In the western world, ‘yoga’ primarily known for the physical aspect of yoga i.e. ‘yoga asana’. It’s an obvious thing because as a human being, our sense of perception often limited up to physicality only.
But in fact, ‘yoga asana’ imparts a small portion in the whole yogic system.
In this article, I have covered the real essence and meaning of ‘yoga asana’ and how different asanas derived in the history of yoga.
Later on, you would come to know about the number of asanas according to various texts. Then at the end, some evidence-based benefit of practicing asanas.
What is Yoga asana?
You might have practised many asanas in a yoga class, but do you know what indeed the asana is?
Yoga asana is the repertoire of energetic expressions to drive & expand consciousness even in the subtlest cell of the body. Indeed, asana practice directs awareness 1 from certain dominant body parts to the dormant part of the body. As awareness flows among these dormant parts, our consciousness simultaneously expands with this.
Hence, asana is the medium to physically expand the consciousness among different parts of body and mind.
Why Asanas Needed in the Past?
Yogis of ancient times were always wanted to explore the vastness and wonders of the human mind. To achieve the same, yogis started sitting for hours & days in silence (meditation).
Soon yogis realized it was bitter to sit for more extended periods. Their muscles and joints start aching with time and so that it was not always possible to keep the mind focused.
To overcome the dual issue of bitter body and wondering mind yogis devised a system to keep the body active in meditation. This system is called asana.
Asana positioned in 3rd step in 8 limbs of yoga. It’s usually known as ‘Pose’ or ‘Posture’ in common language. The literal meaning of this Sanskrit term ‘asana’ is ‘comfortable seat’ which is meant to stop the sensation of the body in meditation practice.
With asana, the physical aspect begins in yoga. Before asana, Yama and Niyama (first two of 8 limbs) strengthen the body to stand against any physical resistance through the practice of ethical guidelines.
History of Asana
Atha Yoga Anushasanam – Yoga Sutra 1.1
Now the practice of Yoga begins.
The first Sutra of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra suggests that yoga as a discipline passed down through many lineages of teachers. Patanjali merely systemized and gathered all previous teaching in one place. This sutra indicates the history of asana is somewhere much before than Patanjali’s period.
In the history of asana, we’ll see what the intention of asana practice there in the very beginning of civilization and how it’s pictured in the ancient Vedic and Yogic text was.
- Pre-Vedic Age of Asana
- Asana in the Vedic Texts
- Asana in The Yogic Texts
- Modern History of Asana
What you practice today in yoga class has come through many generations of teachers, traditions, students, and conclusion of different texts.
Asana redefined time to time, according to the level of an individual practitioner and needs of humankind.
1. Pre-Vedic Age of Asana
The oldest signs of asana have seen around 2500-2400 BC 2 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’3. Here asanas as postures are meant to develop a ‘state of existence’ in the seeker.
Further, In Bhagavad-Gita 4, 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 accumulated information from Vedas and Upanishads and gathered it in yogic texts.
Some famous yogic text which describes asanas is the following.
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 46’
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.
In the Patanjali words, asana is the way of getting a balance between ‘steady and comfort’ of the body.
Once there is a balance in Sthira and Sukham, then we can manage to sit endlessly in meditation. Now without any distraction of body pain & whirling mind in any seat, we can meditate, i.e., every position would become ‘Comfortable Seat’. This is what asana means to be, i.e. ‘Comfortable Seat’, according to Patanjali.
The very next sutra in yoga sutra elaborates 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.
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.
Classification of Yoga Asanas
The spine plays a vital role in performing an asana. ‘Position of the spine along with body position’ in any asana differs an asana from others.
Following types of asanas are there based on the position of body and spine.
- Standing Poses – Feet firmly grounded and spine is straight.
- Sitting Poses – Buttocks lift/holds the Upper trunk.
- Prone Poses – Lying down on the stomach.
- Supine Poses – Lying down on the back.
- Balancing Poses – Stability while holding the body in a specific position.
- Twisting Poses – Revolving spine left or right to the central axis of the spine.
- Forward Bend Poses – Spine flexed in the forward direction.
- Backbend Poses – Arching back of the spine.
1. Standing Poses
Yoga poses in which we firmly grounded the feet, and the spine is firmly straight. In these poses, we use lower extremities muscles to make movements in the upper body are standing poses. Every yoga asana session begins with the most basic standing posture – Tadasana, the mountain pose.
Further, forward bend, backbend, twisting poses need a firm feet grip to perform these poses better 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 stretch the abdominal muscles. 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 Postures
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.
A focused mind is as essential as the flexible body to bring stability in the balancing postures. 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 Postures
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. In 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
In backbends yoga postures, spine is arched back from the upright position and supported either forearm on the ground or just feet.
Backbends are effective in releasing the tension from the shoulder and chest region, and also it requires opening the in the hip flexors.
The Way Asanas Derived
Most of the postures we know today as asanas have translated from the Sanskrit to native languages. As most of the yogic texts are written in the Sanskrit language.
The name of the asana sometimes illustrates the name of an animal, plant, natural objects, legendary sages, and Hindu God, etc.
- The way cobra releases their aggression and emotions by stretching through the head, the same way Bhujangasana (Cobra pose) elevates our mood. Asana, on the name of an animal.
- Standing firmly on the base of the foot and then balancing the upper body is the Tree Pose, like how a tree stands. Asana, on the name of natural objects.
- Matsyendra, one of the early Hatha yogi (also known as the lord of fishes) derived Matsyendrasana. It’s the asana on the name of legendary sage Matsyendra Nath.
- The most practised asana sequence, Sun salutation, comprises asanas which salute the only visible God, i.e. Sun. This sequence is an example of asana derived on the Hindu God name.
