At one time, the use of the word asana was a reference to the original seated postures of yoga and mediation as well as the relation of one's spirit to a higher power. The basic definition of asana, derived from the Sanskrit word "to sit," is any one of the various positions of the body performed in yogic exercise. This definition is what most practitioners think of when they use the word today.

Western yoga exercisers are most familiar with the practice of asanas as a segment of one yoga path, Hatha yoga.

The History of Asana

The roots of yoga expand deep into the Hindu culture, going back thousands of years. However, Indian sage Pantajali is credited for establishing the foundation and inspiration for the classic belief and form of yoga as most of us know it today. Many cite his theorem within the Raja Yoga Sutras, based on the study of ancient yogis, as the modern yogi's guide to living.

Over time, people disregarded other parts of Pantajali's total philosophy, yet millions of yoga gurus and students worldwide still embrace the eight steps of the Yoga Sutras.

The total extent of yoga's philosophy of the asana is not explored when it's simply considered a posture. Combined with pranayama, asanas are stepping stones to the ultimate goal of enlightenment.

Pantajali's eight steps of the Yoga Sutras:

1. Yamas: explores truth, morals and personal conduct
2. Niyamas: contentment, surrender of the ego
3. Asanas: steady poses
4. Pranayama: Control of breath and vital energy; together with asanas
5. Pratyahara: withdrawal of the senses
6. Dharana: mastering concentration
7. Dhyana: examines meditation
8. Samadhi: experiencing the super-coconscious state

One of the oldest illustrated asana compilations now known is called the Sritattvanidhi.

The Physical Benefits

The focused activity of asanas is said to:

* Lubricate the joints, muscles, tendons and ligaments
* Improve circulation and the activity of the nervous system
* Increase flexibility
* Release tension

As the body is being nurtured and conditioned through regular, nonabrasive movement, yogis believe asanas expand mental faculties and enhance spiritual capacity as well.