Yoga Theory and Practice
The Purpose and Preparation of Asana
practice of asanas results in feeling well, improved health, better posture,
or increased self esteem. Although these are wonderful attainments, they
are not cited in the text (Patanjali), which infers that they are not
significant attainments in Classical Yoga.”
This quote from Mukunda Stiles illustrates a point that although many
Western yogis have felt the need to promote yoga by concentrating on asana
and the tangible physical and emotional benefits that practitioners experience,
ultimately the practice of asana in yoga is intended to work not just
on the physical level but also on a spiritual or philosophical level.
of asana is intended to maintain the body’s health as it is believed
that a healthy body will lead to a healthy mind. Diseases and other physical
afflictions disturb the mind and disturb the yoga students’ ability
to concentrate and practice regularly.
posture of yoga is steady and easy. It is realised by relaxing one’s
effort and resting like the cosmic serpent on the waters of infinity.
Then one is unconstrained by opposing dualities.”
Patanjali’s verses on asana summarise the ultimate purpose of asana
which is to allow the body to be comfortable and still for long enough
for a yogi to be able to practice meditation and begin to experience other
states of being such as Samadhi.
“Prostrating first to the guru, Yogi Swatmarama instructs the knowledge
of hatha yoga only for (raja yoga) the highest state of yoga.”
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika clearly states that the practice of asana is
“only” a preparation for raja yoga. My own experience of asana
agrees with this. I spent years thrashing about on my mat determined to
bind or to do poses in Padmasana without actually appreciating fully that;
“In truth it matters little how far you can bend forward or how
far you can twist, for wherever the point of resistance lies is the place
where you have the greatest opportunity to learn and to change.”
It was as I began to meditate regularly that I began to appreciate why
it was so important for the body to be healthy and the mind to be undisturbed.
Minor ailments such as colds and flu and aches and pains in my knees from
my astanga practice actually added up to considerable breaks between days
on which I practiced meditation. The sense of well-being felt in meditation
was more important to me than my ashtanga practice and my dislike of fruit.
So I adapted my yoga practice and my diet to make sure my posture would
continue to be comfortable and steady.
“Prior to everything, asana is spoken of as the first part of hatha
yoga. Having done asana one gets steadiness (firmness) of body and mind;
diseaselessness and lightness (flexibility) of the limbs.”
As I understand it, this is the purpose of asana. Asana works on the Annamaya
kosha, balancing energies flowing through the nadis and strengthening
the body and preparing it for work with the Manomaya and Pranamaya koshas.
The asanas have different qualities and traditionally the asanas practiced
by a student would be given to them by their guru specifically to help
them on their path to enlightenment.
This tradition is emphasised in Krishnamacharya’s approach to yoga
and could simply be illustrated by students with sedentary lifestyles
being taught energising vinyasa whilst people with a physical lifestyle
are taught recuperative asanas. Age is also taken into consideration with
the dynamic practices considered appropriate for one’s youth being
gradually replaced by meditative practices as one grows older. The idea
behind this is to balance the energies and to balance the person.
The Gherandasamhita lists 32 essential asanas out of a possible 1600 important
ones, but only comments briefly on their purpose in a few cases. Padmasana
, “is useful for the purpose of attaining moksa.” , whilst
Bhujangasana, “removes all ailments, invigorates the body and awakens
the serpent goddess.”
Yoga Pradipika describes the purpose of the postures such as Matsyendrasana
saying it, “increases the digestive fire to such an incredible capacity
that it is the means of removing diseases and thus awakening the serpent
power and bringing equilibrium in the bindu.”
the digestive fire and becoming free from diseases are also mentioned
as benefits for Paschimothanasana, Mayurasana, and Siddhasana which “opens
the door to liberation” , and “purifies the 72,000 nadis.”
The purpose of asana in the west could simply be to, “feel calm
and centred after the class….practice took the edge off anxiety
Having students feel better after an asana class is not the main purpose
of an asana practice. Ultimately the asanas will make the spine stronger,
open the hips and enable the students to concentrate with awareness for
longer periods of time. These are preparations for yogic meditation and
although many students may feel satisfied with simply feeling better,
ultimately they will discover that their minds and bodies are ready for
meditation and if conditions are right in their lives they may decide
to practice and follow the guidelines suggested by the Bhagavad-Gita.
seated, strive to still your thoughts…..hold your body, head, and
neck firmly in a straight line, and keep your eyes from wandering.”
