Asana is that in which one is able to contemplate on Absolute Being continuously over a longer time. Otherwise it is no asana which leads to discomfort.
Yoga has become popular throughout the world and people are taking interest in practising various kind of yogic techniques.
Asanas have become favourite yogic techniques with almost all yoga practitioners. However, there is no other technique so grossly misunderstood as that of asana.
Asanas are looked upon as yogic exercises with out precisely understanding the meaning and the scope of the term exercise. The word exercise is very loosely used by the common man. This is the cause of confusion and has given rise to the controversy about the static and dynamic nature of the asanas. Some call asanas static and others practice them in a dynamic way without the precise understanding of the words static and dynamic.
The purpose of this presentation is to define the terms exercise, static & dynamic and apply them to the practice of asana.
The term ‘exercise’ scientifically defined means repeated movements of particular parts of the body. There is no exercise without movement. The basic principle in any exercise is movement.
The term asana etymologically means sitting position which is devoid of movement or having very little movement.
The word static signifies absence of movement while the term dynamic invariably suggests movement.
Do asanas involve movement? Should we consider asanas as exercise? On the basis of the definitions of asana and exercise we have to consider them different.
The philosophy and physiology of asana is different from that of physical exercises. The purpose of physical exercise is to cater to the needs of the body bringing physical fitness. The channel through which this is attained is working with the muscles. Physical exercises induce physiological changes such as increased respiration, increase in the heart rate and producing waste products by increasing of CO2 content. Intense exercise leads to fatigue.
The ultimate purpose of asanas is to reduce the disturbances of the mind and bring sedative effect in the individual. According to Patanjali they reduce the impurities of the body and mind. He uses the word asuddhi-kysaya. This is attained by eliminating the neuromuscular imbalances called dvandvas (tato dvandvanabhighatah.)
Asana is distinctly a sign of transcending the human consciousness. The motionless position of the body imitates some other condition than human. Man by definition is mobile, agitated, unrhythmic; asana puts an end to the mobility of the body reducing the infinitely possible positions to a single posture. Refusal to move in the asana leads to series of refusals (controls) of every kind. Patanjali gives two characteristics of asana-stability and comfort (sthira-sukhamasanam). This definition of asana gives us the idea of psychophysical nature of asana. The word stability conveys the condition of the body while comfort suggests the condition of the mind. For the performance of asanas no effort should be involved according to Patanjali (prayatna-saithilya). This is just the opposite of the theory of exercise. In exercise you force while in asanas you try to relax as much as possible.
Static means stable and dynamic means unstable.
The term dynamic comes from physics and means producing energy. We have the word dynamo which produces electric energy.
Sometimes exercises are classified as static and dynamic. Physiologically they are described as Isometric and Isotonic respectively.
In Isometric exercises the length of the muscle does not change, but the tension in the muscles increases. Weight lifting or pushing the hands against a wall are such examples. In Isotonic exercises the muscles shorten but the tension in the muscles remains the same. Isometric exercises being of static nature devoid of movement, many-a-time, are confused with asanas. The difference lies in expenditure of energy. Isometric exercises impose a severe strain on the cardiovascular system and can increase the blood pressure to a very high level and therefore they are considered undesirable, particularly for the patients of cardiovascular diseases. In asanas much less energy is spent and therefore they do not bring strain-on the cardiovascular system. Isotonic exercises involve repetitive muscular movements like jogging, running, swimming, etc. These exercises also consume more energy.
Asanas could be classified as active and inactive postures. Active postures may be called static or dynamic which are maintained only by the integrated action of many muscles. Static asanas are those wherein a constant pattern of posture is maintained stably by the interaction of groups of muscles working more of less statically to stabilize the joints to preserve a state of equilibrium against gravity and other forces. Meditative asanas can be easily maintained in a semi-relaxed state because of the broad base afforded by the adjustment of the lower extremities.
Dynamic asanas may be considered those in which the pattern of the posture is constantly modified and adjusted to meet the changing demands of movements. The movements involved in these are slow and sustained which differ from the repetitive jerky movements of the dynamic exercise of Isometric type. The basic pattern of neuromuscular condition of the body is changing slowly than the movement itself.
There are two types of muscle fibres, one ‘red’ and the other ‘white’. Red fibres contain muscle haemoglobin which is rich source of energy. White fibres lack such supplies for prolonged expenditure of energy and therefore they get fatigued easily. They contract quickly, reach their highest tension in contraction more rapidly and also return to normal resting state rapidly. In maintenance of posture mostly muscles involved consist of red fibres. In the physical exercise the white fibres of the muscles are exercised.
The objective of yoga is ‘chitta vritti nirodha’, and the same is attempted through all the steps of yoga. Asanas are no exception. The relationship of the stability of asana with the control of mental functions has been beautifully explained by brahmananda in yogarasayana as follows:
“One who can be stable in the asana is fit to undergo yogic practices. With unstable body one cannot have a stable mind. When asana becomes stable, surely the mind too gains stability. The movement of prana indeed slows down. The fickleness of senses also are certainly set at rest. Then only one gets established in yoga and therefore one should practice asana.”
Thus asana leads to stability of the body and mind which is yoga.
The principle of stability and comfort could be applied to all kinds of asanas. It suggests differential relaxation which involves relaxation of those muscles which do not actively participate in a particular asana. Similarly an attempt is made as far as possible to relax those muscles which are directly involved in particular asanas. Historically seen the number of asanas was very small in ancient days. More emphasis was laid on meditative asanas which was the mam purpose of asanas. But when it was observed that prolonged practice of asana for meditation was not easy, probably the efforts were made to condition the body suitably by bending and stretching various muscles and organs in different directions. The idea of removing all the possible hindrances in the prolong sitting was always the main consideration behind practicing various forms of asanas.
As tejobindu-upanisad says-
“asana is that in which one is able to contemplate on Absolute Being (brahman) continuously over a longer time. Otherwise it is no asana which leads to discomfort.”
Thus it will be clear that the nature of asana is STATIC in consideration of its technique and purpose.
The difference between asanas and physical exercises may be stated as follows :
- Aasanas involve very little or no movement and are maintained for some time.
- Asanas consume minimum energy, the caloric requirement varying form 0.8 to 3 calories per minute.
- Asanas, bring optimum tone in the muscles and affect the mind to become tranquil.
- Asanas can be advantageously practiced by old people and even by heart patients.
- Practice of asanas leads to freshness by removing physical lethargy.
- Asanas do not increase the muscles mass but improve the muscle tone and functioning of the vital organs by increasing the blood circulation in the abdominal organs.
- Asanas keep the spine flexible and joints supple.
- In asanas the emphasis is on slow stretching which is static in nature.
- In adopting and maintaining the asana there is a co-ordination between the nervous system and the muscular system through the tonic reflex system.
- Exercises involve repetitive movements.
- Exercises consume more energy, the caloric requirement varying from 3 to 20 calories per minute.
- Exercises affect the body mainly and can lead to hypertone depending upon the intensity of exercise.
- Physical exercises are prohibited for the heart patients and have limitations for the elderly persons.
- Exercises lead to fatigue and may not be suitable for all persons.
- Physical exercises being of the nature of the contraction of the muscle increase the muscle mass.
- Exercise can bring the rigidity of the joints and in the spine.
- Exercises being of the nature of repetitive movements, the stretch is seldom held.
- Exercises being jerky there is a tendency to force the body to certain extent. There is a lack of reciprocation between the body and brain.