Yoga and its holistic philosophy of practice are now embraced by millions of practitioners around the world. Yoga adopts a mind-centered approach towards maintaining health, promoting healing and facilitating a path towards spiritual transformation. This mindfulness is the common thread that links all the tools of Yoga, including the practice of Asana-s or physical postures. Only when such a mindful approach is integrated into practice, will the full potency of Yoga and its tools be activated, facilitating significant, positive transformation in the practitioner.
Yogi-s developed a simple and effective strategy to bring about this holistic and mindful approach to Asana practice. By creating a thoughtful sequence of steps toward each intended posture and coordinating each step with the natural cycle of breath, the body, breath and mind are integrated into the practice. This classical principle of Asana practice, Vinyasa-krama, has been utilized since the early days of Yoga; however, its enormous value was reintroduced to the modern world by the legendary Yogacarya T Krishnamacharya.
Although Asana-s are the most popular form of Yoga practice, when performed in a manner that is not mindful, they may not only be futile, but can also cause damage to the practitioner. Unfortunately, many of the subtle principles of Asana practice have not been communicated effectively, therefore a great deal of its value is lost. However, when practiced diligently, Asana-s bring forth many positive benefits in all the dimensions of the human system. For this reason, a thorough understanding of these subtle principles is an absolute necessity for every serious practitioner of Yoga.
The Heart of Asana: A Comprehensive Manual of Classical Yoga Postures, aims to lift the shroud of mystery that has surrounded modern Asana practice and principles. It presents detailed information on many of the traditional postures that are still in common practice. Each page is dedicated to an in-depth examination of an Asana and includes:
* Asana name in traditional Devanagari script
* Asana name in Roman Transliteration form
* Meaning of the Asana name from its constituent parts
* Clear illustration of the posture with additional notes highlighting areas of detail
* Classification types of the Asana
* The static and/or dynamic nature of the Asana
* The role of Bandha-s in the Asana
* Classical source texts that list or describe the Asana
* Illustrations of the common variations of the Asana
* The classical Vinyttsa-krama-s (steps in and out) of the Asana
The book also includes useful appendices, presenting a brief description of all the classical source texts and a list of Indian mythological personalities after whom some of the Asana-s were named.
The Heart of Asana is a multi-lingual book featuring 234 Asana-s and 575 Vinyasa-krama-s, with detailed information presented in English, Spanish, French and German. It is meticulously researched, beautifully illustrated and presented in a simple, easy to use layout.
Regardless of the tradition of practice, this text will be an invaluable resource for students and practitioners of Yoga at all levels of practice.
Yoga has often been termed a Sarvanga-Sadhana. When translated, the term means "a practice that engages all limbs/ elements of one's body". Considering the time period and the circumstances in which Yoga practice evolved, particularly the physically demanding nature of life at that time in India, it seems highly unlikely that it was meant to focus on, or nurture, only our physiological construct. If such is the case, one is led to ponder on why Yoga evolved and, more significantly, on why it was called a Sarvanga-Sadhana.
On closer examination of Yoga's classical texts, especially the Yogastura-s of Patanjali, two distinct messages emerge, striking in both potency and practicality. The first is a message concerning the purpose of Yoga. Yoga was created, or perhaps emerged on its own, to address a phenomenon called Duhkham. Translated in a simple manner, Duhkham means, “suffering or pain or an affliction of any form that possesses one's life". From an etymological perspective Duhkham also refers to a feeling of constriction that inhibits the spontaneous flow of our feelings and potential. It is the opposite of a feeling of freedom where the flow of our spontaneous patterns and potential is not inhibited. This state is known as Sukham, which can mean "a fluid space". Whether we understand these two terms as disease and health, or bondage and freedom, it is quite clear from all classical Yoga texts, that the purpose of Yoga is the systematic reduction of Duhkham, and the consequent expression of Sukham, This must be the orientation for all practitioners of Yoga, whether they relate to this wonderful discipline on the mat or off it.
The second message that becomes very clear in the classical Yoga texts is that the strategic vehicle through which the alleviation of Duhkharn is achieved is the mind. Almost all of the Yoga texts written by classical masters have very clearly expressed the role of mind in the process of transformation from Duhkham to Sukham, Hence the discipline of Yoga was regarded as one that took a mind-centered, rather than a body-focused, approach.
