By Seema Sondhi
Jan 11, 2017: The great sage Patanjali developed the framework of Ashantanga Yoga, commonly called the yoga of eight limbs, and the third limb of yoga is called asana (yoga posture). Yoga Sutra defines asana as ?sthiram sukham asanam? sthiram means balance; sukham means pleasure; and asanam means physical posture.
Asana is the posture that produces balance in the system?restores endocrinal balance, regulates secretions, optimizes the functions of the entire system of the body, and balances the inhibitors and stimulator circuits. Sukham also relates to a relaxed state of mind?muscles contain stretch receptors and the stretching movements of yoga postures send relaxing impulses to the brain, which induce a relaxed state of mind.
There are approximately 8.4 million yoga asanas, but we can benefit only from a dozen of them. According to yoga, each posture reflects a mental attitude and benefits the internal and external body. Asana is a posture where the mind is focused on the breath and movement of the body; the mind reaches a certain state when it is comfortable and relaxed. The ancient yogis have scientifically studied each asana and its effect on the body. They repeatedly performed each posture, perfected them, and then handed over to us to gain mastery over our body and mind.
Asanas, combined with deep abdominal breathing, are performed slowly and meditatively. These gentle movements not only reawaken awareness and control our body but also have a profound effect on us spiritually. At the end of each practice, you will feel relaxed and full of energy as the postures work systematically on all parts of the body, stretching and toning the muscles and ligaments, keeping the spine and joints flexible and improving blood circulation. The true intent of asana practice is to heal, cleanse and strengthen the body, allowing us to focus our entire energy in the endeavors of the mind.
Five principles of asana
Each asana is based on the sound knowledge of human anatomy and works under five principles:
Use of gravity: Inverted postures such as shoulder stand and headstand take advantage of gravity to increase the flow of blood to a desired part of the body. Regular practice of headstand increases the flow of blood to the brain, which controls the nervous system and the sense organs. This refreshes and rejuvenates the brain, increasing the thinking power. Headstand also ensures blood supply to the pituitary and pineal glands in the brain.
Shoulder stand activates the thyroid and the parathyroids, which are found in the neck region. When the body is inverted, the blood flows to the heart smoothly due to force of gravity. Healthy blood is circulated around the neck and the chest, which is particularly beneficial for those suffering from respiratory problems. Regular practice of inverted postures cleanses the body from all toxins and increases the energy level of the body.
Stretching of muscles: This increases blood supply to the muscles and relaxes them. It also takes pressure off nerves in a specific area. Stretching is involved in all asanas, resulting in release of toxins from the area stretched. It also improves the flexibility of the body. Regular movement of the body in various postures helps the joints. This is beneficial for those suffering from stiffness of joints.
Massage of organs: The position of asana causes a squeezing action on a specific organ or gland, stimulating that part of the body. Stimulation is done through the process of deep breathing resulting in the better functioning of the organ. This makes the internal body strong.
Deep breathing: Proper breathing is essential to increase your intake of oxygen, recharge your body, and keep your mind calm. While doing and retaining the yoga posture we breathe slowly and deeply, moving only the abdomen. This increases oxygen supply to the pressed organ or gland, thereby enhancing the effect of the asana. At the same time, the breathing process creates immense heat in the body and helps in detoxification of the body.
Concentration: While doing a yoga posture we focus our attention on the body through proper visualisation. This brings the mind into use and increases the healing process in the body, importantly enhancing the power of concentration. This has a profound effect in our life?our awareness increases and the mind gets less distracted and swayed by external events.
How asanas help you
Yoga asanas have a profound effect on the entire body. The prerequisite for a healthy body is the proper functioning of the entire nervous system. Nerves from the brain and spine go to every tissue in the body and therefore the health of the body depends on a healthy brain and spine. The yogis knew the susceptibility of the spine and that with age the spine loses flexibility and gets damaged. This further deteriorates the internal organs and the glands. Eventually, the body gets diseased. But the yogis knew how to keep the spine flexible by asanas.
Asanas are beneficial for the healthy endocrine glands?thyroid, pituitary, pineal adrenal, pancreas and the sex glands. These glands secrete powerful hormones that control the development of the body. They also determine the metabolism, vitality and emotional state of the body. Since the pituitary and pineal glands are in the brain, the headstand posture has a powerful effect on them.
Thyroid gland problems are very common and often go undiagnosed until the symptoms are obvious. Regular practice of the shoulder stand improves the thyroid gland and balances the body. The adrenal glands produce a variety of hormones and are important in controlling stress and immunity. The spinal twist postures are powerful too, to stimulate the adrenal glands, causing them to release extra energy to boost the vitality level. The working of the pancreas is very important for the body as it secretes the hormones?insulin and glycogen?which help to keep the body sugar level in control. If the pancreas fails to function normally, the body develops diabetes, a serious aliment. The spinal twist postures work like a magic in maintaining the sugar level.
All postures work towards healthy internal organs. Asanas strengthen the heart and reduce the risk of heart attack. They help in proper digestion and assimilation of the food that we eat. The stretching that we do with each asana lubricates the joints, making it supple and releases all the toxins from the area, thus preventing stiffness. This in turn will prevent arthritis or improve it if you are already suffering from it. Those suffering from low back pain and slip disc benefit with the regular practice of the boat and the locust pose.
When the internal body works at its best, it shows in the external body?you will have a well-proportioned body and the skin will glow. Postures like the forward bend and the fish pose help in improving the skin. Yoga postures like the standing pose, eagle or the head to knee pose help to balance the emotions, relax the mind, strengthen concentration and improve memory. People suffering from respiratory diseases like asthma and bronchitis benefit tremendously with the regular practice of the camel pose and cow pose as these aim at opening the chest and improving the lung capacity, and the body gets a good amount of oxygen supply.
Yoga postures can be practiced by anybody, depending on his/her state of the body and mind. Even the simplest of poses improve your fitness and wellbeing. One must learn to start with simple postures and progress slowly. It is important to repeat the asanas again and again to get the benefits. But the first timers must start under some guidance from experts. Try it and make your body, mind and spirit healthy and stronger. You do not need any special clothes or equipment, just a small space and a strong desire for a healthier and more fulfilled life.
Practicing yoga for more than a decade, Seema Sondhi, has learnt all the styles of yoga. However, her teaching is more under the lineage of ashtanga yoga and the Sivananda school. Author of four books on yoga, she teaches yoga in her own yoga centre.
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