Yogic postures or asanas are one of the most important systems of physical culture ever invented. They reflect an amazing understanding of how the body works and, particularly, how to release tension at a deep level from the tissues, organs and joints.
Asana is the third step in the Ashtanga yoga.In the yoga sutras, Patanjali , concisely define yogasanas as 'Sthiram sukham asanam ' which means , the position which is comfortable and steady. In this context, asnas are practised to develop the ability to sit comfortable in one position for an extended period of time; an ability necessary for mediation. Raja yoga equates yogasanas to stable sitting position.
The hatha yogis however, found that certain specific body positions, asanas, open the energy channels and psychic centers. They found that developing control of the body through these practices enable them to control the mind and energy.
Yogasanas became tools to higher awareness providing the stable foundation necessary for the exploration of the body, breath, mind and higher states. For this reason practice of asana comes first in Hatha yoga texts such as Hatha yoga pradipika. According to Gheranda Samhitha there are 8400000 asanas. These asanas represented a progressive evolution from the simplest form of life to the most complex that of a fully realized human being. Down through the ages, the great rishis and yogis modified and reduced the number of asanas to a few hundred known today.
Many of the yogasanas are named after and reflect the movements of animals. Through observation, the rishis understood how animals live in harmony with their environment and with their own bodies. Through experience they understood, the effect of a particular posture and how the hormonal secretions could be stimulated and controlled by it. For example, by imitating the rabbit or hare in shashankasana they could influence the flow of adrenaline responsible for the 'fight or fight 'mechanism. Through the imitating postures, the rishis found that they could maintain health and meet the challenges of nature for themselves.
Asanas are many in nature some are easy and some are difficult.
The importance of asana does not depend upon it being easy or difficult, but on its systematic and regular practice. The asanas are classified on the basis of the movements of and final pose of the asana. Thus the asanas are classified into three types
1. Meditations asanas
2. Relaxation asanas
3. Cultural asanas
Meditation asanas are aimed to prepare the practitioners to sit for extended periods of time without moving the body and without discomfort. When the body is steady and still in the sitting position for a long period, then only meditation is experienced . Deep mediataion requires the spinal column to be straight and very few asanas can satisfy this condition. In higher stages of meditation, the practitioner loses control over the muscles of the body. The meditation asanas therefore needs to hold the body in a steady position without conscious effort. One who gains true asana siddhhi, the mastery over the asanas, only goes to higher stages of pranayama and meditaion. Without securing a steady asana posture one cannot progress well in meditation. Initially, people find it difficult to sit in one asana for a long period. However, through the regular practice the legs and hips will become flexible enough to comfortably maintain a steady posture. Some of the meditation asanas are sukhasana, ardha padmasana, padmasana, and siddhasana.
Relaxation asanas are meant for the relaxation of the body and mind. These asanas should be performed after the asana session and at any time when the body becomes tired. The asanas in this type appear very easy at first, yet to do them properly is quite difficult, because the tension in all the muscles of the body must be consciously released to get complete relaxation. The muscles may be seemed to be relaxed but, in fact, tightness remains. Constant postural abnormalities put excess strain on the muscles of the back, which hardly receive proper relaxation in the conventional supine position. Therefoer certain relaxation practices, which are cone in the prone position, are very relaxing to the spine and related structure, they are specially recommended for any back or spinal problems. The important asanas for relaxation are Savasana and Makarasana.
Cultural asanas are meant for culturing the body and mind. For a yogi, physical health is more important, and then only he will be able to practise his saddhana. Cultural postures are mainly aimed to physical culture and thereby maintain the health of the body. Most of the asanas come under the category of the cultural postures.
Proper breathing profoundly improves our whole physical and mental well being. The breath is intimately connected with our state of health and improper breathing will often reflect various disturbances of the body and mind. The breath is perhaps the only physiological processes that can be either voluntary or involuntary. One can breathe with awareness and control the breathing process consciously or one can ignore it and breathe reflexively or unconsciously. If the breath is unconscious, it falls under the control of primitive parts of the brain, where emotions, thoughts and feelings of which we have little or no awareness become involved. In this way the regularity and rhythms of the breath are disturbed and it flows in an uncorrdinated way, creating havoc in the body and mind.
