According to the explanation in HYP(Hatha yoga pradipika) ,asana is a steady , comfortable meditative pose (referred to Patanjali ), also a specific position of the body which channelizes prana, opens the charkas and removes energy blocks.
Asana is the physical posture, the beginning of our practice. According to Hatha yoga Pradipika and Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras, we begin with asana in order to purify the body and to prepare it for meditation.
In our modern society we connect asana with the physical exercise. And sure asanas have profound physical effect on our bodies but this is not their ultimate significance. We are not only physical beings; we are emotional and conscious beings too. So all this body, mind, consciousness is merging together, it is interlaced.
Asana’s aim is to influence all these aspect and to bind them into one harmonious one. So when we perform asana we should become aware of our whole being taking part in it. The awareness is not only on the muscles or the strength and flexibility of the body, it is also on the breath in relation to the movement, the relaxation of the muscles and also on the more subtle awareness on eventual appearing of any emotional or mental fluctuations and so on.... The practice of asana requires one’s full involvement and attention, one’s entire being as fully as possible.
As Swami Nishchalananda puts it ‘’The prime aim of asana is to help us tread the path to higher consciousness so we can begin to understand and know our relationship with the existence.''
In general when we don’t feel well, we are sick or have some disease, mental or emotional depression, aches and pains we are not able to achieve or even consider any higher awareness …. It is like wearing very uncomfortable dress or shoes and wanting to sit or walk comfortably, impossible/ me thinks ;-) / .
So the practical aim of asana is :
The whole immune system will be improved and the body will be ready to go deeper into the practice ,not disturbed from aches and pains we will be able to sit comfortably in meditation and thus we will be able to connect on a higher level with the environment in and out of us.
Also by performing asana we get connected with our body. We are able to ‘’hear ‘’ its needs and so we begin to know more and even care more for our selves , accepting who we are and looking after ourselves and our environment with care and love .
I find this particular aspect of practicing asana with our full attention very important, esp. in the times we live in .
Everywhere around us is a propaganda and manipulation who we must be, how to look and how to live. So I think that getting to know your gross needs helps to learn about yourselves more and achieve acceptance and freedom of who you are. In this aspect asana helps us ground in order to expand. Without good foundation a tree is unable to grow strong and healthy in order to blossom, give fruits and thrive.
-physical benefits :
Asana is very beneficial especially today in our very sedentary way of life. Most of us use just certain muscle groups because of the type of job we do. For example sitting all day in front of a computer or working heavy manual work as builder etc. Some muscles are overworked and others are not used at all. This brings a lot of problems in the body and the posture. Asana practise is able to restore the physical balance.
Very often people complain of back pain, stiff joints or muscles. When we sit all day on a chair our feet are not in use to support the body and sometimes wearing high heels or very impractical and most of the time uncomfortable shoes (mainly women and their fashion obsessions)disturb our proper posture. Through asana practise we become aware of every little muscle and how we use it if at all.
Tadasana(Mountain pose) is a good example to learn about our posture. It starts with the feet up through the crown of the head. For example the four layers of the musculature of the foot all combine to create lift, balance and movement. As Kaminoff explains in his book the deeper muscles (to move the toes, the foot arch,the outer edge of the foot), inevitably weaken and the arch of the foot is not supported properly which eventually may lead to plantar fasciitis and heel spurs.
Asana practice develops strength and flexibility in our body .Some people are naturally very bendy (flexible) but not able to sustain a posture as their muscles are not strong enough, and others are just strong and find it difficult to go deeper into the posture. .
Asana is perfect to balance muscle strength and flexibility.
Muscle strength is the amount of force a single muscle can produce with a single maximum effort .Size of muscle cells and the ability of nerves to activate them also define the strength of the muscle.
Muscle flexibility is the ability of the body to move through range of possible motion.
