The renowned Indian sage Patanjali, writing more than 2000 years ago, assigns eight limbs to the tree of yoga — each stage being a stage or step along the path to realisation.
THIRD STAGE: ASANA
The third ‘limb’ of the 8 limbed path is Asana and is the one which is the most familiar to us.
“Through the practice of yoga asana the body is made strong and light like the body of a lion – only then will it provide the ideal vehicle on the path of yoga” ~ Shri K. Pattahabi Jois.
STHIRA – SUKHAM – ĀSANAM
Posture should be steady and comfortable
Sthira can mean “firm, compact, strong, steadfast, static, resolute, and courageous”; from the root stha, which means “to stand, to be firm, to take a stand.”
Sukha means “happy, good, joyful, delightful, easy, agreeable, gentle, mild, and virtuous.” The literal meaning is “good space,” from the root words su (good) and kha (space). The term originally described the kind of smooth ride one would experience in a cart or a chariot whose axle holes were well centered in the wheels. This image implies that the production of sukha is a dynamic process.
Āsanam, stems from the root as, which suggests “the act of sitting down, abiding, dwelling, inhabiting, being present.” The emphasis here is being grounded in and committed to whatever you are doing when you are doing it.
Asanas or yoga postures is the limb that is the most accessible to our western minds and we strive to become accomplished within them. However, the asanas are a means to prepare the body to be able to sit in meditation for long periods of time. In the yogic view, the body is a temple of spirit, the care of which is an important stage of our spiritual growth. Through the practice of asanas, we develop the habit of discipline and the ability to concentrate, both of which are necessary not only for meditation but also to keep us physically comfortable in everyday situations, allowing us to be resolute, courageous and composed as we move through our lives.
This is achieved by the dual effect of asana practice on body and mind. In a disciplined yoga practice, postures coordinated with the breath release muscular tension that exists deep in the body. This in turn initiates a process that turns the fight-or-flight system off and the relaxation response on. A dramatic effect on the body is established. The heartbeat slows, respiration decreases, blood pressure decreases. It is within this state that the body seizes this chance to turn on the healing mechanisms.
In most systems of asana practice there are 5 major elements, forward bends, twists, balancing, backbends and inversions that strengthen and heal the body in a variety of ways. (See the book Yoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff for detailed images showing the muscles that are used within the postures).
Calms the brain and helps relieve stress and anxiety
Stimulates the liver and kidney
Stretches the hamstrings and calves
Strengthens the thighs
Helps relieve headache and insomnia
Massages abdominal organs, including the liver and kidneys
Stretches the shoulders
Stimulates the brain
Relieves mild backache and hip pain
Strengthens and stretches the spine
Strengthens the legs and ankles
Stretches the backs of the legs
Improves sense of balance
Stretches the chest and lungs
Strengthens the arms and wrists, legs, buttocks, abdomen, and spine
Stimulates the thyroid and pituitary
Increases energy and counteracts depression
Therapeutic for asthma, back pain, infertility, and osteoporosis
Calms the brain and helps relieve stress and mild depression
Stimulates the pituitary and pineal glands
Strengthens the arms, legs, and spine
Strengthens the lungs
Tones the abdominal organs
Helps relieve the symptoms of menopause
Therapeutic for asthma, infertility, insomnia, and sinusitis