The meaning of the Sanskrit word asana is ‘a steady and comfortable posture’. It is often believed that asanas are physical exercises. And of course this is true; they do have a profound influence on the body, but this does not convey their full significance. Each person is made up of three aspects: body, mind and consciousness, which merge together to constitute our whole being. Asanas aim at influencing all these three aspects and moulding and yoking them into one harmonious whole.
As such one should try to think of asanas not as physical poses but as states of being. Correct performance of asanas requires participation of one’s whole being, with awareness of oneself in relation to the physical position and movement, the breath, relaxation of the muscles and so forth. If asanas were only physical exercises then it would be quite acceptable to think about work, breakfast or whatever while performing them. But this is not the case. The practice of asanas requires active involvement of one’s entire being as fully as possible.
Health of mind and body
It is impossible to work actively in life with an unhealthy mind and body. This applies to work and play as well as to spiritual aspiration. The fundamental requirement is the healthiest possible mind and body. The ancient yogis realised this thousands of years ago and for this reason developed the system of asanas. The asanas were tested thoroughly by the personal experience of these pioneers. Asanas evolved slowly through practice, and because of this, they have withstood the test of time. The body and mind of man thousands of years ago was little different to the mind and body of man today. As such asanas are as useful in the present age as they were to the ancient originators. Many modern systems, in all fields of activity, are often based only on a few years experience; they rarely last for very long periods and are usually modified because of inadequacies in their makeup. Asanas, on the other hand, are a well-tested system for attaining mental and physical health.
The prime aim of asanas is to help us tread the path to higher consciousness so we can begin to understand and know our relationship with existence. We cannot even consider attaining higher awareness if we are ill with disease, aches and pains or mental depression. Therefore, the initial purpose of practising asanas is to eliminate these afflictions and disturbances. Asanas loosen up the joints of the body, stretch and tone the muscles and remove poisons which tend to accumulate in various parts of the body. They also harmonize the nervous system and with a gentle massage they improve the functioning of all the internal organs such as the heart, lungs, abdominal organs, endocrinal glands, blood vessels and so on. This slowly but surely leads to the best possible physical health.
The mind and body are not really separate entities; they are two parts of the human organism. The mind is the controller or the computer and the body is the machinery. They are closely interrelated. Improvement in the general health of the body automatically helps to bring about positive mental changes. We will point out that mental problems or tension, as well as an unhealthy body, are the prime cause of most diseases which afflict mankind. The body has remarkable autotherapeutic powers. It naturally has great strength to resist the onset of disease by means of antibodies which counteract bacteriological growth.
A body that is unhealthy and a mind that is tense tend to whittle away these powers making the body more vulnerable to illness. Asanas help the body to resist disease by ringing the mind and body into the best possible condition. A body saturated with poisons and toxins is a breeding ground for germs and is conducive to attack by disease. Asanas help to purify the body and thereby prevent diseases occurring. Some ailments are caused by malfunctioning of internal organs – blood pressure, heart attack, diabetes and so on. Asanas prevent this happening by bringing all the relevant organs into good working condition, improving nerve connections and also by reducing chronic mental stress, the latter being the root cause of most of the problems in the first place.
Asanas not only prevent disease; they also help to eliminate many types of diseases for the same reasons as given in the previous paragraph. The influence of asanas on one’s mental outlook The stepping stone to higher awareness and a happy life is an optimistic attitude. Asanas help to change and re-orientate a person’s mental outlook. How? There are various answers, which we will discuss in turn.
Firstly, asanas greatly influence the functioning of the endocrine system. This system exerts vast control over our lives. It carries out an uncountable number of indispensable functions within the body and it influences our physical appearance, emotional outlook and in fact much of our behaviour and attitude towards life. A person who has a healthy endocrine system is generally optimistic, clear in thought and positive in action. A person with a system that is out of balance will tend to be unhealthy, pessimistic and either excessively active or inactive physically and mentally.
Endocrinology is a very interesting science encompassing reproduction, digestion, emotional reactions and in fact all aspects of life. The endocrine system consists of various glands located throughout the body, which secrete special substances called hormones. Each of these hormones has a specific function to perform in the body. They act as triggers which prompt the various organs into higher or lower levels of activity as required, or in some cases such as the woman’s menstrual cycle they initiate and terminate various processes. These hormones also interact with and modify the activities of each other. For optimum health the entire system must be in balance and perfectly coordinated, each gland secreting the required hormone in the right quantity at the right time.
If there is disharmony in the endocrinal system then there will be a malfunction in one or more of the bodily processes and possibly in the emotional makeup of one’s personality. There is such an intricate interrelationship between the various glands that one malfunctioning gland can cause disruption of the whole system. Asanas are designed to rectify overactivity or sluggishness of individual glands as well as harmonize the control centre of the system in the brain. This is why even simple asanas can sometimes bring about astonishingly quick benefits.
