Āsana is the most commonly practiced of the 8 limbs. It is the least intimidating and most practical for most people. Our bodies each contain a universe within itself, so many moving parts, working together to live and function. By moving, twisting, stretching, and strengthening our physical body we become in tune and aware of the subtle sensations that are arising in our body in the present moment.
II. 46 sthira-sukham āsanam
Posture should be steady and comfortable
II. 47 prayatna-śaithilyānata- samāpattibhyām
[Such posture should be attained] by the relaxation of effort and by absorption in the infinite
II. 48 tato dvandvānabhighātah
From this, one is not afflicted by the dualities of opposites
Patañjali does not talk very much about the postures. Āsana is introduced with the list of eight limbs in II.29, and then just three sutras after that talk about the physical practice of postures. In Patañjali’s text, asana is not the goal of yoga but a means to the goal. And because all 8 limbs are interwoven, once someone has been practicing āsana more regularly, you may begin to notice them becoming interested in meditation, or pranyama, or giving their relationships more care and thought.
Āsana can be translated to “seat” or “to sit.” Many people see the posture sequence as strengthening and relaxing the body so that it can sit in a comfortable seat for meditation, without being distracted by discomfort or pain. But this practice’s benefits are exponential. The asana practice is not only to sit comfortably in meditation, but to sit comfortably in the present moment every moment of your life, without running away from fear or difficult situations, making mindful choices instead of reacting out of habit. The aspiration of an āsana practice should not be to perform the most gravity defying poses, but to perform the sequence in a relaxed and steady way, with a focus and absorption of the mind, and a comfortable flowing breath. This way, eventually you are working with the flow of energy of the body and opening up the body, cleaning away any blockages.
Contained within the practice of āsana is abhyāsa and vairāgya, practice and dispassion, by always returning to the mat, but not attaching yourself to the outcome. Just working with what is on the mat at that very moment and being present with it. You practice tapas, svādhyāya, and Īsvara pranidhānān, discipline, self study, and submission, by continuing the practice through uncomfortable sensations in the body, allowing yourself to be present with it, not turning away from it, studying it, learning about yourself from it, and surrendering to it. Without even knowing it, your āsana practice has expanded into so much more then help for your tight hamstrings or headstand practice.
By challenging yourself you learn about yourself. No matter how challenging or simple the practice, the practice of āsana helps you to maintain optimal health, have more acute awareness of what is going on within you (body and mind), and helps you to land in the present moment so you can be more mindful of what is arising right now. Then you surrender, you dedicate all those efforts to something greater then our self because you had this insight into the truth of reality, that we are all the same, we are all connected and the only way to find contentment is to be in service of the greater whole. Now you can better serve others because you first took care of yourself.
A morning flow, even 20-30 minutes, can do this for you. Even better if you can fit in some meditation or breath work after. Once you have completed the practice you are less affected by the “dualities of oppostition” which is the general status of the world, the hot/cold, happy/sad, fat/skinny, love/hate. Everything is equal and good. By practicing the āsanas, you become more focused and aware of this fact, less likely to become distracted by these uncomfortable oppositions.
The fact that so many people can connect to the physical practice of āsana is a beautiful thing because it reveals so much truth. It reflects on all the other limbs of the practice and magnifies them within you without you even knowing. the best thing you can do is stay open and aware and accepting.