Some people underestimate yogasanas and some overestimate them, so let's assess their value in the course of our spiritual evolution. To many people yoga means asanas only, while yogis and spiritual leaders profess that the physical discipline of asana is not at all necessary for self-realization. Both of these views are extreme, for asanas are neither absolutely essential nor are they altogether unnecessary.
If a jnana yogi thinks that only through knowledge of the scriptures will he attain knowledge of the self, he is mistaken. In the same way, if a raja yogi neglects the body and depends only on the power of meditation, he cannot reach the goal, as his sadhana will be interrupted by illness. A bhakti yogi is always overconfident of his powers of emotion, devotion and surrender, and believes that he can force his deity to bless him with darshan. A hatha yogi believes that if everything is within, he will extract it through physical discipline of the voluntary and involuntary, outer and inner organs, muscles, nerves and tissues.
These four views are not free of prejudices and wrong notions based on inexperience and unauthorized sayings, Jnana yoga, bhakti yoga, raja yoga and karma yoga are not four different paths. They are like four circles interpenetrating and overlapping each other, and a part of each forms a part of the other three circles. All spiritual seekers, whether following the path of bhakti, jnana, raja, karma or hatha yoga, need to practise yogasanas also. Yogasanas are not meant only for karma yogis or hatha yogis, as people tend to believe. The needs of all human beings are more or less alike; only small quantitative and qualitative variations need to be made to suit one's habits and heredity. .
The digestion of those who are required to sit for long hours in a meditation pose or of those who practise shastra sadhana for a considerably long period of time at one stretch becomes weak. Due to intensive sadhana the metabolic rate of the body drops and for want of proper movement of the tissues, nerves and muscles, all organic activities run at such a low speed that after a few years the body becomes prey to disease. Unless the body is completely disease-free and pure, no advanced course of meditation can be followed in this condition. A person's body must vibrate and pulsate with divine health, which generates superfine thoughts.
A hale, hearty and stout figure cannot claim to be a model of perfect physical and mental health. An ideal body should be thin, supple and strong. The mind should always be full of bliss and joy. Such a physique is possible only when the 72,000 nerves of the body are absolutely purified through yogic exercises. Asanas are beneficial in many other ways as they affect and control the functions of the glands and nerves, make the body flexible and help to keep the spinal cord in a healthy condition. The health of the spinal cord is very important as it is the abode and upward passage of sushumna nadi. Truly speaking, yogasanas pave the way for higher sadhana. A person's body and mind must both be under perfect control. Through the practice of a few simple asanas one can keep healthy.
Asanas are yogic exercises to keep both the body and mind healthy. If the body is not healthy, the mind will not be healthy; and if the mind is unhealthy, the thoughts will be unhealthy too. It is not necessary to emphasize the need to entertain healthy thoughts and a broad and healthy outlook in the present world. Asanas improve the integral personality, but the first achievement of yogic practices is gaining sound physical health. To achieve this, regular practice of asanas is most essential. Initially, one should do asanas for just 10 to 15 minutes daily.
We can call asanas the subtle exercises which take care of the external and internal development of the human personality. The digestive system, respiratory system, the spinal cord, all the subtle nerves and the dormant glands begin to function normally and in order. Just as food is essential for the nourishment of the body and for generating energy, definite types of exercises are required for the healthy functioning of the muscles, bones, joints, all the nerve centres and so on.
The daily practice of asanas reduces muscular and nervous tensions, rectifies and improves the digestive system, removes lethargy and laziness and keeps one active and efficient throughout the day. When the body and mind are light and free from tension, one can do more physical and mental work. Asanas guard against inner disorders of the body and provide strength and health. There are specific asanas to take care of the liver, digestion, diseases pertaining to the blood, and even to cure them.
Nowadays many diseases are psychosomatic in nature, being the result of lack of coordination between body and mind. It is the view of yogis and many psychologists that mental disorders like neurosis, neurasthenia, insomnia, etc. are successfully cured by asanas. If a combination of asanas is practised, it will prevent decay of the body and mind, keep you young and give you complete mental and physical equilibrium.
People everywhere have to face tensions in all spheres of life because the world is full of tensions. But yoga therapy, in which asana is the main practice, keeps the body and mind in tune, in coordination. Along with sound physical health, it is equally important to have perfect mental equilibrium and steadiness, which is the natural outcome of asanas. Yogic practices very quickly correct mental problems such as anger, mental agitation, mental depression, dissatisfaction and other mental complexes. Yoga is a gradual process which can be speeded up by regular practice. Yoga has given definite, positive results to millions, which is the secret behind its continuity and popularity in spite of major historical changes during the past thousands of years.
According to the history of yoga, as found in old scriptures, Shiva is considered to be the first pro-pounder of the science of yoga, so we can call him the adi guru of yoga. His first disciple was Parvati, his wife. According to mythology, once Lord Shiva was teaching yoga to Parvati near the bank of a river. There was nobody else around, but a fish was listening with keen interest. Parvati saw it and was happy that the fish, though a water animal, had a keen interest in yogic philosophy. She prayed to Lord Shiva to transform the fish into a human being. So the same fish was reborn as a man and that man became famous in yogic history as Matsyendranath, the first of the Natha yogis, who propagated hatha yoga to their disciples. Yogi Matsyendranath used to sit in a peculiar asana for meditation, which became famous as matsyendrasana.
Matsyendrasana tones up the liver, kidney and spinal cord and relieves muscular and nervous tension. The light twisting of the whole body and spinal cord fills the body with new energy. This asana can also be called the spinal twisting asana. In the practice of asanas, one should generally concentrate more on the exercises for the spine and those meant for the dormant nerve centres which are not exercised by any physical exercises other than asanas.
There are many asanas but 84 important ones. In the scriptures, it is said that there are 84 lakh (8,400,000) asanas, as many as the number of creatures whose individual soul evolves to become a human being. However, not all of these are available in the books though references are made in the scriptures to several hundred asanas.
Generally, asanas are named after different animals or creatures, such as makarasana, the crocodile pose; kukkutasana, the cockerel pose; mayurasana, the peacock pose; bakasana, the goat pose; garudasana, the eagle pose; matsyasana, the fish pose; bhujangasana, the serpent pose; shalabhasana, the locust pose; kurmasana, the tortoise pose, and so on. Some asanas are very difficult to practise and some are easy, but each asana has its own benefits. The easier and elementary asanas are beneficial to all regardless of age, and children can all practise asanas under the guidance of a trained teacher.
The best time to practise asanas is in the mornings after bathing and before breakfast. In the evenings, too, one can practise asanas but on an empty stomach. Games and sports also help to build the body and give strength to the muscles, but asanas have special benefits which the other exercises cannot give. Sports and other exercises require a greater amount of time, a larger place and also other accessories, while yogic asanas do not require these extra things and take very little time.
Often mental lethargy does not allow a person to learn and to practise asanas. The mind is quick to find an excuse and to have it endorsed by the scriptures. Only an open, unprejudiced and pure mind can listen to the dictates of pure reason and realize the existence of pure consciousness. All prejudices about asanas need to be shaken off and faith restored by practising them. Due importance should be given to asanas in daily life in order to make both the body and mind active and energetic. A stage does come when yogis are above the limitations of the body and mind, but it is only after first having acquired the benefits of asanas.