Endocrinal disorders are not usually organic – they are generally functional. In other words, the individual glands are capable of working correctly but don’t, perhaps because of stress or misuse of the body. This can be compared to a car. If the petrol mixture is too rich, or the air and petrol intake pipes are blocked, the car will cease to work or will not run smoothly. It still has the capacity to work properly and will do so when the necessary adjustments are made. With the endocrine system the functional breakdown may be due to ineffective nerve impulses or insufficient supply of oxygenated blood, perhaps due to incorrect breathing and so on. Asanas automatically and gently rectify this condition, bringing the system into proper working order again. This system has a major influence on our emotional makeup, which is intimately connected with our mental processes. As such, improvement of this system alone through the practice of asanas can result in profound changes in our attitude to life.
Secondly, asanas bring about harmony in the various other bodily systems. These systems are rhythmical in nature and include the blood, nervous, respiratory, digestive as well as the endocrine system which we have already mentioned. These systems are all intimately related to each other. When the proper working relationship between these bodily processes is lost there is a resultant loss of health and body efficiency. This has repercussions on our emotional and mental well-being. Asanas coordinate these various systems bringing rhythm and balance into the body-mind complex.
Thirdly, asanas have subtle influences on the body, which perhaps a physiologist would tend to deny. Surrounding and permeating the whole body is an energy field which is normally imperceptible to our senses. In yoga this is called the pranamaya kosha (energy sheath) and is commonly known as the etheric body by people who have developed their psychic potential. This subject will be fully discussed later. However, we will say that this concept should not be taken lightly, for scientists in Russia have actually detected and photographed this energy body. There it is called bioplasma or bioluminescence. This energy travels in and around the body in specific pathways, which in yoga are known as nadis. These pathways easily become blocked and prana becomes congested in certain areas, which can lead to physical and mental disorders. Asanas encourage free flow of prana and thereby facilitate good health. Further, this energy body is intimately connected to the mind. As such the uninhibited flow of prana brought about by asanas, leads to mental equilibrium and calmness.
Fourthly, asanas automatically bring about a change in breathing. Rapid and irregular breathing signifies tension in mind and body, whereas slow, deep and rhythmical breathing indicates calmness and well-being. Asanas bring about mental and emotional equanimity by slowing down the breathing and deepening he inhalation and exhalation.
Fifthly, awareness is an essential feature of the practice of asanas. While performing asanas one should be fully aware of what is being done and not allow the mind to wander here and there. Without awareness asanas are not really asanas, no matter how well they may be physically performed. This awareness of breath movement while doing asanas draws our attention away from entanglement with superficial worries and problems, at least for a period of time. This includes relaxation of one’s personality. It may be temporary, but it assists in bringing about permanent changes in a person’s mental and emotional makeup.
Our emotional and mental attitudes and feelings are noticeably reflected in our physical poise and expressions. If we are angry we tend to hunch our shoulders; if we are tense and worried we frown; if we feel nervous we shake and breathe quickly and so on. Conversely, if we feel happy we simultaneously feel light and more flexible in the body. These are mental and emotional attitudes reflected in the body. This is also a two way process – the body can induce corresponding changes in the mind.
Asanas make the body relaxed, strong, light, supple, free of aches and pains and this in turn brings about emotional and mental calmness and confidence. As we have already mentioned, asanas are very useful in eliminating diseases. This alone is conducive to mental and emotional stability. Let us take an example: constipation. This ailment is generally accepted by medical science to be caused initially by mental tension, though there are other factors such as lack of exercise and unsuitable food habits. When a person suffers from constipation there is also a feeling of heaviness, not only in the body, but also in the mind. One’s thinking processes become dulled and pessimistic.
Asanas help to remove constipation so that one simultaneously becomes more light-hearted and carefree. By removing or easing physical ailments, asanas also bring about a corresponding relaxation and freedom of one’s personality. All the previous factors that we have listed interrelate with each other. The overall result is a notable and positive change in one’s subconscious and conscious thinking processes.
Asanas as a step to higher awareness
From the previous discussion it is clear that asanas exercise a profound influence on the mind-body complex. Regular practice of asanas helps to make one master of the mind and body, and not the slave. The beautiful, strong body aimed at in various body building systems, without a correspondingly developed mind, is as insufficient as a highly intellectual mind contained within a weak, sickly body. The ideal is to have both a strong, healthy mind and body. This is the aim of asanas as well as yoga in general.
The practice of asanas should not be divorced from the other aspects of yoga. It is an integral part of yoga techniques with the purpose of leading each of us to higher awareness. This was why the ancient originators of yoga developed asanas and other yogic practices, though this is rarely considered today. The ancient yogis aimed at transcending the normal limitations of the mind and body. Their aim was to transcend individuality and to achieve self-realization. In this context, asanas were not intended specifically to develop the mind and body. This was a means to an end. Their aim was to make the body so perfect and the subconscious mind so calm and trouble free that these aspects of individual existence could be forgotten. Consciousness could be disentangled from the troubles of the mind and body. When the aches and pains and ailments of the body are removed and one is emotionally and mentally relaxed, then one automatically ceases to be aware of the physical body and the superficialities of the mind. In this way the fetters of individuality can be released and one’s true nature – pure, infinite, all pervasive consciousness – can be realized.