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Defining Yoga Asanas

By: Gaia Staff  |  May 30th, 2018

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. In modern yoga context, an “asana” refers to a pose or even a breathing practice, i.e.; Balasana Asana, or the famous “Child’s Pose,” or the Surya Bhedana Pranayama asana, a.k.a. the “Single Nostril Breath.”

So rather than asking “what is asana yoga?” the question is “what are yoga asanas?” And the answer is: “Asana” refers to postures, poses, and breath techniques in yoga, each with their own name, i.e. Balasana Asana.

Balasana Asana, or the classic “Child’s 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 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 report feeling better after their first yoga class or session.

Types of Yoga

  • Classical Yoga: While yoga is an ancient system developed over 5,000 years ago in India, it is a living tradition that has evolved over time. The earliest type of yoga still accessible today is derived from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a Hindu scholar. This early text, dated around 400 CE, organized older knowledge and practices into a cohesive system that today is called “classical yoga.”
  • Hatha Yoga: This “radical” style of yoga developed a few hundred years after Patanjali, and was based on the premise that the body was 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.
  • Iyangar Yoga: This method focuses on fine details of alignment and anatomy. The founder, B.K.S. Iyangar, from Western India, began teaching yoga in 1937. Eventually he taught to celebrities and luminaries in the west, including Aldous Huxley. The Iyangar method migrated to the U.S. beginning in 1957, and by 2005, was considered the most influential yoga model in the world. The Iyangar style is noted for developing mobility and strength.
  • Ashtanga Yoga: Ashtanga is an intensive, challenging series of asanas meant for the advanced yoga practitioner — not for beginners.
  • Vinyasa Yoga: This method originated from the Ashtanga school in the 1980s, and is considered the most athletic yoga style. Ashtanga is sometimes called Power Yoga.
  • Restorative Yoga: This is a gentle technique designed to relax and de-stress. Props such as bolsters, pillows, and blocks are used to allow practitioners to remain in postures for longer periods than other yogas. Restorative yoga has meditation and breathing, or pranayama components as well.
  • Yin Yoga: In the 1970s, a 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.

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