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What is Yoga?
The word Yoga comes from the Sanskrit yuj meaning yoke or bind, often translated as ‘union’: the union of mind, body and breath; of heaven and earth; of all beings and nature.
Yoga classes, here in the West, tend to focus on the practice of postures (asana), shapes we create with our bodies which combine physical alignment with mental alertness and awareness of breath.
These practices not only strengthen and tone our muscles and increase flexibility around the joints, but also boost the flow of healing energy (prana) through energy channels (nadis) which nourishes us on all levels.
In addition, by gently turning our awareness inwards towards our bodies and breath, we allow the endless chatter of our restless minds to gradually quieten, settling into a relaxed but focused attention: an embodied meditative presence.
But remember: yoga, in whichever form, is a practice not an outcome.
Frequently Asked Questions
Not at all. Yoga will help to address all of these issues. Start wherever you are and enjoy progress at your own pace. It is non-competitive, so there’s no need to compare or be compared with others.
No. Yoga is beneficial for almost any condition if practiced appropriately. One-to-one sessions may be advisable and a well-trained teacher should be able to safely accommodate most students’ needs through the use of modifications/alternatives. There are also specialist classes such as pre and post natal yoga, gentle yoga, remedial yoga, restorative yoga etc. It is important that any injuries/conditions are discussed with the teacher prior to practice.
No, you can eat anything you like, although some may discover over time that their desire for unhealthy food diminishes. It is advisable to avoid heavy food for at least two hours before a practice.
Not necessarily. Plenty of ‘yogis’ display inauthentic, insincere or dysfunctional behaviours. However there is an ethical/moral philosophy which accompanies the teachings and which advocates kindness, honesty, integrity, graciousness and humility amongst other things.
Yoga is a philosophy which does not require devotion to any deity or leader. The purpose of yoga, beyond health and well-being, is to experience a deeper state of consciousness in order to gain understanding. Some choose to follow a ‘guru’, although I have always been wary of guru worship myself!
Yoga differs from other types of physical exercise as it is non-competitive and meditative in its nature, emphasising the connection of mind, body and breath in order to affect not only the physical body, but also our subtler experiences of mind and emotion.
Expect to make different shapes with your body, working on stretching and strengthening various muscle groups, improving breathing, balance and co-ordination. Depending on which style of yoga you practice, it will be either relaxing or physically demanding. Often a combination of both.
A yoga session should be something that you enjoy, not endure. So try out a few different classes and experiment. Many teachers blend different styles into their own form. Find someone who is qualified and experienced and who exudes qualities that you respect.
Stretchy comfortable clothing, preferably a couple of layers: you may get hot and sweaty, you may also feel cold during the relaxation. Bare feet.
I find it makes me feel calm and relaxed, clear and grounded. Sometimes strong and energised and sometimes quiet and sleepy, depending on how and when I practice.
A Brief Background
Around the 2nd or 3rd century AD yoga was organised into a system: the Yoga Sutras. According to this classic text, the practice of asana (postures) – the bit most people think of as yoga – represents only a small part of the whole, and was originally intended simply as a preparation for meditation and the accompanying possibility of enlightenment.
This practice is intended to be supported by 10 guidelines for living, the most important being ‘ahimsa’, compassion for all living things (including ourselves). These guidelines form the foundations for our practice, guiding our awareness to our relationship with ourselves, others, and to the choices we make in all areas of our lives – not just on the yoga mat.
But this is by no means the definitive system of yoga. In fact it belongs to the path of raja yoga which emphasises meditation as the route to enlightenment, through the physical body (asana/ postures) and its energies (pranayama /the breath). Hatha, Iyengar, Ashtanga, Kundalini, Yin and Vinyasa yogas all follow this path.
There are also the paths of Karma yoga (enlightenment through service), Bhakti yoga (through emotional devotion – singing, dancing and chanting) and Jnana yoga (through the knowledge and wisdom of the mind).
Enlightenment is said to manifest as the experience of unity with the entire universe. Good luck with that 😉