What Does Asana Mean in Yoga?

Woman Meditating
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Asana is the physical practice of yoga poses. In addition to referring broadly to the physical aspect of yoga, asana can also be used to describe a single pose, as in, "The handstand is an asana that is really hard for me."

What most people call yoga could more specifically be called asana. Yoga has eight limbs. Besides asana, yoga also encompasses pranayama (breathing exercises), dhyana (meditation), yamas (codes of social conduct), niyamas (self-observances), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), and samadhi (bliss).

The Benefits of Asanas

Asanas are performed to improve flexibility, strength, and balance. The use of breathing and focus can help relieve stress and anxiety. The poses are not meant to simply be physical exercises but rather used holistically as a mind-body practice to improve physical, mental, and spiritual health.

The Sanskrit Names for Poses

Asana is used as a suffix in the Sanskrit names for yoga poses, such as trikonasanavirabhadrasana, and eka pada rajakapotasana. Knowing this and a few other Sanskrit terms can help you unravel these complicated names. For instance, eka pada means one footed, so in these poses, you can expect that one foot will be doing something different from the other. Parsva means side (usually a pose facing one side), parivrtta means turned (usually a twisted version of a pose), and so on. Beginning to see these patterns helps the names start to make more sense.

It is common to have the Sanskrit names for animals, Hindu deities, and mythological figures included in the names for poses. You will also see variations in the spelling as they can be translated into English in various ways. Some poses have more than one name as they come from different yoga traditions.

The History of Asana

Asana is the Sanskrit word for posture or seat. As interpreted from the archeological record and primary source materials, the first yoga asanas were most probably seated positions for meditation. They were described in the "Yoga Sutras" of Patanjali, written around the third century.

Asanas are part of the Hatha yoga practice, a branch of yoga combining physical movements and breathing techniques. The  "Hatha Yoga Pradipika" was written in the 15th century and describes only 14 postures, of which 11 are seated positions.

It is not until fairly recently in yoga's history (with the influence of the Western physical culture movement) that asana developed such a wide array of poses and became the most widely practiced aspect of yoga. Understanding this goes a long way toward accepting that asana is not a static practice enshrined through the millennia. Rather, it is constantly evolving. A pose invented last week isn't less legitimate than one from the 1940s or the 16th century.

Bikram Choudhury attempted to patent 130 asanas in 2007. The U.S. Patent Office decided that asanas could not be patented in the way he was claiming. The government of India then sought to keep asanas in the public domain by publishing them in a public database.

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