Different Asana Types - The Science and Art

To help cultivate awareness, relaxation and concentration there are various asana types to stretch, massage and stimulate various organs and energy channels. Each category can help to provide us with a different perspective on life, from a physical, emotional, internal and external point of view, which in keeping with the theme of Yoga will simultaneously support a contradiction or polar opposite to bring about balance and harmony. Whilst there are many different asana types, most of us will be familiar and regularly practice the following five.

Backward bending asanas

Back bending by name, frontal stretch by nature whereby the opening of the heart and chest area enlarges our lung capacity. This increases our intake of oxygen, as well as creating a protective cushion around the thoracic part of our spine, thereby alleviating pressure on the spinal lumbar region, the most commonly injured part of our spine. During backward bending asanas muscles within the coronal (frontal) plane of the body such as the abdominal, groin and femoral area are elongated. Backbends are associated with the past and it is through confronting the past, accepting that it is a part of our identity, that we accept our present state and grow towards our future thereby preparing for the forward journey.

Top tip: Inhale before practicing back bends and practice lengthening your spine. This offers more protection and will help create space to alleviate unnecessary pressure on vertebrae and spinal discs.

Forward bending asanas

Forward bends use gravity to offer relief from tension and pain. A state of relaxation is encouraged through compression of internal organs during exhalation. Forward bends will massage the abdominal organs whilst stretching the legs muscles and tendons. Most importantly, forward bends help make the back muscles supple and strong, by moving the spine into the “primary curve” position separating each vertebra, improving circulation and stimulating the nerves. When we take a bow we face forward to see the world and surrender to fearlessly face what is and what can be with deep humility.

Top tip: Bend from the hips instead of the waist to achieve a greater range of movement, creating a stronger pressure to induce greater relaxation on the abdomen.

Spinal twisting asanas

Performing at least one spinal twist after forward and backbends in addition towards the end of a Yoga session is a fairly common occurrence. The spinal nerves are stimulated and by twisting from one side we increase flexibility, compressing and stretching our abdominal region to nourish and enhance the flow of oxygen to the abdominal organs such as the stomach, intestines, liver, pancreas and kidneys, promoting health and vitality. On a symbolic emotional and spiritual level, mindful twisting embodies the nubs we can encounter in life. It is through our approach to explore them, loosen and disentangle ourselves with acceptance and control that we create insight and inspiration to overcome distensions in life.

Top tip: The base of your spine has the least range of movement so begin twisting from the base, controlling the range of movement from your abdomen to create a greater range of space. Inhale to elongate your spine before moving deeper into the twist on each exhale.

Inverted asanas

By encouraging the flow of blood to the brain we stimulate neurones to boost mental power and increase concentration including our pituitary gland which is responsible for growth and development. During inversions breathing slows and deepens which intensifies the interchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen and the endocrine system is purified through enriched blood flow. By reversing the way we stand in the world we throw light and a new weightless perspective on our state of being.

Top tip: Master each stage before progressing to the next. Always follow an inverted asana with a resting asana for at least half the duration of time taken to practice the inversion before undertaking the counter-pose.

Balancing asanas

Our mind and bodies are always compensating for a lack of balance for the simple reason that we are rarely ever still. The practice of balancing asanas helps to develop the cerebellum function that coordinates and regulates muscular activity of the body in motion, to improve posture, balance and calm unconscious movement. Our submission to attain balanced steadiness develops concentration. At an emotional level, balancing asanas acknowledge our sense of equilibrium at a given moment, whilst providing the opportunity to conserve energy or achieve peaceful grace in the present moment.

Top tip: To begin with, activate your drishti (focused gaze) on a fixed point at eye, navel or floor level and take comfort that progress can be made quickly with regular dedicated practice.

It is only natural that you may gravitate towards a certain group, wishing to avoid another. It is human nature to want to succeed by sometimes pushing the limits and getting frustrated when expectation is not met. I, for one, love surrendering into forward bends but always face my ego when attempting and falling over in balancing asanas. However I’ve slowly come to appreciate that it is with humbleness that we must accept our current capabilities, we should face our fears and fall occasionally, because this is how we let go. We should forget about what we think we should be doing and how we should be, to create the space to root down, grow and become exactly who we are meant to be.

The Meaning of Hatha Yoga

Hatha begins with asana practice, physical poses to enhance and relax our body, align our skin, muscles and bones. In particular, it stimulates our nervous system and internal organs. It brings awareness to our nadi, energy channels and our spine to open up our body.

As the last and second equinox of the year looms, when the northern and southern hemispheres  equally radiate sunlight and moonlight, both day and night are present for the same length of time. Two opposites will appear in balance, an emblematic occurrence which illuminates the meaning of Hatha Yoga.

Hatha is a Sanskirt word of two parts: 'Ha' for sun and 'tha' meaning moon. Characteristics related with the sun are passion, masculinity and strength, while moon qualities are freshness, femininity and surrender. Together (sun, moon, male and female) contain physical qualities of hot and cold, firm and fluid. It is in our physical bodies that we strive to cultivate a balance of strength and flexibility, learning to balance our effort and surrender in each pose through breath and mind control. The knowledge Hatha expresses is that both sun and moon energy exists within us all. Hatha is a unification of 2 opposites to illuminate all existence into totality and create balanced harmony from within.

Balance is one of the most desired things we crave for in our lives; a balanced diet, balanced bank account, balanced work/life commitments. When I am balanced I am content, I am grounded, present and I am still. When I am off balance I can be destructive, but my experience has taught me that such moments of extremities must exist. It is such a contrast exploring a spectrum of polar opposites, yet I wonder how it can be any other way. How can we realise equilibrium without firstly discovering how to fall or how to rise? This is true when living life and in Yoga asana practice. Through our experiences we are given a choice, to remain ignorant or return to the path of grace with newfound wisdom and knowledge in our hearts. Actually it’s pretty awe-inspiring when you recognise the interconnection that exists between EVERYTHING.

Could this be why so many divergent variations of Hatha Asana Yoga exist today? Bikram, Iyengar, Astanga! The list is growing and evolving all the time and this is a hugely comforting thought. There is a style for everybody, with guidelines sure, but I would boldly advocate that there isn’t a right or wrong way, just your way. Ultimately any form of movement or contemplative stillness is good because it harnesses and creates energy. As Yogis, you have the power to strike that balance, find what feels good, bad or just right, this is the essence of Yog.

Hatha Yoga bridges the gap between the ancient sages and modern practice yet it is so much more than a physical exercise which we tend to associate in the west. Hatha Yoga integrates the classic Yoga path consisting of asanas (postures), shatkriya (purification rituals), mudras (gestures), pranayama (breathing) and dyana (meditation). It is the first root of all modern day Yoga asana variations and deeply embedded with the eight-limb path to attain Samadhi, enlightenment.