Why Practice Asana as Part of Yoga?
By Tristan Dorling
Transcript from a podcast
25th March 2023
So, the question that’s asked is:
“I was pondering a question about asanas, and can you still do the meditation practices without the asanas, for example, if your body could no longer do the physical movements? And, if the answer is yes, what, if anything, is the body missing?”
Okay, so the first part of that question: “Can you still do meditation practices without asanas?”. And, the answer is definitely “yes”. You know, a lot of yogis only practise meditation, or they only practise meditation and pranayama, for example. And you can attain all of the fruits of yoga, just from meditation practice alone. So effectively, anything we do in addition to meditation, is a bonus. It’s an extra, and will speed up the process of spiritual awakening.
So, practising asana as part of our yoga practice is a choice that we can make. And in fact, in the early days of yoga, yogis did not have a separate asana practice. Around 500 BC, practitioners of yoga were engaging in meditation, in devotion (Bhakti Yoga), in the practice of austerities, in the practice of Karma Yoga, or service, and in self-inquiry practices, or Jnana Yoga. It is not until around a thousand years later, in the 4th century AD, that we start to see asanas being used that are not simply for the practice of meditation. Even then, there are very few poses described in the Sanskrit texts from that period, and it took hundreds of years from that point, for anything like a rounded and balanced asana practice routine to be developed.
So, to begin looking at the question of why have a separate asana practice at all, we could begin by asking the question: “Why practise pranayama?”. The reason we practise pranayama is because it purifies the subtle nervous system. It purifies the energy channels in the body directly, using the breath. Meditation will also purify the subtle nervous system, but in a less direct manner than pranayama does. So, pranayama will add something to a meditation practice. So then, the reason for adding asana practice to our meditation practice is the same. To purify the energetic channels and chakras of the subtle nervous system.
Understanding how this process works though, is a bit more complex. It has to do with the relationship between physical movements on the one hand, and flows of prana in the body on the other hand. So, if we’re looking at how asana works to purify the subtle nervous system, there are various principles involved. The main principle involved in asana practice, is the principle of stretching energy channels, stretching nadis. As we stretch a nadi, it causes more prana to flow through it and so it increases the flow of prana in the body. And as the flow of prana increases in the body, the subtle body becomes increasingly purified. And because the subtle body is intimately connected with the physical body, if we stretch the physical body, we’re stretching energy channels at the same time. These energetic channels run right through the body, up the legs, up the spine, through the head, down the arms to the hands, and so on.
So, you can look at an asana like Upward Facing Dog, and you can look at what it’s doing in the body. Effectively it’s stretching the sushumna nadi, the central spinal nerve, and it’s also creating an expansion across the chest. The head’s coming up and there’s an expansion across the throat as well. That expansion, combined with that stretch of the spinal nerve, will cause the heart chakra to purify, cause the throat chakra to purify, and it’ll actually cause the third eye to purify as well, as the prana flows up beyond the heart and throat. We see a similar effect happening with Fish Pose for example, Matsyasana. The head is right back, the chest is right up, the spine is stretched, the spinal nerve is stretched. So, it’ll purify sushumna, the central channel, and again heart, throat, and ajna, or third eye. If we look at an asana like Sitting Toe Touch, when the legs are straight out in front and we’re bringing our hands towards our feet. This is activating the energy channels in the legs. It’s also stretching the spine, activating sushumna, the central channel, and it activates all of the first six chakras, all the way from the root chakra up to the third eye. So, it’s a really powerful asana.
If we look at something like plough, there’s actually another principle involved, which is the principle of inversions. So, in yoga asana practice, we’ve got full inversions, such as Head Stand, and semi-inversions, such as Downward Dog. When we bring the body upside down, blood flows towards the head, and prana does as well. And so that’s why inversions are so important in asana practice. When the prana flows towards the head, it carries prana to the higher chakras, activating those. So, if we look at Plough Pose, it’s basically the same as Sitting Toe Touch, except it’s upside down. So, you’ve got all the same things happening, in terms of purification, as you do with Sitting Toe Touch, but you’ve also got that inversion happening with prana flowing towards the head, and a stronger activation of the higher chakras. That doesn’t actually mean that Plough is a more effective asana than Sitting Toe Touch. Sitting Toe Touch can have more of an effect on purifying the energy channels in the legs, and the root chakra, because of the contact with the floor, and so can actually be a more effective and more powerful asana than Plough.
Another way in which we can stretch nadis is with twists. When we twist the body to one side, or another side, we’re actually activating the side channels, ida and pingala. Ida and pingala move up through the body in a double helix formation, with one of them going one way around sushumna and the other one going the other way around sushumna. When we twist the body, it’ll activate one or the other of these side channels, depending on which way we go. So, asanas like Triangle, Trikonasana, actually activate ida and pingala. And when there’s prana flowing through ida and pingala, and they become balanced, it brings prana into the central channel, into sushumna. And so, we have the same effect with something like Reclining Supine Twist, when we’re lying on our back, bringing our knees to one side, or the other side. And the same effect with Half Spinal Twist, Ardha Matsyendrasana. So, these are, really effective powerful asanas in terms of purifying the subtle nervous system.
