We have been hearing since a long, yoga is the union of body, mind & soul. From this Ideal definition, we can know a lot about yoga asanas while keeping an eye on “body”. This is because “body” is the first tool we need in any asana practice.
Physically, asana is about the certain movement in our limbs which performed to stretch the body, makes it flexible, cures diseases, and enhances overall health.
But yoga asanas also have a deeper meaning if you go beyond its physical aspect (body). As stated earlier..
The body is just a tool used in asanas, and the tools are always used to achieve something big we can’t do by normal means.
Through asanas, we indeed aim to achieve control over the mind by stabilizing the body.
Jump to Section
- What is Yoga Asana?
- Yoga Poses Classification [infographic]
- History of Yoga Poses
- Origin of Yoga Poses
- How Many Yoga Asanas Are There?
- Why 84 Asanas?
- Benefits of Yoga Poses
What is Yoga Asana?
Meaning of Asana: The Sanskrit term an “Asana” is derived from the root term “asi” means “to be”.
Simply, an Asana is a seat, a pose, or a posture. A posture of sitting, standing, revolving, and other is asana but not all asanas are meant for yoga.
Indeed, yoga asanas are special physical postures which asked one to bring their focus at one place, into the pose only, by engaging specific body limbs. So, awareness is the key to any yoga asana.
Yoga Asana & Raja yoga
Patanjali’s Raja yoga defines asanas an intermediate step of 8 limbs of yoga to reach the final state of yoga i.e. Samadhi. The order of steps is:
- Yama (Social Ethics)
- Niyama (Observances)
- Asana (Physical Posture)
- Pranayama (Breathing techniques)
- Pratyahara (Turning Inward)
- Dharana (Concentration)
- Dhyan (Meditation)
- Samadhi (Pure Bliss)
However, Hatha yoga says one needs to practice only Shatkarma (body purification techniques) before attempting any yoga asana.
In Patanjali’s words, asana is the kind of “seat” (as in Padmasana or Sukhasana) which is used to sitting for meditation purposes only. This “seat”, he further defines is the middle state of effort and comfortability.
Yoga Asana vs basic body position
Are you aware of your pose when normally standing, sitting, or lay in bed, sleeping? Probably not!
On the contrary, When we happen in a yoga pose we are aware of being into the pose.
For example, take a normal pose when we are sleeping vs. a yoga pose (Savasana). In both cases, physically the body lies in a similar position.
When after an intense yoga session we lay in savasana, our experience, the way of breathing, and thought patterns differ completely from sleeping. It’s because while we perform a yoga asana, our body consciously realizes it.
A fully aware yoga asana makes us realize the whole body (even its subtlest movement) & once the mind is fully aware of the body, it doesn’t let any other thoughts come in. This is the mechanism of any yoga asana.
How Asana efforts are no longer efforts?
The nature of yoga asana is such that it demands a person to put some effort to come into the pose and be consciously in it. This conscious effort is needed because it brings the maximum attention of the person to the one place (into the pose only) Instead of letting it wander freely.
To understand this, Imagine when we are on a chair, and when we are performing the chair pose (Utkatasana).
When we do Utkatasana, we put the physical effort
- To bend the knees,
- To bring thighs parallel to the ground
- And finally, to hold pose for a few minutes
The effort here isn’t needed to attain a certain level of proficiency or to achieve a pre-defined picture of chair pose that already imprinted on our mind. Instead, when the knees or thighs feel this effort placed by you it asks the mind to bring whole attention at this place. Hence, this effort becomes a key to wandering mind to come at one place, in the pose.
Once the mind truly concentrates on the pose (or certain areas involved in pose), the efforts are no longer efforts & the pose becomes comfortable. This stage would be quite similar to when we are on a real chair.
How Yoga Asanas Help Connecting Body & Mind ?
The inner journey we travel by the practice of yoga asana begins with the body, body to breath, and breath to mind. This is like connecting different energy layers of the body.
Our body is the most visible form of pure consciousness that lies within our Chitta (Chitta in yoga means mind). To experience this consciousness, yoga asanas are like the physical conduit to flow the energy throughout different nadis within the body.