T he benefits that may accrue from practicing asana
immediate benefits of practicing yoga are increased flexibility, strength
and the ability to concentrate as well allowing us to release tensions
from our minds and bodies. Long term practice of yoga keeps practitioners
healthy and flexible into old age by stimulating and regulating all the
systems of the human body including the muscular, glands, nervous system
body’s systems are working well we achieve one of the goals of yoga
which is, “The goal of asana practice is to live in your body and
to learn to perceive clearly through it.” The focus of asana is
on the efficient functioning of the muscles of the body, or in yogic terms
the Annamaya kosha.
list is taken from Job’s Body and gives an interesting insight into
how many muscular functions the body has apart from just moving our limbs
through space. It is also worth considering how emotionally attached we
are to these functions and how disturbing it is to our peace of mind when
problems arise with any of them.
o They hold
the joints of the skeleton in place and suspend all body parts from our
frame – stability.
o They pattern the overall arrangement of that framework in space –
o They create movements around the joints – gesture.
o They orchestrate these gestures to move us around – locomotion.
o They fill and empty our lungs – primary respiration.
o They provide the pumping mechanisms for all the body’s fluids
– secondary respiration, intracellular circulation, lymphatic drainage.
o They seek out nourishment, pick it up, bite, chew, swallow, move food
through gut tube, collect waste products, urinate, defecate and clean
o They are the means by which all the skills of survival and the arts
of civilization are realised.
o They copulate, support gestation, and deliver the infant into the world.
o They start and stop the secretions of every gland.
o They aim and focus our special senses (eyes, ears, taste, smell, equilibrium).
o They mobilise and shape our sense of touch.
o They are sense organs themselves, contributing enormously to our own
body image and to our sense of the mass and extension – the substance
– of the world.
There are hundreds of asanas to choose from when practicing yoga and by
following a balanced practice of forward bends, backward bends, inversions,
balances, spinal twists and lateral flexes all the above functions should
be enhanced. By tending to the well being of our physical bodies through
the practice of asana we allow our minds to put plans into practice in
the physical world which is a great source of satisfaction.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika comments that;
“Prior to everything, asana is spoken of as the first part of hatha
yoga. Having done asana one gets steadiness (firmness) of body and mind;
diseaselessness and lightness (flexibility) of the limbs.”
Perhaps the diseaselessness of this verse refers to the efficient functioning
of the muscular systems listed above.
Another important system which is not mentioned above is relaxation.
Yoga Pradipika informs us that Savasana “…removes tiredness
and enables the mind (and whole body) to relax.” The counterpose
to the stimulation of the body during asana practice is Savasana when
the body and mind are given time to rest and recuperate.
of Savasana are much more profound than the feeling of relaxation might
indicate. The main physiological benefit is a reduction in blood pressure
as the autonomic nervous system responds to asana by balancing the sympathetic
and parasympathetic nervous systems.
act of reducing blood pressure, which is one of the commonest undiagnosed
conditions to be found in any middle aged yoga class, can reduced the
risk of strokes and heart attacks. Savasana and Yoga Nidra also have aspects
of them which are related to hypnotism.
is more than a posture in which to contemplate the ephemeral nature of
life, it gives yogis access to their unconscious minds and allows them
to plant seeds or samkalpa that will lead to transformations in their
The question of counterpose.
special order seems to be required. I was permitted to vary asanas according
to my own desire.”
form Theos Bernard’s “Hatha Yoga” seems to be an exceptional
reference to counterpose, and looking through his book it is clear that
the poses he practiced included forward and backward bends, standing and
inverted poses. Perhaps due to the dedicated nature of his practice formal
use of counterposes was not considered necessary. Swami Satyananda Saraswati
illustrates why counterpose is useful in regular classes in the west,
“This concept of counterpose is necessary to bring the body back
to a balanced state.”
The state of balance referred to is not simply structural but also energetic.
