Could you explain it to your friends? If not, keep on reading.
Asana is a term widely used in yoga practice that is derived from the Sanskrit word "asana," meaning seat or posture.
As yogic practices have become more westernized and more reliant upon physical movement than mental meditation, the question "What does asana mean" has become more convoluted than it was in early meditation culture.
The Meaning of Asana in Modern Yoga
Asana can be used to refer broadly to the physical processes involved in yoga, but it is most commonly used to describe a single pose or position.
This meaning is reflected in the fact that the Sanskrit words for individual yoga poses always include the suffix "asana" - for example, the Sanskrit word for the Lotus pose is Padmasana, and the Half Moon pose is more accurately described by the Sanskrit name Ardha Candrasana.
Yoga classes and practices are typically comprised of a few different sequences of asanas. The most widely practiced of these sequences are often given proper names such as Surya Namaskara, which is composed of twelve different asanas.
Origins of Asana
Yoga was developed by the Indus-Sarasvati civilization that inhabited northern India close to 5,000 years ago.
Their sacred texts, known collectively as the Rig Veda, contained ritual movements and mantras that were used by Vedic priests to meditate and achieve earthly enlightenment through concentration.
Because asana means "seat" in Sanskrit, experts believe that the first yoga asanas were simple seated positions that were held for long periods of time in order to facilitate meditation.
As yoga developed and was influenced by other cultures, different asanas evolved so as to allow yoga practitioners to challenge themselves physically and spiritually simultaneously.
Benefits of Asana Practices
Various scientific studies have detailed the host of physical benefits that asana poses are responsible for in yoga practitioners.
Along with improving strength, flexibility, and balance, yoga is often credited with reducing symptoms of chronic pain in the lower back and neck, reducing hypertension, and improving blood circulation throughout the body.
Although yoga in the western world is largely focused on physical benefits, the benefits above are only meant to complement the traditional emotional and mental benefits of yoga.
Consistent and willful practice appears to decrease stress and anxiety, increase energy, reduce exhaustion caused by sleep disturbances, and provide improved mental clarity.
Traditionally, asanas were employed by yoga teachers and meditation instructors to increase the flow of prana, or vital energies in the body, and balance the body's koshas, which are different layers of the self.
Origins of Asana Names
The names of many of the classic asanas are derived from Hindu Gods and religious figures, mythological figures in ancient Indian writings or animals native to the region.
A single pose is often called by several different names - this is because Sanskrit is not written with the same alphabet characters that English is, so there are several spelling options.
Different schools of thought in yoga instruction also often have their own name variations for different asanas.
As you can see, asana has many related definitions -- it might not mean the same thing at your local yoga studio as it does in ancient Indian culture or the Rig Veda. However, still the question remains: what does asana mean?
Most modern practitioners and experts can agree that asana can refer both to the collective experience of a yoga practice and the individual poses that combine to form classic yogic sequences.