The Sanskrit word asana is derived from the root as which means to be present, to dwell in, to sit quietly, abide, to inhabit. Asana literally means to sit down or sit in a particular position. In the context of yoga, asana refers to the various postures or positions that are commonly identified with the practice of yoga such as the headstand (sirsha-asana), the lotus (padma-asana), etc.
Asana is one of the eight limbs of classical yoga. In the Yoga Sutra, the definitive text on yoga philosophy, Patañjali defines the essential meaning of asana in two words: sthira and sukham. Sthira means stability, steadiness, firmness and is derived from the root stha which means "to stand." Sukham means ease, comfort, happiness. When the body-mind is in the opposite state of these two -- unsteady, constricted, restless or distracted -- we tend to experience life as continual struggle, conflict, stress, and unhappiness. The practice of yoga postures helps to cultivate a focused steadiness and an effortless ease that is experienced throughout the body-mind and benefits both meditation and everyday circumstances.
The practice of yoga posture differs radically from conventional exercise such as aerobics, weight-training, jogging, etc. The goal of asana practice is not to develop muscular strength or cardiovascular fitness (although both are possible) but to restore to the body-mind its fundamental state of wellbeing, ease, and vibrant alertness.
Yoga postures work on all dimensions of the body-mind -- "physical" through healing, strengthening, stretching and relaxing the skeletal, muscular, cardiovascular, digestive, glandular, and nervous systems; "mental" through the cultivation of a quiet and peaceful mind, alertness, and concentration; and "spiritual" by way of preparation for meditation and cultivation of inner strength.
In the Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika, a 14th century hatha-yoga text, it is written that asana "should be practiced for gaining steady posture, health and lightness of body." (I.19) The curative and health-enhancing powers of yoga postures have long been recognized, even in the West. Despite the many scientific and medical advances enjoyed by Western civilization, it is obvious that we now face a crisis regarding physical, mental and emotional health. It is, therefore, no accident that the practice of yoga postures, meditation and other "inner" technologies have become so widespread in recent years.
Despite their many benefits, yoga postures are surprisingly easy to learn. They can be practiced by anyone of any age. Although yoga postures are meant to provide a strong foundation for further yoga practice (concentration or dharana and meditation ordhyana), their benefits are such that they can stand alone as ways to cultivate a body-mind that is strong, healthy and relaxed.
What is Yoga?
The word Yoga stems from the Sanskrit language, in which the sacred scriptures of Hinduism are composed. It means "union" but it also means "discipline." Combining these two connotations, we can define yoga as the discipline that leads to inner and outer union, harmony, and joy.
There are many different types of Yoga, all stemming from a variety of ancient spiritual practices in India. The tradition most westerners identify with is called Hatha-Yoga. It involves physical postures (called asana) as well as breathing exercises (called pranayama). Hatha-Yoga is primarily a means for obtaining spiritual fulfillment. It also has the side effect of creating a healthy body and a peaceful mind. This form of Yoga has been practiced for thousands of years throughout India, and there have been many different interpretations of it throughout the centuries.
In recent years, roughly since the late 19th century, various Yoga masters have made their way to the West and have shared their interpretations of Yoga with various western students. These students went on to establish Yoga institutes throughout the United States and Europe. Hence, there are schools that teach Kripalu Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga, Bikram Yoga, Power Yoga, Iyengar Yoga, as well as many other styles. All of these are called Hatha-Yoga, but each style is a different interpretation of the same thing.
The Disciplines of Yoga:
Yoga was systematized more than 2,500 years ago by a sage named Patanjali in a single treatise, Yoga Sutra. The work is still acknowledged by all Yoga practitioners as the authoritative text on Yoga.
Patanjaliˆs Yoga comprises eight limbs. These are:
1. Yama: Universal ethical disciplines.
2. Niyama: Rules of personal conduct.
3. Asana: The practice of Yoga postures.
4. Pranayama: The practice of Yoga breathing techniques.
5. Pratyahara: Control of the senses.
6. Dharana: Control of the mind.
7. Dhyana: Meditation
8. Samadhi: Absorption in the infinite
Glimpses of the latter may come at any stage of practice, elevating it beyond the realms of physical and mental endeavor.
Yoga is built on a foundation of ethics (yama) and personal discipline (niyama). These are the universal precepts found in all societies. Thus from a practical point of view, Yoga can be considered to begin at the level of postures (asanas).
Each limb forms a part of the whole, and tradition teaches that, even after attaining great heights in Yoga, the practice of asana and pranayama should be continued for the health of the body.
The Value of Yoga:
Human beings are made up of three components: body, mind, and soul. Corresponding to these are three needs that must be satisfied for contented life: the physical need is health; the psychological need is knowledge; and the spiritual need is inner peace. When all three are present, there is harmony.
At the physical level, it gives relief from countless ailments. The practice of postures strengthens the body and creates a feeling of well-being. From a psychological viewpoint, Yoga sharpens the intellect and aids in concentration. It steadies the emotions and encourages a caring concern for others. Above all, it gives hope. The practice of breathing techniques calms the mind. Its philosophy sets life in perspective. In the realm of the spiritual, Yoga brings awareness and the ability to be still. Through meditation, inner peace is experienced. Thus, Yoga is a practical philosophy involving every aspect of a person’s being. It teaches the evolution of the individual by the development of self-discipline and self-awareness. Anyone, irrespective of age, health, circumstance of life, and religion, can practice Yoga.
(Article derived from http://www.brooklineyogastudio.com)