In yoga, an asana is a body posture, originally sitting for meditation, but more generally for hatha yoga or yoga as exercise, including postures that are reclining, standing, inverted, twisting, or balancing as well as seated. The 5th century BC Yoga Sutras of Patanjali define "asana" as "to be seated in a position that is steady but relaxed". Patanjali mentions the ability to sit for extended periods as one of the eight limbs of his system.
The 10th or 11th century Goraksha Samhita and the 15th century Hatha Yoga Pradipika assert that there are 84 asanas; the 17th century Hatha Ratnavali provides a list of 84 asanas, describing some of them. In the 20th century, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya taught a new system of asanas, incorporating systems of exercises as well as traditional hatha yoga, to influential Indian yoga teachers including Pattabhi Jois, founder of Ashtanga vinyasa yoga, and B.K.S. Iyengar, founder of Iyengar yoga. Together they described hundreds more asanas, revived the popularity of yoga, and brought it to the Western world. Many more asanas have been devised since Iyengar's 1966 Light on Yoga which described some 200 asanas; some 300 were created by Dharma Mittra.
Asanas have been claimed to have beneficial effects in terms of flexibility, strength, and balance; to reduce stress and conditions related to it; and to have specific benefits for some diseases such as asthma and diabetes.
- 1 Etymology
- 2 Context
- 3 History
- 4 Purposes
- 5 Benefits and contraindications
- 6 Common practices
- 7 Schools of yoga
- 8 Types of asana
- 9 See also
- 10 Notes
- 11 References
- 12 Sources
- 13 External links
Yoga originated in India. In his Yoga Sutras, Patanjali describes asana practice as the third of the eight limbs (Sanskrit अष्टांग, ashtanga, from asht, eight, and anga, limb) of classical, or raja yoga. The eight limbs are, in order, the yamas (codes of social conduct), niyamas (self-observances), asanas (postures), pranayama (breath work), pratyahara (sense withdrawal or non-attachment), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (realization of the true Self or Atman, and unity with Brahman (The Hindu Concept of Ultimate Reality)). Asanas are the physical movements of yoga practice and, in combination with the breathing exercises of pranayama constitute hatha yoga. Patanjali describes asanas as a "steady and comfortable posture", referring to the seated postures used for pranayama and for meditation. He further states that meditation is the path to samādhi, transpersonal self-realization.
The central figure in the Pashupati seal from the Indus Valley Civilization of c. 2500 BC appears to be sitting in Mulabandhasana, a pose said to confer enlightenment, and hence identified as a prototype of the god Śiva. If correct, this would be easily the oldest record of an asana. However, with no proof anywhere of an Indus Valley origin for Śiva, there is no evidence that a yoga pose is depicted in the seal.
10th to 17th centuries
The Goraksha Samhita (10–11th century), or Goraksha Paddhathi, an early hatha yogic text, describes the origin of the 84 classic asanas said to have been revealed by the Hindu deity Lord Shiva. Observing that there are as many postures as there are beings and asserting that there are 84 lakh[a] or 8,400,000 species in all, the text states that Lord Shiva fashioned an asana for each lakh, thus giving 84 in all, although it mentions and describes only two in detail: Siddhasana and Padmasana. The number 84 is symbolic rather than literal, indicating completeness and sacredness.[b]
The Hatha Ratnavali by Srinivasa (17th century) is one of the few texts to attempt a listing of all the 84,[c] although 4 out of its list do not have meaningful translations from the Sanskrit, and at least 11[d] are merely mentioned without any description but are described in other texts. In all, 52 asanas of the Hatha Ratnavali are confirmed and described by the text itself, or other asana corpora.
The Gheranda Samhita (late 17th century) again asserts that Shiva taught 84 lakh of asanas, out of which 84 are preeminent, and "32 are useful in the world of mortals."[e] The yoga teacher and scholar Mark Singleton notes from study of the primary texts that "asana was rarely, if ever, the primary feature of the significant yoga traditions in India."
