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Millions of people around the world practice Yoga every day, and in the West (and increasingly in the East) this largely means they are following a regime of exercise, stretching and relaxation. This is great of course – physical health is very important. However, champions of “traditional” Yoga would say that Yoga can offer much more than flexibility and a figure for Spandex – they talk of the Big notions of liberation and enlightenment. Say what??!
It may come as a surprise, but Yoga is actually a spiritual tradition, which seeks to bestow happiness and inner freedom rather than health and flexibility on its practitioners. When most people speak about “Yoga” these days they are really referring to “asana” (yoga postures), which is only one component of a true Yoga practice. Perhaps disappointingly, the asanas may be considered the easy part of Yoga – but then again, the benefits bestowed by asana of health and fitness (while pretty good in themselves) are eclipsed by the benefits that can be gained by delving deeper into the practice of Yoga.
If tackling the Big notions appeals to you, read on….
The word Yoga in Sanskrit is often translated as “union”. This refers to the union of the human soul with the Supreme Spirit (or God, or Goddess or the Universe – whatever appeals to you and your personal belief system), to attain enlightenment. Enlightenment is the capacity to experience reality directly without the intervention and distortion of mental constructs.
Around 2000 years ago an Indian scholar named Patanjali wrote a text called the Yoga Sutras, which is widely considered to be the foundation of classical Yoga theory and practice. In this work, Patanjali investigates the mind, the way we normally use it, and the way we experience ourselves and the world. He explains that our minds do not see reality as it really is; instead we see reality through the projection of personal preference. This means that our thoughts fall into two main categories – “I like it” and “I don’t like it”. We filter every perception through our own polarity of attraction or avoidance.
The problem with this way of using our minds, is that it is the root cause of a great deal of suffering. It prevents us from seeing our true nature, as one with the universe. It takes a great deal of self-discipline to put this way of thinking aside and see reality objectively. Life becomes simpler, richer, and more “in the moment” when we opt for reality instead of projection.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras give us the tools to free ourselves from the compulsions of an ordinary mind, in the form of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. The Eight Limbs are set out in a numbered list because they are steps in a sequential path to elevated growth, like climbing a ladder. These Eight Limbs are:
- Yama (ethics)
- Niyama (clear mental state)
- Asana (postures – the one we know and love)
- Pranayama (conscious breathing)
- Pratyahara (mindful sense experience)
- Dharana (concentration – contemplation)
- Dhyana (still-mind meditation)
- Samadhi (understanding enlightenment)
Yamas are ethical principles that should be followed if we intend to connect with ourselves, the Universe and the Spirit. The five universal moral principles mentioned by Patanjali are non-violence, truth, non-stealing, self-control and non-coveting.
Niyamas are observances that help us move towards our goal of liberation. The aim is self-purification through discipline, but it is not about making oneself more virtuous than other people.
Asanas are postures to create physical wellness and eliminate restlessness, to help facilitate an undisturbed meditation. They are also used as a tool of self-discovery, in that they challenge you to confront yourself. Mastery of form is not the ultimate goal – don’t approach your mat with the aim of “getting” that difficult pose. Instead, during each pose try to find a place inside yourself where your whole being is awakened, where you allow and accept all feelings and emotions. The challenge is to avoid disempowering yourself by interacting with the mental noise in your head – those thoughts that you aren’t doing it right or aren’t strong enough to hold the pose. Allow the fears and feelings to arise and let them go, rather than resisting them. Accept totally what is and what is not. Drop all judgement, just simply acknowledge what is.
Pranayama is the rhythmic control of breathing. It is a meditative discipline, in that the aim is to achieve a stronger and more stable sense of self. It’s just an added bonus that it also strengthens the muscles of the respiratory system and reduces stress.
Pratyahara is sometimes described as a withdrawal of the mind from the senses, but it is more about not projecting our preferences onto the world, and not creating a world in our head that doesn’t exist in reality. It creates a sense of inner tranquillity, which is an appropriate base for a meditation practice.
Dharana is training the mind in complete attention. It is also a recognition that objects are empty of the significance and structure that we think defines them.
Dhyana is still-mind meditation, which is not about visualisation or a pleasant relaxation. Rather, it is attempting to slow the thought waves of the mind to a stop – it is a very disciplined practice of “no thought”. With no thought, there is no notion of “me”. The constant activity of the mind must stop, for enlightenment to start.
