Yogasana for Total Health

Holistic Health Series

Resource Note # 4

Asanas (Postures)

Yoga Asanas are psychosomatic techniques that are designed to place and position the physical body in various carefully designed postures, with the total involvement of the mind and the spirit, in order to establish communication between one’s internal and external self. These represent a comprehensive & scientific system of education that adopts an integrated approach towards human well being at the physical, mental, emotional, moral, as well as spiritual planes.

The word “asana” has been classically defined as a steady, pleasant and comfortable bodily pose, posture or state of being wherein the person can remain physically and mentally steady, calm, quiet and comfortable. The asana thus provides a stable foundation for the exploration of the human body, the breath, the mind, and the higher planes that lie beyond.

Based their close study of nature and the many varied characteristics of plants, animals, insects and birds, the ancient yogis of India devised specific body positions that stretch, massage & stimulate the internal organs of the human body and also help to open up and unclog the body channels and subtle energy vortices. These practices facilitate the achievement of positive health, and also help to cultivate greater awareness, concentration, relaxation and confidence. All of this eventually culminates in the spiritual evolution of the human being.

Both the body and the mind have a tendency to harbour strains and tensions. Since the body is actually the gross form of the mind while the mind is the subtle form of the body, every mental entanglement has a corresponding physical or muscular knot. These result in the distortion of human functioning. The practice of Yogasana aids in the release of these warps. The body then develops vitality and strength, while the mind becomes light, creative, joyful and balanced.

The anatomical body of the human being comprises the limbs and the actual parts of the body. The physical body is made up of bones, muscles, skin and tissue. The physiological body is composed of the heart, lungs, liver, spleen, pancreas, intestines and the other organs. The nerves, the brain and the intellect make up the psychological body. During the practice of Yogasana, the attention is focused upon the inner body while the mind is drawn inward so as to sharpen the intelligence. The asana then becomes effortless, as the blemishes on the gross as well as the subtle body are washed off. The body, mind and the spirit then begin to unite.

Performing an asana helps to create and generate energy. Staying in the posture organizes and distributes this energy, while coming out of the pose protects the energy and prevents it from dissipating. In this manner, the practice of Yogasana yields a perfected body that has strength, grace, and beauty to a degree that has been likened to the hardness & brilliance of a diamond.

The Importance of Body Posture

The posture is a stance from which people face the world, physically as well as mentally. Since the physical state is an embodiment of the mental state of the human being, the bodily posture that a person assumes is also an accurate reflection of his or her state of mind.

Body postures reflect the way that people are feeling inside of themselves in the moment. Holding the body in a certain way can accentuate the feelings or thoughts that are associated with that position. The posture and the feeling actually become so fused together that one readily leads to the other. In this way, postural habits of the body reflect a person’s character.

During the development of bad postural habits (such as the curvature of the spine), normal balance and equilibrium are lost. When the body is tense, its movements lose their natural fluidity and become stiff. Certain muscles become increasingly taut, in order to hold the body in positions which are out-of-balance. Eventually, the person is unable to correct his or her posture because the muscles necessary for maintaining the proper position become too weak.

The only effective remedy to this situation is the gradual strengthening of those muscles that are necessary to restore the body to its proper position. This is to be accompanied by the systematic stretching and loosening of the contracted as well as tightened tendons and muscles that maintain the abnormal position. The resulting increase in one’s freedom of movement allows the person to gradually adopt a healthy and more comfortable posture.

Asana refers to that branch, limb or facet of the science of Yoga, which includes a series of postures. The practice of these poses helps to stretch and bolster the muscles & tendons that may have become shortened & contracted due to mental tension or faulty posture. The muscle groups that have become weak from disuse are also simultaneously & gradually strengthened.

Yogic science does not demarcate where the physical body ends and the mind begins. It approaches these two as a unitary & integrated entity. Yogasana can not only cure myriad physical ailments, but also redress any unsteadiness that may be present in the body.

Yogasana tones the entire body, including the muscles, tissues, ligaments, joints and nerves. Further, the practice of Yoga postures also leads to the strengthening of the bones and muscles, correction of the body posture, improved breathing, and increased energy levels.