19th century onwards
From the 1850s onwards, there developed in India a culture of physical exercise to counter the colonial stereotype of supposed "degeneracy" of Indians compared to the British, a belief reinforced by then-current ideas of Lamarckism and eugenics. This culture was taken up from the 1880s to the early 20th century by Indian nationalists such as Tiruka, who taught exercises and unarmed combat techniques under the guise of yoga. Meanwhile, proponents of Indian physical culture like K. V. Iyer consciously combined "hata yoga" (sic) with bodybuilding in his Bangalore gymnasium.
Singleton notes that poses much like Durvasasana, Ganda Bherundasana and Hanumanasana were found in Thomas Dwight's 1889 article "Anatomy of a Contortionist", while poses close to Warrior Pose, Downward Dog, Utthita Padangusthasana, Supta Virasana and others were described in Niels Bukh's 1924 Danish text Grundgymnastik eller primitiv gymnastik (known in English as Primary Gymnastics). These in turn were derived from a 19th century Scandinavian tradition of gymnastics dating back to Pehr Ling, and "found their way to India" by the early 20th century.
In 1924, Swami Kuvalayananda founded the Kaivalyadhama Health and Yoga Research Center in Maharashtra. He combined asanas with Indian systems of exercise and modern European gymnastics, having according to the scholar Joseph Alter a "profound" effect on the evolution of yoga.
In 1925, Paramahansa Yogananda, having moved from India to America, set up the Self-Realization Fellowship in Los Angeles, and taught yoga, including asanas, breathing, chanting and meditation, to "tens of thousands of Americans".
Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888–1989) studied under Kuvalayananda in the 1930s, creating "a marriage of hatha yoga, wrestling exercises, and modern Western gymnastic movement, and unlike anything seen before in the yoga tradition." Krishnamachara is described as "the father of modern yoga", and had among his pupils men who became influential yoga teachers themselves: the Russian Eugenie V. Peterson, known as Indra Devi; Pattabhi Jois, who founded Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga in 1948; B.K.S. Iyengar, his brother-in-law, who founded Iyengar Yoga; T.K.V. Desikachar, his son, who continued his Viniyoga tradition; Srivatsa Ramaswami; and A. G. Mohan, co-founder of Svastha Yoga & Ayurveda. Together they revived the popularity of yoga and brought it to the Western world.
In 1966, Iyengar published Light on Yoga: Yoga Dipika, illustrated with some 600 photographs of Iyengar demonstrating around 200 asanas; it systematised the physical practice of asanas. It became a bestseller, selling three million copies, and was translated into some 17 languages.
In 1975, Dharma Mittra compiled a list of about 1,300 asanas and their variations, derived from ancient and modern sources. His work is often mentioned in contemporary references for Iyengar Yoga, Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, and Sivananda Yoga.
Origins of the asanas
The asanas have been created at different times, a few being ancient. Some that appear traditional, such as Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I), are relatively recent: that pose was probably devised by Krishnamacharya around 1940, and it was popularised by his pupil, Iyengar. A pose that can be dated fairly accurately is Parivritta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose): it was not in the first edition of Pattabhi Jois's Yoga Mala in 1962. Viparita Virabhadrasana (Reversed Warrior Pose) is still more recent, and may have been created as recently as 2000. Several poses that are now commonly practised, such as Dog Pose and standing asanas including the Warrior Poses, are not found in classical texts such as Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
Surya Namaskar, Salutation to the Sun, may also have originated in the 20th century. A different salutation to the sun, the Aditya Hridayam, is certainly ancient, described in the "Yuddha Kaanda" Canto 107 of the Ramayana. Surya Namaskar in its modern form has been variously attributed to the Raja of Aundh, who named and popularised the practice; and to K. Pattabhi Jois, who defined the variant forms Surya Namaskar A and B for Ashtanga Yoga, possibly derived from Krishnamacharya. Surya Namaskar can be seen as "a modern, physical culture-oriented rendition" of the simple ancient practice of prostrating oneself to the sun.
