Yoga in the West has become very body orientated and physical,  but why?
What purpose does this serve us and what is the true purpose of Asana?

The purpose of Asana.

From the root word as, meaning “to sit” and also “to be”. Could be translated literally as; ”to sit and be”. A similar word in the Sanskrit language is asandi, which means “stool”, perhaps referring to the seat where a Vedic ascetic would sit to meditate.

According to Sacred Sanskrit words;

“In ancient times and in early sacred texts, asana referred to the platform used to sit on during meditation.”

Today the word is usually translated as “posture”, “physical posture” or “yoga posture”, possibly due to the Yoga sutras of Patanjali, although in Christopher Isherwwods translation and also in the Bihar School translation, they actually state that Patanjali was not referring to the yoga postures only to the seated meditation position. (swastikasana, siddhasana, padmasana, sthirasana, Sukhasana.)

I have also read in Sivananda buried Yoga by Yogi Manmoyanand, that the postures were actually originally held for long periods of time, which may also help to explain how the meaning has somewhat changed. (to sit and be in the posture.)

In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Asana is first mentioned in Chapter1 Verse 17;

“Prior to everything, asana is spoken of as the first part of hatha yoga. Having done asana one gets steadiness (firmness) of the body and mind; diseaselessness and lightness (flexibility) of the limbs.”

Here what is being said is that asana is the beginning, the start, perhaps the way in the entrance, but to what? The Hatha yogis believed that the way to the mind was via the body.

Asana is only mentioned a few times in the Yoga Sutras. The first reference is in the context of the eight limbs of astanga. This can be seen in Book 2, sutra 29, where asana is the 3rd limb after the Yamas and Niyamas, and before pranayama.

It later appears in Sutra 2 verse 46;


Usually translated as steady, comfortable posture.

As with all Sanskrit translations, there are so many different interpretations, but with all, it is important to actually feel yoga for oneself, and not just read about it. In my opinion and personal experience, here Patanjali was referring to the balance of all in posture, the effort and yet the effortlessness, the doing and yet at the same time the sense of undoing, the softness and yet also the strength. Be it in body (sitting or standing), or in breath, or in mind.

It is most commonly believed that the purpose of asana is to prepare the self for meditation, although I hope to explore how and why, and perhaps also delve a little deeper into understanding how asana became so important in the West.

What Happens When We Practice Asana.

There are so many benefits to asana practice, on so many different levels. It would be fair to say that most people are familiar with yoga as a physical practice; the physical practice consisting of various postures (asanas) that are linked together to strengthen, stretch and realign the body.

The physical postures can bring numerous benefits to our lives including;

• long, lean muscles
• improved posture and breathing
• realignment of the skeletal system
• enhanced digestion
• better circulation
• a relaxed nervous system
• improved immunity system.

In modern day Western society today, it seems that there is an emphasis on flexibility, and the more flexible we are the “better” or more “advanced” we are at yoga. With Schools such as Bikram and certain Astanga movements, the true purpose of Asana has become lost.

If we once again turn to the sutras, Book 2 Sutra 47 – (How to master asana)


Prayantna – effort
Saithilya – looseness
Ananta – serpent or endless
Samapattibhyam – meditation.

I think this speaks for itself, in that the postures should be a loosening of all effort, and that of endless meditation. (or perhaps ananta could be referring to the kundalini energy?)

Book 2 Sutra 48;

“Thereby the pairs of opposites cease to have any impact.”

Four Chapters on Freedom, Swami Satyananda Saraswati.

Here we begin to see the somewhat lost benefit of asana. Not only as preparation for meditation, but more importantly to find stability and balance in our lives.

When looking at the principle of Hatha. Ha representing the energy of the sun (heat, power) and Tha the energy of the moon (coolness, flexibility). These two symbols together could represent the balance between the strength and relaxation that exists in every living thing. Again we come to the same principle of both strengthening and relaxing the body simultaneously.

As we go deeper within the Koshas to our mind, we can begin to observe the connection between the two. Thinking too much causes stiffness in the neck and head, excessive emotion is felt in the heart and naval area, if there is stress in your unconscious, it is felt behind the legs, which is why people who don’t do any exercise can still have tight legs.

