On Yoga Terms and Philosophy: What is Asana?

On Yoga Terms and Philosophy: What is Asana?
[Sixth article in a series]
by Alice Koh
[Note, photo is taken at the most sacred mountain of Kailash].

What is Asana?

Asana is the 3rd out of 8 limbs of yoga of the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. Briefly the 8 limbs are:

Yama (Restraints, moral disciplines)
Niyama (Positive duties or observances)
Pranayama (Breathing techniques)
Pratyahara (Sense withdrawal)
Dharana (Focused concentration)
Dhyana (Meditative absorption)
Samadhi (Bliss/enlightenment)

These 8 limbs or Ashtanga Yoga are the mechanics of yoga. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that simply knowing the mechanics is not enough. The yogi must live perpetually in training if he were to attain spiritual realisation.

What is asana? Many people when they think of yoga, their mind will conjure up images of sexily-clad women or naked men performing pretzel shaped postures, headstands and other complex poses of unpronounceable Sanskrit names.

Next come images of silhouettes sitting serenely in Anjali mudra with the background of gentle waves breaking amidst the calming sound of its ebbs and flows.

And of Buddha sitting cross-legged, eyes closed, with a hand gently touching the earth.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna refers Asana as “the place where one sits for spiritual practice”. Verses 11 and 12 state: “To practice yoga, one should go to a secluded place and should lay kusha grass on the ground and then cover it with a deerskin and a soft cloth. The seat (asana) should be neither too high nor too low and should be situated in a sacred place. The yogi should then sit on it very firmly and practice yoga to purify the heart by controlling his mind, senses and activities and fixing the mind on one point.”

Note, on the Himalayan Mount Kailash, Lord Shiva, the great yogi, sits on a tiger skin in deep meditation.

In Kundalini Yoga, practitioners use sheepskins on which to practise their yoga. Yogi Bhajan recommended the sheepskin for meditation, as it created an insulation between the yogi and the magnetic pull of the Earth.

There are three main sitting postures for meditation. The Padmasana (Lotus pose), Vajrasana (Thunderbolt pose) and the Sukhasana (Cross-legged pose). These are said to align the spine, neck and head so that pranayama flows in an uninterrupted channel. Energy is then sealed within the body by the adoption of hand mudras.

The meditation posture is itself a mudra. The lower body is fully grounded like the roots of a tree reaching deep into the earth and the crown of the head reaching up towards the sky like the towering trees. Where plants absorb the sunlight during photosynthesis and release oxygen in the air and energy for their sustenance, our body functions like the plants too. The fusion of the Universal Energy and our prana is the link to our higher consciousness and thus to the union of God.

However, the only alignment instruction Patanjali gives for Asana is in sutra 2.46 “sthira sukham asanam” which means steadiness, ease and balance.

The comfort of the sitting positions is of utmost importance as it allows practitioners to fully concentrate on his practice instead of being distracted by the ills of his body.

Yoga is not just a philosophy but an actual scientific practice that has been adopted for thousands of years. Every detail and technique have been intricately laid down for the benefits of future generations. From the kriya practices of cleansing to the subtle manipulation of breath control, this divine knowledge affects the lives of all in practice.