Asana is the third limb (discipline) of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. It’s one of my favorite aspects of yoga, because it teaches us to overcome our fears.
Little by little, daily asana practice makes us stronger, and more self-aware. We learn to disassociate from “the story”, so that we can see the truth about ourselves and the world around us. Within these truths, we find the happiness we desire.
The word “asana” literally means “seat”, and implies the act of sitting. The original yogis, thousands of years ago, had only three asanas to practice, and all were seated. The intention behind these asanas was to quiet the mind and spirit, to prepare for consecutive days of uninterrupted, seated meditation.
I remind myself of this, any time I start to think that I am an awesome yogi. It doesn’t really matter whether I can hold a handstand, or lift my leg in a backbend. Real yoga is not about the poses, it’s about what happens in the poses. We learn to empty ourselves, so God can fill us up with what is essential.
In recent years, asana has become an umbrella term for the kriyas (physical postures that move energy in the body) and true asana (seated poses), that we practice on our yoga mats.
If you have ever taken a yoga class, you have probably noticed that most of the pose names end in “asana”. This is because Sanskrit is a mathematical and literal language. The word asana means “seat”, or a pose in which we “sit still”.
The prefix of pose names usually describe either the animal it looks like (“up dog” comes to mind), or the object in nature it resembles (such as “tree pose”). I think this is why we often hear people talk about feeling connected to nature on their mat…we are actually pretending to be objects in nature, when we practice yoga.
Like most modern yogis in the Western world, when I first “got into yoga”, I only wanted to practice asana. I tolerated the pranayama at the beginning of class, out of respect for my teacher, and completely dreaded savanasa, the closing meditation. But I really loved getting my asana on.
Over time, however, my energy shifted. As my asana practice taught me self-awareness, I learned to appreciate other opportunities for happiness, within the eight limbs of yoga.
Fifteen years later, I love all of the limbs, but I will always have a special place in my heart for my asana practice. Partly because I was recovering from a car accident when I started, and I had to work harder than most people, to learn the poses. But mostly because asana feels like a 15 year friendship. Asana knew me when I was young, and I can still count on it today.
The bottom line about asana is that it makes us stronger, shifts our perspective, and inspires us become more of who we are supposed to be. A little goes a long way, so practice often, and remember that, as Thich Naht Hahn once said, “Because you are alive, anything is possible.”