When asanas are done with proper breathwork (Pranayama), we learn to redirect our pranic energy into the specific shape of the yoga pose. Up to this point, we got control over the body and breath to manipulate energy flow.
Classification of Yoga Poses
1. Standing Poses
Yoga poses in which we firmly grounded the feet, and the spine is straight up are come in standing poses category. In these poses, we use lower extremities muscles to make movements in the upper body. Every yoga asana session begins with the most basic standing posture – Tadasana (mountain pose).
Further, performing forward bend, backbend, twisting poses perfectly need a firm feet grip and strong feet grip is directly associated with standing yoga poses. It’s the reason standing poses are also called foundational yoga poses.
Most Common Standing poses are – Tadasana – Mountain Pose, Virabhadrasana (1,2,3) – Warrior Pose (1,2,3), Trikonasana – Triangle Pose
2. Sitting Poses
Yoga poses in which weight of the upper trunk has lifted through buttocks instead of feet, are comes in the category of sitting yoga poses. Every yoga class begins with some seated postures as these poses let us watch the sensation of the body very quietly.
Usually, sitting poses has used for meditation practice as it maintains the erectness of the spine to make the body active during long hours of meditation.
Most Common Seated Meditation Poses – Padmasana – Lotus Pose, Sukhasana – Easy Pose, Siddhasana – Accomplished Pose, etc.
3. Prone Poses
Poses in which body weight is lifted through the upper chest and stomach region are the prone poses. These poses also called the reverse corpse poses as these practised by lying down on the opposite side of the back.
Practising prone poses is an excellent way to tones up the abdominal organs & flatten the tummy. Also, in prone poses at a beginner level, props like a blanket can be used to rest the forehead.
Most Common Prone Poses – Locust Pose (Shalabhasana), Frog Pose (Bhekasana), Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana), Upward-Facing Dog Pose (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana), etc.
4. Supine Poses
Supine poses are the opposite of prone poses, i.e. back has ground facing direction in the supine posture. Asana session should begin with some stretching in the spine, as in beginner level, supine pose requires excellent flexibility of the spine.
These poses are a very effective way to release the tension in the spine and so to relax the body – It’s a reason why an intense asana class ends with the supine pose (Savasana – Corpse Pose).
Most Common Supine Poses – Uttanpadasana (Double Leg Raise Pose), Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose), Pavanamuktasana (Wind Relieving Pose), Savasana (Corpse Pose), Matsyasana (Fish Pose), etc.
5. Balancing Poses
Postures in which whole body weight held on a specific position either forearms or one-leg are balancing postures. Performing these poses require a strong foundation of preparatory asanas for some time.
To get stability in the balancing postures, a flexible body is same essential as a focused mind. Balancing poses come under a variety of other yoga poses, like standing, sitting and inverted poses.
Most Common Balancing Poses – Garudasana – Eagle Posture, Vrksasana (Tree Pose), Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose), Natarajasana (Dancer Pose), Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III), Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose), etc.
6. Twisting Poses
Twisting postures are those, in which the spine has revolved around their central axis. It enhances the spine’s natural range of motion and toning up the abdominal organs.
Also, twisting postures are practised in conjunction with intense forward or backward bend to neutralize any blockages (if came in forward or backward bend) in the spine.
Most Common Twisting Poses – Bharadvajasana, Noose Pose (Pasasana), Utthita Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose), Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), etc.
7. Forward Bend Poses
Forward Bends are the yoga poses in which spine positioned in the forward direction either in sitting or standing poses. These poses create space in the spinal vertebrae, which further helps to elongate the natural growth of the spine.
A forward bend pose requires an opening in the hamstring muscles which aid up in bending through hips. At the beginner level, one can opt a slightly bend knee to go deeper in the pose.
Most Common Forward Bend Poses – Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Pose), Kurmasana (Tortoise Pose), etc.
8. Backbend Poses
Backbend yoga poses are the opposite of the forward bend poses. In these poses, the spine is curved in the backward direction. Here, the entire body is supported on arms or feet on the ground.
Backbends are effective in releasing the tension from the shoulder and chest region, and also it requires opening the in the hip flexors.