Samadhi is a state of altered awareness that comes from the effort made in the previous seven areas. It is a state of unutterable peace and joy (sounds good, doesn’t it?) that is experienced when one’s individual consciousness is reunited with the One consciousness.
The Yoga Sutras are not religious doctrines and Yoga itself is not a religion. Although Yoga has long been associated with the three great religious-cultural traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, it is not necessary for a Yoga practitioner to believe in anything other than their own potential to transform themselves and transcend the ego. Yoga can put us in touch with our spiritual core and be used to deepen whatever personal faith we have, if we so wish.
I hope that next time you are on your mat, you might approach your practice with some of this information in mind. If this is all new for you and it has sparked an interest in the traditional moorings of Yoga, I highly recommend reading any of the vast number of translations and commentaries that are available on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. I great one that I can recommend is “True Yoga” by Jennie Lee, which I picked up from Watkins Books in London last time I was there, or anything by Georg Feuerstein, a huge proponent of traditional Yoga.
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I attended my first yoga class when I was 18 years old after signing up for an 8-week beginner’s course. I went along with my Mum because I was really self-conscious at that age, and reluctant to turn up anywhere on my own.
As a slightly rotund school leaver, emerging from my chrysalis of gruelling exams as an inactive slug rather than a beautiful butterfly, I had heard that yoga was good for losing weight and wanted to see what it was all about.
I dabbled with yoga on and off for the next 15 years or so, using the foundations I learnt during that course to slip in and out of classes without sticking to a regular practice. I have been a yoga tourist of sorts, attending classes whenever I’m on holiday in various locations and collecting t-shirts from the different studios. I literally have “been there and got the t-shirt”. These days I’ve been reading about yoga philosophy (stay tuned for my next article for more about this!) and am starting to understand that yoga is about more than just stretching and wearing the latest leggings. It is actually a physical, mental and spiritual practice with benefits far outreaching flexibility and strength (haha, out-reaching… get it?!). This has got me thinking about committing to my practice, and working out what sort of yoga I really want to pursue.
So, if you’re like me, a budding yogi or yogini, how do you choose a class that suits your lifestyle and philosophy? There is a myriad of yoga styles around these days, and although many are based on the same asanas (yoga poses) the classes can be vastly different. I’d like to share with you some of the knowledge I’ve picked up through personal experience as well as from my books to help you work out where to begin. Read on for a list of popular yoga styles.
Hatha Yoga: an umbrella-term for yoga styles that use a physical practice as a method of achieving enlightenment. Since the term “hatha” is used so broadly these days, it’s difficult to know what type of class you’re walking into. In most cases the class will be relatively slow (so the poses are held for longer) and gentle (good for beginners or those looking for a relaxed style). In general, hatha emphasises the yoga postures as well as breathing exercises, so provides a good mixture of strength and relaxation on a physical and mental level. The word “hatha” is sometimes translated to “ha” meaning sun and “tha” meaning moon, so it is about balancing and uniting opposites. Classical hatha classes are devoid of music, incense burning or acrobatic poses. Expect to get a little sweaty but not be completely worn out.
Vinyasa: this is also a general term for a collection of yoga styles. A class described as a “flow” class is a vinyasa style. This is an energetic style because the poses come in rapid succession and there is an emphasis on synchronising the breath with the movement. Sun salutations are often a feature.
Ashtanga Vinyasa: this style is based on an ancient text called the Korunta, and was developed by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. There are 6 Ashtanga series (set of poses carried out in a specific sequence) which increase in intensity. Linking movement to breath is emphasised. Power, flexibility and discipline are key to this style. If push-ups aren’t for you, then neither is this fast-paced style. If you are up to the challenge, the benefits are physical and mental strength and calmness.
Power Yoga: a fitness-based offshoot of Ashtanga yoga, developed in the US by Beryl Bender Birch and Bryan Kest. It is vigorous style that will raise a sweat and increase strength, stamina and flexibility. It doesn’t follow a fixed sequence of poses; instead, the individual teacher designs their own sequences and the class can be even faster paced than traditional Ashtanga. Today, the term “power yoga” can describe many vigorous vinyasa styles.
