya. It should lessen the effort or relax the tension or pressure. It should be effortless and tension free. The energy flow should not be clogged.

For a roly-poly, the lotus posture would not be a cake-walk. For him getting mastery over the posture will take much effort. So, one should use his common sense to select the right posture which is firm, comfortable and effortless.

Ananta-samāpatti-bhyām

View of Maharishi Vyasa.

Different interpretations by different commentators exist for this phrase. According to Maharishi Vyasa, it means “contemplating on the infinite.” The intended meaning is that the posture is perfected by contemplating on the infinite.

Swami Vivekananda also goes with this view. For him, the posture is perfected by means of withdrawal of effort and meditation or Samadhi on the unlimited.

Here, a genuine question arises. We know, meditation is a stage of Ashtanga yoga yet to come after having mastery over Asana, Pratyahara, and Dharana. Then, how could meditation or Samadhi on the infinite could be accomplished at an earlier stage? That too as a means to Asana? A bit contradictory? Let us examine.

Though it seems a bit contradictory, it can be explained. Samadhi or Samapatti is attained not only through Ashtanga Yoga but also through other means. In such cases too, Asana is perfected wherein the limbs of the body do not shift. Perfection of Asana means absence of motion.

View of Vachaspati Misra

Vachaspati Misra, the Indian Philosopher of 10th Century A.D gives a different view. A posture is accomplished by certain efforts. The effort should not be treated as the causes of the posture. It is just an accessory and it does not bring about the posture. Hence one should suppress this natural effort of the body as the cause of the posture. It is the slackening of the effort. It is one of the means to attain posture along with the mind transformed into the Ananda Samapatti wherein the great snake Ananda who upholds the sphere of Earth on his thousand hoods and keeps its steady.

In Hindu Mythology, Ananda is the great snake who upholds the the sphere of earth in his thousand hoods. He exercises a Samapatti or a contemplative care to keep the earth unmoved on his thousand-fold hoods. This is Ananda Samapatti. The exercise of such Samapatti brings in the perfection of posture.

Asana in Yoga Darshana

Yoga Darshana is the earliest commentary on Yoga-sutra by Maharishi Vyasa. While commenting on sutra 2.46, he gives a list of thirteen yoga postures as example.

  • Padmasana
  • Virasana
  • Bhadrasana
  • Swastikasana
  • Dandasana
  • Sopasrayasana
  • Paryanakasana
  • Kraunchnisadanasana
  • Hastinisadanasana
  • Ustranisadanasana
  • Samasamsthanasana
  • Sthirasukhasana
  • Yathasukhasana

This is of course the earliest mentioning of list of yoga postures in yoga texts. He also mentions that other similar yoga postures like these thirteen are the examples of Asana. It implies the fact that these Asanas existed well before 2000 year from now.

Asana in Yoga Yanjavalkya

Yoga YajnaValkya is also an ancient yoga text that belongs to a period before Second Century BCE. It is the second of the the earliest yoga texts wherein we could find a list of yoga postures found mentioned.

  • Swastikasana
  • Gomukhasana
  • Padmasana
  • Virasana
  • Simhasana
  • Bhadrasana
  • Muktasana
  • Mayurasana

The text describes the above postures with two variations of Svastikasana and Muktasana.

According to Yajnavalkya, on practicing the above yoga postures along with Yama and Niyama, one could destroy all sort of diseases and toxins.

Most of the mentioned yoga postures are meditative Asana only. Simhasana, Bhadrasana, and Mayurasana are postures that destroy toxins and diseases.

Asana in Sankaracharya’s commentary on Yoga Sutra

Sankaracharya of Seventh Century CE wrote a commentary on Yoga Sutra. While commenting on Sutra 2.46, he provides the same examples as given in the commentary by Maharishi Vyasa.

Asana in Thirumandhiram of Thirumoolar

Thirumandhiram Verse 552 lists the eight limbs of yoga. In this verse, Asana is mentioned with the adjective ‘innumerable (ennila athanam).’ Thirumandhiram is text which is at least 1500 years old. The period was earlier than all Hatha yogic texts. Having said that, there were innumerable Asanas in practice at the time of Thirumoolar.