Attention must be keenly focused during the practice of Yoga postures that enable the stretch of one muscle group, and the required tension of its antagonist. The mind is to be held gently, but firmly, on the area of the body involved. A lack of attention to the muscles and supporting structures may lead to an undue stretch that may result in a tear or dislocation of the muscle. This is why a Yoga posture must be carried far enough to feel a good stretch, but not pain.

1.         Types of Asanas

There are many asanas currently in vogue. Some of these are simply variations of traditional asanas. Classically, there were a total of 84 basic asanas. These are divided into two categories:

a) Meditative asanas, and

b) Cultural asanas

The meditative asanas (numbering 28) are those in which one can sit (or stand) comfortably for a long duration, and concentrate without being distracted by any stimulus through the proprioceptors in the muscles.

Physiologically, all sitting postures bring elasticity to the hips, knees, ankles and muscles of the groin. These postures help in removing tension and hardness in the diaphragm and the throat, and make the breathing process smoother and easier. They help to keep the spine steady, pacify the mind, and stretch the muscles of the heart. Blood circulation also increases to all parts of the body.

The cultural asanas (numbering 56) are devised as to exercise those muscles in the body that are not put to regular use in daily life. These are further grouped under four headings:

  • for the spine
  •  for the extremities
  •  for abdominal compression, and
  • for relaxation.

The asanas for the extremities exercise all the joints in the limbs, shoulders, elbow, wrist, fingers, hips, knees and ankles – in all the directions in which the joint is capable of moving. They also strengthen the leg muscles, and the joints. The arteries of the legs are stretched, increasing the blood supply to the lower limbs and preventing thrombosis in the calf muscles. These asanas also tone the cardio-vascular system. The lateral wall of the heart is fully stretched, resulting in increased supply of fresh blood to the heart.

The asanas for abdominal compression comprise those that cause reduction in the size of the coelomic cavity, and an increase in the abdominal pressure inside the body.

Finally, the relaxation asanas are those in which the whole of the body weight is allowed to fall on the ground. The gravity is allowed to take over completely, and all muscles lie limp with a let-go feeling. These help in rejuvenating any energy lost during the active exercise involved in some of the anti-gravity asanas.

2.         Yogasana and the Spine

The human body and mind are deeply inter-linked. The mind exercises its influence upon the body (and vice-versa) through the nervous system. The central nervous system is made up of the brain and spinal cord. The peripheral nervous system is constituted of the nerve fibres that branch off from the spinal cord, and spread across all the other parts of the body.

When the nervous system is maintained properly, the mind and body are both purified. So, the yogis devised a number of postures to exercise the spinal cord and stimulate the endocrine glands. These also have concomitant effects such as better digestion of food, assimilation of nutrients, elimination of toxins, and the harmonious working of all the muscles and the joints.

The spine, which is also known as the Backbone or the Vertebral Column(VC), forms the central axis of the human skeleton. It supports the head and the trunk of the body. The VC is composed of many drum-shaped bony parts called vertebrae.  All vertebrae are similar in structure but different in size. They are connected to one another by means of ligaments.

An adult vertebral column has twenty six bones, and is divided into five sections as follows:

The Cervical curvature: It has 7 cervical vertebrae at the back of the neck, supporting the head. Although these are the smallest of the vertebrae, their bone tissues are denser than those in any other region of the vertebral column.

The Thoracic curvature: It has 12 thoracic vertebrae, with as many pairs of ribs attached. Beginning with the third thoracic vertebrae and moving downwards, the bodies of these bones increase in size. This reflects the stress placed on them by increasing amounts of body weight.

The Lumbar curvature: It has five vertebrae, in the small of the back (loins) behind the abdomen. Since the lumbar vertebrae support more weight than the vertebrae above them, they have larger and stronger bodies.

The Sacrum: It is a triangular structure at the base of the VC, initially composed of five vertebrae that gradually become fused together by the 30th year of human life. Thereafter, it becomes an immovable part of the VC.

The Coccyx / Tailbone:  It is the lowest part of the vertebral column, and is composed of four vertebrae that fuse together by the 25th year. When a person is sitting, pressure is exerted upon the coccyx. As a result, it moves forward – acting somewhat like a shock absorber.

Individual vertebrae are separated from one another by masses of cartilage known as “inter-vertebral discs”. These discs cushion the forces created by movements like walking or jumping, protect the vertebrae from injury, and help maintain the shape of the spine. They also provide flexibility to the backbone by permitting movements such as flexion (bending forward), extension (bending backwards), lateral flexion (bending sideways), rotation (twisting, torsion around the axis of the VC) and circumduction (circular motion of the trunk around the axis).

