ASANAS – MEANING AND BENEFITS
Asana is a Sanskrit word meaning posture, especially a comfortable posture-sukhasanam. This term has particular significance in the Indian philosophical system of Yoga. Yoga is a spiritual tradition seeking union of individual ego with the Universal Ego (samadhi). Yoga has eight limbs: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. Yama embraces observances: truthfulness, non-violence, non-covetousness, celibacy, non-acceptance of others’ possessions. Niyama upholds the integrity of the body with five rules of living: purification, contentment, austerity, study, devotion to God. Asana deals with posture – a steady state of restful alertness, senses withdrawn and the body comfortable. Pranayama, dealing with control of the breath, is an integral part of asana but employs numerous specific strategies for the purpose of attaining the samadhi. And according to recent research findings in neuroscience pranayama is responsible for a range of physiological and mood altering changes. A specialization within this discipline – Svara Yoga – holds that a host of biochemical changes occur simply as a consequence of right nostril / left nostril / both nostril dominance in breath. Dharana means steadiness of mind wherein the senses are withdrawn from their objects. Dhyana is the process of meditation – of refining the mental impulses until realization is gained (samadhi). These are not steps of Self-realization but each represents a path unto itself – each fully sufficient to bring about the end. According to one author, S.K. Majumdar,
Yoga “is the wisdom of life. It is experience. Yoga and life do not stand apart or opposed to one another. Yoga is the intelligent and self-conscious effort of man towards achieving universal existence; that harmony between individual and cosmos which nature, herself, is subconsciously striving toward through trial, error and waste…Yoga is practical psychology. It is a method of training the mind and developing its powers of subtle perception so that man may discover for himself the spiritual truths on which religious beliefs and moral values finally rest. Yoga is realization of the hidden powers… The aspirant is “that one who is dedicated to the ideals of truth, freedom and love, who is not misguided and corrupted by materialism, and is not disheartened by pain, disappointment, denial and doubt, will one day discover the great truths of the spirit in his own heart.”
Teachers of Yoga affirm the importance of numerous features of a yoga program: 1) warm-up, which gets the musculature prepared for activity; 2) stretching, which makes for longer and stronger muscles; 3) strengthening, which makes for better tone of muscles; 4) endurance, which promotes longer durations of use; 5) relaxation, which promotes suppleness and down-regulation of the muscles and nervous system.; 6) and finally the guided movement or activation of the 5 pra¦a’s of the vayu system. These are classically given as: siksana (developmental), maintenance (raksana), therapeutic (cikitsa), and transcendental (adhyatmika) (Bimberg, p.48 – the last involving spiritual development). The vayu system is responsible for the vitality, breath, and dynamism of the body. Through the activation of the 5 energetic themes of creation the subtle ida-pingala-sushumna channels along the spine get activated and energized to facilitate healthy physiology in the body, connection of mind and body, and development of higher states of consciousness. Some hold that the true use and value of Yoga is through this latter point and that this is effectively accomplished by coupling 4 themes; posture (asana), figure (mudra), breath (pranayama), and lock (bandhana). Discussion of these is beyond the scope of this article; suffice it to say that this should be a part of any dedicated Yoga practice.
Thus the benefits of the asanas listed below, as given by Kasture, are only the superficial benefits. While the techniques are both static and dynamic they are designed to stimulate, stretch, and tone the musculoskeletal system, connective tissue, as well as the internal organs. Stiffness is a sign that the body has stored up toxins and trauma from the activity of life and stretching helps release these and builds strength simultaneously by lengthening muscles. Stimulation of organs, tissues and nerves means the nervous system pathways are nourished. Motion, alone, prevents the natural tendency for muscular atrophy but it also promotes healthy physiology by mechanically moving nutrition into and metabolic wastes out of the tissues. Motion of muscles is the pump mechanism of the lymphatic system – an integral part of the immune system. Yoga asanas help release stress – crystallized emotions and physical trauma – which produce an active or agitated mind and body, thus enabling the mind, body, and emotions to become settled easily. Once stress is released the techniques of dhyana (meditation) can easily lead the aspirant to the realization of self as Self (samadhi). Therefore, as suggested in the sequence of the limbs of yoga, asanas may serve as adjuvants to transcending the relative and experiencing the divine Being within. Thus yoga is a way of living and the path of life; it is the source, course, and goal of life.
Some Selected Asanas and their Benefits
SEAT: strengthens legs, relieves sciatica and rheumatic pain; promotes agni and digestion and reduces gas; helpful for promoting celibacy. HEAD OVER KNEE / FORWARD BEND: improves functioning of spinal nerves, strengthens back vertebrae, leg muscles, abdominal organs; decreases fat, improves digestion; relieves constipation, piles, sciatica, diabetes, menstrual problems, disorders of the liver and spleen. SHOULDER STAND: increases agni, strength; stimulates thyroid gland; corrects liver and spleen disorders, constipation, indigestion anemia, menstrual problems. AVOID: hyperthyroidism, weak heart, epilepsy, ear diseases, and pregnancy. PLOUGH: helps thyroid, insomnia, constipation, indigestion; increases flexibility of neck and spine; increases strength of neck, shoulder and arms. AVOID: Hyperthyroidism, hyperacidity, spinal disorders, obesity. COBRA: improves agni and digestion, decreases gastric difficulties, gynecological problems, back pain; strengthens respiratory muscles; stimulates liver and spleen. LOCUST: improves digestive system, decreases constipation, strengthens back muscles, lungs, and heart; improves functions of adrenal glands, pancreas and liver; helpful for diseases of urinary tract, respiratory system. AVOID: hyperacidity and colitis SPINAL TWIST: improves digestion, reduces constipation, pain of back and hips, rheumatic pain; improves flexibility of spinal movements. LYING DOWN (CORPSE): said to be most difficult of all asanas; it relaxes and removes strain of former asana; produces mental peace and is good for high blood pressure and heart disease; it refreshes mind and body. LOTUS: increases concentration and mental peace; reduces metabolic rate and respiration; is useful for health of reproductive system; promotes appetite and relieves digestive disorders; awakens kundalini.
1. Bimberg, Robert, “The Myth of Yoga Styles,” Yogi Time, June 2005, pp. 48-49
2. Kasture, Vaidya H. S., Concept of Ayurveda for Perfect Health and Longevity, Shree Baidyanath Ayurveda Bhavan Pvt. Ltd., Nagpur, India, 1991, pp. 80-90
3. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Bhagavad Gita, MIU Press, Fairfield, Iowa, 1967, pp. 362-363
4. Majumdar, Sachindra Kumar, Introduction to Yoga Principles and Practices, University Press, New Hyde Park, New York, 1964, pp. 11-13