Asanas – the most important exercises and their effects

Asanas – the most important exercises and their effects

In traditional yoga philosophy, asanas, the physical exercises, are just one of many aspects of yoga practice. In this country, however, they fill the main part of a yoga class. You can find out what the term asana means and what the individual exercises mean in this article.

What does the word asana mean?

The word Asana comes from Sanskrit and means seat ("as" = sit). The word was originally used for the surface on which a yogi sits down to meditate. We now understand asanas to mean not just the meditation seat, but all yoga postures. The word therefore primarily refers to the physical aspect of yoga practice.

Since when have asanas existed in yoga?

It is not possible to trace back exactly when the first yoga postures were practiced. However, it is clear from traditional yoga writings that for a long time physical exercises were not the focus of yoga practice. They only served to strengthen the body and prepare it as best as possible for meditation in order to achieve the goal of enlightenment.

In the period between the 2nd century BC and the 2nd century AD, Patanjali developed the eight-limbed yoga path with which he taught the way to this goal. Asanas come third after the ethical guidelines (Yamas and Niyamas).

Between the 6th and 15th centuries, many other texts emerged that collectively became known as Hatha Yoga Pradipika. In this book, physical practice is brought to the fore for the first time and is specifically described using a few asanas.

In which style of yoga do asanas play a role?

Asanas play a role in all yoga styles we know today, but in different forms. Krishnamacharya significantly influenced the physical practice of yoga as we know it today. His student Sri K. Patthabi Joys developed the Ashtanga Yoga style, which in turn gave rise to Power and Vinyasa Yoga. Another of his students was BKS Iyengar, who developed Iyengar Yoga as a form of self-healing through precise physical exercises.

Yoga exercises also represent the main part of the practice in other modern yoga styles: whether powerful and dynamic as in Jivamukti Yoga or slow and calm as in Yin Yoga.

Asanas in yoga: Different versions and effects

Today we know different variations for each asana in order to adapt the exercise to the level of the practitioner. In addition, each individual posture is attributed a specific effect.

Are there any practical tips & tricks for asanas?

As a rule, you should start with the simpler asanas and their variations. Little by little you can then slowly approach more challenging postures. Especially at the beginning, it is recommended to practice under the supervision of a yoga teacher who can give you individual tips and advice on good alignment. The most important thing, however, is to listen carefully to your body at all times and to sharpen your awareness in order to carry out the exercises in the way that suits you.

Is yoga a competitive sport?

Some yoga styles such as Ashtanga can be physically very demanding and strenuous. The difference to classic competitive sport, however, is the mental aspect and the motivation of the practice. Because yoga is not about self-optimization and performance, but rather about self-knowledge. Physical exercises offer us a great way to strengthen our bodies and our minds. If we ignore physical signals and go beyond our own limits due to excessive discipline, we will not come any closer to the goal of yoga.

How can asanas be distinguished?

The variety of yoga postures can be divided into different categories. On the one hand, a distinction is made between standing, sitting and lying postures. On the other hand, asanas are divided into forward bends, back bends, inversions, rotations and balance postures according to their main direction of movement.

In a yoga class, at least one pose from each asana category is usually practiced in order to stretch and strengthen the body in all areas.

Different asanas

Asanas for beginners? This is how you get started

At first, the abundance of asanas can be overwhelming. Under no circumstances should you be put off by social media photos in which you see experienced yogis doing spectacular contortions. Yoga is suitable for everyone and there are suitable asanas for everyone.

How many asanas are there in yoga?

According to legend, Shiva is said to have taught 8,400,000 asanas. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika talks about 84 exercises, but only 11 of them are specifically described.

In two of today's most famous yoga texts - Patanjali's Yoga Sutra and the Bhagavad Gita - the physical exercises that we know today play only a very minor role. It simply states that yoga is performed while sitting and that this seat should be comfortable, stable and light.

Krishnamacharya taught over 120 asanas and his students Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar also taught a larger number of exercises. Over time, more and more variations were developed for the individual exercises in order to make them accessible to students with different physical requirements.

Nowadays, many modern yoga styles no longer specify the exact number of asanas taught.

