Asana (Sanskrit for ‘to sit down’) is a body position, typically associated with the practice of Yoga, originally identified as a mastery of sitting still. In the context of Yoga practice, asana refers to two things: the place where a practitioner, yogi (male) or yogini (female), sits and the manner (posture) in which he/she sits.
In the Yoga sutras, Patanjali suggests that asana is “to be seated in a position that is firm, but relaxed” for extended, or timeless periods.
As a repertoire of postures were promoted to exercise the body-mind over the centuries, to the present day when yoga is sought as a primarily physical exercise form, modern usage has come to include variations from lying on the back and standing on the head, to a variety of other positions. However, in the Yoga sutras, Patanjali mentions the execution of sitting with a steadfast mind for extended periods as the third of the eight limbs of Classical or Raja yoga, but does not reference standing postures or kriyās.
The eight limbs are: yamas (restrictions), niyamas (observances), asanas (postures), pranayama (breath work), pratyahara (sense withdrawal or non-attachment), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (realization of the true Self or Atman, and unity with Brahman (the Source).
Yoga practitioners who seek the “simple” practice of chair-less sitting generally find it impossible or surprisingly grueling to sit still for the traditional minimum of one hour (as still practiced in eastern Vipassana), some of them then dedicating their practice to sitting asana and the sensations and mind-states that arise and evaporate in extended sits.
Asana later became a term for various postures useful for restoring and maintain a practitioner’s well-being and improve the body’s flexibility and vitality, with the goal to cultivate the ability to remain in seated meditation for extended periods. Asanas are widely known as “Yoga postures” or “Yoga positions”.
In 1959, Swami Vishnu-devananda published a compilation of 66 basic postures and 136 variations of those postures. In 1975, Sri Dharma Mittra suggested that “there are an infinite number of asanas.”, when he first began to catalogue the number of asanas in the Master Yoga Chart of 908 Postures, as an offering of devotion to his guru Swami Kailashananda Maharaj. He eventually compiled a list of 1300 variations, derived from contemporary gurus, yogis, and ancient and contemporary texts. His work is often mentioned in contemporary references for Iyengar Yoga, Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, Sivananda Yoga, and other classical and contemporary texts.
To clearly show that all asanas are public knowledge and therefore not patentable, in 2008, the government of India formed a team of yoga gurus, government officials, and 200 scientists from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to register all known asanas in a public database: the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library.