The meaning of the Sanskrit word asana is ‘a steady and comfortable posture’. The postures performed in all yoga practices (Hatha Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga ) are called asanas. Although many people believe that they are physical exercises, it does not convey their full significance. ‘Asanas aim at influencing the body, mind and consciousness, molding and yoking them into one harmonious whole’. The practice of asanas requires active involvement of one’s entire being as fully as possible. In other words, try not to think about work or friends or food while performing them!
The prime aim of asanas is to help us tread the path to higher consciousness so we can begin to understand and know our relationship with existence. We cannot even consider attaining higher awareness if we are ill with disease, aches and pains or mental depression. Therefore, the initial purpose of practicing asanas is to eliminate these disturbances and afflictions. A regular practice of asanas makes us acquainted with the way our body is, and we then begin to understand the importance of breathing and staying still. The opening up of the body that results after a regular practice gives us a sense of freedom not only in the body, but more importantly in the mind driving us to come to terms with whatever is happening in our mind.
The practice of asanas should not be divorced from the other aspects of Yoga. All Yoga techniques have the purpose of leading each of us to higher awareness. The ancient Yogis aimed at transcending the normal limitations of the mind and body. Their aim was to transcend individuality and to achieve self realization. In this context, asanas were not intended specifically to develop the mind and body. This was a means to an end. Their aim was to make the body so perfect and the subconscious mind so calm and trouble free that these aspects of individual existence could be forgotten. When the aches and pains and ailments of the body are removed and one is emotionally and mentally relaxed, then one automatically ceases to be aware of the physical body and the superficialities of the mind. In this way the fetters of individuality can be released and one’s true nature- pure, infinite, all pervasive consciousness- can be realized.
Guidelines to be observed during the practice of asanas:
Place of practice:
Should be clean, quiet and well ventilated. There should be no dampness or bad smells. The area should be uncluttered with furniture and other objects. Try to use the same place every day to build up an atmosphere of peace. Don’t practice on the bare floor and don’t use a spongy mattress.
Time of practice:
Best time to practice is before breakfast, early in the morning. Take a wash or bath and go to the toilet before the practice if possible. If it is impossible to perform asanas in the morning, they can be performed in the evening.
Duration of practice:
To be regulated according to your available time, though the longer the better.
As light as possible under climatic conditions, so that free movement is not impeded.
Close your eyes as much as possible throughout the practice once you become familiar with the practice.
The less physical effort that is required the better. The aim is to perform asanas with as little tension or muscular effort as possible.
Key Points to remember:
- To stretch the muscles it is important that they are fully relaxed.
- Slow and controlled movements and co-ordination with breath- quick and sudden movements use up excessive energy, whereas the object of asanas is to conserve energy
- Maintenance of final posture while being aware of the breath or the parts of the body that the asana particularly influences
- Relaxation after completion of asanas
- Wait for atleast three hours after food before doing asanas
- Don’t set your aims too high in the beginning; only do as much practice as you can easily manage everyday without fail.
- Don’t use excessive force to attain the final positions of the asanas.
- Don’t try to stretch your muscles further than is comfortable.
- Don’t underestimate the importance of the movements to and from the final poses. They should be done slowly, smoothly, with control and in synchronization with the breath.
- If you are suffering from any ailments, it is always better to seek guidance from a competent teacher before attempting asanas. Few asanas should not be performed in certain conditions, for eg., inversions should not be performed by hypertensives.
- Don’t practice asanas if you are ill with acute diseases like diarrhea.
- Asanas are not competitive. If you perform your asanas in a group, do not compare yourself with others. Simple asanas done with full awareness are much better than doing difficult postures with no awareness.
Physical Benefits of Asana Practice:
- Asanas loosen up the joints of the body, stretch and tone the muscles and remove poisons which tend to accumulate in various parts of the body.
- They also harmonize the nervous system and with a gentle massage they improve the functioning of all the internal organs of the body like the spine, intestines, etc. This slowly but surely will lead to the best possible physical health.
- Regular practice of asanas also brings about a balance in our hormones which leads to emotional and mental well-being.
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