A is for Asanas

Asanas are hatha yoga’s basic tool for attaining physical and mental health.  Asanas are body positions – postures – poses.  Vinyasa is a sequence of asanas performed without significant pause.  Body moves leading up to, during, and after asanas are vinyasa krama.

Asanas work all body parts: head & neck; arms & shoulders; hands & feet; torso (front, back, sides); hips & legs; pelvic area; internal organs; skin.  They work the body in every position: standing, sitting, twisting, inverted, lying prone and supine.  In every way: stretching, pushing, pulling, bending, rotating.  Asanas work all structural components: bones, muscles (surface, intermediate, deep layers), joints, ligaments, tendons, cartilage, fascia.  They directly work many body systems: skeletal, muscular, nervous, sensory, circulatory/vascular, cardiopulmonary, lymphatic.  Indirectly other systems are worked: immune, endocrine, digestive & elimination, reproductive.  Mental focus, discipline, and judgment are also utilized.  Body health and mental functioning thereby provide a solid foundation for life.

Asanas have evolved in number, function, and complexity.  Originally asanas were focused on the body’s capability to engage in meditative and other spiritual practices.  Asanas developed further as Hatha Yoga grew as a separate physical discipline.  The oldest Hatha Yoga texts mention 84 asanas, describe a third or less this number for routine practice (see Hatha Yoga Pradipika page).  In the early-to-mid 1900s, Indian yoga masters led a proliferation to 200 asanas.  Today there are at least 300 asanas, probably 1,000 if variations are characterized as different asanas, and more are created continually.  Combinations of asanas into vinyasas are basically innumerable.  All have different purposes.

Asana names originally were Sanskrit, so English translations sometimes vary.  The ancient masters displayed about 75% commonality in their names for asanas -- sometimes minor variations in the asana by a certain name, sometimes an entirely different pose.  There is probably 90% commonality of names among yoga schools today.  Is the use of Sanskrit names valuable for harmony and inducing a favorable mental state, or is it merely elitist jargon?  Who knows?  There are “experts” on both sides of this issue.  On this website both Sanskrit and English names are used for asanas.

About 25-35 asanas are required to work the body in every necessary way for normal living.  (Specific asanas for an individual are drawn from a larger population of potential asanas.)  More than this number is valuable only if one's goal is a high level of fitness or if yoga asanas are being pursued as ends in themselves, i.e. for personal accomplishment or as a sport.  See Yoga Practice Design page for ideas on how to select and sequence asanas for a personal hatha yoga practice.

Physical yoga is capable of being a complete physical fitness program, if you want to use it that way.  It can be used for particular purposes, such as support for a particular sport.  Yoga can be therapeutic for trying to improve a certain area or recover from an injury.   Or complementary of other physical fitness activities, or integrated with them -- such as running, weight work, Tai Chi, and so forth.  Yoga’s value to you depends on what you need and want.

Yoga asanas are traditionally illustrated graphically with written instructions.  Asanas are difficult to learn by yourself, as no written instructions are satisfactorily comprehensive and no graphics can satisfactorily capture a body in 3 dimensional motion.  It is best to learn from teachers, then practice with reference material to guide you.  

Here are example illustrations of asanas and of asana sequences that could be performed as vinyasas.  Click below to view or download them.  For the Iyengar asanas, please credit the Iyengar Yoga Institute of New York / Iyengar Yoga Association of Greater New York.  For the Jois asanas, thanks are owed to Ashtanga Yoga Canada.

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