Verse 558 repeats that there are umpteen number of Asanas that starts from Padmasana. Eight Asanas are considered important. Verses 558 to 562 briefly describe the steps for doing Svastikasana aka Sukhasana, Padmasana, Bhadrasana, Kukudasana, and Simhasana.

According to Verse 563, seven Asanas belong to a higher variety. They are Bhadrasana, Gomukhasana, Padmasana, Simhasana, Sottrasana, Virasana, and Sukhasana.

The point to be noted here is Asanas mentioned in this text are meditative Asanas only.

Asana in Hatha Yoga

In Raja Yoga, the term Asana refers to seated-postures only with a very few additions; whereas in Hatha the term has a wider meaning to denote a large number postures including seated-postures. The focus of Raja Yoga or Ashtanga Yoga postures is to facilitate meditation; whereas the focus of Hatha Yoga postures is to avail physical and psychological benefits. That is why the modern approach to Yogasana is to avail only the therapeutic benefits.

Moreover, the meaning of the term Yoga also has been changed to denote yoga postures. It became more focused on doing rather than being. The two terms Yoga and Asana are now being used interchangeably in spite of their original meanings are different from one another.

Hatha Yoga Asanas are the main constituents of modern Yoga.

Among Hatha Yoga texts, Gorakhsa Sataka is the oldest one. Hatha Yoga Pradipika is the most popular one. Hatha Ratnavali, Shiva Samhitha, Gheranda Samhitha are some important texts.

Goraksha Sataka

The text says that there are 84,00,000 species in this world. There is an Asana attributed for each one of them. Hence eighty four lakh Asanas are there. Only Lord Shiva knows them all. Lord Shiva selected eight four postures as important from the list. Two among them are more important. They are Siddhasana (Adept posture) and Kamalasana aka Padmasana (Lotus Posture).

Hatha Yoga Pradipika

Hatha Yoga Pradipika is a text of Fifteenth Century CE. It speaks about Asana as the first step of Practice. According to the text Asana gives steadiness of body and mind. It gives disease-less-ness and flexibility to limbs. The authors gives the describes the list of Asanas as accepted by Maharishi Vyasa and Yogis Matsyendra.

  • Swastikasana
  • Gomukhasana
  • Virasana
  • Kurmasana
  • Kukutasana
  • Uttana Kurmasana
  • Dhanurasana
  • Matsyasana
  • Pascimottanasana
  • Mayurasana
  • Savasana
  • Siddhasana
  • Padmasana
  • Simhasana
  • Bhadrasana

Only 15 Asanas are described in this text. However, Verse 33 says that Lord Shiva taught 84 Asanas out of which four Asanas are the most important ones. These are Siddhasana, Padmasana, Simhasana, and Bhadrasana.

While describing Siddhasana, the text says that out of 84 Asanas, this Asana should always be practised as it cleases all the 72,000 Nadis.

Gheranda Samhita

It is a text of 17th Century CE. According to this text, Lord Shiva taught eighty four hundreds of thousands of Asana. The number of postures are as many as the number of species in the universe. Of them, 84 are the best. Among these eighty four, 32 Asanas are found useful to mankind.

  1. Siddhasana
  2. Padmasana
  3. Bhadrasana
  4. Muktasana
  5. Vajrasana
  6. Swastikasana
  7. Simhasana
  8. Gomukhasana
  9. Virasana
  10. Dhanurasana
  11. Mritasana
  12. Guptasana
  13. Matsyasana
  14. Matsyendrasana
  15. Gorakshasana
  16. Pascimottanasana
  17. Utkatasana
  18. Sankatamasana
  19. Mayurasana
  20. Kukkutasana
  21. Kurmasana
  22. Uttanamandukasana
  23. Uttanakurmasana
  24. Vriskhasana
  25. Madukasana
  26. Garudasana
  27. Vrishasana
  28. Salabhasana
  29. Makarasana
  30. Ushartasana
  31. Bhujangasana
  32. Yogasana

Shiva Samhita

It is a text probably of fourteenth century CE. According to this text, the number of postures are eighty four. Of these, four postures should always be practised. They are Siddhasana, Padmasana, Ugrasana, and Swastikasana. The text gives the steps for these postures.

