Yoga āsana is only one of eight branches on the tree of yoga. The benefits that can be achieved from āsana alone are manyfold and reach far beyond those of flexibility and a toned body. In this article we will look at what some of the great teachers have had to say about the practice of asana, see how it might deepen our knowledge, and influence our teaching.
Patanjali wrote in his Yoga Sutras (2nd century BC), that there is a correct way to practice āsana and it requires the two essential qualities of sthira and sikha. Yoga Sutra 2.46 sthirasukhamasanam explains that when āsana are properly practiced there must be alertness without tension and relaxation without heaviness. The balancing of these qualities is both the process and the goal of an āsana practice. Patanjali says when these principals are realized in āsana, using appropriate and regulated breathing the practitioner will live long and minimize the external influences on the body such as age, climate, diet and work. Yoga Sutra 2.48 tato dvandvānabhighātah. This practice of sthirasukhamasanam with the Ujjayi breath has become one of my principal teachings as it encourages ones svadhyaya or self-awareness, which improves the practice of mindfulness.
Desikachar, a great contemporary commentator has also spoken to the myriad benefits of yoga āsana that have been developed through the centuries and that these āsana also exercise every muscle, nerve and gland in the body.
B.S.K. Iyengar believed that āsana reduces fatigue in the body and soothes the nerves, allowing the body to relax, permitting a sense of release and calm within the body. Iyengar also affirms physiological advantages of āsana stating that they massage the internal organs of the body, increasing the blood flow to the organs helping maintain a level of health within the body. However Iyengar believed the āsana’s real importance lies in the way it can train and discipline the mind and the practice of meditation. Swami Satyananda Saraswati also comments that āsana becomes a tool to a higher awareness practiced through meditation.
It does appear that Hatha-Yoga has included a therapeutic application from its very origin. The Shvetāshvatara-Upanishad, an ancient Sanskrit text, as quoted by George Feuerstein indicates that from ones āsana practice one gains optimum health. ‘Lightness, health, steadiness, clearness of complexion, pleasantness of voice, and an agreeable odour are said to be the first signs of a successful yoga practice.
According to Acupuncture theories asana contributes towards preparation for mediation by mobilizing the prāna or qi (life force) in the body that will minimize discomfort whilst sitting. Discomfort is believed to be a result of stagnation of life force and blood in the joints so āsana will allow the practitioner to sit much longer before prāna stagnation becomes a distraction. The mobilization of prāna also helps to cleanse the nadis, meridians or energy channels that our life force moves through.
When we increase prāna we also increase agni, the digestive fire that stimulates our digestive system and will help to break down any toxins in the system and encourage an efficient elimination of waste. The agni also balances the gunas. These are the three primal qualities of nature: rajas, tamas and satva. All of these three gunas are present in everyone and everything and it is the proportion and the interplay of these gunas that defines the character of someone or something and determines the progress of life. If one reduces rajas, which are the qualities of heat and agitation, and tamas, which are the qualities of inertia and darkness and brings these two gunas into balance which is known as sattvic state, harmony, focus and contentment is created.
Asana also has a beneficial effect on our emotions and how we relate to those around us. In Chinese medicine the emotions are considered neither good or bad, it is whether they are able to flow without impediment that is important. Every emotion affects the health of our organs and our meridian system and every imbalance in our meridian system is tied to a propensity for a certain emotion. When we hold certain asana we tap into the meridian or energy highway that travels from the tips of our toes, to the tips of our fingers. By tapping into this system we stimulate and regulate the flow of blood, oxygen and energy, prāna or qi, the life force, through our body. The mindful practice of these āsana encourages a release of any held tensions, emotions and blockages. This can be seen especially in a Yin Yoga practice. When our energy body is in balance our emotions reflect this also.
When one practices āsana with the Ujjayi breath, an appropriate and regulated breathing technique as suggested Patanjali, one is not only exercising all of the respiratory muscles but is also enabled to go safely and deeply into each āsana. When one engages the Ujjayi breath it encourages mindfulness or moment-to-moment awareness. This practice of mindfulness has been proven to have many health benefits. The parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated when you practice mindfulness. When stimulated this system can positively improve ones blood pressure, reducing ones heart rate, improve digestion, lessen inflammation and improve the functioning of our immune system.
Next time you step onto your mat, take a moment, have a think about all the positive aspects of your asana practice, placing importance on your health rather than how extreme you can go in a pose. Staying present in each and every moment, practicing mindfulness will safely set you on your path to enlightenment!
SERENE London Team, SERENE Social
Davina has been working in the Health and Wellness industry for over fifteen years and has been teaching Yoga for ten years. Davina’s classes encourage you to come home into the body using the beauty of combining the breath with movement and mindfulness with stillness. Having taught and lived in India, Italy and Ibiza Davina has now moved back to London bringing with her a wide experience and knowledge of alternative therapies, diet and nutrition and wholesome living. She teaches regular weekly group and private classes in Hatha Yoga, Yin Yoga, Pre and Post Natal yoga throughout central London. She is also the founder of GlamRaw.