Written by Katie Spiers
Previously published on Australian Yoga Life magazine March-July 2008 Issue no.20. Visit Australian Yoga Life at www.ayl.com.au.
Each of us will come to yoga for different reasons, many having hears about the benefits of increased flexibility, strength and muscle tone to name a few. Yoga practice helps to nourish, cleanse and invigorate the body – improving posture and muscular structure, revitalising the circulatory system and internal organs, improving digestion, stimulating the endocrine system and strengthening the immune system. The therapeutic application of yoga can ease ailments such as arthritis, back pain and digestive problems as well as strengthening the reproductive system and alleviating stress and related symptoms.
Developing flexibility and strength in the body is a wonderful benefit from practising yoga, but in time you will also notice benefits far beyond your physical body, leading to an inner sense of wholeness, a feeling of greater balance. Yoga means union – a joining or integrating of all aspects of the individual – body with mind and mind with spirit. As a non-religious practice, yoga is ultimately a tool for working towards a better understanding of the self, working through blockages and tightness in the body and learning to appreciate aspects of ourselves we have not previously been aware of. Yoga is about cultivating acceptance of ourselves in a balanced way. It is a powerful tool for mind, body and spirit.
Yoga teaches patience in a world where we expect instant results. Regular practice on whatever level, even for short periods can provide stability and consistency in a world of constant change. In times of upheaval, our yoga practice can be the grounding constant that helps keep us focused.
Your practice will ebb and flow with your moods, affected by such things as energy levels and hormonal balance. Over time you will learn how yoga can help you get in touch with what is going on in your body. With regular practice you will wake up in the morning having a sense of what your body needs that day to maintain balance. On low energy days a gentle restorative practice with lots of resting postures and relaxation is appropriate. On days when you need a pick-me-up instead of a cup of coffee, an energising practice including inversions and dynamic pranayama (breathing exercises) is helpful. This is where yoga can help with issues such as depression, insomnia or chronic fatigue.
Many of us in modern society are over- achievers by nature and we don’t like to go back to the beginning with something and not be so ‘good’ at it. Yoga is an opportunity to opt out of competition and relax about what we are able and unable to do on any particular day. The beauty of yoga is that we always move deeper just by doing the practice. Each day becomes a creative process in itself.
Yoga is a practice for everyone, but different styles of yoga vary enormously, so in the beginning we have to work towards developing a method that suits us. Beginning to practice yoga takes a little perseverance and researching until you find a style and a teacher that you connect with. This means working with and openly embracing a few different schools, styles and teachers until you find something that works for you. A 65 year old with a hip replacement will need a very different practice from that of a 22 year old athlete, but both will find great challenges and benefits in yoga. As the old saying goes “when the student is ready the teacher will come”. Ask yourself what draws you to yoga, then choose a school which offers those kinds of teachings. Often the right teacher will come along at the right time, but here are a few of the more common schools or styles of yoga which you may want to investigate:
DIFFERENT FORMS OF YOGA
In Australia, as in other Western countries, the most familiar and commonly taught form of yoga is hatha yoga. Although ‘hatha yoga’ traditionally referred to a whole range of physical practices these days the term is the popular label for the postures, movements and breathing practices which are the most familiar face of yoga in our society. Each of the styles listed below comes under the umbrella of hatha yoga.
Hatha yoga is only one part of the Sivananda tradition, which also includes chanting, meditation and study of the Vedic scriptures. The Sivananda organization has many ashrams (yogic retreat centres) all over the world which offer excellent programmes for beginners.
Swami Satyananda, the founder of the style that bears his name, was a disciple of Swami Sivananda, so the two styles have many similarities. Satyananda classes are gentle, with a careful progression, and are good for those wanting to start with a softer practice or people working with injury or physical limitations. Other special features of Satyananda yoga are the long guided relaxations at the end of every beginners class and the inclusion of regular sitting meditations as students progress to higher levels.
Ashtanga is a very dynamic practice based on the teachings of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. Students follow a set series of poses at each level. There are six series, but only relatively advanced practitioners get beyond even the primary series. All poses are linked by flowing movements and the whole practice flows on the breath.
This style focuses on postural alignment and precision, usually involving holding poses for longer periods of time, and often using a number of props such as bolsters, straps and blocks, to facilitate better alignment and support in the postures. It is based on the teachings of BKS Iyengar.
Bikram yoga was designed by Yogiraj Bikram Choudhury. The practice is done in a room heated to 37 degrees Celsius, which is designed to increase flexibility, minimise muscle strain and assist detoxification.
You will find many benefits in attending just one yoga class if you listen to your body. Don’t worry if in the beginning it is difficult to practise regularly; build slowly on your practice so it becomes sustainable. There’s no point burning out and having to stop altogether. When you are ready to start practising regularly try to attend a class regularly once a week.
For long term benefits and real changes to the energetic and physical form of the body, it is ideal if you can practice every day, or at least three times a week. Little and often is a useful framework in the beginning. An hour’s practice at home may seem daunting, so 15 minutes is fine; set yourself something manageable. You’ll be surprised how time goes as you begin to practise for longer periods. Start to ask questions of your body and see how you respond to different postures, timings and approaches to practising. Practising yoga is not just a physical work out. You are working with your body’s energy and gradually the practice will draw you in.
Over time as your asana practice deepens you may notice more of a desire to explore the roots of yoga, the spiritual and philosophical background. This usually happens as a progressive part of deepening one’s practice; as we practise the postures questions come up about the remarkable effects of yoga. One text that helps us deepen our understanding of yoga as a whole is Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras an ancient text in which yoga practices and guidelines were first written down. The yoga sutras outline three principal aspects of the yoga tradition:
Bhakti is the practice of devotion. Bhakti yoga is really practised in any tradition where there is a longing for knowing God (in whatever form you perceive God to be), or a sense of devotion in your practice. Bhakti yoga practices include any form of devotional ritual, such as a Hindu or Buddhist puja (devotional practice) or even a Christian mass. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Hari Krishna) is one example of a Bhakti movement with ancient origins.
Jnana Yoga, the yoga of wisdom and knowledge, is the aspect of yoga which perhaps relates most directly to the Western mind set, dealing with the aspect of inquiry into the true nature of reality. This is accomplished through contemplative meditation. Jnana Yoga is the development of wisdom through opening the heart – true wisdom does not come from knowledge alone.
Karma yoga is the yoga of positive action. This means working for the greater good, and could be demonstrated by volunteering spare time to a charity organization or working in some way for the community you live in. Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa are well known karma yogis.
Patanjali also wrote of the eight-limbed path, the ‘steps’ toward enlightenment for a yogi. The ancient sages were very fond of creating steps and methods to explain the practices of yoga.
The eight-limbs of yoga are:
Yama: ethical disciplines, guidelines for living
Niyama: personal observances of self-purification
Asana: the physical postures, a combination of physical alignment and mental awareness
Pranayama: breath control
Pratyahara: internalised awareness by sense withdrawal
Dharana: single pointed focus (for example by focus on the breath)
Dhyana: meditation, arising as a consequence of the practice of dharana
Samadhi: bliss consciousness, the path to enlightenment, an experience of unity with universal spirit.
In the beginning letting go in your own practice is most important – not over intellectualising or trying to understand everything instantly. Just doing the practice is the first step. Once you have found a school you like, start to work with your practice. Find sequences that serve your needs and try them at home.
The beginning is always a time of experimentation, so try to cultivate an open mind. Value your beginner’s mind; it is a precious tool for enquiry! When you have a regular practice there are many books you can read to further your knowledge. The lineage of past teachers is great; their teachings can help you immeasurably in your quest to understand yoga.