9. Inversion Poses
In these poses head positioned below the heart level which reverses the blood flow to the head area. Some poses in this category require good strength & dedication to master it.
Turning the body upside down is contrary to the physical nature of body so its benefits are beyond all other poses. Therefore headstand, one of the inverted pose, is considered the king of all asanas.
History of Yoga Poses
From a long history, yoga asanas have been modified time to time.
Many yogis today effortlessly do different Vinyasa flow in the class but knowing basic asanas origin is worthwhile for a real seeker.
In the history of yoga asana, its evolution has 4 main eras.
1. Pre-Vedic Age of Asana
The oldest signs of asana have seen around 2500-2400 BC in the Indus valley civilization in the form of Pashupati Nath seal.
This seal depicts Lord Shiva (God of Yoga) doing yoga sadhana in a seated cross-legged posture, i.e. padmasana. It shows asana was at the very beginning of yoga used in the form of seated posture only.
2. Asana in the Vedic Texts
In the yogic context, the term ‘asana’ first time used in the fourth Veda, i.e. Atharva Veda around 1500 BCE. The literal meaning of ‘asana’ derived from the root word ‘Aas’ means ‘existence’ 1. Here asanas as postures are meant to develop a ‘state of existence’ in the seeker.
Further, In Bhagavad-Gita 2, a part of Mahabharata, ‘asana’ could be seen to ‘sit straight’ in a comfortable seat. There are two asanas mentioned in Mahabharata, namely – ‘Mandukasana (Frog Pose)’ and ‘Virasana (Hero Pose)’.
Other Indian texts like Visnudharmottra Purana and Brahma Purana in 300 CE also mentioned the name to some meditative postures like Swastikasana, Padmasana, and Ardha Padmasana.
3. Asana in Yogic Texts
Different Yoga Gurus in India accumulated information from Vedas and Upanishads and gathered these in yogic texts.
Some of the famous yogic text which describes yoga asanas are the following with their explanation.
Asana in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra
Yoga’s most ancient and comprehensive text found till date is the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali in 2nd century BCE.
While in modern yoga, often people are more concerned with the physical aspect of yoga, in Yoga Sutras only three verses out of 196 defined asana in the practice of yoga. In this way, asana consists of only 1% of the whole Yoga Sutra.
Patanjali also called the father of classical yoga, described asana in his famous ‘Yoga Sutra’ as :
Yoga Sutra ‘Chapter 2 Verse 47’ “Sthira Sukham Asanam”
Sthira – Steady, stable or grounded
Sukham – Comfort, ease or peaceful
Asanam – Posture
Narration – When you try to come into a pose, it takes time to stabilise the body, i.e., in the beginning, it seems hard to hold the body into a pose. It’s the steadiness of a pose.
Later on, you can feel the comfortability in the same pose. Now the same pose wouldn’t take that much effort as it was taking before. It’s the easiness of a pose.
The very next sutra in yoga sutra elaborates on how to get in-state of steady and comfort in any asana. This state is where perfection in asana comes naturally.
Yoga Sutra ‘Chapter 2 Verse 47’ “Prayatna Saithilya Ananta Samapatti Bhyam”
Prayatna – Effort
Saithilya – Relaxation
Ananta – Infinite
Samapatti – Merging into
Bhyam – Both
Narration – In the process of coming into a pose, an effort (Prayatna) takes place obviously. When we let go of this effort, we actually allow the body to find it’s natural relaxation state (Saithilya).
Once the body got a natural relaxation state, now mind can be merged into the infinite where you can experience overall joyfulness of an asana. It is the state of perfection in the asana.
Asana in Hatha Yoga Pradipika
“Asana is the first accessory of hatha yoga which is practised to gain steadiness in pose and lightness in the body” – HYP 1.19
Hatha yoga Pradipika (HYP), a 15th-century text is the most ancient written text of hatha yoga. However, hatha yoga practised with force, but the primary concern in it is not the flexibility, but the awareness is.
Hatha is interpreted as ‘something which has done with force‘. As the name suggests, hatha yoga is the branch of ‘physical postures’ in which emphasis is given to practice asana with force. In the history of the evolution of asana, hatha yoga plays a vital role.
