Asana: The Third limb of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga

Asanas come after the outward and inward guidelines of Yama and Niyama, and prepare us for Pranayama. They are a physical purification and a way to become calm and steady.

(Read our introduction to the 8 limbs of yoga here…)

ASANA:  Posture
The practice of physical postures of yoga is the third step on the path to freedom; Asana is perhaps the most known limb of the eightfold path of yoga, and it often gets interpreted as Yoga itself. Often when we say we are going to do yoga, we mean Asana.

We will take a yoga class, but what we really mean is Asana class. Since the aim of yoga is to find a union between the individual and the whole, and between the mind and the body, why do we need all these physical poses?

What is Asana?
Asana doesn’t refer to the ability to perform a hand stand or an aesthetically impressive backbend, the root of the word Asana means comfortable ‘seat’ – specifically the seat you would take for the practice of meditation.  Most of the earlier asanas described were just that, seated postures preparing us for meditation.  While traditional texts like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika list many postures such as Padmasana (lotus pose) and Virasana (hero pose) suitable for meditation, this text also tells us that the most important posture is in fact “sthira sukham asanam” – meaning, ‘a posture the practitioner can hold comfortably and motionlessness’ – the only alignment instruction Patanjali gives for this Asana.  The idea is to be able to sit in comfort so we’re not ‘pulled’ by aches and pains of the body, or restlessness due to an uncomfortable position. Perhaps this is something to consider in your next yoga class if you always tend to choose the ‘advanced’ posture offered, rather than the one your body is able to attain: “In how many poses are we really comfortable and steady?”

But no matter what the pose, Asana as a term describes the third limb of Yoga.

Why Do We Practice Asana?
In the yogic view, the body is a temple of spirit, the care of which is an important stage of our spiritual growth. Through the practice of asanas, we develop the habit of discipline and the ability to concentrate, both of which are necessary for meditation.  Asana practice works the physical body so the mind has a healthy and peaceful place to reside. Since the last stage of yoga is Samadhi, union with the Whole, we cannot reach it if all of our attention is going to the physical body. If the body is not healthy, if the muscles are pulling and the legs are aching, if the body is not strong or relaxed, it’ll be more difficult to concentrate, meditate and find a place of blissful connection.

Whether we remember it during our daily life of not, we are a union. The body and the mind are not separated, and the health of one affects the other. We cannot just work the body and expect to be healthy if the mind is not strong and balanced.

You cannot think destructive thoughts or feed your mind unhealthy things and expect the body to shine, no matter how much you do asana practice. The body will not reach its optimum state of being without the support of the mind, and vice versa.

According to Patanjali, Asana aims to keep the body steady and easy for the meditation practice that prepare us to gain mastery of the thought patterns of the mind so that self-realization can be experienced. Yogasanas are different ways to shape our body; when we step into a pose we are creating a certain flow of energy. Gary Kraftsow, calls them “prana pumps.” Prana is awareness, and often equated with “energy” of life force.” Each shape has a different effect on our prana, and postures can be sequenced in a multitude of ways to support the practitioner in physical, energetic, mental, and emotional health.

Asana practice is not about how you look, but how you feel.~Kaisa Kapanen

Patanjali encourages us to find a place in our practice that is filled with ease while being steady and stable.  The only two sutras Patanjali wrote about them in The Yoga Sutras are:
II.46: Sthira sukham asanam – The posture is firm and soft.
II.47: Prayatna saithilya ananta samapattibhyam – The posture is attained by pacification through correct effort and contemplating the infinite.

Postures are a balancing act – strength and ease, between trying and not trying, between do and not do.

Next time you are in a challenging pose, observe yourself and your breath. Are you feeling steady and easy, is your breath long and steady? If you cannot hold a pose with these qualities, take it down a notch, give yourself some time, do more prep poses and let yourself develop.

It’s about finding the balance between healthy challenge and comfort zone in order for us to grow.

Finding Your Way Into the Present
Asana practice reinforces the connection between the mind and the body, and we can use the body as a tool for getting into the present moment. The body is always in the present moment, regardless where the mind wanders.

Tuning into the body gives us a chance to tune into the moment, to quiet the mind, to use the breath and remind us of the alignment between the body and the mind. When we practice asana, we don’t just exercise the body on its own while engaging the mind elsewhere. Instead we are moving as one unified whole, trying to centre the mind.

And honestly, isn’t asana practice the perfect tool for relaxing the mind? If you want to relax and just be, lay there in a perfect harmony with yourself and the world; when have you ever reached this state of bliss easier than in Savasana? When the body is moved and relaxed, the mind is clear, the thoughts are distant and you just feel whole.

Essentially, what happens on your yoga mat is for you. It is your practice, it is your body and it is your journey.

Therefore the most important alignment is not about your physical body, but how you experience yourself in the poses and what the poses do for your inner alignment.


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