Asana (आसन, Āsana)
The word Asana is derived from the Sanskrit root Aas (आस्, Ās - to sit, lie, rest) and means a particular posture or mode of sitting (1).
Asana is the third limb or constituent part of Ashtanga-yoga (अष्टाङ्ग-योग, Aṣṭāṅga-yoga) as given by Patanjali (पतञ्जलि, Patañjali) (2):
Yama (यम, Yama), Niyama (नियम, Niyama), Asana (आसन, Āsana), Pranayama (प्राणायाम, Prānāyāma), Pratyahara (प्रत्याहार, Pratyāhāra), Dharana (धारणा, Dhāranā), Dhyana (ध्यान, Dhyāna) and Samadhi (समाधि, Samādhi) are the eight component parts of Yoga .
The definition of Asana according to Patanjali is (3):
Posture is that which is Steady (non-movement of the body) and gives comfort.
Number of Asanas :
The number of Asanas practiced by different schools of Yoga vary. Even the traditional texts on Yoga differ on the total number of Asanas. According to the Dhyana-bindu-upanisad (ध्यान-बिन्दु-उपनिषद्),
आसनानि च तावन्ति यावन्त्यो जीवजातयः |
एतेषामतुलान् भेदान् विजानाति महेश्वरः ||
Āsanāni ca tāvanti yāvantyo jīvajātayaḥ |
eteṣāmatulān bhedān vijānāti maheṣvaraḥ ||
There are as many postures as there are classes of living beings. The great Isvara (ईश्वर, Īśvara) knows the distinctive differences among these (4).
Further the Upanishad enunciates that "The four chief postures are: Siddha (सिद्ध, Siddha), Bhadra (भद्र, Bhadra), Simha (सिंह, Siṁha) and Padma (पद्म, Padma)" (5).
Quoting the above verse of the Upanishad in his treatise on Yoga, Yoga Makaranda, Yogacharya T Krishnamacharya states that (6):
"Living species number 84,00,000. In ancient times, all Asana-s were practiced and kept in use by constant practice and experience. But, in the course of time, many Asana-s disappeared due to association of people with others, change of dress, manners, habits etc."
He reveals in addition to the above:
"Among the 84,00,000 Asana-s that were originally existing, only 84,000 were under practice during the time of Pujya Sankaracharya (पूज्य शङ्कराचार्य, Pūjya Śankarācārya), 64,000 during the time of Yatiraja Ramanujacarya (यतिराज रामानुजाचार्य, Yatirāja Rāmānujācārya) and Sri Madhvacarya (श्री मध्वाचार्य, Śrī Madhvācārya) and 24,000 during the time of Nigamanta-mahadesika (निगमान्त महादेशिक, Nigamānta Mahādeśika). This is known from their respective biographies. In recent times, I came to know from Jagadguru Sri Narasimha-bharati (जगद्गुरु श्री नृसिंह-भारती, Jagadguru Śrī Nṛsimha Bhāratī) and have seen personally, that 16,000 Asana-s were practiced by him. Sri Rama Mohana Brahmacari (श्री राममोहन ब्रह्मचारी, Śrī Rāmamohana Brahmacāri) of Mukti-narayana-ksetra (मुक्ति नारायण क्षेत्र, Mukti Nārāyaṇa kṣetra) in Nepal, has the mastery and experience of 7000 Asana-s. I have seen this personally, and under his lotus feet have learnt about 700 Asana-s, which I am practicing at present. Only eighty four Asana-s are known from books which are available today and from modern Yoga practitioners. Some others may know a little more (7).
The great Yogi Svatmarama (स्वात्माराम, Svātmārāma) states in his well known compilation, the Hathayogapradipika (हठयोगप्रदीपिका, Haṭhayogapradīpīkā) the most authoritative treatise on Hathayoga:
चतुरशीत्यासनानि शिवेन कथितानि च |
तेभ्यश्चतुष्कमादाय सारभूतं ब्रवीम्यहम् ||
catur-aśītyāsanāni śivena kathitāni ca |
tebhyaḥ-catuṣkamādāya sārabhūtaṁ bravīmyaham ||
"The Asana-s propunded by Siva are eighty-four in number. Of those I shall describe four which are the quintessence" (8). In the next verse, he lists the four Asana-s as Siddha, Padma, Simha and Bhadra and the most comfortable of the four is Siddha (9).
Reflecting on the 42nd verse of Dhyana-bindu-upanishad that outlines the number of Asana-s, the great Yogi Nathamuni opines that " Therefore, who has the authority to count the number of Asana-s? If someone says that this is the number of Asana-s, it is a reflection of his lack of knowledge" (10).
Further, he lists the number of Asana-s: Vasisthasana (वसिष्ठासन, Vasiṣṭhāsana), Kaundinyasana (कौण्डिन्यासन, Kauṇḍinyāsana) Urdhvakukkutasana (ऊर्ध्वकुक्कुटासन, Ūrdhvakukkuṭāsana), Astavakrasana (अष्टवक्रासन, Aṣṭavakrāsana), Uttana mayurasana (उत्तान मयूरासन, Uttāna mayūrāsana), Sethubandhasana (सेतुबन्धासन, Setubandhāsana), Uttanapadasana (उत्तानपादासन, Uttānapādāsana), Krauncasana, (क्रौञ्चासन, Krauñcāsana), Maricyasana (मरीच्यासन, Marīcyāsana), Virabhadrasana (वीरभद्रासन, Vīrabhadrāsana), Natarajasana (नटराजासन, Natarājāsana), Trikonasana (त्रिकोणासन, Trikonāsana), Supta-padangusthasana (सुप्त-पादान्गुष्ठासन, Supta-pādāṇguṣṭhāsana) and Supta prasarita padangusthasana (सुप्त प्रसारित पादान्गुष्ठासन, Supta prasārita pādāṇguṣṭhāsana) and so on (11).
(1) The Practical Sanskrit - English Dictionary, by Vaman Shivram Apte, page 238
(2) Yogasudhakara, A commentary on Patanjali's Yogasutra by Sri Sadasivendra, Sadhana-pada, Sutra number 29
(3) Yogasudhakara, A commentary on Patanjali's Yogasutra by Sri Sadasivendra, Sadhana-pada, Sutra number 46
(4) The Yoga Upanishad-s, with the commentary of Sri Upanishad Brahmayogin, Edited by Pandit A.Mahadeva Sastri, B.A ,verse 42 , page 196, for the sanskrit text and The Yoga Upanishad-s, English Translation by T.R.Srinivasa Ayyangar, page 158 for the translation.
(5) The Yoga Upanishad-s, English Translation by T.R.Srinivasa Ayyangar, page 158.
(6) Yoga Makaranda, by Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, English Translation by Sri TKV Desikachar, page 73.
(7) Yoga Makaranda, by Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, English Translation by Sri TKV Desikachar, page 74.
(8) The Hathayogapradipika of Svatmarama, With the commentary JYOTSNA of BRAHMANANDA and Englsh Translation, verse 33, page 20 of the basic text and page 14 of the English translation that follows the basic text.
(9) The Hathayogapradipika of Svatmarama, With the commentary JYOTSNA of BRAHMANANDA and Englsh Translation, verse 34 page 21 of the basic text and page 14 of the English translation that follows the basic text.
(10) Nathamuni's Yoga Rahasya, Translated by TKV Desikachar, Translation to Sloka I-49, page 57.
(11) Nathamuni's Yoga Rahasya, Translated by TKV Desikachar, Translation to Slokas I-50 & I-51, page 59.