In 1966, Iyengar's classic Light on Yoga was able to describe some 200 asanas. Mittra created some 300 asanas out of the 908 illustrated in his 1984 Master Yoga Chart, and many more poses have been created since then. The number of asanas has thus increased with time, as summarised in the table.
|No. of asanas||Sanskrit||Transliteration||English||Author||Date||Evidence supplied|
|"84"[f]||गोरक्ष संहिता||Gorakṣa Samhitā||Goraksha Samhita||Gorakśanātha||10th-11th century||Describes Siddhasana, Padmasana|
|"84"||हठ योग प्रदीपिका||Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā||Light on Hatha Yoga||Svāmi Svātmārāma||15th century||Names 4 asanas (Siddhasana, Padmasana, Bhadrasana and Simhasana) as important|
|84[g]||हठ रत्नावली||Haṭha Ratnāvali||A Treatise On Hatha Yoga||Srinivasa||17th century||52 asanas described, others named|
|c. 200||योग दीपिका||Yoga Dīpikā||Light on Yoga||B. K. S. Iyengar||1966||Descriptions and photographs of each asana|
|c. 1300||—||—||608 Yoga Poses||Dharma Mittra||1975||Descriptions and photographs of each asana or variation|
Asanas work in different ways from conventional physical exercises, according to Satyananda Saraswati "placing the physical body in positions that cultivate awareness, relaxation and concentration".
Iyengar observed that the practice of asanas "brings steadiness, health, and lightness of limb. A steady and pleasant posture produces mental equilibrium and prevents fickleness of mind." He adds that they bring agility, balance, endurance, and "great vitality", developing the body to a "fine physique which is strong and elastic without being muscle-bound". But, Iyengar states, their real importance is the way they train the mind, "conquer[ing]" the body and making it "a fit vehicle for the spirit".
Salute to the Sun
Iyengar saw it as significant that asanas are named after plants, insects, fish and amphibians, reptiles, birds, and quadrupeds; as well as "legendary heroes", sages, and avatars of Hindu gods, in his view "illustrating spiritual evolution". For instance, the lion pose, Simhasana, recalls the myth of Narasimha, half man, half lion, and an avatar of Vishnu, as told in the Bhagavata Purana. The message is, Iyengar explains, that while performing asanas, the yogi takes the form of different creatures, from the lowest to the highest, not despising any "for he knows that throughout the whole gamut of creation ... there breathes the same Universal Spirit." Through mastery of the asanas, Iyengar states, dualities like gain and loss, or fame and shame disappear.
Since the mid-20th century, asanas have been used, especially in the Western world, as physical exercise. In this context, their "overtly Hindu" purpose is masked but its "ecstatic .. transcendent .. possibly subversive" elements remain. That context has led to a division of opinion among Christians, some like Alexandra Davis of the Evangelical Alliance asserting that it is acceptable as long as they are aware of yoga's origins, others like Paul Gosbee stating that hatha yoga's purpose is to "open up chakras" and release kundalini or "serpent power" which in Gosbee's view is "from Satan", making "Christian yoga .. a contradiction".
In a secular context, the journalists Nell Frizzell and Reni Eddo-Lodge have debated (in The Guardian) whether Western yoga classes represent "cultural appropriation". In Frizzell's view, yoga has become a new entity, a long way from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and while some practitioners are culturally insensitive, others treat it with more respect. Eddo-Lodge agrees that Western yoga is far from Patanjali, but argues that the changes cannot be undone, whether people use it "as a holier-than-thou tool, as a tactic to balance out excessive drug use, or practised similarly to its origins with the spirituality that comes with it".
