What Does Asana Mean? The English Meaning & Definition Of This Yoga Sanskrit Term Revealed

If you’ve ever attended a yoga class online or in person, you may have heard the term ‘asana’ used. If you've been wondering what does asana mean, this article is going to be an interesting read for you! Let's take a look at the evolution of this ancient Sanskrit term to better understand what the word asana means in a yogic context. We'll get into the asana definition and asana meaning and what role asana plays in yoga.

If I think about the recent yoga classes I've attended, I might say that the term asana is actually never used, even though it has significant meaning in yoga. Instead, the word ‘yoga pose' or ‘yoga posture' is more likely to be used in place of the word asana. As you'll learn (or may already know!), ‘asana', ‘yoga pose', and ‘yoga posture' are all interchangeable in modern-day yoga classes.

There are countless asanas that are woven into modern-day yoga classes and morning yoga routines – twists, backbends, forward bends, balancing postures – those are all asanas.

As we'll explore – asana is the ‘third limb of yoga' in the Hatha yoga tradition. If you're wondering what the third limb of yoga even means, don't worry, we'll get to that!

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What does asana mean in Sanskrit?

According to Wikipedia, asana is defined as the Sanskrit word for ‘pose’ or ‘seat’ or a sitting meditation pose. But let's break that down a little bit more.

An asana is an engaged and purposeful positioning of the body. For example, sitting casually with a rounded back, or sitting cross-legged and supporting oneself with the hands behind the bum is not an asana! But sitting upright with a straight spine, core engaged, shoulders back, head upright, hands resting on the knees is considered an asana.

This definition of an asana simply being a seated position has changed and evolved. But as it was originally defined by Patanjali, the author of The Yoga Sutras, an asana was simply a seated meditation type position.

What does asana mean in yoga?

As yoga has evolved and changed over the centuries, the interpretation of the word asana has also changed. In current times, the words asana and pose and posture are essentially interchangeable in yoga. Simply put, in modern times, the word asana means yoga pose.

Seated meditation, the original Asana

Patañjali, the sage believed to have authored the Yoga Sutras and The 8 Limbs of Yoga who lived in India around mid 2nd century BCE wrote about the term asana in a way that many have interpreted to mean a pose with a straight spine.

Patanjali's brief definition of asana has been interpreted as being a posture that allows a person to be motionless and upright for many hours to enable a person to rise up above body consciousness. To perform the pose the way it was originally described by Patañjali, a person would essentially be sitting in the traditional meditative type seated position.


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The history of the word asana

Patanjali's 8 Limbs of Yoga has been adapted over the years with the word asana taking on a new, broader meaning.

It could be said that the change in the way asana is defined was instigated by Hatha yoga practitioners who began to define asana a bit differently in that any pose could be described as an asana. Warrior 1, Warrior 2, Chair pose, and all other yoga poses that may be performed in a yoga class are all ‘asanas' in modern-day Hatha yoga.

And what do those yoga postures mentioned above each have in common? Mindfulness, purpose, engagement, alignment, and an intentional breath.

The classic texts of Hatha yoga refer to 84 different asanas.

Benefits of practicing yoga asanas

Performing asanas have a vast range of benefits – both physical and spiritual. While asanas in themselves were not perhaps originally intended to be intense and rigorous physical exercises, many yoga asanas help to improve flexibility, strength, and balance and can actually be quite rigorous and intense!

According to Yogapedia, asana is now the most popular aspect of yoga but really, it is only one part of yogic philosophy. There are 7 more major components to yoga philosophy (and maybe even more). Discover more about the 8 Limbs of Yoga.

Asanas, in the Hatha tradition of yoga, often involve a lot of breathing exercises also. This combination of breath and movement can help to reduce stress and anxiety levels and improve focus. Breath and movement in tandem can also help to lessen chronic pain, lower hypertension, or even improve blood circulation in the body.

Some yoga asanas have also been known to reduce fatigue, enhance sleep quality, and improve mental clarity. Really, many asanas are incredibly beneficial in terms of what they can do for the mind and body.

Different types of asanas in yoga

Now that you know more about how the term asana is defined in modern times, below are a few common asanas to help you become more familiar with a few yoga poses or asanas. 

Common yoga asana infographic showing child's pose, low lunge, triangle pose, and other yoga postures.

Balasana (Child's pose)

Childs pose yoga pose graphic

Child's pose is a resting pose and a counter asana for various other asanas. It is performed by sitting back on the heels with the knees hip-width apart and the palms on the thighs, then the torso is lowered toward the thighs while the arms stretch overhead, or beside you, and the forehead and palms rest on the floor. Child's pose is often performed multiple times in a yoga class, especially Vinyasa yoga classes.

Anjaneyasana (Low lunge)

Low lunge yoga posture graphic.

This asana is a lunging back-bending asana and is often included as one of the asanas in the Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) sequences. It is performed by stepping backward with one leg and lowering the back knee to the ground while adjusting the foot so the toes face back and the top of the foot touches the ground. The top of the back foot is flush on the ground. The front knee is stacked on top of the ankle. The arms and hands come up for the full expression and most challenging variation.

Adho mukha svanasana (Downward-facing dog)

Downward facing dog yoga pose graphic.

Down dog is one of the more commonly known and first-learned yoga asanas. It is a mild inversion that calms the nervous system and helps relieve stress. This pose is often entered from a tabletop position. By pressing up and back out of tabletop, your body is in an inverted V-shape. Both the hands and feet should be firmly planted and gripping the mat.

What are the 8 limbs of yoga?

Infographic of the eight limbs of yoga in order 1. Yamas, 2. Niyamas, 3. Asana, 4. Pranayama, 5. Pratyahara, 6. Dharana, 7. Dhyana, 8. Samadhi.

The 8 limbs of yoga refer to texts written by Patanjali that act as a guide of sorts on how to live a peaceful, meaningful, and purposeful life. Understanding and living the 8 limbs of yoga is a lifelong quest and commitment to living an emotionally and physically healthy life.

The 8 limbs of yoga are:

  1. Yamas
  2. Niyamas
  3. Asana
  4. Pranayama
  5. Pratyahara
  6. Dharana
  7. Dhyana
  8. Samadhi

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As with everything, practice makes perfect! Although in yoga there is no such thing as perfect as each body interprets each yoga pose a little bit differently. We've got some tips about how to start practicing yoga online to refine your asana practice in your own home. And if you're looking for a list of the best online yoga subscription platforms, best online yoga teachers, and yoga apps to join today, we've taken a deep dive into what we consider to be your best options out there at the moment.

We hope that you enjoy your time on the mat performing asanas more than ever before!


FAQ about the meaning of asana

What are the four categories of asana?

The 4 categories of asana are: standing, sitting, prone (poses with the belly or torso touching the floor), and supine (poses that are performed lying down or on your back).

Is yoga just asana?

Yoga encompasses much more than the movement practice. Many people are not aware of this. In fact, despite the fact that asana is the third limb of yoga in the eight limbs of yoga, asana is only mentioned in three of the 196 yoga sutras!

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Heather is the visionary behind The Yogatique - her passion project. Heather is a RYT-200 (with Aligned Yoga), a practicing yogi of more than 15 years, a global citizen, a life optimizer, and a lifelong learner. She created The Yogatique to assist yogis in finding premium online yoga teacher trainings & classes that are affordable and accessible to all.

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