An example of counterpose would be to follow Sirshasana by Balasana. In
this instance the increased blood pressure in the head caused by the inversion
is given time to equalise during a period at which the head and body are
at the same general level.
is a full body pose during which the body is energised, the time spent
in Balasana allows the mind to centre and the muscles to recuperate.
restored in the mind and body and it is then safe to proceed to the next
asana. Safety is one of the main reasons that counterposes are practiced.
If students practice an energising Bhujangasana bending backwards and
opening the spine the abdominal muscles are stretched and the sternum
is opened along the front of the body. Along the back of the body the
erector spinae are contracted and the scapulae are drawn together.
was continuously practiced without a counterpose, in time this spine would
develop a serious imbalance with weak overstretched abdominal muscles
and overdeveloped erector spinae. Bhujangasana is an energising pose,
so this too would affect the yogi in the long run.
for Bhujangasana would be Paschimothanasana in which the movements of
Bhujangasana are reversed with the erector spinae being stretched and
the abdominals contracting, energetically the pose is a calming centring
pose which would help to balance the energising effects of Bhujangasana.
The practice of both poses would help to maintain the structural integrity
of the spine.
both sides of the body are balanced equally is important as it avoids
developing structural problems in the spine and hips which could cause
lordosis, kyphosis and scoliosis.
Counterposes are normally practiced for about half as long as the main
asana. In the course of a yoga practice balance is also maintained in
other ways throughout the class, an example would be practicing energising
Suryanamaskar at the beginning of the class and balancing that with a
relaxing Savasana at the end.
Counterpose is an essential part of a yoga practice which allows the body
to return to a sense of balance after being moved in a particular direction.
The mind body connection between physical balance and mental equilibrium
is important to consider when planning appropriate counterposes to asana.
Ultimately asana and counterpose lead us to a sense of energetic balance
which begins simply by exertion and relaxation, flexing and contracting,
as the body finds it’s sense of structural balance the mind too
becomes more centred and ultimately reaches a state where the yogi experiences;
“that conceptual point where sacred reality impinges upon profane
reality, where time and eternity meet, and where all dualities are resolved.”
The need for strength in addition to flexibility in asana.
range of motion in our joints becomes gradually atrophied by our sedentary
lifestyles and the effects of dehydration in adult tissues.
Through the regular practice of asana the muscles are stretched and; “stretching
slows the process of dehydration by stimulating the production of tissue
lubricants. It pulls the interwoven cellular cross-links apart and helps
muscles rebuild with healthy parallel cell structure.”
The main focus of stretching within the muscle is not the muscle fibres
themselves which are able to stretch to up to 150 percent of their normal
length. This should be enough to be able to move into most asanas with
ease. What holds the muscles back is fascia and the nerve endings used
or stretch receptors are programmed to inform the brain of where a muscle
is, how stretched it is and how fast it is moving . The nerves are pre-programmed
by previous experience to send out messages, sensed as pain, which will
prevent the muscle from being injured.
an inelastic fibrous membrane thought to make up to 40 percent of a muscles’
resistance to movement. Rolfers believe that fascia is the physical key
to our emotional bodies, fascia hardens and becomes less flexible not
just as a result of physical injuries such as repetitive movements but
also as a result of emotional hurts.
would be how people who have reacted to problems with depression might
have spines that are bent forward in a protective gesture. Rolfing works
by intense deep tissue massage of the fascia to bring about deep emotional
and physical release.
works in this way gradually allowing the practitioner to access areas
of the unconscious mind. Back bends such as Bhujangasana and Ustrasana
open the chest, arch the spine and shoulders back and stretch the fascia
in an area notorious for storing tension. The result is an energising
pose which makes you feel better.
of stretching are joint lubrication, improved healing, better circulation
and enhanced mobility – are related to the healthy stimulation of
many benefits to stretching and in many peoples minds flexibility and
stretching are the main point of practicing yoga, however; “If you
only increase passive flexibility without developing strength to control
it, you make yourself vulnerable to a serious joint injury.”
behind movement of our limbs into asana is that as one muscle contracts
the other releases in a process known as “reciprocal inhibition”.
For example the muscles which flex and extend our arms are the tricep
and bicep. As the bicep contracts the tricep relaxes and as the tricep
contracts the bicep relaxes.