Hatha Ratnavali

Hatha Ratnavali is a text of Seventeenth Century CE. It enumerates eighty four Asanas. Among these, Ten are important; Swastika, Gomukha, Padma, Vira, Siddha, Mayura, Kukkuta, Bhadra, Simha, and Mukta. Among these, four are the most important ones; Siddha, Padma, Simha, and Bhadra.

List of Asanas

In this text, we could find the full list of eighty four Asanas. Other Hatha Yoga texts give only the information that total number of postures as 84. But they did not enumerate a complete list of 84 postures. Of course, the enumeration in this text is the earliest one we could find. This is the classical list of Hatha Yoga Postures.

  1. Siddhasana
  2. Bhadrasana
  3. Vajrasana
  4. Simhasana
  5. Silpasana
  6. Bhanda Padmasana
  7. Kara Padamasana
  8. Samputita Padmasana
  9. Padmasana (Suddha Padmasana)
  10. Danda Mayurasana
  11. Parsva Mayurasana
  12. Sahaja Mayurasana
  13. Bandha Mayurasana
  14. Pinda Mayurasana
  15. Ekapada Mayurasana
  16. Bhairavasana
  17. Kamadahanasana
  18. Panipatrasana
  19. Karmukasana
  20. Swastikasana
  21. Gomukhasana
  22. Virasana
  23. Madukasana
  24. Markatasana
  25. Matsyendrasana
  26. Parsva Matsyendrasana
  27. Bhaddha Matsyendrasana
  28. Niralambanasana
  29. Chandrasana
  30. Kanthavasana
  31. Ekapadakasana
  32. Phanindrasana
  33. Pascimottanasana
  34. Sayita Pascimottanasana
  35. Citrakaraniasana
  36. Yoganidrasana
  37. Vidunanasana
  38. Padapidanasana
  39. Hamsasana
  40. Nabhidalasana
  41. Akasasana
  42. Utpadatalasana
  43. Nabhilasitapadakasana
  44. Vrikshasana
  45. Chakrasana
  46. Utphalakasana
  47. Uttana Kurmasana
  48. Kurmasana
  49. Baddha Kurmasana
  50. Narjavasana
  51. Kabandhasana
  52. Goraskhasana
  53. Angusthasana
  54. Mustikasana
  55. Brahmaprasaditasana
  56. Panchakuli Kukudasana
  57. Ekapada Kukudasana
  58. Akarita Kukudasana
  59. bandhaculi Kukudasana
  60. Parsva Kukudasana
  61. Ardhanarishvarasana
  62. Bakasana
  63. Dharavahasana
  64. Chandrakantasana
  65. Sudhasarasana
  66. Vyaghrasana
  67. Rajasana
  68. Indraniasana
  69. Sarabhasana
  70. Ratnasana
  71. Citrapitasana
  72. Baddhapaksiasana
  73. Ishavarasana
  74. Vicitranalinasana
  75. Kantasana
  76. Suddhapaksiasana
  77. Sumandrakasana
  78. Chaurangiasana
  79. Kraunchasana
  80. Drdhasana
  81. Khagasana
  82. Brahmasana
  83. Nagapitasana
  84. Shavasana

However, the text doesn’t describe all the eighty four postures. It describes only 36 postures. Most of the postures enumerated here are unique ones and we could find them in any other texts.

Jogapradipika

Jogapradipika is a Hatha Yogic text of 18th Century CE by Jayatrama. This text also enumerates a list of eighty four yoga poses. The list differs from the list of Hatha Ratnavali. The standing postures are not considered in this text.