4. Modern History of Asana
Most of the yoga asana we practised today is not far back in the history of asana. Modern asana begins to popularise in the early 19th century. It was T. Krishnamacharya, the father of modern postural yoga, whose teaching made it possible to practice asana in the different forms of physical exercise today.
T.krishnamacharya teaching derived from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra and therapeutic aspects of yoga. Later he created a sequence of body movements with breath – which we called vinyasa flow.
Most of the modern asanas derived from Mysore. T. Krishnamacharya and his disciples, B.K.S Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois, propagated the derived style of yoga asana.
Origin of Yoga Poses
Some of the yoga postures came into existence when Indian exercise tradition (called vyayama) and west’s gymnastics approach exercises get mixed. These are called modern yoga asanas, barely has 200 years of history. However, traditional asanas have a history even before when Patanjali existed 2000 years back in India.
Some examples of asanas originated from natural observation are:
- Cobra pose – By observing how cobra releases their aggression and emotions by stretching through the head, Bhujangasana (Cobra pose) is derived.
- Tree Pose – By observing how a tree firmly stands on its base, Virksasana (tree pose) is derived where we try to balance our upper body on unshakable feet.
- Sun Salutation – For being a source of light to the world, Sun Salutation is derived to worship the sun at the time of sunrise. It comprises 12 asanas which said to have ties to ancient times.
Usually, it has seen asana’s names are originated from the object, animal, or naturally occurring things. B.K.S Iyengar 3 described the reason behind this:
Yogi while practising asana transforms their body into a specific form of different species or objects. This transformation makes them realise the state of mind in those specific forms. Hence, In asana, we try to hone some consciousness from each type of species or objects.
Why Ancient Yogis discovered Asanas ?
Yoga asanas were derived in the past to overcome the dual issue of bitter body and wondering mind.
When yogis used to sit for meditation, it was not easy for them to sit silently as due to improper posture body joints began aching and the stiff body demands much attention. This made them realize to correct their postures and eventually the idea of stabilizing the body through asana came in their mind.
How Many Yoga Asanas Are There?
In yoga, there are considered 84 number of classical asanas presented by Lord Shiva, according to several ancient texts. Though some other texts also listed more than 84 asanas, but those are the variations of the classical one.
Why 84 Asanas?
You must have heard about the number ’84’ when searching for the total number of asanas in yoga. But why only 84 asanas are there, not 100 or 85 or in some other figure. There is a reason behind it.
In Hinduism, it’s believed to have 8,400,000 (84 Lakhs) species on this earth. In fact, it’s believed a soul has to go through birth and death cycle of 8.4 million species (84 Lakh Yoni), and then we get human life (Manyush Yoni).Also, a baby on the mother’s womb is said to take 8.4 million shapes and then birth takes place after nine months. The same analogy applied to the number of asanas in yoga.
In yoga asana, it’s considered the muscles, joints and different parts of the body can be extended, flexed or rotates in the several thousand times. Hence, Lord Shiva gave 8.4 million moves, which can be attained through yoga practice. As achieving this much moves in one life is not easy for a person, further one pose fashioned for every 100,000 species.
In this way, 84 (8,400,000/100,000) classical asanas came into existence.
The number of asanas according to the various famous yogic text is the following:
1. According to Yoga Sutra
Number of Asana – Not Defined
Author – Patanjali
Found in – 2nd Century BCE
Patanjali, the father of yoga, didn’t mention the name of any asana in his famous book ‘Yoga Sutra’. Indeed, yoga sutra comprises three asana verses in chapter 2, which elaborates the necessary element of a correct seated posture.
Later on, commentary on Yoga Sutra by Bhasya suggested 12 seated yoga posture for meditation practice.
