April 19,2022

The Four Principles of Asana

People enter a yoga class for many different reasons: to improve their health, cultivate flexibility, build strength, and soothe their nerves. The practice of yoga postures, called asana in Sanskrit, offers all these benefits – and more! 

According to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, an ancient text on yogic philosophy, the postures are one of eight “limbs” that lead the practitioner toward enlightenment. To attain this goal, the author directs us to cultivate two qualities in the posture – sthira and sukham. The word sthira means stability, steadiness, and strength. Sukham translates to ease or comfort. When both of these principles are fulfilled, we are less distracted by physical discomfort and can focus on the deeper layers of the practice.

In modern yoga, however, the deeper purpose of asana is often obscured by strenuous effort, a rigid fixation on aesthetics, and a misguided approach that views each part of the body as separate. This way of practicing asana has a higher risk of injury and takes away the deeper benefits yoga is supposed to have.

Therefore, the concept of sthira sukham is more important than ever – for students and teachers. But how do you attain steadiness and ease in your asana practice? By focusing on the following four principles: stability, strength, space, and mobility. Applying these principles will change your practice and teaching: you can better prevent injuries, find your healthy edge, and deepen your practice by going beyond physical aesthetics.

1. Stability

The first principle is stability. It is crucial that whenever you enter a pose, you first focus on creating stability – your foundation. Without it, your posture will be wobbly, weak, ungrounded, and more prone to injuries. If the pose is stable, on the other hand, the other three principles can follow naturally.

To create stability, begin with what’s touching the ground – usually your hands and feet. They are the rock upon which everything else is built. That’s why it is important to engage the muscles in your hands and feet properly. In yoga, this is known as hasta and pada bandha

Pada Bandha: When your feet are the foundation of the pose, for example in mountain pose, distribute the weight equally between both feet. Next, focus on grounding the three corners of each foot: the ball of the big toe, the ball of the little toe, and the heel. Finally, engage the muscles of the lower legs. Using pada bandha will activate and lift the inner arches of your feet which support the ankles, knees, and groin. This is what gives stability to your standing asanas.

Hasta Bandha: When your hands are touching the ground – not only in a handstand but also in a downward-facing dog – the principle is very similar. First of all, distribute your body weight evenly between both hands. Next, spread your fingers wide and root down through the four corners of the hands. Put special emphasis on the pads of the thumbs and index fingers – they are your primary pressure points. 

From this foundation, work your way up. Gently engage the muscles of your pelvic floor (mula bandha) and abdomen (uddiyana bandha). This further stabilizes the body, especially in balancing poses.

2. Strength

Although most people think of it as passive stretching, strength is an essential component of the asana practice. In yoga, you are using your bodyweight to build strength and increase muscle tone. Whereas weight training isolates specific muscles, postural yoga is a whole-body workout. As a result, the strength you build doing asana translates very well into everyday life. 

As mentioned earlier, strength automatically follows once stability has been established in the pose. Observe which muscles are engaged to keep your body stable – arms, legs, core, back – and are consequently being strengthened. If you want to emphasize the strength-building aspect of your asana practice, consider the following tips:

Go Slow: Although you might think that a fast-paced vinyasa practice is the best way to build strength, going slow has many benefits. Most importantly, it highlights areas of weakness – because they will be the poses you rush through. A classic example is chaturanga dandasana: many students lack the strength to hold the pose, therefore relying on momentum.

Progressive Overload: Progressive overload is key for building strength. It’s where you increase the amount of stress on your body gradually, over time, giving it the chance to adapt before moving on. In yoga, you can achieve progressive overload by increasing the time you spend in a posture. When you hold chair pose for ten breaths instead of five, your body gets stronger. The same applies to frequency, for example when you go from doing chaturanga once per class to three times.

Modify the Postures: Modifications adjust the posture to make it accessible for you. For example, you might lower your back knee to the floor in a lunge. On the other hand, you can modify poses to make them more challenging. For instance, instead of a regular chair pose, choose a one-legged variation. 

