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When describing the benefits of asanas there is always the tendency of oversimplification. The concrete benefits that we attribute to each asana, though definitely valid, are only scratching the surface. We are actually underselling the vast benefits that can be obtained from them. We generally confine ourselves to listing the physical benefits and pointing out the parts of the body that are specifically influenced. These benefits are true enough, but asanas act in far greater depth. They don’t actually affect specific parts of the body to the exclusion of all other parts.
Every asana has positive and harmonious repercussions on the whole being of the practitioner. They act on the gross and easily perceivable physical body, but far more important in relation to maintaining or improving health and removing disease, they act on the psychic pranic body and personal mind. It is the influence on these far more subtle aspects of being that bring about the main benefits of asanas. But it is these more subtle planes that cannot be discussed in concrete terms. They have to be experienced. It is imbalance in the flow of prana and mental disharmony etc. that are the root causes of disease. Asanas help to harmonize both these spheres.
Asanas don’t really act in a specific sense, but in a total sense. That is, they tend to harmonize the entire subtle instrumentation of the individual being. This in turn helps to rapidly bring about vibrant health, or at least improved health. Of course, we could say more about the effects on the mind and the pranic body, but the relationships and interactions are very subtle, and any attempt to be specific only leads to gross over generalization and eventually more confusion. It is for this reason that we stick to describing benefits that come from asanas through direct physical reasons, such as massage, stretching the nerves, etc. But the greatest and more profound benefits come through the influence of the asanas on the pranic and mental bodies. It is these influences that can bring about remarkable improvements in one’s overall health and attitude towards life. Ideally, asanas should be done amidst conditions of peace and harmony. It is in this manner that they will most effectively purge the system of all types of abnormalities, whether physical, pranic or mental. This is one of the reasons why a sojourn in a quiet haven, combined with yogic practices such as asanas, is so therapeutic.
Furthermore, asanas give greatest benefits if you simultaneously change food habits, sleep habits, etc. so that they are more conducive to well-being. The habits here are the ones that are obviously detrimental to good health. We won’t discuss them here for you are more than likely fully aware of them. Even if you don’t change inharmonious habits, asanas will still help to bring about good health, but they work less successfully and efficiently. In fact, without this effort to orientate your way of life, they will probably only manage to maintain the status quo and prevent you going further down the road to ill health. We don’t want you to become a faddist, or to suppress your natural inclinations. All we want you to do is to bear these factors in mind when you try to gain good health and when you utilize asanas as an aid. Think of your body as an iceberg, the physical body being the part that lies above the waves of the sea. The greatest bulk of the iceberg lies unseen, submerged in the depths of the sea. It is the same with your individuality; most of it lies unseen in the more subtle layers of the pranic and mental body. It is this hidden aspect, the majority in fact of the total, which has the greatest control and influence on your mode of life, health, etc.
During the practice of asanas, it is only the physical manipulations that are seen. One also becomes aware of increased flexibility etc. Yet while doing asanas (and here we mean correctly with awareness and relaxation), there are vast harmonizing processes occurring below the normal levels of perception in the mind and pranic body. These are the most important revitalizing influences of asanas, yet also the least obvious. It is only with increased awareness that one becomes more and more familiar with these processes.
The pranic flows are harmonized.
These are the intermediaries between the mind and the physical body and they have a controlling influence on the processes occurring within the physical body. They are very real they only seem unreal because they cannot be perceived in normal states of awareness. To do asanas correctly, there must be awareness. This leads to relaxation of the subconscious mind and the eventual purging of mental conflicts etc. The mind is also acted on through the physical body. The physical practice induces harmonious flows of nerve energy, breathing, heartbeat and so forth. These in turn help to harmonize the pranic flows within the pranic body, which in turn helps to calm the mind.
The physical, pranic and mental bodies are only arbitrary classifications. They don’t really exist as watertight compartments. They are part of the same totality of individual existence. It is only through limited awareness that one sees oneself as mainly a physical body with an accumulation of a few thoughts. The being of an individual extends from the physical, through the pranic and into the mental. And even much deeper again beyond limitation and definition, but at this stage we don’t want to go further than the personal mind. It is the same with the iceberg. We all accept, at least most of us, that there is far more than the part that protrudes above the water. The totality is both above and below the sea. The totality of the iceberg is both visible and not visible. It is the same with individual existence; the physical body is the only part that most people see. In states of higher awareness these other realms can be perceived.
The main purpose in this topic is to point out and emphasize that asanas act on deeper spheres of our individual being. Though they are predominantly physical, they have positive, harmonious repercussions on the more subtle realms of our being. Of course, most of the control and influence on the physical body comes from the more subtle layers, but there is also a feedback so that the physical aspect influences the more subtle spheres. Let us illustrate this with the analogy of the iceberg again. The greatest control, in a sense, comes from the ice that lies below the sea. That is, the top section floats according to the dictates of the submerged part. But conversely, the top also affects the lower portion. If you start changing the contour or nature of the ice above the sea there will be repercussions below the waves, because it is a whole unit. There are interactions. It is the same with the direct action of asanas on the physical body: there are repercussions in deeper realms, beyond normal perception. This is the important point to remember. Asanas affect your mind, psychic body and physical body. You may not be aware of the subtle influences, but they take place.
So when we list the benefits of asanas, remember that far more is implied. Every asana has an influence on one’s whole individuality, whether small or large. This even applies to the simplest asana. It is unrealistic to define rigid boundaries where asanas work and don’t work, give benefits and don’t give benefits. They affect and help to harmonize your whole being. We give specific benefits only because they are obvious from the physical nature of the asanas, can be easily felt in oneself and can be easily described. But the deeper benefits take place way below the level of perception of most people. You must experience them for yourself. So when reading the benefits that we briefly describe remember that there is much, much more that we don’t mention.