From a Hindu perspective, the practice of asanas in the Western world as physical exercise is not necessarily seen as problematic, as long as the practice of asanas in this way is not confused with yoga as a path.
Benefits and contraindications
The asanas of hatha yoga have been popularized in the Western world by claims about their health benefits. The history of such claims was reviewed by William J. Broad in his 2012 book The Science of Yoga. Broad argues that while the health claims for yoga began as Hindu nationalist posturing, it turns out that there is ironically "a wealth of real benefits".
Physically, the practice of asanas has been claimed to improve flexibility, strength, and balance; to alleviate stress and anxiety, and to reduce the symptoms of lower back pain. Claims have been made about beneficial effects on specific conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and diabetes. There is evidence that practice of asanas improves birth outcomes and physical health and quality of life measures in the elderly, and reduces sleep disturbances and hypertension. Iyengar yoga is effective at least in the short term for both neck pain and low back pain.
Light on Yoga cautions that people with high blood pressure or displaced retina should avoid inverted poses such as Sirsasana and Sarvangasana. It also cautions that women should avoid asanas, especially inverted poses such as Sirsasana, during menstruation and the first month after giving birth. It states that they may practise asanas during the first three months of pregnancy, avoiding pressure on the abdomen, and that they may practise Baddha Konasana and Upavistha Konasana throughout pregnancy.
The Yoga Journal provides separate lists of asanas that it states are "inadvisable" and should be avoided or modified for each of the following medical conditions: asthma; back injury; carpal tunnel syndrome; diarrhoea; headache; heart problems; high blood pressure; insomnia; knee injury; low blood pressure; menstruation; neck injury; pregnancy; and shoulder injury.
In the Yoga Sutras, the only rule Patanjali suggests for practicing asana is that it be "steady and comfortable". The body is held poised with the practitioner experiencing no discomfort. When control of the body is mastered, practitioners are believed to free themselves from the duality of heat/cold, hunger/satiety, joy/grief, which is the first step toward the unattachment that relieves suffering.
Light on Yoga provides the following guidance for performing asanas:
- The stomach should be empty, or asanas can be practised an hour after "a very light meal".
- The bladder and bowels should also be empty.
- A bath or shower before the asanas makes them easier.
- The best time for asanas is early in the morning or late in the evening.
- The breath should not be restrained during the asanas. Some movements, such as jumping the legs apart for Trikonasana, are to be taken on an inbreath; some, such as bending the trunk sideways for Trikonasana, on an outbreath.
- Lie down in Savasana for ten to fifteen minutes after practising asanas.
Surya Namaskar, the Salutation to the Sun, commonly practiced in most forms of yoga, links up to twelve asanas in a dynamically expressed yoga series. A full round consists of two sets of the series, the second set moving the opposing leg first. The asanas included differ from tradition to tradition, and for example in Iyengar Yoga, several variations such as inserting Maricyasana I and Pascimottanasana are suggested.
Schools of yoga
In the Western world, asanas are taught in differing styles by the various schools of yoga. Some poses like Trikonasana are common to many of them, but not always performed in the same way.
According to the Iyengar Yoga Institute, Iyengar yoga "emphasises precision and alignment", and prioritises correct movement over quantity, i.e. moving a little in the right direction is preferred to moving more but in other directions. Postures are held for a relatively long period compared to other schools of yoga; this allows the muscles to relax and lengthen, and encourages awareness in the pose. Props including belts, blocks and blankets are freely used to assist students in correct working in the asanas.
Beginners are introduced early on to standing poses, executed with careful attention to detail. For example, in Trikonasana, the feet are often jumped apart to a wide stance, the forward foot is turned out, and the centre of the forward heel is exactly aligned with the centre of the arch of the other foot.
