In Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga, after yama and niyama, the third limb is asana or posture. Asanas are well described in Hathyoga Pradipika, where it has been placed first in the sequence of yoga practice. “The posture in which one can sit for indefinite period comfortably is called asana”, as described in Mandal Brahmanopanishad. Patanjali says “Sthir Sukhasanam”, which means the posture in which we can sit comfortably and steadily is called asana. Asana brings real steadiness, health and easiness to all body parts, which ultimately bring mental equipoise and peace.
They are altogether different from gymnastic exercises. One does not need any infrastructure facility or equipment to perform asana, as in case of games or gymnastic exercises. It can be performed alone and anywhere without any specific preparation. What is needed is only a small blanket, a clean and airy space and self-confidence. By practising the asanas one can develop physical health, endurance, vitality, and can achieve longevity due to perfect health.
Asanas are classified in three categories:
• Meditative asanas
• Asanas providing mental tranquility
• Asanas providing physical strength
Asanas falling in the first category are practised before meditation. They are most suitable postures for doing meditation session. The second group of asanas provide total mental peace and tranquility and prevents fickleness of mind. The third group of asanas is practised to get physical strength and body power. Asanas have been evolved over the centuries, so as to exercise every muscle, nerve and gland in the body. They help in securing a fine physique, which is strong and elastic without being muscle bound and they keep the body free from disease. They also reduce fatigue and soothe the nerves. But their real importance lies in the way they train and discipline the mind.
Every asana consists of three stages, that is coming into the prescribed pose, holding it or keeping stationary, and then coming out of it. They should be performed slowly, steadily and with patience. One should try to keep still while maintaining the pose and breathe slowly and deeply, concentrating one’s mind on breath only. Once the ability to relax in a particular pose is achieved, one can adjust his position to achieve a greater stretch. Asanas are to be used for the systematic use of different muscles to get balanced coordination of physical, mental and visceral activities.
According to recent scientific studies, in addition to provideing comfortable postures for concentration (Dhyan) and meditation (Samadhi), steady body poses and body’s physical development, the asanas lead to various useful physiological, biochemical and mental changes in the body. These changes include loss in body weight, decreased respiratory rate, increased vital capacity of lungs, increased chest expansion, decreased blood glucose level, decreased blood cholesterol level, increased blood protein level, improved functions of endocrine glands, and improved mental processes, like intelligence quotient (IQ), mental quotient (MQ), work efficiency, decreased mental fatigue and anxiety etc. Several other significant neurophysiologies! and neurohumoral changes have been reported to take place following the practice of asanas.
A prefect balance between physical goodness and mental consciousness leads to good health, and a person gets health by performing asanas. In fact health is not a commodity that can be purchased by money power. It has to be achieved by self-effort and that too by sincere and systematic hard work and practice. Asanas are a means for that. They not only help a practitioner getting freedom from physical disabilities and mental distractions, but also achieve a complete equilibrium of body, mind and spirit.