Pranayama is the yogic technique to bring the breathing regular, rhythmic and balanced. Lot of techniques are involved in pranayama. Generally pranayama is defined as breath control. Although this interpretation may seem correct in view of the practices involved, it does not convey the full meaning of the term. The word pranayama is comprised of two roots. 'Prana' and 'ayama'. Prana means 'vital energy' or 'life force'.Iit is the force which exists in all things, whether animate or inanimate. Although closely related to the air we breathe , it is subtler than air or oxygen. Therefore, pranayama should not be considered as mere breathing exercise aimed at introducing extra oxygen into the lungs. Pranayama utilizes breathing to influence the flow of prana in the nadis or energy channels of the pranamaya kosha or energy parts of the body.
The word 'ayama' is defied as extension or expansion. Thus, the word pranayama means extension or expansion of the dimension of prana. The techniques of pranayama provide the method where by the life force can be activated and regulated in order to go beyond ones's normal boundaries or limitations and attain a higher state of vibratory energy.
Four aspects of pranayama In the pranayama practices there are four important aspects of breathing, these are,
1.pooraka or inhalation
2. rechaka or exhalation
3.antar kumbhaka or retention of breath after inhalation
4. bahir kumbhaka or retention of breath after exhalation
The performance of kriyas (the purification process is the first step towards mastery ) There are many kriyas for purifying different systems in our body. Kriyas are cleansing practices. In that sense, we all practice kriyas. Bathing, washing the face, brushing the teeth, are all kriyas. But a yogic kriyas refer to special yoga techniques, developed by the yogis meant to cleanse the inner organs. Among several kriyas available in the yogic lore, six major kriyas called sat kriya are comprehensive.
BANDAS AND MUDRAS
To control the nerve centers of the human body, hatha yoga introduces the techniques of bandhas. Earlier it was used as a safety measure to practise kumbaka pranayama (practice of holding the breath inside the body). If you practise pranayama with Bandas there will be fewer side effects. In these days of rapid growth of yoga as a system of therapy, BANDHAS are effective for the management and the control of many diseases. The word bandha means catch, tighten or lock.
Mudras are the techniques usually practiced with Bandhas by Hatha yogis. Mudras are the psychic states of higher awareness. Mudras help to create certain awareness. Mudras are used to activate the pranic flow in the body. They improve the power of concentration and bring the mind to a single focused awareness. Mudras are the special signs that connect the mind and the body at a subtle level . There are 32 Mudras explained in Gerand Samhitha and 10 mudras in Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Many other yogic texts mention different mudras. There are two other areas where mudras are used. They are, 1. In dance, it is used to express ideas and emotios through the movements of the body. For example, it is used in' katha kali 'and in 'Baratha natyam'. 2. In rituals: it is used in the rituals and Yagams conducted in the temples.
Meditation is communion with be inner self. It is the means of expanding our consciousness, transcending the external being and becoming one with the infinite source of light and wisdom. Meditation is not a process of self forgetfulness and escape. It is not entering into total darkness or total nothingness. Mediation is discovering oneself. Patanjali defines meditation as that state when the mind becomes free from the awareness of subjective and objective experiences. Meditation induces a deep state of rest which encourages the repair and improves the health of all the cells and tissues of the body. The beneficial rest is gained when the mind is fully concentrated in the practice of meditation. The body's anabolic process of growth and repair can be stimulated by meditation and the catabolic, decrying procures can be inhibited. Meditation plays great role in the treatment of diseases particularly mental illness and the whole range of psychosomatic illness. During the practice of meditation an increased supply of prana'' is directed to the brain and hence its functioning is greatly improved. The ability to understand, memorize and retain knowledge is there by sharply increased, the psychic functions such as ESP and telepathy can be activated. Meditation is a state free from mental confusion and helps to develop inner peace and harmony.
The word "meditation" is used to describe a number of different stages of the mind, from interpolation and concentration to devotion and chanting. It may probably be derived from the same root as the Latin 'mader' means to 'heal'. Meditation can certainly be looked on as a healing process, emotionality mentally and physically too.