Sivananda Yoga practices the asanas, hatha yoga, as part of raja yoga, with the goal of enabling practitioners ""to sit in meditation for a long time". There is little emphasis on the detail of individual poses; teachers rely on the basic instructions given in the books by Sivananda and Swami Vishnu-devananda. In Trikonasana, the top arm may be stretched forward parallel to the floor rather than straight up. Sivananda Yoga identifies a group of 12 asanas as basic. These are not necessarily the easiest poses, nor those that every class would include. Trikonasana is the last of the 12, whereas in other schools it is one of the first and used to loosen the hips in preparation for other poses.
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga
In Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, poses are executed differently from Iyengar Yoga. "Vinyasa" means flowing, and the poses are executed relatively rapidly, flowing continuously from one asana to the next using defined transitional movements. The asanas are grouped into six series, one Primary, one Intermediate, and four Advanced. Practice begins and ends with the chanting of mantras, followed by multiple cycles of the Sun Salutation, which "forms the foundation of Ashtanga Yoga practice", and then one the series. In Trikonasana, the feet are held closer together, the back foot is at right angles rather than turned in slightly, and the lower hand grasps the big toe of the forward foot, rather than reaching to the ground. Ashtanga Vinyasa practice emphasises aspects of yoga other than asanas, including drishti (focus points), bandhas (energy locks), and pranayama.
Kripalu Yoga uses teachers from other asana traditions, focussing on mindfulness rather than using effort in the poses. Teachers may say "allow your arms to float up" rather than "bring up your arms". The goal is to use the asanas "as a path of transformation." The approach is in three stages: firstly instruction in body alignment and awareness of the breath during the pose; secondly, holding the pose long enough to observe "unconscious patterns of tension in the body-mind"; and thirdly, through "deep concentration and total surrender", allowing oneself "to be moved by prana". In Trikonasana, the teacher may direct pupils' attention to pressing down with the outer edge of the back foot, lifting the arch of the foot, and then experimenting with "micro-movements", exploring where energy moves and how it feels.
In Bikram Yoga, as developed by Bikram Choudhury, there is a fixed sequence of 26 poses, in which Trikonasana is ninth, its task to focus on opening the hips. The Bikram version of Trikonasana resembles Parsvakonasana as executed in Ashtanga or Iyengar Yoga, since the forward leg is bent "until the back of the leg is parallel to the floor". The position of the feet is seen as critically important, along with proper breathing and the distribution of weight: about 30% on the back foot, 70% on the front foot.
Types of asana
Asanas can be classified in different ways, which may overlap: for example, by the position of the head and feet (standing, sitting, reclining, inverted), by whether balancing is required, or by the effect on the spine (forward bend, backbend, twist). The number of asanas varies by what each author chooses to include in each group (as cited in the table and described in footnotes), by how comprehensive each author's coverage is, by whether groups like hip-opening and core strength are included at all, and by whether some poses are treated as variations or asanas in their own right. An empty cell means that author did not classify asanas explicitly in that way in the work cited; it does not imply that such asanas are not described by that author. For example, one of Mittra's chapters is "Sun Salutation and Hero Series", with 23 poses, and another is "Floor and Supine Poses" with 267; these are not included here as the categories of Sun/Hero and Floor/Supine do not match the types of asana used in the table, based on the broad consensus of other authors.
(supine or prone)
|Half Lord of
- Karanas, transitions in classical Indian dance
- Yoga piracy, the practice of claiming copyrights on yoga techniques
- A lakh is 100,000
- 84's symbolism may derive from its astrological and numerological properties: it is the product of 7, the number of planets in astrology, and 12, the number of signs of the zodiac, while in numerology, 7 is the sum of 3 and 4, and 12 is the product.
