The Importance of Direction in the Asana Practice

by Ram
Venice, Looking East from Guidecca, Sunrise by J.M.W. Turner
The early yogis were influenced by nature, the environment, and what was all around them, and they used this information to name most of the yoga poses. In most cases there is logic behind the Sanskrit naming system. In addition to animals, birds, or sages, some yoga poses have the directions “west” or “east” attached to them. Have you ever wondered about why these directions and their significance? This article will focus on the direction west (paschima), which is seen, for example, in the poses Paschimottanasana and Jathara Urdhva Mukha Paschimottanasana.

In my post Brahma Muhurta (The Ambrosial Hours), I discussed how the time between 4:00 and 7:00 am, approximately two hours before sunrise (near the equator), was the most auspicious time for achieving knowledge and awareness of true self. Both the ayurvedic and yoga texts emphasize the immense benefits of these timings to the body and mind for various practices, including scriptural studies, mantra recitation, and chanting, and practicing silent meditation (dhyana), deep concentration (dharana), or breath practices (pranayama). At this hour the mind is clear and calm and is therefore a perfect setting for the above mentioned practices. In addition, the qualities of air and ether dominate at this time of day, and purity and lightness provide the perfect setting for meditation, prayer, chanting, and other spiritual practices. Being awake and alert at this time helps to minimize all kind of distractions and sensory inputs. Back in India, temples would open their doors at this time to encourage people to start their spiritual activities so that they receive maximum benefits. 

My grandfather used to start his morning routines during the Brahma Muhurta time and end his practices with yoga asanas. All this was done in the open courtyard outside the home. My grandfather would be seated on a simple coir mat facing the eastern horizon (sunrise). By the time he completed his mental exercises and reached the asana part, he would catch the first glimpse of the sun rays. By the time he completed his asana practice, the sun would have risen fully on the eastern horizon. When an individual is seated facing the sun in the morning, the front part of the body (anterior) faces the sunlight. The back side of the body (posterior) is sort of the shadow region and gets directly exposed to the sun rays only when a person bends forward. 

In asana names, the Sanskrit word “pachima” refers to the western part of the body (back side) when facing the sun. Other yoga poses with the word “paschima” in them include: Urdhva Mukha Paschimottanasana, Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana and Triang Mukhaikapada Paschimottanasana. When all these poses are performed in the morning facing the eastern horizon, the back of the body becomes the western side and the forward bend you take in them exposes your back to the sun. If those same asanas were performed in the evening while still facing the eastern horizon, the forward bend exposes the back side directly to the setting sun rays in the west. Thus, while you are facing the east, your entire back side (paschima) can get exposed either to the rising or setting sun. 

In the Hindu tradition, facing the eastern direction has its own importance. Like Yoga and Ayurveda, Vastu Shastra is the Vedic system of design and architecture. According to Vastu science, east is the governing direction of the solar deity, from where all positive energy gets directed to the earth. East is recognized to bring good luck, peace, prosperity, harmony, and good health. It is for this reason that the main deity in the temples or at homes is kept facing west, so when you sit to pray facing the deities, you are facing the east. Similarly, having the home entrance facing the eastern horizon brings a lot of good fortune to the family.

You may wonder if the benefits from such poses are lost if we are not facing the east when we practice, especially in a studio setting. In my humble opinion, if you are not practicing in ab open space, you may only lose some benefits in the form of the sunlight and the synthesis of vitamin D. But the health benefits from a yoga practice will still prevail. According to BKS Iyengar, the benefits of these forward bends are numerous. He suggests that these poses calm the brain and helps relieve stress and mild depression, stretch the spine, shoulders, and hamstrings, stimulates the abdominal organs, including liver, kidneys, ovaries, and uterus, improves digestion, and helps relieve the symptoms of menopause and menstrual discomfort. So, I would not get hung up on the direction issue. However, if you get a chance, do perform the asanas facing the eastern sun and notice if it makes a difference. When I visited UCLA last year, I took the opportunity to attend few beach yoga classes in Santa Monica. Facing the eastern horizon (the Angeles forest range) and doing the poses early morning did bring a lot of subtle changes to my brain, mind, and emotions. 

Furthermore, you may also wonder why other poses that not only allow the back side to be exposed directly to the sun but also causes the intense stretch of the back do not have the direction paschima=west in them. For example, Uttanasana (Intense Forward-Bending Pose, Intense Stretch Pose, Standing Forward Bend, Standing Forward Fold Pose, or Standing Head to Knees Pose) when done facing the eastern horizon exposes the back to the sun and also stretches the back, yet it does not have “paschima” in the name. I checked the literature and did not find any suitable answer. I guess it is like asking why apples are named apples and not banana or oranges. So, I would not attach too much importance to the name; instead, I would look to the benefits associated with the pose, which, of course, can still be practiced while facing east.

Based on the ancient Vedic texts and other anecdotal reports, it appears that facing the eastern sun while performing the asanas facilitates mental detoxification and clarity, which in turn enables you to achieve a deeper meditative state and sustain a healthy life. 

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