The Third Limb of Yoga: Asana

Hi Coastline yogis!

Today I will continue on the journey of Patanjali’s eight limbed path of Yoga. In previous posts we learnt about the first two limbs: Yama (moral disciplines) and Niyama (self-restraints) which regulate the moral, social and personal landscape of our experience. Yama and Niyama are the first steps in creating the right conditions inside and out for transformation of consciousness. The third limb, Asana, is the next step of this effort and underpins the physical practice of yoga.

Asana, the third limb of yoga, can be translated as both posture and seat. In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali’s definition of Asana is very concise: “Sthiram sukham asanam” meaning posture which is firm (sthiram) and comfortable (sukkham). So for Patanjali, Asana is essentially the steady immobilisation of the body without discomfort, as in meditation. Alas, there is no mention of downward facing dogs or sun salutations in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. Rather, emphasis was placed on being able to sit in meditation for extended periods to concentrate the mind.

It is not until the emergence of the Hatha Yoga tradition about 1000 years ago that we see the predominance of physical techniques and methods in order to achieve spiritual states, higher awareness and liberation. From the Hatha Yoga tradition arose complex unseated postures such as standing postures, balances, inversions and dynamic asanas, as well as many pranayama (breath control) techniques, mudras (“seals”, many of which are hand gestures that have powerful spiritual significance) and bandhas (energetic locks).

These physical methods are means of:

  • purifying, strengthening, stabilizing the body;

  • faciliting the movement, stimulation and retention of prana (energy/life force) within the physical and subtle body;

  • calming and concentrating the mind;

  • withdrawing the senses;

  • reaching states of higher spiritual awareness.

Over time, with colonisation and India’s encounter with modernity and the western world, the category of yoga asana was further transformed and proliferated by other physical disciplines such as gymnastics and calisthenics. So there has certainly been a complex evolution of asana since Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra. And it still evolves today.

The pose names that we hear in class today all include the suffix “asana” e.g. Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog), Virabhadrasana (Warrior Pose), Utkatasana (Chair/ Fierce Pose) Sirsasana (headstand) etc. Many of the poses are named after animals (e.g. Rajakapotasana or King Pigeon Pose), Hindu deities (e.g. Natarajasana, which we commonly call Dancer’s Pose, literally means King of the Dance Pose, referring to the dancing Lord Shiva), sages (e.g. Ashtavakrasana or Eight Limbed Pose, named after the crippled Vedic sage who was deformed in eight places) and astrological phenomena (e.g. Surya Namaskar or Sun Salutation). While the poses we practice are modern, in most cases they represent the ancient and complex roots of the Yoga tradition (which is pretty awesome).

I hope you found this background of yoga asana interesting. Next time I will talk about the equally interesting fourth limb of yoga: Pranayama.

Thanks for reading and see you on the mat.

Maddy x