When contemplating a Yoga practice, it helps to first have an understanding of what yoga really is and what you expect to receive from it in return, which will guide you towards the type of yoga you would like to take up.
The word ‘yoga’ is Sanskrit for yoke or union; so meaning the union of the mind, body and spirit. Some may turn to yoga simply for the physical practice, the asanas. They are an extremely good, all-round form of exercise. They are strengthening, create greater flexibility, muscle tone, require balance and focus and can even be cardiovascular in nature. Many can be deceived that yoga is simply about stretching and that you’d never break a sweat, but those that have attended an Ashtanga or Bikram Yoga class might say otherwise. Even a pose held for a long time in a deeper class such as Yin or Zen Yoga can create heat and may cause you to be needing to mop your brow… Hatha yoga is a description of the physical aspect of yoga: ‘ha’ meaning the sun or the masculine aspects of ourselves and ‘tha’ meaning the moon, or our feminine aspects. So, Hatha yoga is the balancing and blending of the masculine and feminine that comes from a physical practice. Nowadays, Hatha yoga is also used as a description of a gentler form of yoga.
But, that is simply the physical aspect of yoga. Yoga was initially devised as a spiritual practice and first mentioned in the Upanishads, written in early India, 2500 years ago. Patanjali then wrote of the meditation side of yoga in the sutras 200-300BC, calling it the ‘Science of the Mind’, devised to help to bring about almost an altered state, to allow one to meditate more easily. The pranayama (breath work) exercises can bring clarity, allowing one to release anything being held in the body, on a physical, mental and an emotional level, so allowing the prana (life force) to be able to flow more easily. The way we breathe affects the autonomous nervous system; mindful breathing is activated in the cerebral cortex and by slowing our breathing down we can reduce blood pressure and the heart rate, producing feelings of calmness, stability and well-being. Following the practise of pranayama you can feel uplifted and elated, as well as being able to breathe more easily, and it can even relieve pain. Pranayama in combination with bandhas (or locks) also strengthens the abdominal muscles and diaphragm, as well as internal systems, aiding the digestion and pelvic floor muscles.
Kriya exercises, as taught by Paramahansa Yogananda, who was responsible for bringing yoga to the West, is the practice of internally cleansing the system either with breath work, salt water or cloth. The exercises clear you entirely physically which allows an energetic clearing, enabling you to reach a higher state of mind. Every orifice and channel that can be reached is cleansed, purifying from the toxins that build up, so that we can ‘start again’ as if we were newly born, with the intention of then keeping our systems pure and clear.
Coming back to the physical asana practice, it’s designed to release blockages in the nadis, or flows of energy, in the body. This is to prepare us for meditation, clearing the energetic system so the energy flows more easily and we won’t be distracted by a ‘blockage’ or issue on the way. We are then better able to reach a higher or transcendent state of mind and luxuriate in the bliss of our meditation. It just so happens that yoga makes us feel physically and mentally really good and can heal our body of physical issues, which is a convenient by-product! By keeping up a practice you find that you change; your habits change in that you no longer feel a need to have that beer or glass of wine on a Friday and you generally feel calmer and more peaceful. Eating habits may change too; you may be drawn more towards ‘higher vibrational’ foods such as fruit, salads, vegetables and pulses and less of the lower vibrational food such as meat and dairy.
When my children were very small I couldn’t commit to a yoga class so I found following a video suited my needs, finding one I liked still being very important. I had discovered meditation a few years previously, but it wasn’t until moving to Glastonbury and joining a spiritual yoga class that I even realised the two were connected. I had a busy job as a teaching assistant in a primary school and, with the demands of a family and a job, I was unable to continue with the classes. I wanted to do some exercise, tried running and found myself doing some yoga stretches to prepare for my run. So, I got the video out again, ditched the running and soon settled into a routine of getting up an hour earlier each day to do some yoga postures. It certainly beat running outside in the cold and also meant I got use of the shower first too! I soon found no need to follow the video, preferring to go with my own flow and the asanas my body felt it needed. I then discovered that rather than relaxing after the physical practice, I naturally wanted to sit in meditation for ten minutes or so, finding the ‘bliss’ state more easily than I’d been able to before. It got me through the day feeling mentally and physically prepared, despite having an hour’s less sleep. I gave myself weekends ‘off’, saving my practice for the working week. School holidays were tricky too as I wasn’t at work but my children were around. I might sneak in the occasional treat of some asanas or a brief meditation but it was quite rare.
It was the development of my own practice and discovering its benefits that encouraged me to be a yoga teacher. I ran a yoga after-school club for a few years, doing some simple asanas and relaxation with the children, and really realised it was what I wanted to do. Eventually, it was the encouragement of my husband and being left some money by his Aunty Jean (who had been a yoga teacher herself very briefly) that allowed me to leave my job and take my 200 hours teacher training course with Zenways.
Once a certified yoga teacher, I thought I needed to practise every day to be the ‘real deal’. Indeed it became almost addictive, as can a lot of exercise, the ‘high’ of the endorphins being released into the system keeping us at it, plus the aforementioned added benefits of yoga. And then I got ