Function over Form | The Classification of Asana-s

Though they are only one of Yoga's many tools for influencing the mind, Yogasana-s also have other benefits that are worthy of consideration. Primary among these is their influence on the health and wellbeing of their practitioners, particularly in the domains of physiological and psychological wellbeing. 

Our body's vital organs need to function efficiently in order to generate and distribute vital energy to every part of our system, so that we remain healthy and fulfill our daily responsibilities in the best possible manner. Among many factors that influence the efficient functioning of the internal organs, the Yogin-s of the past believed that two factors played key roles. One was the proper alignment of the spine, and the other was the appropriate distance between internal organs. Further, proper spinal alignment was believed to influence the spacing between the internal organs. 

The Yogin-s realized that as the mundane chores of daily life start to influence our body, spinal posture is eventually compromised. As a result, they concluded that the Nadi-s passing through the spine start to function inefficiently, resulting in errors of perception and response. This can be understood in modern day parlance as well, as the nerves going through the spine can get pinched if the spinal alignment is disturbed, thus affecting their ability to carry impulses to and from the brain. Also, since most of the vital functions of the body are located in the trunk, an improper alignment in the spine can cause postural misalignments. This can adversely influence the inter-organ distances, and disrupt the functioning of these vital organs. It is for these reasons that Yogin-s of the past developed and classified Yogasana-s based on the effect these positions had on the spine. The classifications of the Yogasana-s are presented below with a short description of each category.   

a) Samasthiti

Samasthiti type postures are reference postures for other postures, and very often the starting point from where other postures are done. These Asana-s are those where the spine is properly aligned. The back is erect, the reference points along the spine are in their appropriate positions and as a consequence, the internal organs are able to maintain their appropriate positions. Two examples of such positions are Samasthiti and Siddhasana

b) Pascimatana

Pascimatana type positions are those Asana-s where the extension of the posterior section of the body is emphasized. In these postures the spine is extended in the upward direction, (toward the head), in order to remedy the downward pull of the spine that sometimes sets in. From a modern perspective it can also be looked at as a way to restore the appropriate spacing in the spine so that the nerves will not be pinched as a result of disc compression. Two examples of such positions are Uttanasana and Pascimatanasana

c) Purvatana

Purvatana Asana-s are those where the anterior section of the body is extended. By such positions the hunching of the spine can be avoided or corrected. These can also help in increasing the inter-organ space, in cases where the hunching of the back constricts the space between them. Purvatanasana and Dvipadapitham are two examples of such postures. 

d) Parsva

Parsva Asana-s are those where the spine is moved laterally. These postures are useful in correcting any lateral misalignment of the spine. They can also be useful in influencing organs on one side of the body in cases where such a requirement exists. Two examples of such positions are Parsvakonasana and Utthita-Trikonasana. 

e) Parivrtti

Parivrtti Asana-s are those where the spine is twisted. Parivrtti Asana-s are very beneficial in correcting the axial misalignment of the spine. Like Parsva postures they may also be useful in stimulating organs on one side of the body whenever such a need is felt. Utthita-Trikonasana (Parivrtti-bheda) and Jathara Parivrtti are two examples of such postures. 

f) Viparita

Viparita type postures are those Asana-s where the spine is in an inverted position. One of the commonly known benefits of this position is that it allows for the body to reverse its gravity-based patterning.  More crucially, inversions are the position of the body where the hips have the most freedom. Hence the spinal re-alignments that have to focus on the hip region are made easily possible through Viparita type positions. Two examples of such positions are Sarvangasana and Sirsasana. 

The classification of Asana-s serves as a great reminder to us that in every Asana is its inherent function. They are not just positions which look good.

Yogin-s also realized that due to the nature of human lifestyle and its unpredictability, in many cases more than one function may be required to restore health in the practitioner. This was the principle behind the evolution of many Asana-s which incorporated elements of more than one of the above types. Hence the classification of Asana-s must not become restrictive but rather must serve to bring awareness of the purposes of Asana practice. 

For example, consider Virabhadrasana. The moment the legs are spread, by taking one foot forward, a lateral alignment of the hip, and therefore the spine, occurs. Thus the element of Parsva is brought in.  When the hips are turned forward to face the front foot, an element of Parivrtti occurs. Finally when the arms are raised and back arched, the frontal trunk is extended and hence an aspect of Purvatana also forms part of the posture. Thus Virabhadrasana combines at least three different functions in its practice.

The same is the case with many other postures which will find a place in more than one category, such as Janusirsasana, which has elements of Pascimatana, Parsva and also Parivrtti. While such reasoning suggests that Asana-s like Virabhadrasana or Janusirsasana were categorized in their respective classes based on their functions after they evolved, in truth, it was perhaps to fulfill these functions that these Asana-s were created; function always preceded form. Yogin-s of the past were practical and purpose-driven. They created tools and techniques based on the purposes they were intended to serve, rather than the other way round. 

g) Visesa

Apart from purpose-driven categories, Yogin-s also developed another class of postures. This class of postures is called Visesa, which literally means “special.”  These postures not only have some aspects of the six general categories, but also are those that require some special effort. 

For example, while the most important factors of an Asana such as Kapilasana, are the functions of Pascimatana and Parsva, the position itself requires special effort to perform, and hence was also categorized under the Visesa type.

h) Mudra

Apart from the above categories, some postures are also listed here as part of a classification known as Mudra. Mudra-s are powerful ways of inducing transformation at a subtle level by unlocking suppressed or dark energy, and they are therefore considered very special. In many classical Hathayoga texts, bandha-s are classified as Mudra-s. It is because of their ability to influence the deep layers of our personality that Yogin-s did not generally consider Mudra-s as part of Asana practice, but rather thought of them as meditative experience. However, Yogacarya Krishnamacharya took the liberty of including some of them in daily Asana practice, owing to the proximity of these techniques to postures.  He also felt that by doing so, practitioners would be able to benefit from the special effects of Mudra-s.

Though many classical Hathayoga texts describe their techniques and benefits in detail, they remind the reader time and again that they must be practiced under the guidance of a competent teacher. 


This article is excerpted from the book THE HEART OF ASANA by Dr. Kausthub Desikachar. For more information on the book visit here.  

Starting December 2014  an exciting online seminar series on the topic of Mudras & Bandhas will commence. For more information and to participate kindly click here.