From very simple and life relating poses like Tadasana (Mountain Pose), Sukhasana (Easy Seat), Savasana (Corpse Pose) to poses that are familiar to sport doers like lunges. And there is a good variety of weird-looking or impossible-looking Yoga poses. Why?
In the original time of Yoga, there were very few Yoga poses. The practice of Asana was hardly mentioned in Yoga Sutra by Patanjali, actually in only 3 lines and not specifically mentioned any pose. The practice of Yoga back then was mostly in higher bodies than the physical body.
Nowadays as we entered the modern life, we get very distracted by the endless entertainment that comes from the outside and we get disconnected to our body, even the physical one. Modern lifestyle also puts our body in less movement and therefore restricts the range of movement in our joints. That is why in modern Yoga, we pay more attention to the physical practice of Yoga: the Asana.
So what do Yoga poses do to our body?
Firstly, what always happens to our body is GRAVITY. Whether we want it or not, or we know it or not, gravity is always bringing us DOWN. If we are unaware of this fact, gravity will shape us in our most familiar postures during the day and weaken our muscles and joints.
Let's imagine: As we get older, gravity has been compacting us for years, we get shorter (also because we run out of collagen to pad between our joints) and rounded. Or imagine someone who looks at their phone very much, gravity will bend their neck out of its way.
Many of the Asanas put the body in different positions in the space to make different joints do the job of bearing weight and therefore make the muscles around those joints work so that they can be strong and still holding the joints in stable positions.
I take a very simple example of neutral body shape: the shape we have when we stand in Tadasana - the Mountain Pose. Take the same shape but turn it around in the space, we also turn the super-easy pose Tadasana which most people can do in a Yoga class to much stronger pose Chaturanga Dandasana. And if we turn it upside down, it becomes a challenge: Sirsasana.
In Tadasana, the hips hold most of our weight. But in Chaturanga and Sirsasana, it's the shoulders. The ways each pose makes muscles work are different, even if they have the same shape.
Secondly, we get to use the muscles we don't use so much in everyday life.
How? By let them work to hold our body weight.
We have many joints, but actually hold body weight in the main biggest joints: spine (a chain of small-sized joints, but is a vital ¨joint¨), hips and shoulders. Putting these joints to do the same job of holding weight but in different shapes will activate all the muscles available around the joints. In Yoga poses, we also make smaller joints take some responsibility for holding weight too. A very clear example is our wrists - pretty small joints on the body. In most people nowadays as they write and type a lot, they lack both strength and flexibility around the wrists. In Yoga, there are many Asanas with your hands on the ground, from a simple one like a Table pose to the familiar Plank and to superhuman arm balancing poses. In these cases, the Shoulders are still main joints holding weight, but wrists and elbows act an important role too.
Plank Pose and Crow Pose in Yoga: two examples of getting strength and flexibility for the muscles around wrist & elbow joints.
The same happens to our ankles and knees in one-legged balancing Yoga poses. Standing and walking everyday using both legs, our body weight is distributed evenly. But putting the same weight on one leg makes it work harder and therefore strengthens not only muscles around the main joints - the hips but also those around smaller joints - knees and ankles.
And thirdly, also a very important point: Yoga poses put our joints in all their range of movement.
As I have mentioned, the modern lifestyle restricts us to only a certain amount of movements. But the joints can move much more than just sitting and walking around during the day. The various shapes of Asana make us discover our range of movement, or how much we can move and to which direction, again. Some people keep discovering and to one day, maybe after years of discovering, find out they can put their leg behind their head or can touch their toes to their head in a backbend - that explains why people can do ¨impossible¨ Yoga poses. Each body has its own limits of mobility and through the Asanas, you can find out what yours are.
Take Tadasana - the Mountain Pose as a neutral body when all the joints are neutral and not moving. The further a pose is from Tadasana, the more challenging it becomes. For example, bringing your arms over your head in Tadasana is not so hard, and the shape doesn't differ so much. But also bringing one leg back (movement: hip extension) so you can catch your foot in a Dancer Pose is hard and also a much different shape.
To sum up, I have mentioned 3 general reasons why we have so many Asanas nowadays:
- To make our body work against gravity in different positions,
- To make all the muscles in our body work, even the small, rarely used ones,
- To discover and gain back our full range of movements.
And the bigger variety of Asanas you do, the more benefits you get from Asana practice.
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