Posture. In the Yoga Sutra, the only reference to asana is this: "Posture should be steady and comfortable. It should be accompanied by the loosening of tension (prayatna) and by coinciding with the infinite space of consciousness" II:45-46 (translation by Georg Feuerstein in Yoga). So how did this elaborate tradition of hundreds of asanas come about?! Patanjali is clearly referring to a posture in which you sit to meditate. So where did Downward Dog and Triangle Pose come from? Asana, or the practice of posture, comes from Hatha Yoga, the school of yoga that prepares the body and mind for the eventual practice of Raja Yoga, the journey to Samadhi (enlightenment). Remember that to reach enlightenment, we must be of sound body and mind. Asana begins the work of cleansing the body and healing the body, while also training the mind to stay focused. My teacher, Beryl Bender Birch, has one of the best ways of explaining yogic concepts in plain English, and really says it best in her latest book, Boomer Yoga,"this particular system of asana practice is what in yoga is called a form of tapas, or detoxification. The word tapas literally means 'to burn'. The idea is that you use the work to start an internal fire, which then in turn burns impurities and clears toxins from the body, through squeezing, sweating, and breathing" (P. 31). That is what the practice of asana is really all about. While Patanjali is essentially saying, "make it steady and comfortable", that is a lot easier said than done! Try sitting cross-legged on the floor for half an hour in meditation. If you have poor postural muscles and weak blood flow, this will be nearly impossible, and quite possibly a form of torture that really should be banned internationally. You must be conditioned, that is, cleansed and healed both inside and out, and of strong mind and body, to sit for lengthy periods in meditation. It is when we sit and relax, turning inward, that we are able to have the insights that advance us on our spiritual paths, and eventually lead to a state of bliss.
Asana is the form of yoga that most Americans are familiar with. It is usually the jumping-off point for us all on our yogic quests. Why is this? My experience of teaching asana for the past eleven years is that the practice itself gets people to do three things: pay attention to their breath, pay attention to their bodies, and quiet down all the chatter in their minds. I don't know of any other form of exercise that does this so effectively. This is what I call "turning inward 101". It is what Beryl call "kindergarten". By that we mean, you are beginning to turn inward, slow your mind's chatter and get connected with you body, without necessarily knowing it at first! Most people love the way they feel after yoga class: relaxed, de-stressed, calm. Only from that point can we begin to expand our awareness, in whatever direction we choose. Whether people like it or not, yoga class, or asana, turns them inward and calms them, at the same time that it works out the kinks, stimulates the kidneys and cleanses the liver!