What are the eleven basic positions?

The postures were explicitly described for the first time in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. These include the following eleven asanas:

  • Svastikasana (the seated meditation posture in the shape of the Svastika cross, which is a religious symbol of good luck in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism)
  • Gomukhasana (the cow face)
  • Virasana (the hero's pose)
  • Kurmasana (the turtle)
  • Kukkutasana (the rooster)
  • Uttana Kurmasana (the upright turtle)
  • Dhanurasana (the bow)
  • Matsyendrasana (the swivel seat)
  • Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend)
  • Mayurasana (The Peacock)
  • Shavasana (the dead pose as a relaxation pose)

Svastikasana and Gomukhasana
Virasana and Kurmasana
Kukkutasana and Uttana Kurmasana
Dhanurasana and Matsyendrasana
Paschimottanasana and Mayurasana

Even though these are referred to as basic positions, they are mostly very demanding exercises that most yogis can only do after many years of constant yoga practice and some of which require strong muscles.

In addition, 4 other essential postures are mentioned, which are among the 84 asanas taught by Shiva. These are:

  • Siddhasana (the position of the enlightened one)
  • Padmasana (the lotus position)
  • Simhaasana (the lion)
  • Bhadrasana (the butterfly pose)

Siddhasana and Padmasana
Simhaasana and Bhadrasana

Which asanas are suitable for beginners?

There are many yoga postures and variations that are very suitable for beginners. People with physical limitations can also practice yoga, but they should definitely be guided by a teacher, at least at the beginning.

Standing postures usually require a lesser degree of flexibility and mobility than other groups of positions and are particularly suitable for getting started with yoga practice because they do not require much instruction. They strengthen the large muscle groups of the legs, down to the toes, and help you develop the stability and calm you need in more advanced postures.

Mountain Pose – Tadasana

Standing posture in which the straightening of the spine is experienced while both feet are firmly on the floor and the arms hang down.

Warrior 2 – Virabhadrasana 2

Standing position with the front foot pointing forward and the back foot positioned across it. The front leg is bent and the back leg is straightened. The upper body is upright and the arms are stretched forward and back.

Standing posture and warrior 2

Grasshopper - Shalabhasana

Simple backbend in which the upper body and arms are raised from a prone position. The hands can be crossed over the lower back, the neck remains in an extension of the spine.

Shoulder Bridge – Setu Bandha Sarvangasana

Simple inversion pose in which the pelvis is lifted from a supine position with the legs bent while the feet, shoulders and head remain on the mat.

Grasshopper and shoulder bridge

Half Twist Seat – Ardha Matsyendrasana

Seated twist with one leg extended and the other planted. The upper body is rotated towards the raised leg, with one hand grasping the knee of the raised leg and the other used behind the body as support.

Half swivel seat

Asanas: yoga exercises for advanced users

If you have mastered the basic exercises (not to be confused with the “basic positions” described above) and have already developed good body awareness, you can move on to more advanced asanas and ultimately combine them into sequences. The more advanced positions include most backbends, arm balances and inversions, as well as intense twists and forward bends.

Which exercises are suitable for advanced users?

The variety of well-known asanas and their variations now seem inexhaustible, so you can always try out new positions. Even if you are very flexible, you should approach the postures carefully and prepare your body for more demanding asanas with simpler exercises.

Crow – Bakasana

Arm balance, where you place your knees on your upper arms and lift your heels toward your buttocks to shift your body weight entirely onto both hands.

Effect: Mental clarity, inner strength and concentration

Headstand – Sarvangasana

A classic inversion position in which the head is the lowest point. The legs are stretched upwards and the whole body forms a line. The hands can encircle the back of the head like a triangle or be placed shoulder-width apart.

Effect: Strengthens concentration, cardiovascular, hormonal and nervous systems. By reversing the effect of gravity on the fluid systems in the body, headstand is said to have a rejuvenating effect.

Standing posture and warrior 2

Lotus position – Padmasana

Sitting position that requires a large opening at the hips in order to cross the bent legs and place the tops of the feet on the opposite thighs. Both sit bones touch the surface and the spine is erect.