Or simply said, muscle strength is how much weight a muscle can lift and for how long. Flexibility is how far the body can go into a posture. Without those two aspects of the body ability the person will not be able to enjoy their practice and it will not benefit from it , but luckily just through practicing the strength and flexibility can be developed simultaneously. The more a flexible person practice, their muscle will be able to hold and sustain the body for longer.
The muscles develop their ability to contract and hold. A strong muscle will be able to relax, stretch and thus allow the blood to flush through its tissues bringing fresh oxygen into them. Allowing the muscle to work slowly and contract and hold a position will help the development of the strength and allowing its ability to stretch, relax and thus maintaining good fitness levels.
When we have good fitness and well being in our body we are less stressed and tensed. Our body and mind are relaxed and our immune system works better. We are healthy and generally happy and positive. When we don’t look after ourselves we tend to make ourselves ill or we become out of balance and so we become stressed.
According to the definition given by Trotora and Grabovski ‘’stress is any stimulus that tends to cause imbalance in the internal environment’’. Stress is natural, we live everyday in some level of stress, from what we put in our body to traffic jams, argument or learning something new. When we are not able to deal with the inner or outer stimuli, like heat, noise, high/low blood pressure, pain, fear etc. we cause extreme stress to the body, leading to illness and disease.
Signs of stress can be cognitive (poor concentration), emotional (depressed ), physical (aches and pains) or behavioral(getting into fights and arguments). When we experience these signs our body suffers. The breath is irregular, the blood circulation is not smooth and the adrenalin glands are in constant use which brings further health problems affecting the organs.
But through simple asana practice we become ware of our breathing patterns and allow the lungs and the ribcage to open, the shoulders to soften and the muscle to relax. And just by doing this we already have sent impulses to the brain and the central nervous system to relax and break down the negative patterns in our systems. By simply introducing breath awareness in our asana practice we can achieve balance in our system and body which will help us to develop our spiritual and emotional balance.
Good example is practicing Shavasana(corpse pose). It teaches us to be still physically but aware mentally and thus achieving deep state of relaxation. Ultimately Shavasana brings different levels of spiritual peace for as long as one can identify with their body. The spiritual relaxation is to be able to disatatch yourself and become the witness. The body uses less oxygen and less carbon dioxide is eliminated, the muscle tension is reduced, breathing is slower and deeper, there is decrease of the sympathetic nervous system activity and an increase in parasympathetic activity. This occur due to reducing the body’s energy loss, lowering the pulse rate and resting the whole system.
Every class is supposed to be balanced in postures and degree of difficulties . That is why it should follow so called intensity curve. This is the sequence of the postures /asanas/ preparing the body and the mind for the peak posture of the particular flow. The intensity curve is necessary as it is gradually building the strength of the body and the mind , helping them to open for more advanced practices.
During this process the practitioner would need so called counterpose.This is a pose which allows the body to restore and absorb more energy after each asana in order for the practitioner to be able to continue recharged and not tired up the intensity curve in their practice. Other wise it is possible to hurt or injure themselves.
Counterpose (to set in contrast , opposition or balance) is the pose which is normally done as an opposition in order to restore the balance in the body after each posture is performed .
It is necessary as the muscles used in one way can restore their previous position and rest and thus absorb and perform the maximum range of their movement and stretch.
Muscles develop better when counterpose is performed. Also for people who don’t have strong and flexible bodies it is a way to restore and work the body in a safe way especially if they are beginners or if asana is used as a therapy.
In order for the muscles to work they use agonist and antagonist movement.
Agonist is the muscle that performs a movement and the antagonist is the muscle opposite to the one performing the movement i.e it is the muscle which contracts. Biceps contracts and triceps is stretched and this creates the movement.
Muscles works in pairs ,because the muscles in agonistic/antagonistic movement are involved into the each other ‘s movement ,the best way to work the muscle is in opposing muscle groups. That is why using a counterpose is essential. Otherwise when we strengthen one side of the body (chest for example) without working the opposite side(the back) we cause imbalance in our posture and causing the back to round forward.
By performing agonist and antagonist action the muscles create flexion and extension at the same time.