In a nutshell, asana, teach us to strengthen areas of weakness and reduce tension in areas that are contracted.

“This balance brings a feeling of lightness, space, strength, and union of opposites: yoga!”

Alan Finger, Chakra Yoga

Again we are brought back to this word ‘Balance’!

It is in my personal recent conclusion that asana teaches us to remain steady throughout the shifts and turns of life. Doing 90 minutes of stretching on a mat is not what yoga is about, although the physical benefits are numerous, if this was the sole purpose of yoga, wouldn’t ballerinas be more enlightened?

FInding the time to look within, has led me to see, that the most valuable attribute to my life that asana provides is stability. I think of the most challenging times in my life, and how asana has always enabled me to return to that place of balance, of stability, enabling more clarity.

A visual image comes to mind of a fierce tornado, and in the very core, a yogi, standing strong, stable, balanced, and calm; a rock in the chaos of change. Imagine a world where people were more stable, what would that world be like?

Asana and Tantra

From a Tantric point of view, asana helps with the purification of the nadis, and works also with the energy system of the body. Asana is a method to undo the energetic blocks, unblocking the energy channels, nadis, in the body. Asana undoes the blocks and pranayama helps to collect and channel the energy.

Therefore asana is only the beginning of the practice, opening the nadis for energy work. Asana is a way for us to become sensitive to our energy, and eventually helps us to see that the body is only a small dimension of who we really are.

Progress in yoga is not through how complicated we can make the postures, or to master the most challenging postures, but in the deeper awareness of that we are more than just the physical body. Going beyond the material to view oneself as prana or energy.

One can also use asana as a mirror. One can look at the posture and the lack of engagement in certain areas of the body within that posture will often reflect areas of the body that are not awake, energetically, resulting in a process of self evaluation. In a way it helps us to address and even discover our limitations in this lifetime, both physically, energetically, and emotionally.

The Journey inwards.

A teacher of mine once said that “God is in the details.” At first it reminded me of the finer details of nature and indeed the complicated infrastructure of the human body, but has now reminded me of the importance of the tiny details within the yoga postures. The more we ‘fine tune’ the physical body the deeper we can go within.

Tias Little described asana as “Inner ear training.” Another reference to balance and yet again, going inside. Through regular asana practice one begins to go deeper within the physical body and can even begin to feel and sense individual muscles. Rather than seeing the thigh as a ‘big muscle’, one can start to identify the muscles of the quadriceps and even begin to be able to feel the IT band separate and move freely. All of these finer physical sensations are teaching us to look within, to go deeper and deeper within the physical body.

As we live in a society today where we are bombarded my external stimuli it has become increasingly more difficult to take the awareness inside. So hopefully as we begin to observe how our body moves, we can then observe how the breath moves, how our energy moves and eventually how the thoughts move within the mind. Going deeper and deeper within. The body provides a container for observing the changing of things, and asana provides the structure for us to observe this. Finally preparing us to let go.

We are taught to pause, to observe for ourselves, to feel the effects of postures – this is what makes yoga different from a pilates or a spinning class!

Whilst watching ‘Yoga Unveiled’ I became aware of a comment that was made regarding how yoga became so physical. Krishnamacharya, the founder of vinyasa style of asana, said that he had a vision that in order to save humanity he had to take vinyasa to the west. It was the only way that people of the west would listen. This comment stuck with me for years, as I have observed how much more emphasis has been made in the West on the physical asana and to what ultimate result or purpose? On a recent trip to the US, I also began to notice a sudden shift in many teachers approach to yoga, that they too have begun to question and perhaps realize that asana is but the tip of a the iceberg. Who knows, perhaps Krishnamacharya’s vision was right, and that in order to reach people in the west, a more physical practice was first needed in order for humanity to begin to look within to a more stable and grounded place of stillness.

“ It is like looking for your sunglasses: You search under the table, in the car, on the porch; you drive yourself to distraction trying to find them. Then suddenly you look in the mirror and see that they have been sitting on your head the whole time! They were never lost. In the same way, the higher intelligence that exists in the universe is always close at hand – if you know where to look. When you are able to connect to it, you find that union that you have been searching for has always been there, waiting for you to discover it.”

Alan Finger