Yoga & Meditatiom
Asanas

Yoga Asanas – A Brief History of Asanas

Asana is the aspect of Yoga least detailed in older Vedic and Yogic texts and is the aspect of classical Yoga given least importance overall. Sometimes little more about asana is said in the older texts than the need to sit straight (Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads), or to maintain a comfortable pose (Yoga Sutras.)

This has led some people to think that the active asana approaches and movements, such as practiced by many modern Yoga groups, were not part of the older Yoga traditions or were not known in India.

Asanas Are More Than Fitness

Yoga asana, as part of classical Yoga traditions like the Yoga Sutras, was never meant as merely an exercise or fitness system.

Asana in Sanskrit means a chair or a seat, and in terms of bodily positions implies a seated pose, and by extension any pose assumed or held for an extended period of time. Asana in classical Yoga was not meant as simply a type of physical exercise, which is called vyayama in Sanskrit, but as part of Yoga practice, called Sadhana, a spiritual discipline resting upon the ability to sit or be still for long periods of time for the practice of meditation.

Traditional Yoga asana was not meant as a workout or fitness drill. Yoga, which means a spiritual path in Sanskrit, and like asana in classical Yoga, was a tool to still the body for meditation, not meant as a physical workout.

Asanas and Strength

Lord Shiva who is the Lord of Dance is also the Lord of Yoga and the Lord of Asana in Hindu thought. The 108 dance poses of Lord Shiva include many movements and vinyasas. The cross over between classical Indian dance and Yoga is quite extensive historically and extends to the present day in which dancers practice various asanas to help gain greater flexibility.

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We find ancient Indus or Harappan seals with figures in various Yoga postures, sitting and stretching. The Vedas themselves reflect traditions of martial art and dance. Many Vedic deities have warrior characteristics and are portrayed as possessing great strength and energy including Indra, Agni and Soma. Indra and Rudra among the Vedic deities are also referred to as dancers. Rudra, who is later connected with Lord Shiva, is also a famous archer in Vedic texts, bringing in the Dhanur Veda connection.

The Mahabharata, India’s great epic, abounds with stories of great warriors and their magical powers, combining martial arts like archery with yogic tools like mantra and meditation, like the case of Arjuna, Krishna’s companion. The same is true of the Ramayana, the most famous epic of South Asia.

Rama performs a series of mantras to the Sun God to enable him to defeat Ravana in battle. Hanuman was well known for his yogic and martial prowess. We can therefore speak of a long history of ‘martial Yoga traditions’, which have included a variety of active exercise traditions as well.

Yoga For Building Strength

Indian martial arts training involved the use of heavy weapons including swords and the mace (gada.) Bhima, one of the five Pandavas and companions of Lord Krishna, was famous for his use of the mace and defeated Duryodhana in a mace fight. Hanuman also was famous for his mace. Such heavy weapon training served like weight lifting to build the muscles.

Even the use of the bow, particularly the long bow that we find in India depictions like that of the Ramayana, requires a lot of muscular strength in order to use. Rama’s story was that only he could string the bow of Lord Shiva as it was so difficult that no other warrior could do so.

All the other princes tried and failed. Rama gained Sita as a wife as his reward for stringing the bow. Rama was well known for his expertise at archery.

The great avatar and emperor Lord Rama is the foremost of these, portrayed with his long bow and a strong physique. Hanuman, his monkey companion, is a kind of Indian superman, noted for his muscular strength and miraculous powers. Bhima, the strongest warrior in the Mahabharata, is another. Another is Parashurama, who precedes Rama as an avatar of Lord Vishnu, who wielded an axe to conquer the deviant Kshatriyas or adharmic and unrighteous kings.

Modern Hindu Yogis were not all emaciated ascetics and many developed great physical strength. Even the forms of Hindu deities like Shiva are not portrayed weak in form or stature, but as physically strong. In addition, the typical Himalayan Hindu Sadhu lives in a cold mountain climate, with little food and clothing, developing an ability to adjust to the elements, relying on physical strength and endurance.

Exercise Traditions In East and West

Callisthenic traditions tend to be alike worldwide because they are working with the same human body and its normal range of movements. Similarities in such approaches between India and the West does not prove that India had no exercise traditions before the modern period. It is part of the prejudice that portrays Indians as physically weak and the Europeans as physically strong.

This is not to say that there was no borrowing of exercise methods between different cultures, but that similar practices had existed in India, just as in other Asian countries like China. Modern Yoga in the West does include influences from western movement, exercise, massage and body work practices.

Asanas have been used as part of exercise traditions in India, just as they have been part of meditation or Yoga Sadhana traditions. This is a different application of asana, however. We must discriminate between these two different usages, rather than think that one excludes the other. It would be good if there were more research on the exercise, martial arts, gymnastic and dance traditions of India and the place of asana within these. No doubt much is yet hidden, particularly how asana can be applied with more active forms of exercise approaches.

This means that the active type of Yoga commonly practiced in the West today does have antecedents in India, but that it was not necessarily called Yoga, a term used more specifically for meditation practices.

It was part of Indian martial arts, dance, exercise and gymnastic traditions, which had their own spheres of application that included areas of fitness not ordinarily covered by Yoga. These exercise approaches did extend to India’s Yogi, monastic and sadhu traditions and communities, however, and could be connected to deeper meditation practices. They were also part of India’s Kshatriya or warrior class traditions that included using various weapons.

Conclusion

Asana has an important place in exercise traditions as well as in spiritual traditions like classical Yoga, and there is a good deal of overlap between the two.

Yet we should discriminate between these two levels of its usage. Classical Yoga was not a fitness system, but asana was also used as part of other Indian fitness systems, particularly martial arts, even when the rest of Yoga was not brought in along with it.

Hatha Yoga crosses over both these practices, having a connection to martial arts as well, but primarily uses asana to prepare the body for meditation.

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