Many people have come to associate yoga with fancy postures that improve musculoskeletal systems, physical toning, flexibility and weight loss.
Modern yoga’s focus on the physical body is a marked shift from the original purpose of practising yoga asanas, which emphasized keeping the internal body and energetic body in balance through physical practice.
In this article, we will dive a little more into the yoga asana practice as it was traditionally defined, and how it can affect your practice and overall health.
Meaning of Yoga Asanas According to Ancient Philosophy
Health is the balance and proper functioning of physical, mental and energetic systems. Asanas (or yoga postures) were developed as a way to keep the body healthy and unblocking energy channels so that after a practice we feel rejuvenated, strong and at peace. Some people call this “the yoga high”.
Asanas in yoga are steady, comfortable poses that are held to help build inner and outer strength and to experience inside-out transformation. Asana comes from the Sanskrit word for ‘seat’ and originally referred to seated poses, although in modern yoga it can refer to any seated or standing pose.
Through the asana practice, we become more aware of our body. We become in tune to all its needs, signals and the overall state of health.
Becoming more aware of our body is the first step of the process of accessing health and allows us to work through the physical body into the subtle layers of our being.
On Modern Asana Practices
Yoga has since been changed drastically from its ancient meaning and practices. These days, many come to yoga focusing on weight loss, toning and shaping of the physical body, with less focus on keeping the internal body healthy.
Many styles of modern asana practices are performed mostly dynamically like a cardio workout, rather than focus on actively holding poses which give students more time to access benefits on the internal and energetic body.
There is nothing wrong with dynamic yoga, I do it regularly and it is one of the best ways to break a sweat and experience a good cardio workout.
However, to truly access the health benefits of yoga, you should try to regularly incorporate holding poses such as those of Hatha and Yin yoga styles.
Yoga Asanas for Mind-Body Health
Practising yoga asanas that are rooted in tradition can help one experience some of the most pronounced benefits in the mind and body.
Many modern health diseases are triggered by stress – no one can escape stress, but chronic exposure to high levels of stress results in issues such as gut problems, heart problems, cancer and more. Regular asana practice can combat stress and presents a powerful tool for long-term stress and anxiety relief.
Science Behind Yoga Asanas and Stress Relief
The human body comprises of the automatic nervous system, which regulates various organ functions and bodily processes such as blood pressure and breathing, without our conscious effort.
This automatic nervous system consists of two main sub-systems responsible for whether we are stressed or relaxed:
- Your sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the fight-or-flight response when met with a stress trigger.
- Your parasympathetic nervous system helps to restore calm and bring your body into the rest-and-digest mode.
At any one time, only one of these two sub-systems can be active. More importantly, both sub-systems can be influenced by external factors and human interventions.
For instance, stress triggers and vigorous workouts (including dynamic yoga asana styles) tend to trigger your sympathetic nervous system as your body gets ready for action.
Calming exercises such as holding stretches, or breathing exercises (such as pranayama) will engage your parasympathetic nervous system.
This means that asana practices such as Hatha yoga, yin yoga or slow flows are highly beneficial for people who are more prone to stress and anxiety.
If you are prone to stress, it may do you well to moderate vigorous exercises and increase your time doing slower asana practices that improve awareness, consciousness.
Tip: For those who like both dynamic flows and calming practices, you can have the best of both worlds through Yin Yang yoga.
Yoga Asanas and Detoxification
Our lymphatic system is responsible for filtering toxins from our bodies. It does so by circulating lymph fluid through the spaces between cells where toxins and waste accumulate. These wastes are then drained out of the body through various lymph nodes.
If your lymphatic system is not working well, waste accumulates in the body and you can feel lethargic, heavy and become prone to illnesses.
Related: Gentle Yoga for the Immune System (Video Class)
Yoga asanas improve the lymphatic system through various mechanisms:
- Muscles contraction and relaxation (through the asanas) help to move lymph throughout the body.
- Inverting yoga poses, even beginner ones such as Downward Facing Dog, help to move lymph to our upper body and drains toxins from the lower body with the help of gravity. When we return to an upright position, the lymph reverses its flow and brings waste along with it for filtering through the lymph nodes.
- Twisting yoga poses encourage lymphatic circulation around the core and mid-body.
Although yoga can help with detoxification through lymphatic drainage, this benefit may be dulled when we do vigorous activities such as dynamic yoga or cardio or gym.
This is because strenuous exercises increase the body’s production of lactic acid, a by-product and waste burning glucose for energy.
It also explains why a 60-minute vinyasa flow can feel rejuvenating but a long run or 2-hour yoga session can result in lethargy, stiffness, muscle aches and heaviness.
So do balance your asana practice and do not do too strenuous a session. Your body may not appreciate it as much as the weighing scale does.
Yoga and the Circulatory System
A sedentary lifestyle can bring about a host of health problems including swelling, ageing, low immunity, and aches and pains.
This is because when we sit for too long, our internal organs are continuously compressed and blood circulation slows; Our cells are no longer getting the necessary oxygen and nutrients from the fresh blood supply.
Holding simple stretches help to bring blood flow into the muscles and internal organs. These start to function properly when oxygen, nutrients and enzymes are flowing smoothly throughout the body. If you can hold an inversion pose for more than 30 seconds, you will experience added benefits of lowered blood pressure and blood supply to the brain, which improve concentration and clarity.
For those who like vigorous exercises, you will be happy to know that moderate to high-intensity exercises such as power yoga or ashtanga yoga is great for circulating fresh blood through the whole body as well as the brain. These practices can also lower blood pressure due to the aerobic workout they provide.
Nonetheless, it is important NOT to overdo vigorous yoga flows as the blood flow tends to go to major muscle groups (such as the heart), leaving little fresh blood for the internal organs and many other tissues.
Yoga and Chakras – Our Energetic System
Yoga philosophy posits that human beings have three bodies which are connected via the prana (or life force). These three bodies are:
- Physical body
- Energetic body
- Spiritual body (soul)
Do note that the physical body is connected completely with the energetic body. Each physical body part has an energetic counterpart.
As mentioned earlier, asanas provide us with a tool to gain more awareness of our physical body. This allows us greater access to work on the energetic body.
Yogis visualise this energetic body as the chakra system or energy centres. In yoga, we usually focus on the 7 major chakras that are found along the line of the spine.
A person is in optimal health and well-being when energy is balanced and unblocked along every major chakra. On the other hand, when a chakra is blocked or unbalanced, a person is susceptible to problems associated with the chakra’s functions.
Another important concept of the energetic body is the nadis or the energy channels through which prana (our life force) flows. While there are 72,000 nadis, yogis focus on three main nadis:
- Ida Nadi (cool, feminine energy),
- Pingala Nadi (hot, masculine energy), and
- Sushumna Nadi (an energy channel passing through each of the seven chakras).
If prana is blocked in any of the nadis, it can result in physical and energetic imbalances in the chakras. Yoga asanas can be performed to stimulate and unblock these chakras.
For instance, Shoulderstand helps to stimulate energy at the Throat Chakra, which governs our communication and ability to speak. An unblocked Throat Chakra allows us to express ourselves better, improve creativity and find freedom.
The true focus of learning the asanas should be to balance our mind, body and soul, rather than to improve our physical appearance (although this can be a bonus).
When practising asanas, remember to base it firmly on its traditional roots of conscious movement, conscious breathing, and complete awareness. The journey towards the pose is more important than achieving the pose itself.
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The YogaMad is founded by Mila, an avid yogini who is passionate about inspiring others to live their best lives while finding mind-body-soul balance. She has a background in business consulting but has left the corporate world in her quest to live out her dreams as a yoga nomad.