Maharshi Patanjali in his Yoga sutras defines asana as 'sthiram' and 'sukham' (tatra sthiram sukham asanam ). He uses two more Sutras in explaining the qualification through which practice becomes an asana. Besides these, Patanjali neither says anything about any specific asana nor gives the list of asanas or names of asanas.
In this article, let's understand the secrets of Yoga asanas, their journey, names, explanations in yoga texts as well as the myths around them.
What is an asana?
The word asana comes from the root word "Aas - आस" with the meaning 'to sit'. Any tool/support that helps you sit on is called asana.
Yoga in Yoga Tattva Upanishad
Yoga Tattva Upanishad is one of the significant Upanishads that explains Yoga as an important tool to reach enlightenment.
तस्माद्दोषविनाशार्थमुपायं कथयामि ते । योगहीनं कथं ज्ञानं मोक्षदं भवति ध्रुवम् ॥
योगो हि ज्ञानहीनस्तु न क्षमो मोक्षकर्मणि । तस्माज्ज्ञानं च योगं च मुमुक्षुर्दृढमभ्यसेत् ॥
Yoga without Jnana (knowledge) or Jnana without Yoga will not be useful enough to reach the realization. It also says that to remove all the doshas (impurities), the combination of Yoga and jnana will be helpful.
There are detailed explanations on the definition of Yoga in other Upanishads too. in fact, there are upanishads, which can be classified as Yoga Upanishads. However, we will stick to Yoga Tattva Upanishad as it also explains the asanas.
Asana in Yoga Tattva Upanishad
It explains that there are countless asanas. However, in order to purify the Nadis, to create the union of prana and apana, this Upanishad explains the four most important asanas i.e. Siddhasana, Padmasana, Simhasana and Bhadrasana.
How many asanas exist in total?
There are many numbers. Yoga Tattva Upanishad says that "asanani ca tavanti yavantyo jivajatayah” There are as many asanas as there are beings.
Rudrayamala Uttara Tantra (a very significant Shaiva Tantra text) explains that there are 100 crore asanas "shatalaksha sahasrani asanani mahithale".
Svatmarama in Hatha Yoga Pradeepika (a 15th-century text on Hatha Yoga) explains that Adi Natha has taught a lot of asanas, and out of so many, I explain the most important 84 asanas.
These references probably do not intend to mention the exact number of asanas. However, these texts are trying to explain that there is no specific number of asanas.
Asana Names and Numbers in Ancient Texts
Hatha Yoga Pradeepika is one of the significant texts here. It explains 15 asanas in detail. This text explains the practice method as well as the benefits of the asanas.
Similarly, Gheranda Samhita (Hatha Yoga Text written by Maharshi Gheranda in 17th Century) explains 32 asanas in detail.
Hatha Ratnavali mentions that 84 asanas are very significant and out of them, it explains 31 asanas in detail.
Thirumular (lived around 5-7th century AD) has authored a tamil text called 'Thirumandiram'. This is a very significant text in the study of Shaiva Tantra. He has explained 126 asanas in detail.
Asanas in Yoga Yajnavalkya (8 asanas)
Swasthikasana (Two variations), Gomukhasana, Padmasana, Virasana, Simhasana, Bhadrasana, Mukthasana (Two variations), Mayurasana.
Asanas in Vasishtha Samhita (10 asanas)
Swasthikasana, Gomukhasana, Padmasana, Virasana, Simhasana, Mayurasana, Kukkutasana, Kurmasana, Bhadrasana, Mukthasana.
Asana list from Ahirbudhnya Samhita (10 asanas)
Chakrasana, Padmasana, Kurmasana, Mayurasana, Kukkutasana, Virasana, Swasthikasana, Bhadrasana, Simhasana, Mukthasana, Gomukhasana.
Asana list from Hatha Yoga Pradeepika (15 asanas)
Swasthikasana, Gomukhasana, Virasana, Kurmasana, Kukkutasana, Uttanakurmasana, Dhanurasana, Mathsyendrasana, Mayurasana, Pashcimottanasana, Shavasana, Siddhasana, Padmasana, Simhasana, Bhadrasana.
Asanas in Thrishikhi Brahmana Upanishad (16 asanas)
Swathikasana, Gomukhasana, Virasana, Yogasana, Padmasana, Kukkutasana, Utthanakurmasana, Dhanurasana, Simhasana, Bhadrasana, Mukthasana, Mayurasana, Mathsyasana, Siddhasana, Pashcimathanasana, Sukhasana
Asanas in Hatharathnavali (31 asanas)
Siddhasana, Bhadrasana, Simhasana, Padmasana, Mayurasana (Dandamayurasana), Parshwamayurasana, Pindamayurasana, Ekapadamayurasana, Bhairavasana, Kamadahanasana, Panipathrasana, Dhanurasana, Swasthikasana, Gomukhasana, Virasana, Mandukasana, Markatasana, Mathsyendrasana two variations, Niralambanasana, Saurasana, Ekapadasana, Phanindrasana, Pashchimatanasana, Shayitha Pascimathanakam, Vichithrakaraninamasana, Dhoonapithasana (vidhoonanam), Padapidanasana, Kukkutasana, Utthanakurmasana, Vrshchikasana, Shavasana.
Asana list from Gheranda Samhita (32 asanas)
Siddhasana, Padmasana, Bhadrasana, Mukthasana, Vajrasana, Swasthikasana, Simhasana, Gomukhasana, Virasana, Dhanurasana, Mrthasana, Gupthasana, Mathsyasana, Mathsyendrasana, Gorakshasana, Pashcimotthanasana, Uthkatasana, Samkatasana, Mayurasana, Kukkutasana, Kurmasana, Utthanakurmasana, Utthanamandukasana, Vrkshasana, Mandukasana, Garudasana, Vrshasana, Shalabhasana, Makarasana, Ushtrasana, Bhujangasana, Yogasana.
Asanas in Rudra Yamala Uttara Tantra. (54 asanas)
Mundasana, Padmasana, Baddhapadmasana, Svasthikasana, Karrmukasana, Kukkutasana, Khagasana, Lolasana, Utthamangasana, Parvathasana, Yonyasana, Baddhayonyasana, Mahabhekasana, Khecharasana, Pranasana, Apanasana, Samanasana, Grandhibhedasana, Sarvangasana(Shoulder Stand Posture), Mayurasana, Jnanasana, Garudasana, Kokilasana, Anandamandirasana, Khanjanasana, Pavanasana, Sarpasana, Skandhasana, Kurmasana, Kumbhirasana, Mathsyasana, Makarasana, Kuncharasana, Vyaghrasana, Bhallukasana, Kamasana, Varthulasana, Mokshasana, Malasana, Divyasana, Adhordayasana, chandrasana, Hamsasana, Suryasana, Yogasana, Gadasana, Lakshyasana, kullyāsana, Brahmanasana, Kshathriyasana, Vaishyasana, Jathyasana, Pashavasana.
Myth about Asanas
Some modern yoga researchers have been trying to prove that modern-day yoga asanas are influenced by British Gymnastic Conditioning. While there can be many so-called asanas practised in the west in the name of asanas and they might have the influence of British gymnastic practices, Indian yoga practices have been very vast in nature. What can one say if you practice fluidic, dance-based movements and fuse asanas badly with them and start calling that all these yoga asanas came from modern exercises?
There are countless examples of scriptures, pictures and archaeological evidence showing the evolution of yoga asana practices. This is just a small attempt to shed some light on the same. Please do comment and share your inputs also.