Asanas are the physical practice of yoga poses. These postures rebalance our bodies by bringing strength to weak areas and softness to the tight spots.

Although nowadays yoga is often associated exclusively with the practice of asanas, these postures are only one of the eight limbs of yoga (Read the paragraph “The Yoga Sutras: the “Bible” of yoga” to discover more about the other limbs).

The history of asanas

Asana is the Sanskrit word for posture or seat. The first text mentioning them was the “Yoga Sutras” of Patanjali, where they were described as mainly seated positions aimed at facilitating the practice of meditation.

The concept of asanas as we know them today was introduced during Tantrism. In particular the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is considered as the main text of this age and the classical manual on Hatha Yoga. This text was written in the XV century AD, and, as far as asanas are concerned, it focused on their description together with their modifications and benefits.

It is not until recently in yoga’s history, with the diffusion and success of this discipline in Western countries, that asanas became the most widely practiced aspect of yoga, and drastically increased in numbers.

It is important to know this to understand that yoga is not a static discipline, but rather it is constantly evolving.

The benefits of asanas

They give you a workout, with the added bonus of a work-in.

Often adults tend to lose awareness of their body and breathing.

The experiences that we go through in life affect the physical and mental balance that we were born with. This modifies our posture and breathing pattern.

Yoga has the objective to bring us back to the condition of balance of our original state, to our natural breathing and posture.

Asanas are performed to improve flexibility, strength, and balance. Their use in association with pranayama and focus can help relieve stress and anxiety.

Not only are these poses exercises that create space in the physical body, they offer a sense of psychic spaciousness. In fact, they should be considered holistically as a mind-body practice to improve physical, mental, and spiritual health. By freeing up the outer body (which includes muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments, and visceral organs) asanas build and control the prana, our vital force governing the body’s subtle energies . These energies are finer and more subtle than those in the physical body.

Asanas are considered to purify and heal the body, as well as those subtle energies. Therefore, hatha yoga – a branch of yoga combining physical movements and breathing techniques – is a great preventive medicine.

The importance of alignments

In order to let the above-mentioned subtle energy successfully circulate and to initiate our process of purification, alignment is fundamental when practicing yoga postures.

Not only. Keeping in mind alignment is our weapon against physical injuries, which may increase – instead of healing – imbalances already existing in our bodies. Indeed, when we cannot enter a pose correctly, the body initiates coordinating compensation patterns. Therefore, it will automatically put more pressure on the more flexible areas for instance, with the consequence of creating too much stress on them, and to leave almost unchanged the areas we actually need to work on.

In this situation issues on both the physical and energetic level can occur, and the practice has no beneficial outcome for us.

9 main groups of asanas

  • Basic asanas
  • Standing asanas
  • Balancing asanas
  • Backbends
  • Inversions
  • Asanas for strength
  • Forward bends
  • Twists
  • Asanas for meditation

A quick note on Sanskrit names for postures

The word asana is used as a suffix in the Sanskrit names for yoga poses, such as trikonasana and virabhadrasana (and platypusasana too!!!). Often the Sanskrit names for animals, Hindu deities, and mythological figures are included in the names of the postures. Knowing this can help you unravel these complicated names.

Other recurring words are:

  • eka pada, “one footed”. In these poses one foot will be doing something different from the other;
  • parsva, “side”. A pose facing one side;
  • parivrtta, “turned”. The twisted version of a pose.

Curious about Sanskrit vocabulary? Keep finding a word in yoga books and yoga classes, and asking yourself what it means?

Click here to access Platylingo, my mini Sanskrit vocabulary for yoga!

When I first started my yoga journey my doubts were many. Above all there was that “I’m not flexible enough for yoga” that kept resonating in my head. When I explained it to my first yoga teacher she answered me that “That’s why the rest of us do it!” that totally changed my approach.

She also recommended me a good read by Christina Brown:

“Don’t let a stiff body be an excuse never to start yoga. You should just start practicing from wherever you are right now. Don’t judge your practice by how far you can or can’t stretch. Never feel inadequate because you can’t hold a pose for long, or because it doesn’t perfectly mirror the pose in a picture. Practice spreading your awareness through your own body. More than poise in your posture, seek grace in your breathing. Just start the journey. You never know where it might take you.”

And that was actually how my journey started.

Practice, don’t give up, appreciate what you have achieved today, but know what your edge is. Without judging yourself.

When posing in asanas it is a very critical aspect to be aware of your body and of your edge. It is that point at which you feel you have reached your limit. It can vary from one day to the other, and it is often different on the physical and on the mental levels. Both of them have to be respected with flexibility and acceptance. If you are able to learn patience your body will eventually release and open, and present you with a new edge. Waiting for your inner cues and not rushing can make a big difference.

Also, stay mentally present while you practice. Let your mind become absorbed in your work and in the subtle sensations of your body. Allow your practice to become a conversation with your body.

Be reflective, be respectful, be responsive.