Asana means "seat" and in contemporary yoga we use the term to refer to the posture, carriage, or shape of the body. So, for example, "trikonasana" is a form in which the leg stance create a triangle shape.
The objective of asana has varied over time. In the Classical period, during which we believe the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (YSP) were compiled, the objective or definition of asana was a comfortable and steady seat that allowed one to be at ease in an upright position during breathing and meditation practices. If there was any exercising of different asana at that time, it seems to have been entirely in service of being able to sit in meditation without being distracted by physical pain or discomfort.
In our modern era of yoga, the diversity of asana and how they are exercised/practiced has grown just a teensy bit. In the YSP (which historians think was compiled around 200 BCE) there is no mention of specific asana or how to attend to them, only that one should sit comfortably for meditation. In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (a text written in the 15th century BCE on physical (hatha) practices that are an avenue for yoga) only 16 asana are described and depicted. Today, there are hundreds of asana! The catalog of shapes and movements that are considered part of "yoga" has expanded dramatically over the last century or so.
The objective of the practice of these shapes remains the same for some yogis: to prepare the body for ease in seated meditation. For others, the objective of practicing postures is now more in service of developing a healthy, strong, mobile, and possibly also (subjectively) attractive body. I think that is all great. It does open the door to the query as to whether or not the practice that seeks only physical well-being should still be called Yoga. I say the objective need not matter if the effect is yoga. I think we have sufficient evidence (in this story is one example) to demonstrate that the body can change the mind just as the mind can change the body. Further, more and more practices have been developed and honed over generations of practice because different students needed different tools. It is the power of yoga that it can be adapted to the needs of its practitioners without fundamentally changing.
I use asana, the physical postures, largely as a practice of "being in my body," which to me means moving or being still with a conscious focus on my body, its sensations and experience. I also employ particular asana at particular times to build muscle strength, relieve physical pain or discomfort, relieve mental pain or discomfort, change my mood, and sit in wonder at what I can do today.
What I do, what the practice "looks like" differs depending on which purpose I'm addressing. What exactly do they look like? Well, since I don't tend to take pictures of anything "for fun", I have some work to do before I can show you my practice! I will post something of a photo journal of my practice over the coming weeks.
In the meantime, I'd love to hear about your experience of asana or any physical practice. Why do you practice what you do?
hari om tat sat!