The Significance of the Asanas and Pranayamas


“Asana” is the Sanskrit word for a physical posture. Expressed in general terms Asana denotes a specific position which can be held in a relaxed and comfortable manner for a long period of time. In the 2nd Century before Christ, Patanjali wrote down the principles of Yoga practice in the “Yoga Sutras” (aphorisms). He named only the meditation posture “Asana” and the physical postures he termed “Yoga Vyayam”. However, in common usage the dynamic Yoga exercises also became known as Asanas.

Many Asanas were derived from the natural movements and positions of animals and carry the names of animals such as “cat”, “deer”, “tiger”, “hare”, etc. These postures make use of examples from nature on how to help oneself. Asanas have a far-reaching effect upon body and mind. The animals instinctively used these movements and positions because of their natural benefits. These effects are attained through the practice of the Asanas. For example: Marjari (The Cat) for stretching the body and the spine, Bhujangasana (The Cobra) for the release of aggression and emotions, and Shashankasana (The Hare) for relaxation. The headstand (Shirshasana) and Lotus (Padmasana), are regarded as the supreme or “royal” Asanas.

Asanas are beneficial for the muscles, joints, cardiovascular system, nervous system and lymphatic system, as well as the mind, psyche and Chakras (energy centres). They are psychosomatic exercises, which strengthen and balance the entire nervous system and harmonise and stabilise the practitioner’s state of mind. The effects of these exercises are a sense of contentment, clarity of mind, relaxation and a feeling of inner freedom and peace.

The system “Yoga in Daily Life” is designed in such a way that the body is gradually and systematically prepared, leading from simple preparatory exercises towards the more advanced and difficult Asanas. Periods of relaxation are included at the beginning and end of each Yoga class, as well as between the individual exercises. By developing the ability to relax, the feeling for one's own body is deepened. Physical and mental relaxation are prerequisites for the correct performance of all Yoga exercises and it is only in this way that the effects of the Asanas completely unfold.

The breath plays an important role in the Asanas. With coordination of breath and movement, the Yoga practice becomes harmonious, the breath deepens of its own accord and the body’s circulation and metabolism are stimulated. Use of the breath greatly enhances muscle relaxation by concentrating on tense areas of the body and consciously relaxing those parts with each exhalation.

As most people are in the habit of breathing quite shallow, inadequately filling the lungs, the Full Yoga Breath is practiced in “Yoga in Daily Life”. Correct breathing is fundamental for the body’s optimum metabolic function. With regular practice, the Full Yoga Breath becomes the habitual and natural way of breathing. Slower and deeper breaths improve circulation, nerve function and one’s whole physical condition. It also develops a calm, clear mind.

The Difference Between Asanas and Gymnastics

In contrast to gymnastic exercises, Asanas are practiced slowly to enable mental focus and a conscious understanding of the movement. The number of exercises practised is not important, but rather the quality of performance. Before, after and between the exercises, a period of conscious physical and mental relaxation should be included.

The objective of the Asanas is not the conversion of bottled-up energy or tension into movement, rather it is to harmonise the body and mind by consciously observing the physical and mental process as each movement or relaxation is practiced. The body does not become tired or exhausted through the Asanas. On the contrary, with energy recharged, one feels rested and refreshed.

Important Principles for Practice of the Asanas

  1. Asanas are always performed in coordination with the breath:

    • Movements that expand the chest and abdominal cavity, are always connected with the inhalation

    • Movements that narrow the chest and abdominal cavity, are always connected with the exhalation

  2. In the initial stages of practice, the Asanas are performed once or twice without holding, so that the movement of the body and the breath are synchronised. In this way it is clearly established with which movement to inhale or exhale. This type of practice calms the nervous system, stimulates the glands, increases the capacity of the breath and frees one from physical and mental stress. The mind becomes relaxed, calm and clear.

  3. Only after this preliminary practice should an Asana be held for a longer time, breathing normally. During practice, concentration is directed to the specific part of the body on which the exercise is working. The breath consciousness is also directed to this region of the body.

  4. After practicing a posture, a counter pose or equalising posture is carried out. For example, when one part of the body is flexed or contracted, then in the following Asana it is extended or stretched.

Health Benefits from the Regular Practice of Asanas

  • Flexibility of the spine is increased

  • The joints become more mobile

  • The muscles are relaxed, toned and receive a plentiful supply of blood

  • Organ and glandular activity is stimulated and regulated

  • The lymphatic system and metabolism are stimulated

  • The immune system is strengthened

  • Circulation and blood pressure are normalised and stabilised

  • The nervous system is calmed and strengthened

  • The skin becomes clear and fresh

The second “pillar” of the Yoga exercises is PRANAYAMA

Pranayama is the conscious and deliberate control and regulation of the breath (Prana means breath, ayam means to control, to regulate). With each breath we absorb not only oxygen, but also Prana. Prana is cosmic energy, the power in the Universe that creates, preserves and changes. It is the basic element of life and consciousness. Prana is also found in food, therefore it is very important to have a healthy and wholesome vegetarian diet.

The conscious guidance of Prana in the body gives rise to an increase in vitality, physical detoxification and improved immunity, as well as the attainment of inner peace, relaxation and mental clarity.

In mythology it is said that the length of a person's life is predetermined by the number of breaths. The Yogi tries to “conserve time” and lengthen life by slowing down the breath [1].

Effects of Pranayamas

Physical Effects

  • Preservation of the body’s health

  • Purification of the blood

  • Improvement in the absorption of oxygen

  • Strengthening the lungs and heart

  • Regulation of blood pressure

  • Regulation of the nervous system

  • Supporting the healing process and healing therapies

  • Increasing resistance to infection

Mental Effects

  • Elimination of stress, nervousness and depression

  • Quietening of thoughts and emotions

  • Inner balance

  • Release of energy blockages

Spiritual Effects

  • Deepening of meditation

  • Awakening and purification of the Chakras (energy centres)

  • Expansion of consciousness