Postures Versus Poses
19 June 2023
Over the past few years, at the Devon School of Yoga, we have consciously dropped the word 'pose' from our teaching vocabulary and the learning materials we provide for our courses. The interpretation of the Sanskrit term āsana as 'pose' has become increasingly ubiquitous and almost universal in the yoga world (e.g. padmāsana as 'lotus pose', vīrāsana as 'hero pose'). However, we believe this interpretation is neither semantically correct nor aligned with the principles of yoga we hold dear.
When we investigate the meaning of the term āsana, the Monier-Williams Sanskrit dictionary provides an assortment of translations:
āsana n. sitting, sitting down
sitting in a peculiar posture according to the custom of devotees (five or, in other places, even eighty-four postures are enumerated; i.e. padmāsana, bhadrāsana, vajrāsana, vīrāsana, svastikāsana: the manner of sitting forming part of the eightfold observances of ascetics)
halting, stopping, encamping,
seat, place, stool,
(Monier-Williams 1986 :159, emphasis added).
'Pose' is not included within this broad-ranging definition. Monier-Williams does, however, use the term 'posture' as in 'sitting in a peculiar posture' and 'eighty-four postures'. Within the yoga tradition itself, Patañjali's Yogaśāstra offers a succinct definition of āsana: "Motionless and agreeable form of staying is āsana (yogic posture)" (2.46, Hariharānanda 1981:228). The Haṭhapradīpikā introduces āsana as the first part of haṭhayoga and features fifteen key āsanas - bestowing "physical and mental stability, good health and a lightness of the body" (1.17, Maheshananda & Sharma 2021:76). Most authoritative translations of these works render the term āsana as 'posture', meaning 'a particular position of the body' (Oxford Dictionary of English (ODE) 2010:1389). Yogic postures are usually accompanied by contemplative breathwork and are held for varying lengths of time. An āsana is thus an external structure that facilitates an internal practice of prāṇāyāma and meditation and is an auxiliary component of yoga's wider soteriological framework.
The term 'pose', however, means something quite different from 'posture' and lends āsana a new meaning quite at odds with its yogic application. The Oxford Dictionary of English defines the noun 'pose' as:
"1) a way of standing or sitting, especially in order to be photographed, painted or drawn. 2) a particular way of behaving adopted in order to impress or to give a false impression" (ODE 2010:1385)
The verb 'to pose' is defined as "[to] assume a particular position in order to be photographed, painted or drawn" (ODE 2010:1385). A 'pose' is thus an artificial construct, and the act of posing involves self-conscious affectation for the benefit of observation by third parties. The term 'poser' is cognate with 'poseur' and has a pejorative connotation of someone who is a bit of a show-off. If an āsana is a pose, then āsana practitioners could therefore be termed 'poseurs', and āsana teachers regarded as teachers of poses to other poseurs.
On social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, users photograph and film various āsanas and create images that are typically used for entertainment, advertising and self-promotion. Within this context, describing an āsana as a pose is reasonably accurate because the āsana is performed for the visual consumption of others. However, in the context of yoga as an ontological practice of physical, mental and spiritual development, an āsana is definitely not practised in this way. There is no pose because there is no third party. Yoga is not a spectator sport or a photo opportunity. It is a profoundly personal process of self-enquiry and inner awareness. The interpretation of āsana as 'pose' is an erroneous translation incongruent with the objectives of yogic practice. Although the word 'posture' can also be used performatively in some instances, such as in 'posturing' - '[to] adopt a particular attitude', the more common usage as a 'position of the body' is undoubtedly a more fitting translation of the term āsana than 'pose' (OED 2010:1389).
The vocabulary we use is important, especially when communicating concepts from the Sanskrit language. As yoga educators, we believe that it is paramount to provide our students with the most accurate information available, to lead by example and to uphold the principles of yoga in every aspect of teaching.
Hariharānanda, Ā. 1982. Yoga Philosophy of Patañjali. New York: SUNY.
Maheshananda, S & Sharma, B.R. 2021. Jyotsnā - Brahmānanda's Commentary on Haṭhapradīpikā. Lonavla: Kaivalyadhama.
Mohan, A.G. & Mohan, G. 2017. Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā. India: Svastha Yoga.
Monier-Williams, M. 1986 . A Sanskrit-English dictionary: Etymologically and philologically arranged with special reference to Cognate indo-european languages. Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass.
Oxford Dictionary of English. 3rd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
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