The Hindi poet Charandasa replies in a simple way. There are 84 million postures and these are nothing but the pattern of sitting of different species, means the different species using the different posture, for their comfortable sitting which are known as Asanas. In the beginning the postures which were used for prolonged sitting performing the spiritual practices like Sandhya, meditation, pooja and fire ceremony were known as Asanas. The same is quoted in Brahmasutras-asinah sambhavat; also in Shrimad Bhagawat Gita-sarnam kayasirogrivarn
But the approach changed in due course of time. The position of innumerable
postures were considered to be innumerable Postures (Asanas) as referred
by Goraksa Nath in 10th Century A.D. But in my opinion the sculpture,
discovered in Mexico dated 3500 B.C. clearly tells us that Hathayogic
Asanas were popular even in that period. If we cannot go back to the history,
due to our own limitations then we cannot say that in ancient India Hathayogic
Asanas were not popular. Therefore we take it for granted that Asanas
are that part of our practices which not only taught the humanity how
to sit, but also taught how to be healthy and thus leading to open the
new channel through which the pranic current could flow easily into Susumna.
This is why the wellknown author of Guhya Samaja Tantra Asanga (3rd century
A.D.) wrote - "yada na sidhyate bodhi hatha yogena sadhayet,"
(if you cannot achieve bodhi through Buddhist means try to practise through
Hathayoga). Thus it is very clear that Hathayoga never lost its importance.
We get the answer that, the practice of Asana, is necessary to teach us
how to sit erect keeping ourselves healthy and channelising the current
of prana towards the final goal of spirituality.
Today Asanas have another responsibility and importance from the point of view of physical health.Here I do not want to say anything of my own to quote my teacher Swami Kuvalayanandaji:-
"The organs of the human body are made up of tissues. This is the reason why the health of human body depends on the health of tissues. According to physiology, there are three conditions of health of the different tissues of the human body. These are:-
i) Constant supply of proper
nourishment and of the internal secretions of the endocrine glands,
ii) Effective removal of waste products; and
iii) Healthy functioning of the nerve-connections. Cultural poses are fully capable of fulfilling these conditions."
Let us see how?
(i, ii) Elements necessary for nourishment of tissues are carried to them by blood. Such a supply depends not only on the quality and quantity of food but also on the power of digestion and absorption of the digestive system. This, and the circulatory system can be kept in efficient condition through cultural poses. The gentle and automatic massage of the digestive organs required for the smooth functioning of digestive system can be more effective only when the abdominal muscles are strong and elastic. Bhujangasana, Salabhasana Yoga-Mudra Pascimatana, Vakrasana and Ardha-Matsyendrasana, etc.make the abdominal muscles strong and elastic. They are also helpful in keeping the abdominal organs in their respective places and effect in to remove the waste materials properly. Thus the second condition of human health also is fulfilled. Bhujangasana, Salabhasana and Dhanurasana are fine stretching postures for the front abdominal muscles and serve as contracting postures for the back muscles.Yoga-Mudra, Pascimatana and Halasana require vigorous contraction of the front abdominal muscles and the back muscles experience a very healthy stretch. Uddiyana gives a vertical massage and Nauli gives a lateral massage to the abdominal organs.
Circulatory system is vitally connected as regards
to the nourishment of the tissues. Yogic poses render a very good help in the
following manner. The contraction and relaxation of the heart cause the circulation
of blood throughout the body. The heart is made up of the strongest muscular-stuff,
but it can always be made healthier by means of proper Yogic exercises. For example,
Uddiyana and Nauli raise the diaphragm so high in the thoracic cavity that they
give a very good massage from below to the perpetually working heart. In these
exercises the heart is alternatively subjected to a decrease in pressure and thus
gets an opportunity of building a healthier muscle. Further, it is through veins
that the impure blood is brought back and there are such troubles as vericose
veins etc., which cause obstructions in blood circulation, However such troubles
can be got rid of by practising Sirsasana, Sarvangasana and Viparitakarani. In
these exercises, the body is placed in upside-down position which enables veins
to drain themselves into the heart without any exertion. Further, the veins get
a short relief which helps in both maintaining and recovering their health.
Another important element of nourishment is oxygen. Practice of Asanas keeps the respiratory system in an efficient condition. Breathing activity depends on the health of lungs and respiratory muscles. Salabhasana and Mayurasana make them strong and elastic. Because Salabhasana requires deep inhalation and retention of breath for a few seconds, the pressure forces air into every cell of the lungs and opens it out for active work. The deep expiration necessary in Uddiyana and Nauli builds the respiratory muscles which are necessary for adequate supply of oxygen to the circulatory system. Saravngasana, Viparitakarani, Matsyasana, Jihva-Bandha and Sirnha- Mudra have been found useful in the treatment of tonsilitis, adenoids and chronic nasal catarrh.
