Yogāsanas are now extremely popular all over the world, mostly as physical exercises. However they are much more than that. Coupled with prāṇāyāma (yogic technique of controlling the prāṇa or the basic life-force, through special breathing exercises) they act at three levels: the physical body, the vital body and the mind. When perfected they help the physical body to have strength and stamina, regulate the internal body-chemistry and assist in gaining control over the mind.
Āsana means a posture (of sitting or standing). According to one view, by imitating the posture of an animal, one can get that animal’s agility or any other special capacity. That is why quite a few yogāsanas are named after some animal or the other (as in Kukkuṭāsana or Mayūrāsana; kukkuṭa = cock; mayūra = peacock).
Though such yogāsanas can be innumerable, thirty-two have been mentioned as more important by the Gheraṇḍa Saṁhitā (Chapter 2), a standard work of Haṭhayoga, more directly concerned with the yogāsanas and prāṇāyāma.
Yogāsanas have certain advantages over the gymnastic exercises. They can be practised by all, irrespective of age or sex or health conditions if specific instructions are followed. No external appliance like dumb-bells or barbells or any other device is needed. The yogic exercises reduce the toxins in the body instead of increasing them as done by the other system.
Those who wish to practise yogāsanas are required to observe some general rules. They are:
Those suffering from some diseases like hypertension should not practise topsy-turvy postures.
Women are advised to avoid some yogāsanas during certain periods or conditions.
Before beginning the regular practice of the yogāsanas, a few preparatory exercises have to be done to loosen the joints and attain flexibility. These include bending, rotating the arms, clenching the hands and movements of the neck. Some exercises for the eyes also are prescribed.
According to the Yogasūtras of Patañjali (200 B. C.) āsana is the third of the eight steps of yoga. He defines it as that posture in which one can sit comfortably and steadily for a long time, for meditation (vide 2.29, 46, 48). The works on Haṭhayoga recommend the following āsanas for meditation: Bhadrāsana, Padmāsana, Siddhāsana, Svastikāsana, Vajrāsana and Vīrāsana.
Out of the several yogāsanas currently in use, the following sixteen are very common:
It is best to learn these yogāsanas directly from a competent teacher. Though pictures and descriptions of them are often given in standard works, there is always a chance of going wrong or even getting into trouble.
When practised properly these yogāsanas have either cured or decreased the effects of many ailments. In fact, quite a few have been designed as cures for specific diseases.