The study of asana is not about mastering posture. It’s about using posture to understand yourself.
- B.K.S. Iyengar
The third branch of Raja Yoga, or the Royal Path to Union, is Asana—the classical postures of Hatha Yoga. The word asana means “seat” or “position.” Asana is easily the most popular and well-known aspect of yoga practice, despite it being only 1/8 of the classic branches of yoga as described by the sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras, and playing a somewhat smaller part in overall yoga philosophy.
However, as is often the case, popular things can be misunderstood. Asana is no exception. One of the most tenacious misconceptions regarding asana is that “it’s just a stretch.” While muscular extension does often play a part in yoga poses, it’s a huge disservice to the art and science of asana to generalize it as stretching alone. To be fair, it is an easy mistake to make, observing a yogi reaching, bending, or twisting pretty much has “stretching” written all over it. Despite this connotation, asana contains within it an entire universe of qualities, details, and characteristics that often go unappreciated. Let’s take a deeper dive into what makes asana such a profound aspect of yoga practice.
Asana: Not So Static
To begin our exploration, let’s consider the way yoga asana relates to static stretching. Static stretching is defined as any stretch that is performed without movement. At first glance, this definition would seem to apply perfectly to yoga asana. However, if you dig deeper into the broader yoga philosophy, you’ll see why this comparison doesn’t really fit. This is because yoga doesn’t view the body as a fixed thing. The physical body is an ever-changing field of energy, transformation, and intelligence.
- With every breath, you exchange trillions of atoms with the universe.
- With each position you enter into, certain muscles contract (called the agonist muscles) while other muscles relax and lengthen (called the antagonistic muscles).
- With each macro- and micro-adjustment to the pose, circulation increases or decreases.
- With every shift in attention and intention, subtle energies are mobilized.
- With increased relaxation, your stress, anxiety, and mental and emotional toxins are released.
Seen in this light, the notion of “static stretching” is somewhat a misnomer when it comes to yoga asana because, in the final analysis, a yoga pose isn’t a noun or a fixed thing like a statue. Instead, an asana is a verb; it’s a process, a doing-ness that fosters a deeper integration between body and mind. It’s this communication that cultivates a feedback loop of self-regulation—your ability to return to a state of homeostatic balance.
As you tune in deeply to the sensations of your body, your breathing, and the content of your awareness during a yoga asana, you are able to make modifications that lead you toward a more comfortable and embodied expression of the pose. In this way, an asana becomes the physical expression of who you are in this moment; the art of expressing the human body through form, breath, and presence.
Now, let’s take a closer look at some of the profound effects asana practice can have on your mind and body.
Strengthens Primordial Movement Patterns
Outside of an athletic pursuit, most modern humans spend the bulk of their waking hours in one of four primary positions or movement patterns:
Sadly, these options make up only a fraction of the movements in which your body is capable.
By contrast, your primitive ancestors didn’t lie around all day; they were very active and used their bodies in many different ways. They ran, climbed, crawled, jumped, swung, twisted, bent, and reached their way into countless primordial and animalistic movement patterns. These movements might seem “primitive” by our modern standards, but they actually helped the human body remain strong, flexible, balanced, and harmonized with the laws of nature.
Yoga asanas embody these primal movements and help you connect more deeply to the roots of your humanity. In addition, since many poses are named after other members of the animal kingdom, they help you to integrate those qualities into your movements and practice.
Develops Functional Physical Attributes
All asanas can help you build one (or more) of several key functional movement attributes:
All of these are, to a greater or lesser degree, elements of the majority of all yoga poses. Depending on the pose, one attribute might receive more emphasis than others, but a well-rounded asana sequence will be structured so that it provides a balanced blend of poses that cultivate these foundational attributes. If performed at a vigorous pace, asana (such as Sun Salutations) can help to enhance aerobic capacity and cardiovascular strength. In addition, these qualities, along with the improved coordination brought about through practice, help to build proprioception—the awareness and perception of the position and movements of the body in space.
The movements of the body in and through asanas provide a boost to your circulation. As you bend, twist, fold, and extend your body, you flex and contract muscles, flushing a fresh supply of blood through that tissue. Strenuous poses can also increase heart rate, pumping additional blood to different parts of the body. Inverted poses in particular, use gravity to encourage deoxygenated blood flow back to the heart, improving circulation.
Enhanced circulation doesn’t only apply to blood, however. Your lymphatic system is a key component in your immune function, helping to move white blood cells throughout your body through a network of ducts and glands. Unlike the heart though, the lymphatic system doesn’t have a pump, so its circulation depends on the motions of muscles and joints for it to move. Asana practice is a powerful way to help keep your lymphatic system circulating and healthy.
Massages Organs and Strengthens Facia
Due to the nature of body positioning around the spinal axis, your internal organs often receive a gentle squeeze during asana practice. Twisting movements specifically create a massaging-type effect on several organs located in your torso, flushing them with a fresh supply of blood.
In addition, connective tissue called facia, which functions like something like an internal web or scaffolding around your organs, is also strengthened and toned through regular asana practice. The facia network also contributes to enhancing the previously mentioned inner sense of proprioception. Through a variety of yoga poses, the nerve endings in the facia send and receive an unending stream of information between mind and body, telling you a unique story about your body’s orientation, balance, weight, stability, and overall position.
Enhances Respiratory Function
Yogic Breathing or Pranayama is the fourth branch of Raja Yoga and consists of numerous techniques to enhance neuro-respiratory integration. Asana practice provides an opportunity to cultivate your breathing practice while you move through different poses.
As you take on different positions, your breathing is forced to adapt to the posture, the muscles involved, the pressure on the chest or abdomen, or the mobility of the diaphragm. Each subtle nuance in the pose may affect the depth, pace, or rhythm of your breathing. With each change, you can notice the sensations and strive to maintain deep, balanced breathing, often by using the Ujjayi Breath. This process of using your breath as a bridge between mind and body strengthens your respiratory function while simultaneously keeping you anchored in the pose and present moment.
As an added side effect, practicing pranayama during asana soothes your nervous system, giving you greater control over its autonomic function; if you can stay focused and calm, and breathe during a challenging pose, it will make it that much easier to do so during life’s daily stressors.
Channels Subtle and Archetypal Energies
Though not as apparent as the physiological qualities already mentioned, no discussion on asana would be complete without touching on the subtle benefits hidden within yoga poses.
Yoga asanas enliven prana or the primordial life force, and in so doing help to mobilize and circulate energy through the subtle body of mind, intellect, and ego. Different poses influence the prana allowing it to flow more easily through the 70,000 nadis or subtle energetic channels situated throughout the body. Asana practice also helps energize and balance the major chakras, or energetic junction points, between mind, body, and spirit.
Lastly, asana practice can invoke and activate subtle archetypal energies that lie dormant within you. For example, when you embody Warrior, Mountain, Tree, or Sage poses, at either conscious or unconscious levels, you are calling forth those qualities into your life. A warrior feels courageous, a mountain feels stable, a tree feels flexible, a sage feels wise.
When you choose poses with qualities you wish to embody, you are calling for those attributes to express themselves through you during your asana practice and throughout your life. As anyone who practices asana regularly can tell you, each pose has its own personality, its own character, its own energy. With consistent practice, those mythic qualities of gods and goddesses, mountains, serpents, and birds become a part of you—helping you discover your full potential.