There’s another principle, which has to do with opening the pelvis. This relates to asanas like Butterfly, Baddha Konasana. When there is an expansive action in the area of the pelvis, this has the effect of activating the first and second chakras, the root chakra and swadhisthana chakra. And, you have got a similar effect with asanas like Warrior and Anjaneyasana, the Victory Pose. There is a similar expansion in the hip area, and you’re activating the root chakra. And, when the root becomes active, it causes prana to flow right up through the body, up through the central spinal nerve, the sushumna. So, that actually has a kind of knock-on effect, to other chakras in the body. And there is a similar expansion that can happen across the top of the pelvis. So, if you look at a pose like Reclining Hero, or Supta Virasana, you wouldn’t really say that the pelvis is being expanded, but there’s a gentle extension happening across the top of the pelvis, which also causes the root chakra and the sacral chakra, the second chakra, to open.
Another principle involved in the relationship between the physical body and the flows of prana, is pressure. What happens when we put pressure on certain parts of the body? This can also activate chakras, causing prana to flow in certain regions. And you can get this happening in asanas like Bow, when we are on our belly and we’re holding both feet with our hands. In this pose, the pressure is on the belly region, and it actually causes the second and third chakras to activate. And so, that would be different in a practice like Wheel, or Chakrasana. So, with Chakrasana, we are doing a similar movement as Bow, in terms of the way the spine is being stretched. It’s similar to Bow, just upside down. But the way Chakrasana works, it doesn’t have that same pressure on the second and third chakras. However, Wheel, or Chakrasana, is a semi-inversion, and so it includes the increased activation of the higher chakras. Wheel actually activates all the chakras between the first and the sixth. Between root and ajna.
So, another principle is the principle of Jalandhara Bandha. What happens when we bring the head down onto the chest during asana practice? This has the effect of trapping prana in the torso, but also causing a very refined, very fine flow of prana to come up into the higher centres, through brahma nadi. So, if we look at practices like Plough, Halasana, there is a build-up of prana in the chest, which will cause the heart chakra to activate. And the same thing happens with Bridge and Shoulder Stand.
One more principle is the principle of connecting chakras together. In yoga asana practice, we don’t often connect chakras, but it does happen in some cases, especially with the hands, when we bring the hands together. There are minor energy centres in the palms of the hands. These are connected to nadis that run up the arms. And when we join the hands together, it creates an energetic closed loop, so that the prana is running through the hands, and between the hands, freely; through the arms freely, and into the heart. So, you get this in asanas like Warrior One, Anjaneyasana, and Namaskarasana when we bring our hands into Anjali Mudra at the heart. So, if we’re bringing our hands together at the heart, we’re actually connecting three chakras. We’re connecting the two minor chakras in the palms of the hands, and we’re connecting them to the heart. So, Anjali Mudra is not just an expression of respect. We’re also doing something energetically with the body in terms of purification.
And so, the last principle I wanted to mention was the principle of grounding. Some asanas have a grounding effect. So, if you look at something like Balasana, or Child Pose, when we touch our forehead to the floor, that has a grounding effect. And the same thing happens in Shavasana, Corpse Pose. Both these poses are grounding and also balancing. They balance the flows of energy out in the body. This is the reason that Shavasana is often done at the end of an asana sequence, to balance everything out.
So, these are all the different ways in which asana purifies the body, balances the energy in the body and grounds us energetically. This is why asana practice is one of the eight limbs of yoga. People talk about asana practice as preparation for sitting practices, which it is, but we’re not just preparing to do yoga. We’re actually doing yoga, when we do asana practice. And so, it’s a very beautiful thing. And there’s a certain stage on the path, where you begin to feel these things. You begin to feel the prana flowing through the body, you begin to feel the chakras opening and activating, and you feel the difference between when you begin the asana sequence, and when you come into your meditation practice.
There is a stage where our asana practice becomes ecstatic. The whole body will be filled with ecstasy throughout the asana practice, as if every cell in the body is lighting up. And this is being caused by the purification of the energy channels, and the chakras, the energetic centres.
This is a quote from Yogani. He writes: “Asanas, in the traditional sense, are for quietening the nervous system. But more than that, they are designed to facilitate the flow of prana in the body, particularly in the sushumna, the spinal nerve. So, you can see that this makes asanas an excellent preparation for pranayama, for Spinal Breathing.” And then he goes on to write: “Yoga asanas begin to take us from physicality to more subtle experiences of divine energy in the nervous system. This is why asanas are so relaxing. It is their main draw.” So, the more we practise asanas, the more we begin to feel these movements of prana in the body, and the more this will bring us inwards. This is the principle of pratyahara, or the introversion of the senses. We’re brought inwards automatically to these subtle experiences. And so, when we enter pranayama, or enter meditation, after our asana practice, we’re already in that state of pratyahara. This is a quote from the Haṭha Yoga Pradīpīkā, which is a 500-year-old Sanskrit text. It is from chapter 1, verse 29. The author is writing about Sitting Toe Touch. He writes: “Sitting Toe Touch is the best among asanas. By this asana, the pranic currents rise through sushumna.”. He goes on to say that this is one of the most effective asanas in yoga. So, we know that for hundreds of years, yogis have known about the flows of prana in the body, about the energetic channels, and about the relationship between asanas and these channels.
So, going back to the original question, in terms of what’s the body missing out on, if we don’t do asana practice? These are the things that it’s missing out on. Even if we have just a short asana practice, before our sitting practices, it will be beneficial. In my own practice, over the years, there were times when I would just have a two- or three-minute asana practice before pranayama and meditation. Sometimes, I would just practise Sitting Toe Touch and Half Spinal Twist, and then begin my sitting practices. There were other times when I would have a fuller twenty-minute, or thirty-minute asana sequence, including twenty or thirty poses. But whatever time I would devote to my asana practice, has always been beneficial.