- The Hatha Ratnavali's list of 84 asanas is
- "Siddhasana, Bhadrasana, Vajrasana, Simhasana, Silpāsana,
- four types of Padmāsana, such as Bandha, Kara, Samputita and Suddha;
- six types of mayürāsana such as Danda, Pārsva, Sahaja, Bandha, Pinda, Ekapāda;
- Bhairavasana, Kāmadahana, Pānipātra, Kārmuka, Svastikasana, Gomukhasana, Virasana, Mandükasana, Markata, Matsyendrasana, Pārsvamatsyendrasana, Baddhamatsyendrasana, Nirālambanasana, Cāndrasana, Kānthava, Ekapādaka, Phanindra, Paścimottānāsana, Sayitapascimatāna, Citrakarani, Yoganidrasana, Vidhūnana, Pādapidana, Hamsa, Nābhitala, Ākāsa, Utpādatala, Nābhllasitapādaka, Vrscikāsana, Cakrasana, Utphālaka, Uttānakūrma, Kūrmasana, Baddhakūrma, Nārjava, Kabandha, Goraksāsana, Angusthasana, Mustika, Brahmaprāsādita;
- five Kukkutas such as Pahcacūlikukkuta, Ekapādakakukkuta, Ākārita, Bandhacūll and Pārsvakukkuta;
- Ardhanārisvara, Bakāsana, Dharāvaha, Candrakānta, Sudhāsāra, Vyāghrāsana, Rājāsana, Indrāni, Sarabhāsana, Ratnāsana, Citrapitha, Baddhapaksi, Isvarāsana, Vicitranalina, Kānta, Suddhapaksi, Sumandraka, Caurangi, Krauncasana, Drdhāsana, Khagāsana, Brahmāsana, Nāgapitha and lastly Savāsana."
- The 11 are Karmukasana, Hamsasana, Cakrasana, Kurmasana, Citrapitha, Goraksasana, Angusthasana, Vyaghrasana, Sara(la)bhasana, Krauncasana, Drdhasana.
- The 32 "useful" asanas of the Gheranda Samhita are: Siddhasana, Padmasana, Bhadrasana, Muktasana, Vajrasana, Svastikasana, Simhasana, Gomukhasana, Virasana, Dhanurasana, Mritasana, Guptasana, Matsyasana, Matsyendrasana, Gorakshanasana, Paschimottanasana, Utkatasana, Sankatasana, Mayurasana, Kukkutasana, Kurmasana, Uttanakurmakasana, Uttanamandukasana, Vrikshasana, Mandukasana, Garudasana, Vrishasana, Shalabhasana, Makarasana, Ushtrasana, Bhujangasana, and Yogasana.
- The number 84 is symbolic not literal: it is the product of 7, the number of planets in astrology, and 12, the number of signs of the zodiac, while in numerology, 84=(3+4)×(3×4).
- 84 names of asanas are listed; not all can now be identified.
- Yoga Point's Side Bends and Stretching sections.
- Mittra's Twists & Seated Poses. There are more seated poses (not counted) in his Floor & Supine Poses chapter.
- Saraswati's meditation section.
- In Yoga Journal's Pranayama section.
- In Yoga Point's Meditative section.
- Mittra's Resting Poses. He also has 267 Floor & Supine Poses (pp. 258–527), which include prone poses (not counted), and many non-reclining poses such as lunges and seated asanas.
- From Rhodes's 33 prone, 38 supine.
- Saraswati's relaxation section.
- Yogapedia's Supine Poses.
- In Yoga Point's Relaxing section.
- Mittra's Arm Balancing Poses.
- 8 "Arm balance", 8 "Balancing".
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this number has symbolic significance. S. Dasgupta, in Obscure Religious Cults (1946), cites numerous instances of variations on eighty-four in Indian literature that stress its 'purely mystical nature'; ... Gudrun Buhnemann, in her comprehensive Eighty-Four Asanas in Yoga, notes that the number 'signifies completeness, and in some cases, sacredness. ... John Campbell Oman, in 'The Mystics, Ascetics, and Saints of India (1905) ... seven ... classical planets in Indian astrology ... and twelve, the number of signs of the zodiac. ... Matthew Kapstein gives .. a numerological point of view ... 3+4=7 ... 3x4=12 ...
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