Effect: grounding, centering

Push-up – Chaturanga Dandasana

The position, also called the four-limbed stick pose, is a transitional pose from plank position to prone or up-dog position. The whole body is in a line parallel to the floor and the arms are bent at right angles, keeping the elbows vertically above the supported palms.

Effect: Promotes strength, body awareness, well-being and stamina

Lotus position and push-ups

Wheel – Urdhva Dhanurasana

Intense backbend in which the hands and feet are placed in order to stretch the front of the body from these four points into a high arch towards the sky.

Effect: Opening of the heart chakra and the respiratory tract. The wheel has a strong activating effect and acts as a natural mood enhancer and stress reducer.


Tips for asanas: breathing and posture

The special thing about yoga is that we don't just adopt different postures, but connect every movement with the breath and thus bring body and mind into a harmonious balance. Breath is our most important tool with which we direct the life energy prana in the body. We can tell from our breath whether we are physically and mentally relaxed or tense.

What should you pay attention to when practicing asanas?

In every asana you should make sure that your posture allows for a calm and even flow of breath. If your breath stops, the energy can no longer flow and the health-promoting effects of the exercise cannot develop. In shoulder stand, for example, where the cervical spine is strongly flexed, you should position your head in such a way that the throat and airways still remain free and open.

How do I breathe when practicing asanas?

As a basic rule, you can remember that upward movements are linked to inhalation (e.g. raising the arms in Tadasana) and downward movements are linked to exhalation. For the cobra (Bhujangasana), you lift your upper body up from the floor as you inhale and lower it back down as you exhale. While you remain in one position, your breathing should continue to flow calmly and evenly. If you have difficulties with this at the beginning, it is advisable to first do some breathing exercises “dry”. If you practice an asana on both sides, such as Tree (Vrksasana), you can count your breaths to hold both sides for an equal amount of time.

Can I do yoga if I'm clumsy?

Many people think that they have to be very flexible to start practicing yoga. However, the practice works the other way around: you practice yoga regularly and become more flexible over time. There are many asanas and variations that you can practice well even with limited flexibility. For example, practice a light variation of sun salutations and standing poses to warm yourself up and then move on to more intensive stretches.

Asana lexicon: details on the history of the word

There is an individual meaning behind every name for an asana. 'Asana' is translated as posture and is added at the end of the word. Balasana, for example, is the pose of the child (“Bala” = child).

How can “Asana” be translated?

The word asana comes from Sanskrit and its root “as” means sitting. Thus, the classic translation is seat, corresponding to the most original form of asana: the sitting meditation posture.

In a figurative sense, we can also translate Asana as “the ability to come to terms with what is.” We practice this ability in every yoga practice, for example when we have to manage our strength in a strenuous posture or when our patience is required during an intensive stretch. Through this practice, over time we become better at remaining calm off the mat when faced with a challenge.

What is the importance of asanas in yoga?

The various categories show why certain postures are practiced. Backbends, for example, are primarily intended to open up the front of the body and make the spine more flexible. They are sometimes also called heart openers because they particularly expand the chest cavity.

Many asanas contain animal names such as the cobra (Bhujangasana), the crow (Bakasana), the grasshopper (Shalabasana) or the fish (Matsyasana). According to legend, early yogis followed the movement patterns of animals to make their bodies strong and resilient.

Ultimately, all asanas serve to bring the body into balance and thus the mind to calm down. Because a relaxed body is the best prerequisite for a balanced mind.

Asanas is a general term for all the postures that we take on our mat during physical yoga practice. While originally only a few sitting postures were practiced, today we have a wealth of over a hundred different exercises and many other variations. This means we can adapt our yoga practice to our abilities and different requirements at any time.

Easily fit into any exercise with OGNX

So that you can fully concentrate on your postures and your asanas, it is advisable to wear comfortable and stretchy clothing. At OGNX you will find a variety of yoga leggings , pants and tops made from organic natural fibers or breathable, recycled functional material that will provide you with optimal support in your yoga practice. Model Johanna wears our organic cotton batik leggings and the matching batik yoga bra with light support.