The Evolution of Āsana
The Sanskṛt word yoga comes from the 7th class verbal root ‘yuj,’ meaning to join, yoke, or concentrate. The designation of yoga in most western circles has become synonymous with classes that include postures arranged with other postures performed in conjunction with the breath. Other times, Yoga is spelled with a capital ‘Y’ and references what is taught in the Pātañjalayogaśāstra (The Sūtras of Patañjali), which is a treatise on how to still the fluctuations of the mind and abide within one’s true nature. Since many yoga teachers throughout the west teach postural yoga but quote Patanjali’s sūtras, how is one to square the notion of overcoming the changing states of the mind and abiding in one’s nature with bodily positions and movements? It’s time we took a hard look at the intention behind āsana.
Āsana, posture or seat, is mentioned in sūtra 2.46 of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra as one of the eight limbs of Aṣṭāṅga Yoga. It is identified as that which is steady and comfortable. Additionally, the postures offered as options in the commentary of this respective sūtra are all seated; there are no references to standing or balancing āsanas. This lack of reference does not mean that such āsanas weren’t practiced, only that they weren’t deemed important or necessary enough to mention. Patañjali dedicates three sūtras to āsana, but each stresses the ease with which one enters and maintains said position. It is made clear that posture is finally achieved when one’s mind “merges with the infinite,” and it is at that time that one transcends the “dualities of the opposites” (2.47-2.48). So, while āsana is a supportive tool for reaching concentration, it is left somewhat ambiguous regarding its practice.
According to the system laid out by Patañjali, āsana is a posture that is easeful, stable, and suitable for merging with the infinite that surrounds us to overcome dualities and become capable of abiding in our true nature. However, the diversity of postures that we see in modern yoga practice doesn’t emerge in the Sūtras of Patañjali but rather in later texts associated with haṭhayoga. The earliest extant text on haṭhayoga appears around the 12th century CE, 800-plus years after the Sūtras of Patañjali. Still, it wasn’t until the 15th century that we had a systematized practice of haṭhayoga incorporating a diversity of āsana. The Haṭhapradīpika (Haṭhayoga Pradīpika) elaborates on 15 āsanas and marks a historical shift where postures proliferate, and their number grows in texts that follow the 15th century. So, the question is, why?
According to the Haṭhapradīpika, āsana provides steadiness, health, and lightness of the body (1.17). After practicing āsana, which aids in preparing the body for sitting with ease, a practitioner can turn their attention inward to their breath and outward to the infinite surrounding them. Another 800-plus years after the earliest treatise on haṭhayoga, individuals in modern society have become more sedentary and disconnected from the energy that courses within and around them. It is more important than ever to move the body and become reacquainted with the breath. Squaring this with Yoga as envisioned by Patañjali, as long as āsana aids in one reaching concentration and a merging with the infinite, then it remains Yoga. The bottom line is intention.
The next article will deal with sequencing these āsanas and understanding the ideal order and reason for particular postures.