When we think of the word ‘Asana’ these days, images of warrior poses, handstands, downward facing dogs and impressive backbends may spring to mind – after all, we know that the physical practice of Yoga, ‘asana’, is often the primary focus in 21st century classes.
What is less well known however, is that the word asana doesn’t actually refer to any of the postures we practice in class – other than one – the posture we might take for meditation; a seated posture….
Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga is widely regarded as ‘the path to samadhi’ – ‘bliss’ or ‘enlightenment’. There are various steps we’re asked to take along this path, which include:
As you can see, the practices of Yama & Niyama (which are more or less practiced entirely off the mat) come first, suggesting their importance. These are our ‘moral codes’, guiding us towards a way of living and being that supports ourselves, the world around us, and our Yoga practice. For lots more information on the Yamas & Niyamas, click HERE.
These are followed by four ‘limbs’ we can actually practice consciously: Asana – posture(s), pranayama – breathing practices and techniques, pratyahara – sense withdrawal, and dharana – concentration or focus. After this, the steps of dhyana – meditative absorbtion and samadhi – bliss or enlightenment, happen to us. So when we say we’re ‘meditating’, what we’re really doing most of the time is ‘focussing’ very deeply. Throughout true meditation, we wouldn’t even have the sense of ‘I am meditating’…. It is a state we are absorbed into.
When Patanjali mentioned ‘asana’ all that time ago, he wasn’t referring to any of the postures you see on Instagram these days; he was actually referring only to the position in which you would sit for the practices of pranayama and dharana. Ancient yogis were not so much concerned with the body, it was all about transcending the mind – and they didn’t necessarily need to see their yoga practice as a means to a ‘work out’ because they definitely wouldn’t have spent so much time sitting at desks and eating unhealthy, processed food….
Infact, early Yogis conidered embodied life to be something full of suffering and pain. Just read this exerpt from the Maitrayaniya Upanishad (2nd or 3rd Century BCE), which alludes as to why the ‘goal’ was transcendence of the body:
“Venerable, in this ill-smelling, unsubstantial body [which is nothing but] a conglomerate of bone, skin, sinew, muscle, marrow, flesh, semen, blood, mucus, tears, rheum, feces, urine, wind, bile, and phlegm—what good is the enjoyment of desires? In this body, which is afflicted with desire, anger, greed, delusion, fear, despondency, envy, separation from the desirable, union with the undesirable, hunger, thirst, senility, death, disease, sorrow, and the like—what good is the enjoyment of desires?”
Where Did The Postures Come From?
It wasn’t until the rapid rise of Tantra from the 5th to 7th centuries that the physical body started to become regarded as having special importance. The tantric tradition is concerned mostly with subtle energy and the body as a means to express and connect with this. While Patanjali’s way of thinking separates nature (prakriti) from the divine consciousness, Tantra practitioners think more along the lines of ‘the divine’, ‘universal energy’, ‘god’ or ‘higher power’ being in everything and everyone, which is non-dualism at its finest.
There are infact no standing postures (other than Tadasana and possibly Samastithi) recorded in ancient yogic texts such as the Vedas, Upanishads and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. While Tantra introuced the concept of movement and subtle energy, this was still very much all in preparation for meditation, and many of the postures are low to the ground and concerned mostly with cleansing the body of impurities.
Take for example Mayurasana (peacock pose): A challenging arm balance which these days is seen as physically ‘impressive’ and a sign of being fit a strong, whereas previously the intention of the postuere was really to stimulate digestion and cleanse the organs and blood, bringing the endocrine system into harmony, and balancing the three doshas vata, pitta & kapha.
Vrschikasana (scorpion pose) Is another photo-favourite amongst many well known ‘yogis’. It’s an aesthetically beautiful pose yes, and many look upon it in awe of the balance of flexibility and strength required to access it. The traditional benefits though?: ‘arresting (slowing down) the physical ageing process… improving the blood flow to the brain and pituitary gland… toning the reproductive organs… tones the nerves of the spine and develops balance’.
Improving hormonal, digestive and circulatory health was of upmost importance to yogis hundreds of years ago, as cleansing and clearing the body through asana, pranayama and kriya practices was considered an essential part of preparing the body and mind for meditation.
When the West met the East a few thousand years later, what was known as ‘yoga’ began to take on a much more physical form.
The Ashtanga form of physical practice was prescribed to young Indian military boys in order to teach them self discipline, and in the 1920s, the outward expression of ‘Yoga’ actually become influenced more by wrestling and body building, Swedish gymnastics and physical culture, which all influenced a huge amount of postures we practice today. When teachers say “this posture is thousands of years old”, we need to get our facts right; yes, there are stone carvings, paintings and murals of people sitting in what appears to be the lotus position, but postures like ‘eka pada sirsasana’ (leg behind the head pose), Hanumanasana (the splits) and Tittibhasana (firefly pose), are likely to have been influenced or at least connected in some part to European contortionism of the 1900s. (For more information on this, see the book ‘Yoga Body’ by Mark Singleton).
No matter where the postures come from, when we’re in a Yoga class – for the most part – it maintains that all of this movement; all of the bending, stretching, strengthening, sweating, wobbling and wondering when the teacher will tell us to come out of the posture – is still intended to prepare us for meditation. We move the body in order to still the mind. When emotions are left stagnant and ‘pushed down’ inside ourselves, they start to have a very physical effect on us , but when we start to move – when we put energy – in – motion, we begin to shift our state of being, and any emotions we have unnecessarily held on to are allowed to move out of their hiding place and disperse.