- Padmasana – Lotus Pose
- Virasana– Hero Pose
- Bhadrasana / Baddha Konasana – Gracious Pose
- Svastikasana– Auspicious or Cross Pose
- Dandasana– Staff or Base Pose
- Sopasrayasana – Supported Pose
- Paryankasana – Couch Pose or Bed Pose
- Krauncha-nishadasana – Seated Heron Pose
- Hastanishadasana – Seated Elephant Pose
- Ushtranishadasana – Seated Camel Pose
- Samasansthanasana – Evenly Balanced Pose
- Sthirasukhasana – Any motionless posture that is following one’s pleasure 🙂
2. According to Goraksha Samhitha/Goraksha Paddhathi
Number of Asana – 2
Author – Gorakshanatha
Found in – 11th Century
An early Hatha yogic text, Goraksha Samhita, stated 84 types of asanas. These 84 asanas are considered to be extracted from the original 8.4 million (84 Lakh) asanas. Out of 84 stated asanas, Goraksha Samhita describes only two meditative sitting postures in detail.
- Siddhasana – Accomplished Pose
- Padmasana – Lotus Pose
3. According to Shiva Samhitha
Number of Asana – 4
Author – Unknown
Found in – 15th Century
- Siddhasana – Accomplished Pose
- Padmasana – Lotus Pose
- Ugrasana – Stern Pose
- Svastikasana – Cross Pose
4. According to HYP
Number of Asana – 15 4
Author – Swami Svatmarama Suri
Found in – 15th Century
One among three most influential texts on hatha yoga (Other 2 being Gheranda Samhita and Shiva Samhita), HYP has described 15 asanas out of 84 in detail.
- Swastika asana – Auspicious Pose
- Gomuka asana – Cow Face Pose
- Virasana – Hero Pose
- Kurma asana – Tortoise Pose
- Kukkuta asana* – Rooster Pose
- Utttana Kurma asana – Upside-Down Tortoise Pose
- Dhanurasana* – Bow Pose
- Matsyasana – Fish Pose
- Paschimottanasana – Seated Forward Bend
- Mayurasana* – Peacock Pose
- Savasana* – Corpse Pose
- Siddha asana – Accomplished Pose
- Padma asana – Lotus Pose
- Simha asana – Lion Pose
- Bhadra asana – Gracious Pose
Further, out of 15 above asanas described in HYP, 11 asanas are only sitting postures for practice meditation (asanas without the asterisk).
5. According to Gheranda Samhita
Number of Asana – 32
Author – Gheranda
Found in – 17th Century
Out of 84 preeminent asanas, Gheranda described 32 asanas which are said to ‘useful in the world of mortals’. Some out of these 32 asanas have already described in HYP.
6. According to Hatha Ratnavali
Number of Asana – 84
Author – Srinivasa
Found in – 17th Century
Yogi Srinivasa has made first attempt to list all the 84 asanas in Hatha Ratnavali. Although the name of all 84 asanas is provided in his text, only 52 out of 84 described by the text itself.
7. According to Joga Pradipika
Number of Asana – 84
Author – Ramanandi Jayatarama
In – 1737
In Joga Pradipika, 84 asanas illustrated in painting form rather than any verbal description. With Joga Pradipika, it came to know the first time that most of the asanas among 84 asanas are sitting postures and practised to bring therapeutic benefits.
8. According to Light on Yoga
Number of Asana – 200
Author – B.K.S Iyengar (Guru Ji)
In – 1966
Founder of Iyengar yoga style, Guru Ji has demonstrated 200 asanas with his 600 monochromes photographs in his book “Light on Yoga“. These asanas have categorised into a grading system of 1 to 60 based on difficulty. ‘Light on Yoga’ also known as ‘bible’ of yoga, as asanas were never demonstrated in this descriptive way before.
9. According to Master Yoga Chart
Number of Asana – 908
Author – Dharma Mittra
Founded in – 1984
Master yoga chart comprises 908 yoga asana devoted by Sri Dharma Mittra to his Guru Yogi Gupta. This chart is usually hung around different yoga studios around the world to help the teachers and students in asana practice.
Benefits of Yoga Asana
Asana in Yoga is the key to get relief from all kind of body-mind ailments and so on, to increase the quality of life. Either it’s physical (backbone, muscle, joints pain ) or mental (anxiety, depression) problem, asana can help you to recover from it.
Let’s see some evidence-based benefits of asana practice.
1. Promotes Muscles and Joints Flexibility
Standing asana of yoga (mountain pose & half-moon pose) is well-known to increase the movements in joints and flexibility of muscles. Increased flexibility doesn’t let aches and pains at joints.
