The Yoga Sutras and Asana: Looking into the physical practice of yoga

The Physical Postures of Yoga

The Physical Postures of Yoga Photo
By Dani Brown

When thinking of a Yoga Class, it is the physical postures of Yoga – or the asanas – that typically come to mind. Derived from the Sanskrit root as meaning “to sit”, “to stay”, or “to be established in a particular position,” the term asanas refers to aligning the body in a particular posture with total involvement and focus of the mind. A stepping-stone toward meditation, each asana is designed to unite the body, the breath, and the mind.

The Indian Yoga philosopher Maharishi Patanjali talked only briefly of asana in his Yoga Sutras – often called the most definitive text on the philosophy of classical yoga - which Patanjali compiled around the 3rd or 4th century BC.

In Patanjali’s work, he refers to two important qualities to any asana: sthira and sukha. Sthira is steady alertness, while sukha describes the lightness and comfort of being. Patanjali says that an asana is properly performed when - in the muscles and the mind - there is stability and alertness without tension as well as relaxation without lifelessness or heaviness.

An example of sthira and sukha given in the book The Heart of Yoga by T.K.V. Desikachar illustrates this concept through Indian mythology:

“The story tells of Ananta, the king of snakes, floating on the ocean, his long snake body coiled to form a comfortable couch on which the god Vishnu lies. The snake's thousand heads reach up and out like a protective umbrella over Vishnu. On the umbrella rests the earth.

The snake's body is soft and gentle enough (sukha) to serve as a couch for a god and at the same time is firm and steady enough (sthira) to support the whole earth. We should endeavor to bring those same qualities of gentleness and steadiness to asana practice, all the while making sure that we exert progressively less effort i