Asana is one of the aspects of Ashtanga Yoga but yet the common man often associates only asana with yoga. At many meetings and conferences, I hear exhaustive debates on how this misconception has to be cleared from public perception. The common criticism is that there are only three sutras devoted to asanas in Sage Patanjali’s immortal Yoga sutras and asana is mentioned only twice in the yoga sūtras. Then why is it given “undue” importance? Some of the ‘experts’ believe asanas have been promoted to a great extent and therefore people ‘misunderstand’ asana as yoga. There are so many products, concepts, thoughts and ideas in the world that are promoted and marketed extensively with millions of dollars spent on their promotion but if there is no quality in the concept, product or idea, they cannot be sustained. So, it is not about ‘promotion’ of asanas that have made them synonymous with yoga.
Instead, we should try to understand what is it about the asana that they have created such an impact on the minds of the people across the world? There are three words in Patanjali Yoga Sutras which describe or define an asana. Sthira sukham asanam.
Sthira means stability, firmness, steadfastness
Sukha means a sense of joy, delight, happiness
Asana means a seat, a posture or a position
Now these three words sthira sukham asanam can be understood as any stable, joyful/ comfortable position is an asana or it can be interpreted as being in stable, joyful, comfortable in any position. Both these statements can be considered to be true for the sutra sthira sukham asanam. But, what these two statements convey is drastically different. The first communicates that we should be only be doing those asanas in which we are stable and happy while the other means that we should be happy and stable in whatever asana we do. The first is confining us to our limits, to our comfort zones, but the latter is making us break our limits, our boundaries, our comfort zones but at the same time, retain our stability or position. It is impossible to know what Sage Patanjali was intending to communicate thousands of years ago. And, it can always remain a topic of debate and discussion without any outcome as different practitioners will have their own interpretation based on their experience and perception. However, the latter understanding of being stable and happy in any position would make a person withstand the ups and downs of life smoothly without being afflicted while the former will make us happy only when life would be conducive to us. After all, none knows what life has in store. The subject of yoga was revealed to Arjuna on the battlefield by Lord Krishna. And, Lord Krishna was indeed taking Arjuna out of his comfort zone and therefore even if asana would have been just an aspect of yoga, a part of yoga – its intent would have been to make the practitioner stable even in the state of war. So, it seems more logical that asana would mean being stable, comfortable and joyful in any position.
The next question that arises is that Patanjali has not named a single asana in the sutra; the Hatha Yoga Pradipika names 15, the Gheranda Samhita names 32 while the modern treatise, Light on Yoga names 200! Why this difference? Are we moving away from the scriptures by adding more asanas? There are again many ‘intellectual debates’ on what is ‘authentic’, what is traditional and what is modern? Why the difference in the number of asanas that are described? To me, it appears that possibly in Patanjali’s era, asanas may have been so common place that one needed to be told only the conditions and effects of an asana i.e. there has to be sthirata, sukhata: the prayatna to perform them has to cease. The methodology to perform them could have been orally transmitted. However, in the centuries gone by, when the subject was not so common place, it needed to be taught again. Let us take the analogy of Indian cooking. Cook books on Indian recipes appeared on the scene only in the last two decades. If somebody were to ‘study’ Indian cooking a few centuries later, would they be right in saying that cooking in India emerged only in the late 20th century. Just because it was not ‘written’ does not mean that it did not exist; Especially in our country, where the tradition of oral transmission of knowledge, has been much stronger than in the written format.
Now coming back to our primary question: what is it about the asanas that attracts so many people? The range of asanas from the standing, sitting, inverted, backward arching, forward extension, twisting, supine give us access to the various parts and systems of our own body, which are unknown to us. We have information about the body systems and parts but we have no knowledge or wisdom about them. Secondly, there is a common misconception that asanas deal only with the physical [read skeleton- muscular body], the asanas work on all the physiological systems, the mind, the intelligence and emotions. The body and mind can never be separated. A software programmer who has neck pain or back pain cannot write the codes as efficiently. The pain in the back does influence his logical thinking. That is the reason that when individuals start practicing asanas they find themselves feeling healthy and fresh in both body and mind.
The more challenging the asanas become, they learn to take up more challenges in life. However, here I reiterate that asanas are not contortions of the body but have the effect of stability and a sense of joy in the practitioner. Whether the criteria of sthirata and sukhata are attained can be seen on the expressions of the practitioner. All one needs to do is open any page of ‘Light on Yoga’.. The expression of the face, the muscles, the texture of the skin remain the same irrespective of the asana. This is sthira sukham asanam.
It is all right to ‘talk about’ the so-called higher, esoteric aspects of yoga. We need to know the known first before going into the realm of the unknown. Otherwise, we would live in the world of illusion, viparyaya while the purpose of yoga is to know and not imagine. So, let us give the due respect to asanas as they are the entry point for us, as long as we are in the human form, to enter the realm of the known.