Here in the west, Asana is associated mainly with the graceful movements and postures that we experience in the course of a yoga class. We flow through sun salutations or hold steady in our Warrior or Triangle poses. However, In regards to the eight limbs, asana refers only to a comfortable and steady posture. From this posture a practitioner can be fully at ease in order to achieve higher levels of concentration necessary for moving deeper into their practice.
This doesn’t mean that the postures aren’t a necessary element in the eight limbs. In order to release and let go of what is happening in our bodies, we first have to turn our attention to our body. Practicing the postures in any style or level of yoga class is how we are able to access this awareness. And once we realize what our bodies need; where they are tight and where they are limber, where they are strong and where they are weak, we can begin work to strengthen and stretch to achieve that comfortable and steady posture. (note: awareness is not equivalent to judgment, judgment holds you back, awareness moves you forward.)
As a result, sages and yogis, over the course of a couple of thousand years, have developed postures and movements to stretch and lengthen the spine (forward folds, back bends, twists), to open through the pelvis and the hips (triangles, warriors, lunges), to strengthen the muscles that hold our spine straight (core work), to work the shoulders in order for the muscles to release and relax down the spine and away from the ears, and to build awareness of the alignment of the vertebrae in our neck so that we know when we are extending it too far forward or too far back. These postures have all been designed and coordintated so that we can access and maintain a comfortable cross legged position on our cushions or our mat.
It is also important to note that, although the root of the word asana (as~) means to “sit,” and we see images of sages in the Lotus posture, or in any of the other many variations of a cross legged seated pose, the Sutras do not specify what this “perfected posture” is. It is widely accepted that the focus should be on aligning the head, neck and trunk while maintaining the natural curve of the spine (Cervical and Lumbar). So if you are uncomfortable on the floor, or your hips or back or legs are tight (or a combination of the three), find a position that works for you. Uses cushions and pillows to support you, sit with your legs out straight in front of you, sit with your back against the wall, or sit in a chair. It is also helpful to work with a teacher who can address where you need support (via props) in order to find the ideal position for you.
So the next time you roll out your mat, take some time to watch your body and discover how you can become more comfortable and steady in each posture as you flow through your asana practice.