Asans, commonly referred to as asanas (postures), are the most popularised aspect of yoga. There is much material available online and offline on asanas – so much so that most people think that yoga is nothing but asanas. However, the relative importance of asanas (and even pranayama) in the holistic practice of yoga can be judged by what Shri S N Goenka, founder of the Vipassana school of meditation, has to say :
"Patanjali has defined asana just by one phrase i.e. the posture in which one can sit for a long time, steadily and with ease. Only this one statement of Patanjali about asana, has been elaborated up to 84 types of tiresome postures - and all of them are now preached in his name. Poor Patanjali has been reduced to the status of circus trainer and he, who preaches to become aware of the inhalation and exhalation of natural breath, the intermittent stage between the two its elongation and its contraction, has been wrongly associated with the attempted and rigorous breathing exercise of pranayama. Breathing exercise too is not bad. It has got its advantages but the same should not be ascribed to the name of Patanjali. Likewise different yogic postures too have got a very good healthy impact over our body, but the same should also not be said as prescribed by Patanjali in his famous treatise. A sage who bestowed our country with a highly spiritual knowledge of yoga should in no way be allowed to be depicted as a kindergarten P.T. teacher who teaches asana or pranayama"
Asan means seat, and that is what it is - a seat suitable for mediation. However, one needs to assume this seat for a long time for meditation. If the body is weak, it may not be able to maintain this pose. It has to be made strong and flexible, which is why the other asanas might have developed.
- Do not be in a hurry to do asanas. If you are short on time, cut down a few asanas rather than going through them quickly.
- Do them slowly. Co-ordinate breath with movement. And the awareness should be focused inside the body, especially the part where the asana is working.
- Try to keep all other parts of the body relaxed, especially the face. An asana when correctly done should be virtually effortless as the sage Patanjali says "Sthiram Sukham Asanam" "That which is steady and alert, light and comfortable - that is an asan"
- There is no need to learn hundreds of asanas and certainly no need to practice all of them every day. There are six broad categories of asanas
- Forward Bends
- Balancing Poses
You ought to learn a few asanas in each group (for variety) and then practice at least one or two from each one daily for an all-round practice. There is a lot to learn and benefit even from one asana
- Each asana puts a strain on one part of the body or stretches one group of muscles in one direction. It is important, immediately after performing an asana, to do a "counterpose". This is an easier asana that counteracts the effect of the previous one. It relaxes that part of the body that was exercised in the previous asana or stretches it in the opposite direction. For example, a mild back bend (eg dwi-pada-pitham) would be the counterpose for an intense forward bend (paschim-uttan-asan)
- Each asana need to be held for a minute or even less; there is no need to do it for half an hour to derive benefits.
- Perfection in an asana is not a compulsory goal. To get benefits, it is enough to do it well enough, and not to do it wrongly. Aches and pains are an indication that you are doing something wrong.
- If you can't do an asana, it means your body is not ready for it. Don't do it. Don't try to use props to do the asana, and certainly don't force your body into the pose
- Do the pose in the best way you can. Nobody should be pushing or pulling you into the pose
- Do the asanas in silence, and pay attention to what is going on inside that part of the body, that the asana is working on.
- The recommended sequence of yoga practice is:
- Dhyan (Mediatation)
The whole practice will take between one to two hours - if short of time, try to incorporate at least Asana, Pranayam and Dhyan.
- It is always preferable to learn asanas (or any aspect of yoga) under the personal supervision of an expert teacher or guru. If you do not have a teacher, do not worry. Sincerely look for one and more likely than not, he or she will appear in your life. When the aspirant is serious, the teacher will not be found wanting. That is the teaching of the shastras, as well as my personal experience.
More information about asanas - their Classification, History, Origin & Benefits here
Fun Fact: 20 years ago (in 2000) I could do a lot of asanas :-) see below