“The goal of yoga is clear; make the mind satvic and realise the true nature of the Self.”
In the Hathayogapradipika and Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, asana (the practice of Yoga postures) is described as the third practice of yoga after yama (ethics) and niyama (personal disciplines). My teachers said that the reason there are eight limbs of Yoga is because nine is too many and seven is not enough. We can take it that asana is regarded as an essential element of yoga practice. What is it for?
First, asana is exercise for yogi’s. As they were living away from society in mountains and forest’s they had no access to the NHS. So they devised means of staying disease free with no equipment and no support from any therapist. Asana is an independent, do-it-yourself health practice. Avoiding any injury, common in sport and competitive activities, the structure and functions of the body are kept in perfect health. It is anti-aging and longevity promoting, yogi’s did not want to go in a rest home either.
Second, it renders the body flexible and strong, able to sit comfortably for long hours in pranayama and meditation practice.
Third, it reduces restlessless (rajoguna) and heaviness (tamoguna) from the body so it is light (satvaguna).
“Asanas make one firm, free from disease and light of limb.”
The yogi’s devised a unique approach to exercising the body without resorting to aerobics. When the venous return is increased to the heart, the heart responds by pumping more strongly to move the blood therefore stimulating the circulation. (Starlings Law). It does this without speeding up the heart.
So this mechanism is activated in asana by deep slow breathing which draws blood back towards the heart; returning blood to the venous system by moving and squeezing muscles and internal organs; and by gravity using different body positions and particularly the inverted postures. These three methods combine in yoga practice to maintain good blood circulation (rakta sanchara).
Tension and accumulated stress is removed from the muscles, and the joints are restored to a full range of movement. With a firm, flexible body and good circulation it is possible to sit for long hours without discomfort.
With rajoguna (restless activity) and tamoguna (dullness) pacified we will not fidget or fall asleep while sitting. Satvaguna (lightness and clarity) become dominant in the mind and body and then a stint of pranayama will remove any systemic tamoguna so that meditation is possible. In addition, repetition of mantra will make the mind more satvic.
Many people can’t meditate due to pain from illness, restlessness or drowsiness. It is yoga’s contention that meditation is impossible without correct preparation and the removal of these impediments. Only a satvic mind can go into Samadhi and see the true nature of the Self.
On a more subtle level asana gives proper prana circulation (prana sanchara). This maintains correct body functions and health and keeps the channels (nadi ) and vital points (marmasthana) free from obstruction.
With the intense mindfulness applied during asana practice, and body, breath and mind in harmony and present moment awareness, the mind becomes peaceful and concentrated.
There are people who only want to practice asana for health benefits and not to gain powers (siddhi) or realise the Self (kaivalya). For these students asana is categorised as Cikitsa Krama (therapy method) and also features in Ayurveda, the Vedic medical and health science, where asana is categorised as vyayama, a unique category of exercise, different from aerobic type exercises. Yogasana is used with the other health promoting and healing methods of Ayurveda.