“Yoga is essentially a practice for your soul, working through the medium of your body.”– Tara Fraser
When many of us think of yoga, we are more specifically referring to an asana practice, a practice of yoga postures on the mat. But what keeps us coming back to our mats and what is the true purpose of these asanas?
We all know the physical benefits from our yoga practice. Practicing postures improves muscle tone, flexibility, strength, circulation and posture. Our asana practice also has emotional benefits. When we get on our mat to move our body, breathe consciously and focus our attention inwards, we release tension, feel calmer and have a sense of well-being. These benefits are so profound that many people practice yoga for these reasons.
So some of us are looking for improved physical well-being, while others are more interested in the emotional benefits that the practice brings. To get a better understanding of the purpose of yoga postures, we might want to take a closer look at the role that asanas played in the history of yoga.
Asana is the third limb in the Eight Limbs of Yoga from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The word asana literally means ‘seat’. The seat that is referred to, is the seat you take for meditation. Most of the first asanas described in yoga scriptures were simply that, seated postures for meditation. In the Yoga Sutras, asana is only mentioned once. The description given by Patanjali is “sthira sukham asanam”, meaning that every asana should be steady and comfortable. So the reason asanas were practiced, was to be able to sit steady and comfortably in meditation for long periods of time.
But that is not the only reason that postures had a prominent place within the practice of yoga. Yoga postures also purify and create lightness within us. The Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā (Sanskrit:हठयोगप्रदीपिका) mentions this purpose of asanas: it explains we practice asana to create steadiness, freedom of disease and lightness of body. So we are healthy, joyful and grounded, not only to meditate but also when we step off our mat into our daily lives.
Asana practice supports the connection between our mind and our body. In our physical practice we use the body as a tool to be aware in the now, that is unfolding in the present moment. We start our yoga journey with practicing postures, because our body is visible and tangible. Our bodies are always in the present moment, regardless of where our mind wanders. So by practicing yoga postures, we go on an inward journey, a journey towards harmony and wholeness from the inside out.