Human health depends not only on the adequate supply of nourishing elements but also on the internal secretions of the endocrine glands. In preserving the health of these glands just mentioned above, Yogic exercises have been found to be excellent exercises for the thyroid also. The pituitary and the pineal glands are best taken care of by Sirsasana. So far as the adrenals are concerned, Bhujangasana, Dhanurasana, Uddiyana and Nauli are capable of preserving their health. For making the testes and ovaries healthy, Sarvangasana, Uddiyana and Nauli have been observed to have great efficacy.
(iii) The third condition
of the health is the healthy functioning of the nerve-connections. The network
of nerves is such that there is not a single tissue in the human body that has
not got its own nerve-connection. It is mainly because of their nerve-connections
that the tissues are able to perform their work. Thus the tissues will remain
healthy and active only if the nerves connected with them are in a healthy condition,
Sirsasana and Viparitakarani, by sending a richer blood supply to the brain, ensure
its health and also the health of the cranial nerves supplying the different organs
of senses. All the Yogic poses are excellent spinal exercises. Uddiyana and Nauli
operating through the diaphragm have a special value in promoting the health of
the spinal cord and also of the sympathetic cords. Salabhasana Ardha-Salabhasana
and the first part of Sarvangasana and Viparitakaran i take care of the nerves
of the lower extremities, whereas the part played by the upper extremeties, in
the techniques of Salabhasana, Mayurasana, Sarvangasana, Viparitakarani, etc.preserve
the health of the nerves. Thus Asanas are found capable of preserving the health
not only of the brain and the spinal and sympathetic cords but also of all the
cranial and spinal nerves spreading throughout the body.
Bodily activites depend also upon skeletal muscles. So far as the thoracic and abdominal muscles are concerned, Yogic poses do train them, but they are not calculated to develop strong muscles for the arms or the legs. However, ordinary muscular needs of a civil life are entirely satisfied by the Yogic poses.
Every meditative pose
requires the spine to be kept erect. This is with a view to eliminate the possiblity
of the compression of the abdominal viscera and also to free the mind from the
burden of the body and not with a view to keep it in its proper place and allow
it to function properly.
The second physiological feature of the meditative postures is their capacity to keep a richer blood supply playing about the pelvic region and thus to tone up the coccygeal and sacral nerves. This increased blood supply and consequent toning up of the nerves are to some extent responsible for the awakening of Kundalini, of course when other Yogic exercises are coordinated.
The third physiological feature is the minimum production of carbon-dioxide. It is because meditative poses involve very little muscular activity. In such a physiological condition both the lungs and the heart have a tendency to slow down their speed and when these poses are maintained for a considerably longer time, breathing becomes so shallow and the heart beats in so controlled manner that all the activities of the Yogic student appear to have come to a stand-still. Such being the state of the physiological condition of his body, the Yogic student finds himself free first to direct his mind inward to fathom its own mysteries, then to isolate himself even from his mental equipment and stand face to face with Reality-ultimately to be one with that.
We have in brief seen the effect of Asanas on our body and mind, the total personality of ours is related with our actions. Hence, it implies, if we want to stay healthy then Asanas are necessary. Patanjali has very rightly said "Sthira sukham asanam. " That is stability and feeling of well being are the results of Asanas. Sutra can also mean that the posture which is comfortable and stable is an Asana. If the above is the description, then lying down is most comfortable, but can it be called an Asana? Sri Svatmarama has clarified it in Hatha-Pradipika - "Kuryattadasanam sthairyamarogyam cangalaghavarn." This implies that Asanas should result in stability and absence of disease, as well as contributing to lightness of the body and feeling of well being. If this was not the case Asana will not remain Asana and would be an exercise. Hence the basic question arises how to do Asanas and Maharshi Patanjali has explained it very beautifully - 'Prayatnasaithilya nantasamapattibhyam.' It means, while doing Asanas, effort should be minimum. As regards the mind it should not waver but should be applied to the infinite or on our breath, so as to reduce tension. This is the direction proposed by Patanjali. It is clear that if Asanas are performed as exercises, they will be more tiring, which will increase the quantity of "Rajas" and hence the body unstable and the mind fickle. Kama (Sex), anger, greed, attachment, enmity etc., will increase. Hence the important point in the way of eradication of these two and making the mind and body free from all diseases. Hence the solution lies in knowing how to do all the Asanas. In popular language it is said that haste is waste; the same is applicable to the Asanas. This saying has to be remembered. By effort and stability Maharshi Patanjali means the minimum use of force. Let the Asanas happen, doing should be minimum. Whenever the question of "doing" arises, instantly, voluntary force comes into action. But when we talk of "happening" we ourselves become the observer in order to see what happens and this feeling forms a positive attitude in us. Because of this attitude the physical tensions are minimised and the mind tends to a void. While doing Asanas if our mind is let free it will take us anywhere and this will lead to tension at conscious level. If this is the case the whole motive of Asanas comes to an end. Hence, while doing Asanas, if we apply our mind to infinite or void then the physical and mental tensions are minimised.