The asanas for the spine are classified into six groups, depending upon the direction in which the muscles of the vertebral column are exercised. These are as follows:

  • Upward Stretch: The muscles of the vertebral column are pulled lengthwise, causing the stretching of muscles and ligaments throughout the length of the body. The spinal muscles and the inter-vertebral joints remain well aligned, while the strength and the suppleness of the spine are increased as a result of the practice of these postures.
  • Forward bending: These poses facilitate the movement of the spine towards gravity, in an effort to maximally stretch the muscles of the vertebral column. The abdominal organs are compressed during forward bending postures. As these organs relax, the frontal brain is cooled. The blood flow to the entire brain is regulated. The sympathetic nervous system is rested, thus bringing down the pulse rate and blood pressure. The para-spinal muscles, inter-vertebral joints and ligaments are also strengthened. The adrenal glands are also soothed by the practice of forward bending postures, and begin to function more efficiently. The heart is also relived of the strain of pumping the blood against gravity. The blood thus circulates easily through all the parts of the body.
  • Backward bending: These poses exercise the vertebral column muscles in anti-gravity movement. All the postures that involve backward bending stimulate the central nervous system, and increase its ability to bear stress. They help to relieve and prevent headaches, hypertension and nervous exhaustion. These asanas stimulate and energize the body, and are invaluable for people suffering from depression.
  • Sideward bending: These postures provide the lateral exercise of the vertebral column muscles, especially those that are obliquely placed.
  • Torsion: This class of asanas enables the torsion of the muscles of the vertebral column. In the practice of twisting postures, the pelvic and abdominal organs are squeezed and flushed with blood. They improve the suppleness of the diaphragm, and relieve spinal, hip and groin disorders. The spine also becomes supple, resulting in improved flow of blood to the spinal nerves and increased energy levels.
  • Inversion: These postures exercise of all upwardly stretched muscles, but in the reverse direction. Inverted asanas have a drying effect upon the pelvic and abdominal organs, while the brain, heart and the lungs are flushed with blood.

3.         The Practice of Yogasana

The science of Yoga is like the art of music, in that both require harmony and melody in actual practice. The human body is a truly sensitive and receptive instrument, whose vibrations express the harmony or dissonance within it. Each of these vibrations must synchronize with the movements of the asana. There is a cadence and a unique rhythm within every human body. It can be maintained by paying close attention to each step not only during the performance of the asana, and also during the progression between different asanas.

The Sanskrit term asana is sometimes loosely translated as pose, or posture. This translation does not adequately convey the element of conscious attention, or thought, that must inform each movement of the asana. The final pose of an asana is achieved when all the parts of the physical body are positioned correctly, with full awareness and intelligence.

An asana is a posture that is assumed after a thoughtful process, at the end of which a balance is achieved between movement and resistance. The body weight has to be evenly distributed over muscles, bones and joints, while the intelligence must be engaged at every level. Space has to be created within the muscles and the skin, fitting the fine network of the entire body into the asana. Once the two sides of the body become symmetrical, undue stress is removed from the circulatory, respiratory, digestive, reproductive and excretory systems.

This helps the organs of perception (the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and the skin) to discern the subtlety of each movement. Such conjunction between the organs of action and the organs of perception occurs when the person reaches a subjective understanding of an asana, and begins to adjust his or her movements correctly through instinctive understanding.

In each asana, different organs are placed in varied anatomical positions. They are squeezed and spread, dampened and dried, as well as heated and cooled. The organs are supplied with fresh blood, and are gently massaged, relaxed and toned into a state of optimum health.

Yogasana are simple, non-violent, non-fatiguing and easy to practice. They integrate the body, the mind, and the intelligence with the human Self through a process that spans four stages.

The first stage of arambhavastha is one in which people practice at the level of the physical body. The second stage is ghatavastha, when the mind learns to move in unison with the body. The third level, parichayavastha, occurs when the intelligence and the body become one.

The final stage is that of nispattyavastha, or the stage of perfection. It is said that perfection in an asana is achieved only when the effort to perform it becomes completely effortless. It is then that the Infinite Being within is reached.

