Defining Yoga Asanas
The Sanskrit word asana translates into seat in English, but if you say the word to yoga practitioners, all the postures and stretches they know will flash through their minds. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras simply define asana as a “steady, comfortable posture,” which could be any shape.
In modern yoga context, an asana refers to a physical pose i.e. balasana (child’s pose) or trikonasana (triangle pose).
Different asanas have different rewards — exploring all the benefits associated with dozens of poses would be more than enough for a book, and beyond the scope of a single article. Asanas also have benefits on physical, spiritual, and energetic levels.
Many begin a yoga practice for stress relief and improved health, but discover benefits such as an increased sense of well-being, easier access to meditative states, and improved emotional stability. The key to experiencing these benefits is persistence over time along with patience, although many feel better after their first yoga class or session.
Watch this free video: The Grace of Pranayama in Asana!
Types of Yoga
- Hatha Yoga: This “radical” style of yoga is based on the premise that the body is the key to enlightenment; by practicing physical austerities and cleansing rituals, practitioners could achieve realization. Hatha yoga emphasizes breathing techniques, and some hatha asanas are rigorous and can take years to master. All physical yogas are considered hatha yoga.
- Iyengar Yoga: This method focuses on fine details of alignment and anatomy. The founder, B.K.S. Iyengar, from Western India, began teaching yoga in 1937. Eventually, he taught to celebrities and luminaries in the west, including the author Aldous Huxley. The Iyengar method migrated to the U.S. beginning in 1957, and by 2005, was considered the most influential yoga model in the world. The Iyengar style is noted for developing mobility and strength with generous use of props.
- Ashtanga Yoga: Ashtanga is an intensive, challenging series of asanas in three series developed by K. Pattabhi Jois.
- Vinyasa Yoga: This method originated from the Ashtanga school in the 1980s, and can be recognized by a breath-to-movement style including sun salutations and usually standing, balancing, and floor series.
- Restorative Yoga: This is a gentle technique designed to relax and de-stress. Bolsters, pillows, and blocks are used to allow practitioners to remain in postures for longer periods than other styles. Restorative yoga may include meditation and breathing (pranayama) components as well.
- Yin Yoga: In the 1970s, martial artist Paulie Zink developed yin yoga with the intention of providing a slow-paced style with longer pose holds — up to five minutes or more. These long holds affect the joints and fascia (connective tissue) in the body, and are believed to increase circulation and flexibility.
Discipline & Surrender: The Art of Down Dog
I’m a yoga teacher who’s been teaching for over 20 years and doing down dog every day. So technically I can do the pose, but because of a pinched nerve in my elbow I’ve developed a problem akin to tennis elbow and it hurts like hell.
For years I’ve heard one student after another complain about down dog. They tell me it’s too hard, it’s boring and it sometimes hurts the hands and the feet. I would remind them about limitation, relaxing and letting go. “Breathe,” I would say.
I love down dog. It reminds me to surrender every part of my body to the pose. It requires discipline to first get into the pose and then a sense of surrender to maintain it. I remind my students that such is down dog, such is life. It takes discipline to stick to your goals and surrender to maintain them.
What I love about down dog is that it’s a one-for-all pose, meaning that it requires the integration of the whole body. It stretches the muscles of the back of the legs, shoulders, the belly and the back. It strengthens the arms, relieves neck tension and offers some of the benefits of inverted poses, such as cleaning the internal organs and relieving tension. It can be done for a warm up or a cool down.
Patanjali, who organized the knowledge of yoga into The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, understood down dog. His book compiles 196 sutras that are essentially a road map for life. The second sutra, if fully understood, is enough to understand yoga. The rest of the sutras only serve to explain. Basically the second sutra is about the modification of the mind or the balance between the two qualities of abhyasa and variragya or “discipline” and “surrender.” This is down dog.
These two qualities form the foundation of yoga. It’s the balancing and the blending of the two opposing forces of discipline (practice) and surrender (letting go) that create harmony. It’s precisely the physical discipline of moving into down dog and the letting go so as to maintain it: that is why I love down dog, and why I was so disappointed when my body would no longer allow me to embrace the pose.
Not to be one to give up, I saw my doctor who sent me to a physical therapist. For six weeks I worked to relieve the pain in my elbow so that I could return to the mat. It also took discipline to faithfully make time to see the physical therapist three times a week. It took a sense of surrender to let go and remain unattached to the outcome of my therapy. My focus was to establish that sense of balance between abhyasa and variragya.
This process of therapy was a discovery that called upon me to transcend my ego. I’ve always prided myself on being able to easily slip in and out of down dog. My body has always been strong, flexible and resilient. Now my body was tired and worn, and I had to let go of my self-imposed boundaries and admit that I too had my limitations. I’m the yoga teacher and I cannot do a down dog?! But like all things in life, this too shall pass. Everything changes. With time and a little rest my elbow improved, and before I knew it, I was back on the mat in down dog with my students.
But something changed. I no longer take for granted that my body will always respond with the discipline I impose. Sometimes we need to pull back and surrender to the flow of life, even if that flow is one that is not so pleasant. As I like to remind my students, everything has an element of good. We just need to surrender to it and quietly learn to accept. In that, we will discover a sense of discipline and the ability to surrender; and if truly understood, this is enough to understand yoga. The resting of my elbow, like the remaining sutras, simply served to instill in me the importance of balance and the modification of the mind.