How to Classify Yoga Poses
There are basically two ways to classify asanas or yoga poses. The first is according to their names. Some asanas have the name of an animal, like the Dog Shvanasana, the Snake Bhujangasana, the Locust Shalabhasana, the Peacock Mayurasana, the Fish Matsyasana.
Other asanas are named after a sage, like Matsyendrasana (According to legend, Matsyendra was the first human to hear about Hatha-Yoga), Gorakshasana (Goraksha is the author of the first Hatha-Yoga book, the Goraksha Samhita), Buddhasana… or after a god, like Krishnasana for Krishna, Natarajasana for Shiva, Hanumanasana for Hanuman, Viranchyasana for Brahma.
Some asanas have the name of a natural form or being, like Chandrasana (and Ardha -Chandrasana) the Moon, Vrikshasana the Tree, Padmasana the Lotus… while others represent a person at different ages, like Garbha-Pindasana the Foetus, Balasana the Child, Virasana the Hero, Siddhasana the Wise Man, Shavasana the Corpse.
Asanas can also take the the name of an object, like Dhanurasana,the Bow, Chakrasana,the Wheel, Halasana,the Plough… or a geometrical form, like Trikonasana,the Triangle, Omkarasana,the Om, Upavishta-Konasana,the Seated Angle. And last but not least, some asanas have the name of one or several parts of the body, like Shirshasana (Head) Janushirshasana (Head and Knee), Hastapadasana (Hand and Foot). If classifying yoga poses this way, we end up with eight or more categories.
A second way of classifying poses is according to the position of the body AND to the position of the spine. Day to day, our bodies assume three basic positions: Sitting, Standing (on the legs) and Reclining. Yoga adds two more: Inverted (upside-down) and Handstanding. Sitting is on our buttocks; Standing is on our feet and eventually, on the knees; Reclining is on our back, stomach or side; Inverted is on our head or shoulders; Handstanding is on our hands and eventually, on the elbows.
The spine is the centre of our yoga practice, as far as the asana (third limb of Raja-Yoga as described by Patanjali) is concerned. Therefore, the position of the spine has to play an important role in the classification. The spine assumes five possible positions: straight, bending forward, bending backward, bending sideways and twisting.
Accounting for both these factors (the position of the body and the position of the spine) simultaneously enables us to classify all of the yoga poses. The following chart illustrates a sample classification of 25 yoga poses:
To read the chart, look first at the position of the body and then the position of the spine. For example, Vrikshasana the Tree is a Standing Pose with a straight spine; Matsyendrasana is a Sitting Pose with the spine twisting; Halasana is an Inverted Pose with the spine bending forward; Trikonasana the Triangle is a Standing Pose with the spine bending sideways; Dhanurasana the Bow is a Reclining Pose with the spine bending backward, etc.
Both methods of pose classification have their own merits. Most books and websites opt for the second one - for example, Asanas by Dharma Mittra presents first the Standing Poses and then the Inverted Poses, the Reclining Poses, the Handstanding Poses and the Sitting Poses. Then within these five groups he presents the five positions of the spine: Straight, Bending Forward, Bending Backward, Bending Sideways and Twisting.
There are other methods of classification, some are atypical (according to the chakra they activate) and some are much more sophisticated (eg. Yoga, Tradition of Unification by Andrey Lappa). However, each method offers a fresh perspective and provides deeper insight into the beautiful nature of yoga.
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