Asana evolved as an integral part of the spiritual practice of Yoga. The path was oriented towards spiritual knowledge. Purification of the body/mind complex were necessary accomplishments to attain this end. So asana has a crucial role to play in Yoga. The main benefits are:
· Physical health
· Freedom from illness
· The ability to sit for long periods in padmasana and other seated postures for pranayama and meditation.
· Development of the breath as a preparation for pranayama.
· Development of awareness and focus.
· Mastery of the bandhas.
The practice of asana will give us the following health benefits, whether or not, our aim is to achieve our highest spiritual potential.
· Structural stability.
· Strength, flexibility and stamina.
· Physiological immunity.
· Correct function of all body systems.
· Emotional health.
· Mental clarity and peace.
· Promotion of longevity.
The classical goals of asana are:
samakaya – balance of the body.
sarvanga sadhana – engagement of all body parts.
The ancients had a very different approach to health to our modern western paradigm which is based on various measurements and standards of performance. Yoga, on the other hand, is based on a qualitative approach. The practice is to create a feeling of lightness in the body, the ability to withstand change and a stable body and clear mind. Apart from the fact that we use the body they have very little in common. I will call the two approaches, physical culture and yoga and look at their main objectives.
· Based on performance standards; target pulse rate, % muscle to body fat, capacity to run a distance, bench press a certain weight etc.
· Building an attractive external appearance.
· Raising the heart rate. (breath rate increases along with this).
· Cardiovascular conditioning.
· Competing with yourself and others.
· Cultivates balance, harmony, freedom from tension, and tranquillity in the physical organism.
· Promotes good circulation of blood (rakta sanchara), lymph (nina sanchara) and life energy (prana sanchara) to the whole body.
· Harmonises the breath and heart.
· Promotes excellent respiratory function and heart health without straining the system.
· Balances endocrine system.
· Promotes healthy function of all internal organs.
· Slows heart and breath rate, which promotes a calm, tension free body and mind.
· Aims to promote longevity.
· Invigorates the whole system without overtaxing it, leading to heightened energy and revitalisation.
Physical culture requires more food, longer sleep and leads to many injuries and strains.
Yoga practice leads to a reduction in food intake, less requirement for sleep and naturally reduces tension and pain in the body and discourages any activity that could lead to harm.
Another advantage of Yoga is that it is simple. You can practice anywhere without any special equipment.
The ancients observed that the body sags with age leading to displacement of the internal organs. They believed that this lead to poor function of the organs resulting in disease. They came up with some innovative and unique procedures to address this problem.
The six main organs are contained in connective tissue in three cavity’s in the body. The organs were called kosa in ancient India. Kosa means a sac or bag.
· Hrdaya Kosa-Heart-Thoracic cavity
· Svasa Kosa-Lungs-Thoracic cavity
· Anna Kosa-Stomach-Abdominal cavity
· Mala Kosa-Large intestine -Abdominal cavity
· Mutra Kosa-Bladder-Pelvic cavity
· Garbha Kosa-Uterus-Pelvic cavity
· Bindu Kosa-Prostate-Pelvic cavity
General asana practice with synchronised breathing will help maintain good tone in the body tissues. The procedures peculiar to Yoga that work on restoring the organs to their correct position are:
· Inversion – headstand and shoulderstand.
· Mudras – maha mudra, tadaka mudra.
· Bandhas – jalandhara bandha, mula bandha, uddiyana
Bandhas are practiced in the inversions and mudras and can be applied in many other asana.
According to Yoga there are three things that affect our health.
· External things.
· Food .
· Physical exercises.
External things that can support health are sunshine, fresh air, water, bathing. External things that can damage our health are dangerous activities, stressful situations and unhealthy environment.
Food needs to be of the right type and quantity, eaten in the correct way at the appropriate time and with regard to season.
Physical exercise is to promote good health, longevity and harmony in the system. Exercise should not cause any injury or undue strain.
Asana practice carried out according to the Vinyasa Krama system will improve the overall circulation and promote a healthy heart due to its unique effect on the system.
Please refer to the article ‘Yoga for the Heart’ by Srivatsa Ramaswami for a detailed explanation of this.