1. What exactly is an āsana, besides being a yoga pose or posture?
There are several important definitions.
In its oldest usage āsana means a seat (e.g. Taittirīya Up. I.1 1.3).
The word, āsana, has its origin in the Sanskrit root ‘as-bhuvi’, meaning ‘to be’. This tells us that practising āsana is more about ‘being’ than it is about ‘doing’.
Patañjali defines the word in terms of its qualities: sthirasukhamāsanam, literally ‘steadiness comfort is āsana’.
In other words, there is no āsana unless it feels steady and comfortable.
Also, how an āsana looks matters less than how it feels.
2. How many āsana-s are there?
The Gheraṇḍa Saṁitā (II.1), indicates there are 8,400,000, i.e. the same number as there are species of animal, of which 84 are best.
When it comes to Indian thinking, we can’t take the numbers literally. 8.4 million only indicates that there are a great many postures, and 84 can mean ‘a lot’.
The Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā [HYP] (I.33) says that Śiva gave instructions for 84 āsana-s. We don’t have a complete list of what these 84 might be.
My teachers gave me a list of 234, most of which I haven’t tried.
3. Which āsana is the best?
The HYP (I.34) tells us that the best four āsana-s are:
- siddhāsana (adept’s)
- padmāsana (lotus)
- siṁhāsana (lion) &
- bhadrāsana (auspicious).
These are all seated postures; modern poses tend not to be seated ones. If we succeed in siddhāsana the other āsana-s are not needed (I.41).
In a way, this is great news because it means that we are under no pressure to master every āsana we encounter.
In practice, a few well chosen poses practised regularly will do wonders for us, not just physically, but energetically and psychologically too.
4. What’s the point of practising āsana-s?
In the Classical Yoga tradition (i.e. following Patañjali’s teachings as set out in the Yoga Sūtras), āsana-s train the body not to distract the mind while sitting in meditation (YS II.46-48).
In other words, the goal of yoga is not mastery of the āsana-s themselves: the goal of yoga is to transcend the ordinary workings of the mind so as to experience pure consciousness.
From a Haṭha yoga point of view (which draws inspiration from Tantra and Āyurveda as well as Patañjali), āsana-s can be practised to prepare the spine for prāṇāyāma.
Another reason for practising āsana is to bring calmness to the mind (they reduce rajas – the restlessness of the mind), lightness of the body (they reduce tamas – mental resistance or inertia) and to gain freedom from disease (HYP I.17).
Āsana-s, then, are not only a path to physical health but to a tranquil mind.
They are also a key part of kriyā yoga – the yoga of action, which approach to yoga is very suitable to the majority of us who have lives to live in society. Āsana-s supports us in our everyday lives.
5. Why can’t we agree on the names for āsana-s?
I’ve no idea!
You’d think that everyone could agree a naming convention.
Frankly, who cares what a pose is called so long as one practises sensibly and skillfully.
I use the Sanskrit names where I can because that’s the technical language of yoga. Doctors and musicians have their special terms, yoga people do too.
But even here there is no consensus. The fourteenth-century HYP remarks that siddhāsana is known to other yogi-s as vajrāsana, muktāsana or guptāsana (I.37).
It’s an old old problem not worth sweating.
Thank you for reading this short article.
Wishing you a steady and agreeable time practising āsana-s.