Asana practice protects us from conditions such as arthritis, osteoporosis, and back pain 5 because, in asana, different bone joints, muscles make movements at their full range of motion.
2. A better Respiratory system
Asana with breathing is one of the best things you can do for your lungs. Deep and focused breathing in sitting yoga asana increase elasticity of lungs along.
Practising sitting and supine yoga pose with yogic breathing is good for people having asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) 6. These asanas increase capacity as well as the flexibility of the lungs.
2. Reliefs from stress and anxiety
Asana is the way to relax the body in a specific position. When we relax, deep and concentric oxygen fills in our lungs. Now, this fresh oxygen quickly spreads in inner organs as we stretch, bends in any asana. It provides relaxation to adrenaline gland.
A pilot study 7 conducted to detect the changes in the brain GABA level suggests it increases after a session of asana. This increase in GABA levels helps individuals to fight against depression and anxiety disorders.
Asana to relief from stress and anxiety are savasana (Corpse Pose) and Balasana (Child Pose).
3. Improves Physical balance
As we know from the beginning, asana is all about the position of the body. Some asanas practised in standing position, some in sitting position and some in laying down position.
During an Asana, a practitioner is focusing at one point while remaining in the same position for a long time. This holding tendency of asana for long periods improves the physical balance of the body.
4. Brings Equanimity of mind & body
Human’s mind is not stable most of the time. Mind swings like a pendulum from past to present, present to future, sorrow to happiness. Thus fear, Anxiety, Anger born by the instability of mind and body.
While doing asana, the mind begins focusing on the present pose rather than past or future. This focusing of mind at one place brings equanimity with the body.
Yoga Asanas FAQs
- Why yoga poses are practiced before pranayama & meditation?
As we know yoga poses are mainly emphasis on body, rather than mind & other psychological aspects. Ancient yogis placed asanas before pranayama & meditation (mind practices) so one can master their body first & then understanding the mind become way simpler. For a better analogy, you can refer to the Pranayama article.
- In which physical condition I should avoid yoga asana?
It totally varies with an individual going through the particular conditions. However, common contraindications for yoga poses are, asthma, back injury, diarrhea, high blood pressure, menstruation, pregnancy, shoulder injury yet you can always do with some modifications & used of prop.
- What should be a good sequence of choosing different poses in my daily practice?
You can always begin a yoga session with sitting (meditative) posture, then warm-up stretch, standing postures, few arm balancing, inversions, core strengthening poses, backbend, shoulder stand, forward bend, and finally end the session by relaxing in corpse pose.
- How many yoga poses should I do on a daily basis & what should be the optimal duration of a session?
It totally depends on how much time you can devote to your practice.
If you haven't much time do 4 rounds of sun salutation as it involves almost all body parts. In Ideal condition, a session should comprise 13-15 yoga poses in a manner described above (comprises all types of yoga poses). Each yoga pose can be held for an average duration of 3-5 minutes, which makes a session around 1 hour long.
- What are some points one should always remember before & while practicing any yoga asana?
Remember, maintain a gap of 3-4 hours between meal & pose practice. Also, wear loose clothes, sit aside from your phone and footwear, straight up your spine, see if you're aligning body correctly, sync breath properly with poses, come out of pose patiently, and lastly rest at the end of pose.
- Are there any harmful effects of yoga poses?
Yes, if not done with proper guidance or without under the supervision of an expert (in case of beginners), yoga poses can have harmful effects. Common yoga injuries are, back injury, neck injury.
- Introduction to Yoga, Chapter 1 https://shodhganga.inflibnet.ac.in/
- The Ultimate Science of Yoga http://www.cs.albany.edu/~goutam/ScYogaCamera.pdf
- B. K. S. Iyengar https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B._K._S._Iyengar
- Asanas in HYP & GS https://www.researchgate.net
- Therapeutic effects of yoga https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3193654/
- Hatha yogic exercises among patients with obstructive pulmonary diseases https://www.researchgate.net/publication/320929616_Experiences_of_hatha_yogic_exercises_among_patients_with_obstructive_pulmonary_disease_A_qualitative_study
- Yoga Asana sessions increase brain GABA levels https://www.researchgate.net/