Asanas (poses)

Asana (Sanskrit आसन sitting down - आस to sit down) is a body position, typically associated with the practice of Yoga, intended primarily to restore and maintain a practitioner's well-being, improve the body's flexibility and vitality, and promote the ability to remain in seated meditation for extended periods. These are widely known as Yoga postures or Yoga positions, which is currently practiced for exercise and as alternate medicine.

In the context of Yoga practice, asana refers to two things: the place where a practitioner (yogin (general usage); yogi (male); yogini (female)) sits and the manner (posture) in which he/she sits. In the Yoga sutras, Patanjali suggests that asana is "to be seated in a position that is firm, but relaxed". As the repertoire of postures has expanded and moved beyond the simple sitting posture over the centuries, modern usage has come to include variations from lying on the back and standing on the head, to a variety of other positions. In the Yoga sutras, Patanjali mentions the execution of an asana as the third of the eight limbs of Classical or Raja yoga.

The word asana in Sanskrit does appear in many contexts denoting a static physical position, although, as noted, traditional usage is specific to the practice of yoga. Traditional usage defines asana as both singular and plural. In English, plural for asana is defined as asanas. In addition, English usage within the context of yoga practice sometimes specifies yogasana or yoga asana, particularly with regard to the system of the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. That said, yogasana is also the name of a particular posture that is not specifically associated with the Vinyasa system, and that while "ashtanga" (small 'a') refers to the eight limbs of Yoga delineated below, Ashtanga (capital 'A') refers to the specific system of Yoga developed by Sri Krishnamacharya at the Mysore Palace.

Yoga first originated in India. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali describes asana as the third of the eight limbs of classical, or Raja Yoga. Asanas are the physical movements of yoga practice and, in combination with pranayama or breathing techniques constitute the style of yoga referred to as Hatha Yoga. In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali describes asana as a "firm, comfortable posture", referring specifically to the seated posture, most basic of all the asanas. He further suggests that meditation is the path to samādhi; transpersonal self-realization.

The eight limbs are, in order, the yamas (restrictions), niyamas (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 God)).

Common Practicies

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali suggests that the only requirement for practicing asanas is that it be "steady and comfortable". The body is held poised, and relaxed, 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. This non-dualistic perspective comes from the Sankya school of the Himalayan Masters.

Students in Utthita Ashwa Sanchalanasana (High lunge)Listed below are traditional practices for performing asanas:
• The stomach should be empty.
• Force or pressure should not be used, and the body should not tremble.
• Lower the head and other parts of the body slowly; in particular, raised heels should be lowered slowly.
• The breathing should be controlled. The benefits of asanas increase if the specific pranayama to the yoga type is performed.
• If the body is stressed, perform Corpse Pose or Child Pose
• Such asanas as Sukhasana or Shavasana help to reduce headaches

Pranayama and asana

Pranayama, or breath control, is the Fourth Limb of ashtanga, as set out by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra. The practice is an integral part of both Hatha Yoga and Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga in the execution of asanas.

Patanjali discusses his specific approach to pranayama in verses 2.49 through 2.51, and devotes verses 2.52 and 2.53 of the Sutra, explaining there the benefits of the practice. Patanjali describes pranayama as the control of the enhanced "life force" that is a result of practicing the various breathing techniques, rather than the exercises themselves. The entirety of breathing practices, those classified as pranayama, and other is called svarodaya, or the science of Breath. It is a vast practice that goes far beyond the limits of pranayama as applied to asana.

Surya Namaskara

Surya Namaskara, or the Sun Salutation, which is very commonly practiced in most forms of yoga, originally evolved as a type of worship of Surya, the Vedic solar deity. Surya, the Hindu solar deity by concentrating on the Sun, for vitalization. The physical aspect of the practice 'links together' (Sanskrit: vinyāsa) twelve asanas in a dynamically expressed series. A full round of Surya namaskara is considered to be two sets of the twelve poses, with a change in the second set where the opposing leg is moved first. The asanas included in the sun salutation differ from tradition to tradition.

Benefits of practice

The physical aspect of yoga, the asanas, has been much popularized in the West, and devoted celebrity practitioners like Madonna and Sting have contributed to the increased visibility of the practice. Physically, the practice of asanas is considered to:

• improve flexibility
• improve strength
• improve balance
• reduce stress and anxiety
• reduce symptoms of lower back pain
• be beneficial for asthma and Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
• increase energy and decrease fatigue
• shorten labor and improve birth outcomes
• improve physical health and quality of life measures in the elderly
• improve diabetes management
• reduce sleep disturbances
• reduce hypertension

The emphasis on the physical benefits of yoga, attributed to practice of the asanas, has de-emphasized the other traditional purposes of yoga which are to facilitate the flow of prana (vital energy) and to aid in balancing the koshas (sheaths) of the physical and metaphysical body.

Number of positions

In 1959, Swami Vishnu-devananda published a compilation of 66 basic postures and 136 variations of those postures. In 1975, Sri Dharma Mittra suggested that "there are an infinite number of asanas.",] when he first began to catalogue the number of asanas in the Master Yoga Chart of 908 Postures, as an offering of devotion to his guru Swami Kailashananda Maharaj. He eventually compiled a list of 1300 variations, derived from contemporary gurus, yogis, and ancient and contemporary texts. This work is considered one of the primary references for asanas in the field of yoga today. His work is often mentioned in contemporary references for Iyengar Yoga, Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, Sivananda Yoga, and other classical and contemporary texts.

In 2007, public awareness of increasing attempts to patent traditional yoga postures in the US, including 130 yoga-related patents in the US documented that year, prompted the government of India to seek clarification on the guidelines for patenting asanas from the US Patent Office. To clearly show that all asanas are public knowledge and therefore not patentable, in 2008, the government of India formed a team of yoga gurus, government officials, and 200 scientists from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to register all known asanas in a public database. The team collected asanas form 35 ancient texts including the Hindu epics, the Mahabharata, the Bhagwad Gita, and Patanjali's Yoga Sutras and as of 2010, has identified 900 asanas for the database which was named the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library and made available to patent examiners.