3. Space

The third principle of asana is space. To properly understand this concept, let’s take a closer look at sukham – the second quality of asana according to Patanjali. The literal translation and foundational meaning of this word is “good space.” Being in a “good space” means experiencing a state of ease and comfort.

You can cultivate these qualities by literally creating space in the body. Find ways to reach further, make yourself taller, and breathe more deeply. These micro-adjustments will make the pose feel so much better! It is no wonder that many cues in a yoga class remind students to create more space – between the shoulders and ears, between the collar bones, and in the ribcage as you breathe in. Take a look below at two of the best ways you can create space in every asana:

Spine: Axial extension is a movement that straightens and lengthens the spine along its axis. You can explore axial extension in mountain pose and any other posture where the spine is long and neutral. Standing up straight, on an inhalation, draw upward through the crown of your head, and visualize yourself breathing space between each vertebra. This subtle action helps to decompress and lengthen the spine by flattening its curves.

Lungs: The capacity of your lungs is heavily impacted by your posture. Slouching compresses the chest and diaphragm, limiting your ability to expand the lungs. Thus, improving your posture – creating space in the body – will likely improve your lung capacity. Deeper, fuller breaths become possible. In turn, you create space in your body by actively focusing on your breath. Conscious breathing will expand the spaces in your chest, ribs, belly, and back. 

4. Mobility

The last pillar of asana is mobility. Before we dive deeper, let’s take a brief look at the difference between mobility and flexibility. Although these terms are often used interchangeably, they actually mean very different things!

Flexibility: Flexibility is the ability of your connective tissue (muscles, tendons, ligaments) to lengthen passively. In other words, flexibility is how far you can bend or reach as your tissues stretch to their maximum length. Wondering if you’re flexible? Lay on your back and loop a yoga strap around your foot. Use the strap to pull your leg as close to your upper body as possible. Another typical example is the splits. In this pose, your flexibility is determined by how low you can get your pelvis toward the ground. As you can see, flexibility is passive. It relies on the force of gravity, tools such as a yoga strap, or other people to “push” you into the pose.

Mobility: On the contrary, mobility is your ability to actively control your body within a range of movement. Mobility, to put it simply, means having strength within your flexibility. What does that look like? If you’re trying to keep your leg straight while lifting it 90 degrees, that’s mobility. Coming back to the splits, someone with high mobility could slide in and out of the pose without their hands on the floor to help – using only the strength and control of their leg muscles.

While most people have been striving to increase their flexibility, modern research suggests that it is actually mobility you should be working toward. The more control is available to you in all of your ranges of motion, the stronger and less injury-prone your tissues will be. This leads to a healthier, more resilient body – on and off the mat. 

Sthira and Sukham in Action

In the asana, we look for elements of both steadiness (sthira) and ease (sukha). For example, in a warrior pose, your legs are strong and stable. From this foundation, you create ease and openness in your upper body. 

However, because many students are not aware of these concepts, they approach asana the wrong way around. Believing that the pose has to look a certain way, they sink deeply into the hip joints without engaging the surrounding muscles. Thus, the stability of the lower body is lost – the arches of the feet collapse, the front knee sways inward, and the lumbar spine gets compressed.

Meanwhile, the arms and shoulders work hard to stabilize the body and become strained with too much effort. Inevitably, the shoulders hunch up by the ears and the jaw clenches. This rigidity, in turn, restricts the flow of breath and agitates the mind. This is the start of an evil cycle that increases – rather than releases – tension in the body and mind.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, you now understand the importance of the four principles of asana. With this framework, you can create a safer and deeper practice for yourself and your students. If you want to deepen your understanding from your own personal experience, answer the following questions: 

  • Which poses most embody a balance between sthira and sukha?
  • In which asanas do you struggle to balance these qualities?
  • Are there parts of your body where you’d like to find more steadiness?
  • Are there parts of your body where you’d like to find more ease and flexibility?

Sthira and sukham are concepts you can come back to time and time again to understand how your body works, and also how you may find balance in our entire system. Famous yoga teacher T.K.V. Desikachar expressed it best: “Asana practice involves body exercises. When they are properly practiced, there must be alertness without tension and relaxation without dullness or heaviness.”