If you had
arms that couldn’t extend fully just working on flexibility and
lengthening in the bicep would weaken it in the long run. To achieve the
full range of movement it is important to strengthen the tricep to allow
it to contract more effectively and extend the arm more effectively.
tight muscle is often weakened, in that it cannot pull your body through
it’s full range of motion.” It may be necessary to do exercises
which both stretch and strengthen the muscle.
It is important to consider muscle strength in it’s relation to
flexibility because many asanas require greater flexibility but when muscles
surrounding a joint are weak it can cause hyperextension of joints. For
example weak quadriceps can lead to hyper extended knees which can lead
to ligament and cartilage damage.
Therefore in standing poses such as Trikonasana and Virabhadrasana it
would be important to develop strength in the quadriceps to ensure the
knees remain safe. One of the problems of muscle weakness is that the
body can compensate by using adjacent muscles which can lead to a chronic
weakness in the primary mover.
An awareness of muscle strength is needed when more complicated asana
are introduced and it is important to be able to assess students’
strength. In shoulderstand a good level of general strength is needed
to be able to hold the pose otherwise the spine will slump if the erector
spinae and abdominals are weak, the arms will slide outwards if the deltoids
are weak, the legs will wobble back and forward if the hip extensors and
flexors are weak too.
In the classical
pose without props it would also be important to ensure the sternocleidomastoids
in the neck were in good condition too.
For students to be able to progress safely towards the more complicated
asanas it is essential that they develop the core strength necessary to
be able to hold the poses. In the classical style of yoga practiced by
Theos Bernard he was considered to have learnt an asana when he was able
to hold it for three hours. For many of us even simple poses such as Dandasana
are a challenge to hold for a few minutes.
teachings of yoga recommend the practice of twelve Suryanamaskar a day
as a minimum requirement for general health so I think it is important
not to neglect the muscular yoga practices because it is through the strength
developed in these that asana finally becomes comfortable and steady.
I have been
to two workshops by Glen Ceresolli, a senior Iyengar instructor who emphasises
strength in asana practice and whose teachings have lead to my understanding
of the role of strength in asana. By holding poses for longer the muscles
are challenged beyond their normal range of endurance, however it is important
to differentiate this from simple body building because the attitude to
strengthening practices is all important.
a sense of mental and physical equanimity and equilibrium determine the
quality of the pose and the effect it will have. Holding poses for too
long will simply cause emotional and physical stress and will be the experience
you take with you out of the yoga practice.
the asana for long enough to challenge the muscles, the mind and breath
can relax areas of the body not being used directly in the pose and direct
energy to the muscle in use. After each practice the muscles are used
for a little bit longer and strength is developed.
If the pose
is held too long the mind loses its sense of equanimity, however if the
pose is held for long enough to extend the length of time equanimity can
be maintained then skills useful for a yogic approach to the world can
better equipped to face up to stressful situations in everyday life in
the knowledge that we are better prepared to maintain a sense of equanimity
and balance through our yoga practice.
APMB, Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Bihar School of Yoga, 1999.
Hatha Yoga, Theos Bernard, Essence of Health Publishing, 2001.
Hathayogapradipika, commentary by Swami Muktibodhananda, Yoga Publications
Job’s Body, Deane Juhan, Station Hill Press, 2003.
Yoga And The Quest For The True Self, Stephen Cope, Bantam, 2000.
Yoga in Daily Life: the System, Swami Maheshwarananda, Ibera Verlag, 2000.
Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit, Donna Farhi, Newleaf, 2000.
Yoga Sutra attributed to Patanjali, trans. Barbara Stoler Miller, University
of California Press, 1996.
Stretching Without Pain, W.Paul Blakey, Bibliotek Books, 1994.
Structural Yoga Therapy, Mukunda Stiles, Weiser, 2000.
The Bhagavad Gita, translated by Eknath Easwaren, Nilgiri Press, 2001.
The Original Yoga, Gherandasamhita, Shyam Ghoshe, Munshiram Manoharlal,
The Sacred Mountain, John Snelling, EastWest Publications, 1983.
What Science can teach us about flexibility, Fernando Pagés Ruiz,
about Swatmarama’s Yoga System
about Yoga in the UK
for your Directory of
Alternative therapists and Body therapies