Why Asanas Named After Other Beings?
Ancient sages who developed yoga asanas were very close to nature. They knew how in nature other beings instinctively make specific pose to attain equanimity between body and mind.
Iyengar Guru Ji noticed this resemblance among the name of asanas with other beings and elaborated it in this way –
“Yogi while practising asana goes through a specific form of different species (dog, tree, plant, camel, etc.) and it makes them realise the state of mind in those different form (asana) of species. Hence, In asana, we try to hone some consciousness from each type of the species.
In this way, asanas let yogi expands their consciousness into universal consciousness level.”
So the reason why asanas named after other beings is –
Because asana expands consciousness beyond the barrier of human physicality to the different form of creatures, we make in asana. So the union becomes possible in yoga using asana.
How Many Asanas in Yoga?
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.
The number of asana according to the different yogic text is the following.
1. Yoga Sutra
In – 2nd Century BCE | Author – Patanjali | Number of Asana – Not Defined
Patanjali individually didn’t mention the name of any asana in ‘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. Goraksha Samhitha / Goraksha Paddhathi
In – 11th Century | Author – Gorakshanatha | Number of Asana – 2
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. Shiva Samhitha
In – 15th Century | Author – Unknown | Number of Asana – 4
Shiva Samhitha stated 84 asanas along with Prana, mudras, and siddhis (powers). Further description of the following 4 sitting asanas is there in Shiva Samhitha.
- Siddhasana – Accomplished Pose
- Padmasana – Lotus Pose
- Ugrasana – Stern Pose
- Svastikasana – Cross Pose
4. Hatha Yoga Pradipika (HYP)
In – 15th Century | Author – Swami Svatmarama Suri | Number of Asana 5 – 15
One among three most influential texts on hatha yoga (Other 2 being Gheranda Samhita and Shiva Samhita), HYP (also known as Light on Hatha Yoga) 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. Gheranda Samhita
In – 17th Century | Author – Gheranda | Number of Asana – 32
Out of 84 preeminent asanas, Gheranda described 32 asanas which are ‘Useful in the world of mortals’. Some in these 32 asanas already described in HYP.
6. Hatha Ratnavali
In – 17th Century | Author – Srinivasa | Number of Asana – 84
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. Joga Pradipika
In – 1737 | Author – Ramanandi Jayatarama | Number of Asana – 84
In Joga Pradipika, 84 asanas illustrated as 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. Light on Yoga
In – 1966 | Author – B.K.S Iyengar (Guru Ji) | Number of Asana – 200
Founder of Iyengar yoga style, Guru Ji has demonstrated 200 asanas with his 600 monochromes photographs. 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. Master Yoga Chart
In – 1984 | Author – Dharma Mittra | Number of Asana – 908
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.
Significance of 84 Asanas in Yoga
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 in 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. Also, a baby in mother womb changes 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 several thousand times. Hence, Lord Shiva gave 8,400,000 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.
Styles of Yoga Asana
There can be a variety of ways to practice a single asana in various schools of yoga derived by different yoga gurus. Or Sometimes a single asana pronounced by the other name in a different tradition of yoga.
Different variations in practising the asana had made many yoga styles during the 19th century. Let’s discuss some popular styles of asana practice.
- Iyengar yoga asana
- Sivananda yoga asana
- Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga asana
- Bikram yoga asana
1. Iyengar Yoga
Asana Style – Precision and Alignment-focused | Key Feature – Use of Props and Pose Held for Relative Long Period
Asanas in Iyengar yoga categorised from very basic to advanced level. To prevent any injury or make even toughest asana easy, asanas practised in conjunction with belts, blocks, and blankets props. Asanas in Iyengar yoga style is mainly intended to focus on muscular and skeletal alignment so that the practitioner’s physical and psychological knots dissolve in it.
2. Sivananda Yoga
Asana Style – Steady and Ease | Key Feature – 12 Basic Asana
In Sivananda Yoga, asanas are intended to prepare the body to sit endlessly for meditation practice. Sivananda yoga comprises a series of 12 basic asanas. In this series, headstand holds the first place while triangle pose at last-place, performed with variant style. In this variant of triangle pose in Sivananda yoga, the upper hand is stretched parallel to the ground rather than lifting.
3. Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga
Asana Style – Rapid Flow with Breath | Key Feature – 6 Asana Series (1 Beginner, 1 Intermediate and 4 Advanced )
Based on the ancient text Yoga Kurunta, k. Pattabhi Jois introduced Ashtanga vinyasa yoga.
This most popular style of yoga known for its vigorous asana practice. There are some specific sequences of asana in ashtanga vinyasa yoga, which is performed in conjunction with a continuous flow of asana & breath (vinyasa). Ashtanga vinyasa has introduced the role of drishti (focus points) in asana practice.
4. Bikram Yoga
Asana Style – Hot Vinyasa Flow | Key Feature – 26 Asanas Practiced in 41°C Heated Room
Practising asana in a sauna-like atmosphere, heat the muscles, which further promotes maximum flexibility. Variations of asanas are certainly more stretchy as from its classical one in Bikram Yoga. Bikram yoga comprises 90 minutes of class, which include 26 asanas.
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 6 because, in asana, different bone joints, muscles make movements at their full range of motion.
1. 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) 7. 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 8 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 the 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.
- Urban Yoga: Be aware of the moment [source]
- Pre-history & Archeology [source]
- Introduction to Yoga, Chapter 1 [source]
- The Ultimate Science of Yoga [source]
- Asanas in HYP & GS [source]
- Therapeutic effects of yoga [source]
- Hatha yogic exercises among patients with obstructive pulmonary diseases [source]
- Yoga Asana sessions increase brain GABA levels [source]