Bikram Yoga: founded in India by Bikram Choudhury and seemingly taking over the world! Regardless of which Bikram class you walk into, the next 90 minutes will see you guided through the same sequence of 26 poses and 2 breathing exercises, in a room heated to 40°C with a humidity of 40%. The teachers even have a standardized dialogue to follow. The idea is that the heat promotes flexibility, speeds up your metabolism and flushes toxins. It is certainly challenging physically and mentally, and you may feel light-headed during your first class or two, but afterwards you’ll feel exhilarated. If you suffer from any major medical conditions, it’s not a class to be taken without your doctor’s say so. Remember to hydrate before, during and after! The Bikram phenomenon has led to the creation of “hot yoga” which is a class done in a heated room (not always as warm as 40°C) but without following the strict Bikram series. This can be really lovely for deepening your stretches if you’re a cold frog like me. A special hello to the lovely ladies at Hot Zen Yoga, Gerrards Cross, who were very welcoming when I was a tourist up their way.
Iyengar Yoga: this style was developed by the late B.K.S. Iyengar, an extremely influential Indian guru. Iyengar places a large emphasis on accurate musculoskeletal alignment, so a pose will be held for some time while you carefully adjust your body to achieve perfect positioning. Hence this style is much slower, but not necessarily easier, than other styles. Iyengar yoga utilises props such as blocks, straps, blankets or bolsters. The aim of this style is improvement in overall physical health. It is said to be helpful for tension and chronic pain.
Anusara Yoga: a relatively new style of yoga meaning “follow your heart”. Based on the hatha style, it was developed in the US by John Friend. The classes are energetic and importance is placed on precise alignment within the poses, so expect to get sweaty. With this style rooted in non-dual Tantric philosophy, you will find an emphasis on the greater spiritual purposes of the practice. The heart-space is a key theme, with many “heart-opening” poses. Classes begin with an invocation or centering and conclude with Savasana and/or meditation. The aim is for students to leave stronger, more flexible, and feeling uplifted and empowered by revelation of their divine nature.
Sivananda Yoga: a form of hatha yoga developed by the late Swami Sivananda in India. The five principles of this type of yoga are proper exercise, proper breathing, proper relaxation, proper diet (vegetarian), and positive thinking / meditation. There are 12 poses in this style, and they focus on developing strength and flexibility of the spine.
Kundalini Yoga: this is quite a unique form of yoga. Its main aim is to awaken the sleeping consciousness (the energy at the base of the spine) and draw it upwards through each of the 7 chakras to release a powerful, positive life force. This is achieved through movements like twisting, rocking, singing, humming, jumping and wheezing. The movements are often repeated for minutes at a time and are synchronised with the breath. It leaves you feeling like you’ve had a fairly decent workout, and is said to be helpful for back injuries, insomnia, and concentration. It’s even said to lead to enlightenment.
Yin Yoga: if you’re familiar with the principle of yin and yang in Chinese philosophy, you’ll understand that yin is passive and feminine while yang is active and masculine. Yin yoga therefore is about passive stretches and introspection, in contrast to styles like Ashtanga and Bikram which promote heat and motion. The aim of yin yoga is to achieve deep stretching and move into deep relaxation. This is done by placing moderate levels of stress on your connective tissues to improve circulation to your joints and muscles. You won’t find strenuous poses such as sun salutations. Rather, many of the poses are performed sitting or lying, and are held for 3 to 5 minutes (not always easy!). This is a lovely relaxing form of yoga but not without its challenges.
Nidra Yoga: the aim of this style of yoga is to achieve the deepest possible state of relaxation whilst maintaining full consciousness. Your teacher will not guide you through any poses, but rather they guide your attention through different parts of your body and through a series of visualisations and emotions while you lie completely still. This form of yoga is amazing for reducing stress and anxiety (and can even be helpful for serious conditions such as PTSD) and is said to enable you to enter deeper levels of your mind’s consciousness. The hardest part is trying not to fall asleep while you are so deliciously relaxed.
Needless to say, this is not an exhaustive list of yoga styles. You may also have heard about kids yoga, pregnancy yoga, chair yoga, laughter yoga, acro-yoga, restorative yoga…. Phew!
Nothing can replace the guidance of an expert yoga teacher, so it is highly recommended that you join a local class to develop your yoga practice. However, for practice at home there are excellent free resources available online, such as the very comprehensive Canadian-based DoYogaWithMe (www.doyogawithme.com).
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