Asana-isation of Yoga
“ 2 billion practice yoga globally “ says a popular “guru” at the UN hq in New York. Even if those numbers seems inflated (thats about 25% of our world population), we can safely say a significant percentage of our world population, practice yoga. And this growth has happened in the last 100 years.
Yoga is know to have been a steady practice for at least 2500 years now. In this time true Yogis, have been few and far between, only few qualified to learn Yoga and fewer went on to become accomplished Yogis. So this sudden spurt in the number of yoga practitioners, largely in cultures and geographies that traditionally didn’t have Yoga or such similar practices, certainly warrants an investigation.
The questions that I asked myself before I set out to write this blog are
- What has changed in Yoga that it has growth to be a global practice?
- Why didn’t this happen in over 2 millennium of its existence ?
Could Globalisation is a big factor ? or could we say that the “demand” to such practice has gone up ? Well, to some extent Yes. I think a bigger factor is “Asana-isation of Yoga“. Meaning, today most people across the world understand and believe that Asana is Yoga – So this changed idea of Yoga is what i call Asana-isation of Yoga. Not the Yoga of the Yoga sutras or of Srimad Bagavath Geetha, not the Yoga of the Hatha Yogis either, for that matter,
In this blog I Shall share a little on this very practice of Asana that has become the face (and in most cases body ) and the very identify of Yoga.
What is asana?
Asana means “a sitting posture”, to be in a sitting posture. A stable and comfortable sitting posture has been an important part of many Vedic rituals like Sandhya vandana, Nithya Pooja, Yagna, Homas etc. One is required to sit in a cross leg posture for hours to complete such rituals. The rituals also included a part that is dedicated to the Asana, example: during Nithya Pooja one would first pray to Guru and Ganesha and then take to Asana shuddhi, Pranayama and Sankalpa, in preparation to the actual Pooja.
Asana Shuddhi – meaning to cleanse and to acknowledge the importance of the Asana, by praying to “Asana Devatas “ (Asana Deities, like Bhu devi, Adisesa etc. ) to help make the chosen asana “Stable and Comfortable “, removing any obstacles for the rest of the ritual.
Asana in Yoga Scriptures – Yoga sutras, Hata Yoga texts
In the Astanga Yoga of Yoga sutras, Asana is an anga, and goes on to be used in all of the remaining 5 angas. Sutra 2:46 defines Asana as “ Sthira and Sukha” ( Stable and Comfortable could be a loose translation). There is no mention of any Asana name, its only in Vyasa’s commentary that we get to hear the names of Asanas – they are all seated and relaxing asanas. Its clear that Asana in the Yoga sutra is very similar to the use of Asana in the Vedic rituals.
It’s in the Hatha yoga texts that we find some resemblance to our current practice of asanas. The 1st chapter of Hatha Yoga Pradipika is largely dedicated to Asanas. We find 15 names out of which 4 sitting Asanas are said to be very important . Geranda lists about 32 and Hata Ratnavali lists about 52. The above texts all agree on the importance of cross leg sitting Asanas and on a magic number – 84 Asanas, drawn out of the 84 lakh Asanas that Shiva ( Adinatha ) mastered.
The current version of Yoga is asana heavy and that too asanas that don’t feature in the yoga texts nor qualify the definition of Asana of the Yoga sutras. At a high level we could categorise asanas into two 1. Spiritual / Classical Asanas. 2. Physical fitness / Health Asanas.
Asanas under the Spiritual/ Classical Asana category bring about lightness of limbs, builds heightened body & breath awareness, nerve pacification & sensual introversion and focused senses & mind. And as the Yoga sutra 2:48 puts it – Mastery of Asanas would bring about an end to duality, of all kinds. This sounds rather different and would need a very disciplined practice for years under an eminent Yoga master.
On the other hand, asanas under the physical category help in stretching, strengthening, toning, building endurance and improving agility. Its this group that is largely practiced by the millions across the world. This group of asanas have been influenced by martial arts, dance and movement therapies contributing to the variety we have in asanas and yoga schools.
Due to its physical nature, its easy to identify with and experience this group of asanas. the outcomes are also physical, tangible and measurable, making it easier for any body image enthusiast (that’s most of us ) to take this up. Being able to do some of these acrobatic looking asanas also increases a sense of achievement, leaving one elevated.
So its quite obvious as to what has grown across the world – Asanas belonging to the Fitness / Health category. These heavily physical asanas are no doubt a great way to stay fit and healthy, a fitting rival to other present day exercise formats. This idea of yoga will continue to grow and be applied across various sections of our present society. There is an immediate and present need to document, classify and apply these asanas for a more systematic use & predictable outcome.
Yoga Teachers need to play a big role in both educating the masses about the true essence of Yoga and at the same time contributing towards systematising asanas for physical health/ therapy.