At the first stage of arambhavastha, the asanas are practiced at the level of the anatomical body alone. This beginning stage is important for gaining a strong foundation, and must therefore not be hurried through. One’s primary concern should be with getting the movements right. The person must grasp the whole asana, and not lose him self or her self in the finer details.

The intermediate stage of ghatavastha is entered, when the mind begins to get impacted by the changes that occur in the body. Once the movements are being practiced correctly and the body is under one’s control, the mind must now be pushed to touch every part of the body. Thus, at this stage, Yogasana must be practiced with reflective and meditative attention. One must become aware of the tissues, organs, skin, and even the individual cells. The mind must flow along with all of these parts.

The next stage of parichayavastha is an advanced one, wherein the mind brings the body in touch with the intelligence. Once this happens, the mind ceases to be a separate entity. The intelligence and the body fuse into one. The adjustments become more subtle and discriminating, and are in the realm of the psychological body rather than merely in the muscles, bones and joints.

The final stage of nispattyavastha represents the state of perfection. Once the intelligence feels the oneness between the flesh and the skin, it introduces the spirit or soul. This gradually frees the body, and integrates it with the soul in the journey from the finite to the infinite. The body, mind and self thereby fuse together, and become one. In the final stage, the Yogasana practice becomes meditative and spiritual. In fact, asana may now be termed as “dynamic meditation.”

Yogasana cater to the needs of each individual according to her or his specific constitutional and physical condition. They involve vertical, horizontal and cyclical movements, which provide energy to the system by directing the blood supply to the areas of the body that need it the most. Each cell is observed, attended to, and provided with a fresh supply of blood, allowing it to function smoothly.

Every asana has a specific positive health value, both as a factor of immunity as well as a preventive and corrective measure. However, one does not need to practice all the asanas in order to keep the body and mind fit. Even a few selected postures provide great benefits.

Yoga does not advocate superficial enlargement of the major muscles, but in exercising every muscle in the body with full participation of the mind. The right attitude and the correct approach to the practice are the most critical attributes. In this manner, the intelligent practice of Yogasana endows perfect physical, mental, moral and spiritual health upon a person.

4.         Yogasana in contrast with the other systems of Physical Exercise

In the modern times, Yogasana has been somewhat inaccurately considered as a form of physical exercise. There are several differences between the way in which Yogasanas affect the mechanisms of the human body, and how the other systems of physical / sports exercise do so.

In a session of non-Yogic physical exercise such as jogging, cycling and swimming, the muscles are required to mechanically repeat the movements many times in a fairly rigourous fashion. This generates fatigue, and causes the release of lactic acid and other toxins into the blood stream. The inner organs of the body are also greatly strained, and thereby weakened.

Further, these physical exercises are usually catabolic in nature. The breath and metabolism are observed to shoot up during their performance. The body becomes hot, and its oxygen consumption is also seen to rise. This leads to debility, and also results in quicker wear and tear of the body tissues. On the other hand, Yogasana is anabolic in nature. Respiration and metabolic rates slow down, while the body temperature as well as the consumption of oxygen actually drop a little during the practice of asanas. This eventually leads to a longer span of life.

In most of the non-Yogic systems of physical exercise, the mind largely works at an automatic level. This leads to the mindless development of muscular power, and gives rise or a tendency for aggression, extroversion and exhibitionism. It also contributes to weariness and nervous agitation. Conversely, the Yogasanas are designed to promote neuro-muscular co-ordination. Their movements are slow, gentle and harmonious – without any feeling of strain all along. The wearing out of the inner organs and tissues is de-accelerated, and strength is increased proportionately with muscular growth and body power. Yogasanas also strengthen the nervous system by altering its electrochemical activity. Relaxed and pleasant feelings are found to develop, and every cell in the body appears to be recharged with new energy.

Next, the non-Yogic physical exercises are usually found to involve quick and forceful body movements. Their repeated actions often lead to exertion, tension and fatigue.

On the other hand, Yogasana involves movements that bring stability to the body, the senses, the mind, the intellect, and the consciousness. This generates a calm feeling of detachment. The brain becomes quieter, the senses are stilled, and the perceptions are altered during the practice of asanas. Energy is diffused from the brain to the other parts of the body, which then begin to work together more harmoniously. Yogasana is essentially a process of steady movement that ends (and finds fulfillment) in a state of tranquility. Thus, every asana actually becomes a static posture in the final stage of its performance.