Take Your Seat
The way we’re physically positioned when preparing for meditation is pretty important, and while it doesn’t require you to be able to tie yourself up in knots, it does require some length in the spine and a firm, stable grounding. While Patanjali doesn’t comment an awful lot on the seated position or ‘asana’, he does make one thing clear;
‘Sthira Sukham Asanam’
‘Asana should be steady and comfortable’.
The word ‘Sthira’ means ‘steady’ or ‘stable’, while the word ‘sukha’ means ‘good space’. This sutra therefore more literally translates as ‘resolutely abide in a good space’.
Ancient texts like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (which by the standards of ‘Yoga’ is still pretty modern) and sages offer a variety of different postures for meditation:
- Padmasana or ‘lotus positoin’. This asana requires a lot of of flexibility in the hips, many people experience pain or minor tears in the meniscus part of the knee if the legs are forced into this position, so it’s best to practice only after a lot of prior hip opening, or if it is naturally available to you. If this is infact comfortable for you, it offers a lot of stability, enabling full focus to rest on more subtle aspects of the breath and movement of the ‘chitta’ or ‘mind stuff’.
- Virasana or ‘hero’s pose’. (I personally use a block to sit on for this asana, as I find it can be particularly contradictory for the knees!)
- Veerasana – another variation of the ‘hero’s pose’, this version
- Dhyana Virasana – Similar to Gomukhasana, this asana is considered a good meditation position for those who find it accessible, as it provides as particularly stable base. The outer hips and adductors like the piriformis and IT band need to be opened in order to protect the knees in this posture.
- Vajrasana – often known as ‘thunderbolt pose’, this can be more accessible than virasana, and is also thought to be one of the most effective postures for stimulating digestion.
- Bhadrasana – the word ‘bhadra’ often translates as ‘pleasant’, ‘friend’ or ‘gracious’. Although it may not be so pleasant for everyone, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika mentions four asanas appropriate for sitting in for prolonged periods of time, and Bhadrasana is listed as the fourth. It is said to be especially effective for activating muladhara chakra (the root or base chakra) as traditionally the heels are to be pressed into the perineum.
- Svastikasana – or ‘auspicious pose’ is one of the simpler cross-legged positions. The swastika symbol originates from the Hindu tradition, and it represents good omens or auspiciousness. ‘Su’ translates as ‘good’, ‘asti’ as ‘to be’ or ‘existence’, and ‘ka’ often means ‘to make’. The intention of the posture therefore is to evoke a sense of existing as a good or positive being.
- Dandasana – Is a good option for anyone with issues surrounding the hip joints, or with knee pain. Dandasana translates as ‘staff pose’, and the body represents a staff with outstretched legs and an upright spine.
- Sopasraya is that in which traditionally tiger, deer skin or cloth is used to sit upon. Cloth or animal skin is likely to have been reserved for Brahmins or those of a higher caste to sit upon. Householders would either have sat on the floor or on ‘kusha’ grass (explained further on).
- Siddhasana is said to be the ‘most perfect asana’, and one which should always be practiced according to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. ‘Siddhis’ are known as ‘acomplishments’ we might achieve through the process of Yoga, a ‘siddha’ is someone who is considered ‘accomplished’ (plus, siddhas have all sorts of apparent supernatural powers, which we’ll discuss another time). So siddhasana is known as the ‘accomplished pose’.
Infact, Siddhasana is considered so important, that the Hatha Yoga Pradipika speaks about this asana for several verses:
“41. Out of the 84 asanas Siddhasana should always be practiced, because it cleanses the impurities of 72,000 nadis.
- By contemplating on oneself, by eating sparingly, and by practicing Siddhasana for 12 years, the Yogi obtains success.
- Other postures are of no use, when success has been achieved in Siddhasana, and Prana Vayu becomes calm and restrained by Kevala Kumbhaka”. Sounds pretty good….
- Sthirasukha is probably the best option to choose, which actually means whatever posture may secure steadiness and ease. This is advised by sage Patanjali, and is also described as Yathasukha, meaning any position which may ‘secure ease’. If you need to sit on a block or bolster in order to elevate the hips, this is completely fine as it is important that the spine remains lengthened, and there is sufficient space for the diaphragm to expand and allow for full movement of breath. Because we tend to sit with the legs in a position which contracts the psoas and hip flexors, this may be an appropriate way of sitting for most people.
Length in the spine is intended to promote space for subtle energy to flow through sushumna, the main ‘nadi’ or energy channel running esoterically through the spine. Cultivating space in this channel is about preparing for the rise of Kundalini (the esoteric coiled snake at the bottom of the spine, representing our dormant energy). When Kundalini (dormant and potential ‘spiritual energy’) rises up Sushumna (the esoteric sipine or main energy channel) – it passes through each chakra (wheel or center of energy) along the way. As this energy reaches the very top of the head, this is when we’re said to reach enlightenment. However, it is also said that encouraging Kundalini to rise without having properly balanced and opened the chakras first could lead to madness…. So take things slowly….
Sitting on a blanket, a block, a rug or even a chair is permitted. Whatever helps you to find that balance of sthira and sukha. Traditionally, a person would sit in their chosen asana on a mound or a mat of often dried grass known as a ‘kusha’. If you’d prefer to sit on a non-grassy cushion though, many people use a specific cushion or pillow to sit on for meditation purposes, making the whole practice more ritualistic.
Once you’ve found the most comfortable seat to sit in, the next step is to cultivate a way of being in this seat with complete focus on the breath, before entering into the practice of pranayama….
I’m often asked about books to recommend to anyone wanting to find out more about Yoga. For this piece, here’s some further reading:
Yoga Body – By Mark Singleton
Hatha Yoga Pradipika – By Svatmarama 15th century C.E, translated by various scholars
Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha – By Saraswati Satyananda Swami