What Makes Asana Unique to Other Forms of Exercise?


cropped-IMG_0496.jpgRecently I had a great question asking: How does asana practice differ from other types of exercise? Couldn’t any type of physical movement count as asana? As with most yoga-related questions, my response is: It depends.

From a completely anatomical/physical standpoint, asana sequences have been created to move the body in all three axes: the sagittal plane (forward and backward movements), the transverse plane (twists), and the coronal plane (side bending). In fact, many poses involve more than one of these movements either sequentially of simultaneously. Additionally, each of these types of movements appear in poses that involve standing, sitting, lying down, and being upside down. The same movements appear in the arms, legs, head, and torso. Basically, asana is a system that stretches and strengthens the body holistically to its full potential, sequenced in a very specific way so that the body opens up safely, and builds strength and flexibility in a balanced way. Each movement is carefully coordinated with the breath, which provides balance for the nervous system, thus also affecting our psychological landscape (mood, concentration, etc.). A wonderful resource to learn more about this is: Yoga Therapy: A Guide to the Therapeutic Use of Yoga and Ayurveda for Health and Fitness by A.G. and Indra Mohan.

The attitude with which we practice is key. Ahimsa (non-harming) is fundamental to asana practice – something often not recognized in other systems of exercise. We need to practice with kindness and acceptance towards our bodies. Additionally svadhyaya (self-study) is essential to develop a present-centered awareness of what is happening in one’s own body on a moment-to-moment basis, without grasping and striving or getting attached to the outcome (aparigraha). Every moment is different. The other yamas and niyamas are also fundamental guidelines to the way we approach asana practice.

Another valuable way to approach asana is from an Ayurvedic perspective, which takes into account both the physical and energetic qualities of many poses, and how they may apply to people with different constitutions. Certain poses and style of practice are also more beneficial at different times of day, in different seasons, and at different life stages. For example, a fast-paced, heated Power Yoga practice can send you out of the balance in the summer or at lunch time. Generally speaking, Power Yoga also isn’t appropriate for people with “Type A” personalities who tend to be competitive, high achievers, and sweat easily, or people under a lot of stress. Similarly, such a practice would not be recommended for women going through menopause or on their menstrual cycle. Restorative yoga would be a more balancing option in all of these circumstances. To learn more about this perspective, I highly recommend two books: Yoga for Your Type: An Ayurvedic Approach to Asana by David Frawley and Sandra Summerfield Kozak and Your Irresistible Life: 4 Seasons of Self-Care Through Ayurveda and Yoga Practices That Work by Madhuri Phillips and Glynnis Osher

There are certainly potential for other forms of movement/exercise to have similar effects to asana practice, and, in fact, we see that modern asana has definitely been inspired by other forms of movement, such as gymnastics, tai chi, and dance. In my opinion, if the above considerations are kept in mind, really any type of movement series could be considered asana. For example, it would be possible to create a dance class similar to an asana class if there was careful consideration to moving each part of the body in all axes, including from a variety of positions (standing, inverted, sitting, and supine), and coordinating it with the breath so long as the energetic effects of the movements were also kept in mind, and the class was focused on self-care and not achievement or competition. Let Your Yoga Dance is a perfect example of this kind of practice.