Ordinary, non-Yogic forms of physical exercise can also be exhausting and lead to a feeling of fatigue after a quarter-hour of practice. To be sustained, these require much physical strength and endurance. While many such exercises improve energy levels by boosting the nerve function, they ultimately exhaust the endocrine glands. Cellular toxins increase. Even though circulation is enhanced, this occurs at the cost of irritating the other body systems and increasing the pulse rate & the blood pressure. Ultimately, the heart is taxed and overworked.

An athlete’s strong lung capacity is achieved by hard and forceful usage, which is not conducive to the preservation of the health of the lungs. Sports such as tennis or football also lend themselves to repetitive injuries of the bones, joints and ligaments. These forms of exercise work with (and for) the skeletal and muscular systems, but cannot transcend them.

On the other hand, Yogasana penetrates every layer of the human personality all the way up to consciousness. Both the body and the mind may be maintained in a relaxed state, even as the person stretches, extends, rotates and flexes the body. Yogasana also maintains the elasticity of the nervous system, and enhances its capacity to bear stress.

Popular endurance exercises are generally irritative in nature. For instance, even though the heart beat of the jogger increases, the heart is not stimulated in the yogic sense of being energized and invigorated. In contrast, Yogasanas are stimulative in nature. For instance, the backward bending Yoga poses are more demanding than jogging, but the heart continues to beat at a steady and rhythmic pace during their practice. They do not lead to breathlessness.

All the usual forms of physical exercise are good, each in its own way. However, they place the body under stress. The movements are often restricted to only a few parts of the body. Moreover, these are reflex actions that do not involve the use of intelligence in their execution. There is also little scope for precision and perfection, without an extra expenditure of energy. On the other hand, Yogasana involves an equal exertion of all parts of the physical body – without placing an excessive strain upon any one of these.

Finally, with advancing age, physically vigourous exercises cannot be performed easily on account of stiffened joints and the loss of tone of the body muscles. The great advantage of Yogasana is that it can be practiced by anyone irrespective of age, sex and physical condition.

The practice of Yogasana makes the body strong and flexible. It balances and improves the functioning of the respiratory, circulatory, nervous, digestive, excretory, reproductive and hormonal systems. Asanas lead to the concentration of immunity cells in body areas that are affected by disease. They also help to ensure an even distribution of bio-energy. The resulting equilibrium in the body helps to bring about mental peace, and enhances intellectual clarity.

The Right Age to practice Asanas

The young and old, the geriatric, the sick and the infirm alike can successfully undertake the practice of Yogasana, and achieve great benefits. However, children under the age of five should not be initiated into Yoga exercises. Their free natural movements and play are considered sufficient for the growth of the various organs and parts of the body.

The Right Place to practice Asanas

The practice of Yogasana is best done alone, because that helps one to exclude the disturbing factors. Alternatively, make the best use of a corner available in the room, and practice in silence – with perfect disregard to the surroundings. The place selected should be quiet, well ventilated and free from dust, insects, moisture, draught, unpleasant smells and memories. It is best to use the same place everyday, in order to build up a congenial environment.

The Right Time to practice Asana

The time best suited for exercising is in the morning before breakfast, since one’s vitality at that time is the highest. At that time, the movements can be done with a sense of ease, freshness and mental calmness. If the morning hours are not available due to pressing obligations, the best alternative time is in the evening (before dinner).

Precautions during the practice of Asanas

  • Before commencing exercise, evacuate the bladder and the bowels. Clean the nose & throat of all mucus. Drink a glass of lukewarm water. Begin a few minutes thereafter.
  • Temperature and seasons permitting, asana practice is best done in the open air. The clothing of the body should be sparing, and loose fitting.
  • The mouth should remain closed during the practice of Yogasana. Exhalation and inhalation must be done only through the nose. Inhalation should be in slow rhythmic breaths, while the exhalation must be in one long and continuous rhythm.
  • Deep breathing (breathing rhythm) while doing asanas increases the supply of oxygen in the body. This can also partly compensate for the evils of indoor living.
  • Always provide a mat for practice upon, and never use the cold, uncovered floor for exercise. However, the feet should be bare during the practice of Yogasana.
  • A course of Yogasana may be commenced after a gap of at least two hours after a meal.

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