Postures, or asanas (pronounced ah-sah-nahs) in Sanskrit, are probably the part of Yoga that you're most familiar with. They're those poses that look impossible but that are done with ease by many Yoga students. Beyond stretching and increasing strength and flexibility, Yoga postures help you get in tune with yourself, your body, and your environment. Through asanas, you can begin to see yourself as one with your environment.
For traditional Yoga masters, asanas are just one part of the yogic system. Postures are the basis of the third limb of the classical eightfold path of Yoga formulated by Yoga master Patanjali. (Flip to Chapter 20 for more on the eightfold path.)
Yogic postures are more than mere bodily poses — they're also expressions of your state of mind. An asana is poise, composure, carriage — all words suggesting an element of balance and refinement. The postures demonstrate the profound connection between body and mind.
Traditional Yoga experts view the body as a temple dedicated to the spirit. They believe that you must keep the body pure and beautiful to honor the spiritual reality it houses. Each posture is another way of remembering that higher principle — commonly called the spirit, divine, or transcendental Self — that the body enshrines. If you prefer to practice Yoga without such ideas, you can still use posture as a way of connecting with nature at large because your body isn't totally isolated from its environment. Where exactly does your body end, and where exactly does the surrounding space begin? How much does your body's electromagnetic field extend beyond your skin? How far away did the oxygen particles that are now part of your body originate?
The term asana simply means "sitting." It can denote both the surface you sit on and the bodily posture. An alternative term is tirtha, or "pilgrimage center," which suggests that practitioners shouldn't approach Yoga postures casually but respectfully, with great mental focus.
Some postures are called mudras (pronounced moo-drahs) or "seals," because they're especially effective in keeping the life energy (prana) sealed within the body. This leads to greater vitality and better mental focusing. Life energy is everywhere, both inside and outside the body, but you must properly harness it within the body in order to promote health and happiness.
According to traditional Yoga manuals, the main purpose of asana is to prepare the body to sit quietly, easily, and steadily for breathing exercises and meditation. The way you sit is an important foundation technique for these practices; when you perform them properly, the sitting postures act as natural "tranquilizers" for the body, and when the physical vehicle is still, the mind soon follows.
If your knees are more than a few inches higher than your hips when you sit cross-legged on the floor, it's an indication that your hip joints are tight. If you try to sit for a long while in this position for meditation or breathing exercises, you may very well end up with an aching back. Don't feel bad — you're not alone. Accept your current limitations in this area and use a prop, like a firm cushion or thickly folded blanket, to raise your buttocks off the floor high enough to drop your knees at least level with your hips.
If you attend a lecture or other special gathering at a Hatha Yoga center, remember that few, if any, chairs are usually available, so be prepared to sit on the floor. If you aren't accustomed to sitting cross-legged on the floor with an unsupported back, bring along a prop, such as a firm cushion or a blanket, to raise your buttocks (see Chapter 19). Arrive early so that you can find a wall or post to sit against to support your back. If none of these ideas sits well with you (no pun intended), just bring your own folding chair and sit near the rear of the room.
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