Yoga ≩ Asana

Yoga teaching in Brighton and Hove

The word Yoga seems to have become synonymous with Asana in the West. I see Yoga somewhat given a bad press in many movement blogs/posts when in fact they mean Asana. I also see Yoga accredited with many positives, when they're talking about Yoga poses. So what is Yoga and what is Asana? This is a HUGE subject, which I will do my best to keep brief and easily understood. In order to do this a lot has to be skipped out.

Yoga means many things, and different things to different people. The word comes from the Sanskrit (ancient Indian language) root 'yuj' which itself has many translations, but it generally accepted as 'to yoke together' or 'union'. It is considered to be one of the six ancient Indian philosophies. Textually it is first referenced around 600-500 BCE in the Taittiriya Upanishad: yogatma and described as an inner self which is made of knowledge. Later, around 300-100 BCE in the Katha Upanishad it is considered to be the steadfast control of senses with this theme continuing in later Upanishads. Around the same time Buddhism and Jainism were growing in India, bringing in meditation, chanting and visualisations.

The Bhagavad Gita is a dialogue between the Prince, Arjuna and his charioteer/guide, Krishna

Around 100 CE the Bhagavad Gita introduces three or four paths of Yoga (depending upon which commentator you read). These are Bhakti Yoga (Yoga of devotion), Jnana Yoga (Yoga of knowledge), Karma Yoga (Yoga of action without desire for reward) and some add Raja Yoga (Yoga of meditation, also called Dhyana Yoga). In this book Krisna also mentions Buddhi Yoga (Yoga of insight), Adhyasa Yoga (Yoga of continuous practice), Atman Yoga (Yoga of the self), Atmasamyama Yoga (Yoga of control of the self) and Sannyasa Yoga (Yoga of renunciation). There is also mention of controlling the in and out breath to attain liberation. Hopefully you are beginning to see why it is so difficult to define Yoga, but also not there's no mention of a Downward Dog.

Around 400 CE saw the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, with something slightly more akin to what we see today. Here we see the first mention of Ashtanga (not to be confused with Ashtanga Vinyasa) which is the eight limbs of Yoga. The limbs are:

  1. Yama (restraints)

  2. Niyama (observances)

  3. Asana (posture)

  4. Pranayama (breath control)

  5. Pratyahara (withdrawal of senses)

  6. Dharana (concentration on an object)

  7. Dhyana (meditation)

  8. Samadhi (trance, or often referred to as enlightenment)

The first five are considered external limbs and the last three internal (or Samyama Yoga). We finally see our first reference to Asana, yet it is only mentioned twice in the Sutras. Translated as posture it is said to be 'steady and comfortable' and is there to provide the platform for the five limbs that follow. It is only in certain commentaries on the Sutras that we see other postures to help with sitting. In the Yoga Sutras the definition of Yoga as the 'cessation of the fluctuations of the mind', which is in keeping with the description of Yoga in the Katha Upanishads.

I am going to skip a whooooooole lot of history here and take us to the Hatha Pradapika. Written around 1450 CE it is where we begin to see a greater focus on Asana. In the text we now have 15 poses, which are still mainly seated. It is still a relatively small segment compared to all of the cleansing practices, breathing (Pranayama), hand gestures (Mudras) and once more, the stilling of the mind (Samadhi).

It was as late as 1893 that Yoga was first introduced to the West. Svami Vivekananda visited the USA to give lectures on Hinduism at the Parliament of Religions at Chicago. He then went onto give lectures around Europe with an emphasis on spiritual existence. What we practice today though is through Tirumulai Krishnamacharya, with it being said he has a connection with about fifty percent of what is taught. He is considered the first to sequence postures together with breath, and introduced Hatha Yoga to the West as a practice alongside meditation. Krishnamacharya taught B.K.S. Iyengar, Patabhi Jois (Ashtanga Vinyasa) and T.K.V. Desikachar (Viniyoga).

Much of contemporary Asana draws from books such as Primary Gymnastics

We have seen that Asana is is just a seat in the ancient texts. It was through Krishnamacharya that Asana began to evolve and actually draws much from the book, Primary Gymnastics by Niels Bukh. It can be said that Yoga has evolved to reflect society, so it is entirely in keeping for it to draw from Western texts whilst it popularised here. It is no longer the ancient system, but can be considered now as a much more physical practice. Yogachariya Jnandev Giri states

'Many of these practices of placing the body in different gymnastic postures are merely of physical benefit and not psychological or spiritual.'

Whilst there is nothing wrong with this, it isn't what Yoga has been to me. In my own Asana practice it has been about bringing focus of the mind into the body. Whilst Asana practice does provide some physical benefits, I believe more strongly in Pilates for the body, and Yoga for the mind. It is why my 'Yoga' teaching  is shifting away from only Asana, to teach what I consider to be Yoga-  a science to help quieten the mind- and not because I think this is more authentic, but because this is what has benefited me the most in my life. This isn't done merely through Asana, because as you can see, Yoga incorporates a wide variety of techniques to gain insight into your mind, body and soul. These techniques may be ancient or modern but hopefully you can see that Yoga is so, so much more than just Asana.