What is also striking in these texts is the fact that almost all of them view the mind as a function, rather than an organ. So, while the concept of mind plays a central role in Yoga, it must be understood that it is from the standpoint of mind being a function rather than a lump of flesh located between the ears. In delving further into this idea, particularly from the Yogin's point of view, it becomes apparent that the mind is seen as a faculty of discrimination between different stimuli, (which enables discrete responses) and also as a medium of communication.
Interestingly, this concept of mind can also be extended to organisms without a brain. This implies that the mind, as a function, can and does exist in every cell of the body. Each cell is intimately related to other cells, thus forming a larger being made up of many inter-connected minds. This mind exists in our physiological construct and hence every cell becomes a holistic entity of mind and matter. This is how the Yogin-s viewed our system and hence offered practices and methods that addressed this structure. It is the principal reason why it is called a Sarvanga-sadhana, because not only does it involve our body, but it also transforms every part of us, holistically.
It is for this reason that the discipline of Yoga offers tools that access the many dimensions of the human system. The common thread that links all these tools is the mind-centered approach that each tool takes in impacting the human system. This includes the practice of Asana-s, or physical postures. Despite being a specific arrangement of the parts of the body, a physical posture becomes an Asana, a tool of Yoga, only if practiced in a mindful manner. When practiced in such a manner, the impact it has comes from within us, thus increasing its potency to transform us.
While there are numerous tools of Yoga, the focus of this book is Asana practice, particularly in a form known as Vinyasa-krama. Prior to exploring these ideas, a few important aspects of Asana need to be emphasized.
Definitions of Asana
While there are many significant definitions for Asana, I would like to present two of them here. The earliest known definition of Asana, especially as a tool of Yoga, is in the Yogasutra of Patanjali:
Sthirasukhamasanam – Yogasutra II.46
"Steadiness, comfort, is Asana."
On examination of this aphorism, it becomes very clear that Asana has been defined in terms of function or qualities, rather than in terms of form. Also, considering that the human being is regarded as a holistic entity, it is evident that Patanjali is talking about steadiness and comfort in all its layers and not just in the physical domain. This is particularly important with respect to the domain of the mind, as Yoga essentially adopts a mind-centered approach through all of its tools.
Another crucial idea pertaining to the definition of Asana comes from its etymological roots. The word Asana is derived from the root “as-bhuvi" which means "to be". This definition is significant for all practitioners of Asana, as it proposes that Asana is more a state of being, than a process of doing.
. Number of Asana-s
Classical Yoga texts list numerous Asana-s, but it is impossible to enumerate all the Asana-s that can possibly exist. In this publication I have researched many classical Yoga texts and listed Asana-s mentioned in them. However, many postures not listed in any of these texts have also been included. Knowledge of these has been passed down through the oral tradition, especially the tradition of Yogacara T Krishnamacharya. Put together, a total of 234 Asana-s is discussed in this text. The Yoga texts used as references have been listed in the appendix with a brief description of each.
Naming of Asana-s
The names of many Asana-s were inspired by nature. Some derive from animals, mountains, bridges etc. Others were named after the form taken or function fulfilled. Some were named in honor of particular Yogini-s or important people. (See appendix for a list of such people after whom Asana-s were named.)
Some Asana-s do not have the word 'Asana' in their name. Several have 'pitham', which is a synonym for Asana. Others have neither, ego Hastinisadana, which means 'like an elephant'. In the section that describes Asana-s, each name has been dissected into its constituent parts, and their meanings have been presented in four languages.
Classification of Asana-s
Though they are only one of Yoga's many tools for influencing the mind, Yogasana-s also have other benefits that are worthy of consideration. Primary among these is their influence on the health and wellbeing of their practitioners, particularly in the domains of physiological and psychological wellbeing.
Our body's vital organs need to function efficiently in order to generate and distribute vital energy to every part of our system, so that we remain healthy and fulfill our daily responsibilities in the best possible manner. Among many factors that influence the efficient functioning of the internal organs, the Yogin-s of the past believed that two factors played key roles. One was the proper alignment of the spine, and the other was the appropriate distance between internal organs. Further, proper spinal alignment was believed to influence the spacing between the internal organs.
