āsana : steady and happy
The 3rd limb of Aṣṭāṅga Yoga is Asana.
यम नियमाअसन प्राणायाम प्रत्याहार धारणा ध्यान समाधयोऽष्टावङ्गानि
yama niyama-āsana prāṇāyāma pratyāhāra dhāraṇā dhyāna samādhayo-‘ṣṭāvaṅgāni
– pys II.29
Despite its contemporary popularity around the world, āsana receives relatively little attention in the ancient yoga sūtras of Patañjali. In fact, Patañjali describes the whole third limb, or stage, of Aṣṭāṅga Yoga in only 3 out of 196 sūtras!
It might be surprising that there are no technical elaborations nor physical specifications for postures in the ancient yoga sūtras.
Perhaps Aṣṭāṅga yoga practitioners thousands of years ago were not as concerned nor interested in the physical-postural yoga as we are today. Our contemporary love, concentration, energetic and economic investment, and even theoretical elaboration upon āsana seems to be a relatively modern phenomenon.
That said, there are pre-modern texts on yoga that do describe more about āsana than the yoga sūtras. The well-known Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā (from the 15th century CE) describes 84 different postures. The Yoga-Yājñavalkya (like the yoga sūtras, a date for this text remains obscure but it is estimated between the last centuries of BCE and first centuries of CE) devotes over 100 sūtras to āsana.
The Śivapurāṇa (from circa 4th century BCE – 1st century CE) apparently uses the term “āsana” as a reference for “offering the seat” in ritual worship (known as upacāra : taking or “making a seat” for meditation after having a bath) in the overall service of Lord Śiva.
Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888–1989) is recognized for transforming the practice of āsana through the systematization of Vinyāsa.
The āsana practice of Aṣṭāṅga Yoga that was developed in Mysore, South India by Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya’s disciple Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (1915–2009), and that continues to be cultivated today by Jois’ immediate family as well as countless international teachers and students all over the world, is known as a breathing-moving system, or Vinyāsa.
Vinyāsa, as transmitted by Krishnamacharaya, invites the practitioner to approach āsana as a potential focus for meditative absorption and saṁyamaḥ (concentration, contemplation, and meditation) within movement, through posture, and not just by sitting after its practice. Thus the name: Aṣṭāṅga Vinyāsa.
In this way, āsana can become the gateway into the other limbs of Aṣṭāṅga Yoga.
NOTE: even though āsana may be our gateway into the other 7 stages of the aṣṭāṅga yoga practice, it is understood that āsana can only be ultimately attained upon realizing the preceding stages of yama and niyama.
Patañjali describes the stage of āsana rather universally without too much elaboration. According to the yoga sūtras, āsana is the embodiment of steadiness and happiness, meditative relaxation into infinity, and the end of dissatisfaction with the experiences of duality.
Let’s look at āsana as described in the yoga sūtras :
– pys II.46
postures (āsanam) have steadiness (sthira) and happiness * (sukham)
Postures have steadiness and happiness.
* see notes at the end of page
– pys II.47
complete meditative absorption (samāpattibhyām) [in a posture] comes from the relaxation or release (śaithilya) of effort (prayatna) into [a perception of] infinty (ananta*)
Complete meditative absorption in a posture comes from the relaxation of effort into a perception of infinity.
** see notes at the end of page
– pys II.48
dualities (dvaṅdva) then (tato) cease to be disturbing (anabhighātaḥ)
Dualities then cease to be disturbing.
* The word “sukham” is often translated as “ease” in relation to āsana but I translate it as “happiness” because that feels closer to the word and to the whole experience.
** In Hindu cosmology, the word “ananta” or “infinity” is also the name of the celestial snake on which Lord Viṣnu reclines. In the Bhagavadgita, Lord Kriṣna says, “anantaś cāsmi nāgānāṁ : of the nagas [divine serpents], I am Ananta…” (Chapter 10, verse 29). This celestial snake, also known as Śeṣa nāga or Ādi Śeṣa (of whom Patañjali is said to be an incarnation) is described with thousands of hooded heads that hold the planets of the universe, and thousands of mouths that sing the glories of Lord Viṣnu. When Śeṣa uncoils, time moves forward and creation takes place; when Śeṣa coils back, the universe ceases to exist. When all is destroyed at the end of a kalpa (about 4.32 billion years), Śeṣa remains as-is. From it’s Sanskrit root, śeṣa literally implies “the remainder” or “that which remains”.
Let’s also have a glance at yoga sūtra I.21 that uses a word very similar to āsana although it has a different spelling.
This word is written as “āsanna” and appears earlier in the first chapter, in the context of Patañjali describing the types of yoga practitioners according to the intensity with which they approach yoga practice. Although a different orthography, it is similar and its meaning feels resonant with that of our 3rd limb.
– ysp I.21
an intense (tīvra) quickly cheerful mind (saṁvegānām) draws realization near (āsannaḥ)
An intense and quickly cheerful mind draws realization near.
To summarize the practice of āsana according to the yoga sūtras :
1) Postures have steadiness and happiness. (pys II.46)
2) Complete meditative absorption in a posture comes from the relaxation of effort into a perception of infinity. (pys II.47)
3) Dualities then cease to be disturbing. (pys II.48)
Translations for the yoga sūtras of Patañjali by Sandi Higgins, synthesized with thanks from the following sources:
Books : The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary by Edwin F. Bryant (2009)
Patanjali Yoga Sutras by Swami Prabhavananda (1991)
Light On The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali by B.K.S Iyengar (1993)
The Science of Yoga: The Yoga-sutra-s of Patañjali in Sanskrit with Transliteration in Roman, Translation and Commentary in English by I.K. Taimni (2007)
SHANTI WITH SANDI © 2021