Yoga asanas are at the very core of this ancient practice and yet, they can be daunting to beginners. Learn about limbs and postures and feel comfortable attending class.
Most people think of yoga poses as those with funny names like “downward facing dog,” “happy baby” and “tree” postures. Actually, the many poses within the practice of yoga are called asanas, which make up the physical aspect of the yoga discipline.
The specific motions which are included in yoga classes help to stretch and tone the muscles while relaxing the body and mind.
Overview of Yoga
The practice of yoga is commonly thought of as simply a workout routine, but it constitutes much more to many people. Yoga originated in the Indus Valley possibly as early as 3300 BC, and was more a way of life than anything else. It became a central part of several religions, notably Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism.
The Many Limbs of Yoga
Eight separate “limbs” together form the entire practice of yoga; asanas are only one of these limbs. In order, the eight limbs of yoga are as follows.
- Yamas: Restrictions
- Niyamas: Observations
- Asanas: Postures
- Pranayama: Breathing
- Pratyahara: Detachment
- Dharana: Concentration
- Dhyana: Meditation
- Samadhi: Unity with Brahman, the Hindu god
Yoga and Asanas Today
Today, when most people think of yoga, they are specifically thinking of Hatha Yoga. Hatha Yoga is practiced in studios across the world and constitutes only the asanas and Pranyama (postures and breathing techniques). Some studios may also teach the Dharana and Dhyana, concentration and meditation, for a more comprehensive experience.
Asanas are Central to Yoga
Asanas are at the very center of the yoga practice. The human body, in practicing asanas, discovers its own restrictions (the first limb of yoga).
Asanas have been defined in the yoga Sutras as any position which is steady and comfortable. In such a position, a disciple of yoga may observe and hone their skills of concentration and meditation. In doing the latter two, they will become detached from physical surroundings. Thus, yoga asanas are key to the other limbs of yoga.
How Asanas Work Physically
There are 66 basic yoga asanas, with many variations – possibly an infinite variety – of each. On a purely physical level, asanas serve to stretch, limber, and tone the muscles. The many different poses ensure that every part of the body is worked and stretched for a comprehensive and effective workout routine.
Many asanas compress a certain area of the body, restricting the blood flow to that area. When the Asana is relaxed, fresh blood rushes in to re-oxygenate the deprived area. This pattern of restriction and re-oxygenation adjusts the body over time to make the lungs more efficient and the blood more oxygenated in daily life as well as in the studio.
There are many other physical benefits to asanas, including the following:
- Improved strength, flexibility, and stamina
- Helps control blood pressure
- Builds stronger lungs
- Can aid in weight loss
How Asanas Work Mentally
Controlling the body means also controlling the mind. Practitioners of yoga asanas can better control mind and body to ignore both mental and physical discomfort. Mental benefits to practicing yoga asanas include:
- Improved concentration and focus
- Stress reduction
Asanas are possibly the most important limb of yoga, since all other limbs are based on these postures. In accordance with the traditional tenants of yoga, asanas work to give the practitioner a healthier mind and body.