The Yoga Tutor

Yoga Poses - The Origin of Asana

[ Excerpt from The Science of Yoga, page 88 ]

The yoga pose is known by the Sanskrit word asana. It comes from the root asi, which means, "to be." Literally, the word asana means "a state of being."

Asana in Ancient Times

In Vedic (ancient) times, asana simple referred to a seat; a special seat reserved for the guru or someone of revered status. Its use also extended to the place where-upon the spiritual practitioner sat for meditative practices.

The physical exercises, which have come to be considered the mainstay of yoga in our time, did not figure predominantly in Patangali’s ashtanga yoga system.

But by the time of Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras, the word asana also became referred to as a 'physical state' that one adopted. sage Patanjali's first reference to asana in his Yoga Sutras comes in chapter 2 (Sadhana Pada), verse 46:


Translation: A seated posture that is steady and comfortable
is called asana.

This really is the departure point from the literal translation of the Sanskrit words asana as "a seat," and the genesis of what would eventually lead us to the modern use of the word asana as a physical posture.

But throughout the 196 aphorisms of the Yoga Sutras, the modern "bible of Yoga," Patanjali still only mentions the word asana a scant four times. In the next three sutras, he continues:

(Sutra 47)

Translation: a meditative pose is rendered steady by letting go of one's efforts and meditating upon infinity.

It's through absorption into the posture and relaxed effort, the sage councils, that one attains a steady and comfortable state, a precursor to the ultimate goal of asana:

(Sutra 48)

Translation: By perfecting asana, one is no longer affected by the pairs of opposites (duality).

The objective of asana then, according to Patanjali, is to gain resistance to the 'pairs of opposites' (dwandwas).

'Pairs of opposites' refers to the conditions both within the mind and the physical body, between which we continually oscillate; those things with which we are persistently preoccupied -- conditions such as hot and cold, happiness and sorrow, pain and pleasure, etc.

All of these things, these pre-occupations, continually keep the mind drawn outward, toward our external environment. They are the continual mental and physical distractions which inhibit the mind's ability to go within.

The perfection of asana, the absorption into a steady, comfortable and non-distracted position, trains the practitioner and provides them with the capacity to rise above these external 'distracting pairs of opposites' in order that they may pursue the more difficult task of dealing with their 'inner environment'.

So even by Patanjali’s time, the challenges to higher, or the internal practices of yoga existed, making it clear that a method was necessary to first make the body healthy and resistant to strain and fatigue; to gain a fitness that is necessary for pranayama, and to develop ones willpower in order to withstand physical and mental distraction at the higher stages of practice of yoga...


NOTE: This yoga article is an excerpt from The Science of Yoga, an online yoga training program with streaming yoga videos and 600 pages of step-by-step yoga instruction.

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... It is indeed a masterful work."


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