The Yogin-s realized that as the mundane chores of daily life start to influence our body, spinal posture is eventually compromised. As a result, they concluded that the Nadi-s' passing through the spine start to function inefficiently, resulting in errors of perception and response. This can be understood in modern day parlance as well, as the nerves going through the spine-can get pinched if the spinal alignment is disturbed, thus affecting their ability to carry impulses to and from the brain. Also, since most of the vital functions of the body are located in the trunk, an improper alignment in the spine can cause postural misalignments. This can adversely influence the inter-organ distances, and disrupt the functioning of these vital organs. It is for these reasons that Yogin-s of the past developed and classified Yogaeana-s based on the effect these positions had on the spine. The classications of the Yogasana-s are presented below with a short description of each category.
Samasthiti type postures are reference postures for other postures, and very often the starting point from where other postures are done. These Asana-s are those where the spine is properly aligned. The back is erect, the reference points along the spine are in their appropriate positions and as a consequence, the internal organs are able to maintain their appropriate positions.
Pascimatana type positions are those Asana-s where the extension- of the posterior section of the body is emphasized. In these postures the spine is extended in the upward direction, (toward the head), in order to remedy the downward pull of the spine that sometimes sets in. From a modern perspective it can also be looked at as a way to restore the appropriate spacing in the spine so that the nerves will not be pinched as a result of disc compression.
Puruatana Asana-s are those where the anterior section of the body is extended. By such positions the hunching of the spine can be avoided or corrected. These can also help in increasing the inter-organ space, in cases where the hunching of the back constricts the space between them.
Parsva Asana-s are those where the spine is moved laterally. These postures are useful in correcting any lateral misalignment of the spine. They can also be useful in influencing organs on one side of the body in cases where such a requirement exists.
Parivrtti Asana-s are those where the spine is twisted. Parivrtti Asana-s are very beneficial in correcting the axial misalignment of the spine. Like Parivrtti postures they may also be useful in stimulating organs on one side of the body whenever such a need is felt. The pictures below show two examples of such postures.
Viparita type postures are those Asana-s where the spine is in an inverted position. One of the commonly known benefits of this position is that it allows for the body to reverse its gravity-based patterning. More crucially, inversions are the position of the body where the hips have the most freedom. Hence the spinal re-alignments that have to focus on the hip region are made easily possible through Viparita type positions.
The classification of Asana-s serves as a great reminder to us that in every Asana is its inherent function. They are not just positions which look good.
Yogin-s also realized that due to the nature of human lifestyle and its unpredictability, in many cases more than one function may be required to restore health in the practitioner. This was the principle behind the evolution of many Asana-s which incorporated elements of more than one of the above types. Hence the classification of Asana-s must not become restrictive but rather must serve to bring awareness of the purposes of Asana practice.
For example, consider virabhadrasana. The moment the legs are spread, by taking one foot forward, a lateral alignment of the hip, and therefore the spine, occurs. Thus, the element of Parsva is brought in. When the hips are turned forwardto face the front foot, an element of Pariurtti occurs. Finally when the arms are raised and back arched, the frontal trunk is extended and hence an aspect of Purvatana also forms part of the posture. Thus, Virabhadrasana combines at least three different functions in its practice.
The same is the case with many other postures which will find a place in more than one category, such as Janusirsasana, which has elements of Pascimatana, Parsva and also Parivrtti. While such reasoning suggests that Asana-s like Virabhadrasana or Janusirsasana were categorized in their respective classes based on their functions after they evolved, in truth, it was perhaps to fulfill these functions that these Asana-s were created; function always preceded form. Yogin-s of the past were practical and purpose-driven. They created tools and techniques based on the purposes they were intended to serve, rather than the other way round.
Apart from purpose-driven categories, Yogin-s also developed another class of postures. This class of postures is called Visesa, which literally means "special." These postures not only have some aspects of the six general categories, but also are those that require some special effort.
Apart from the above categories, some postures are also listed here as part of a classification known as Mudra. Mudra-s are powerful ways of inducing transformation at a subtle level by unlocking suppressed or dark energy, and they are therefore considered very special. In many classical Hathayoga texts, bandha-s are classified as Mudra-s. It is because of their ability to influence the deep layers of our personality that Yogin-s did not generally consider Mudra-s as part of Asana practice, but rather thought of them as meditative experience. However, Yogacarya Krishnamacharya took the liberty of including some of them in daily Asana practice, owing to the proximity of these techniques to postures. He also felt that by doing so, practitioners would be able to benefit from the special effects of Mudra-s.
Though many classical Hathayoga texts describe their techniques and benefits in detail, they remind the reader time and again that they must be practiced under the guidance of a competent teacher.
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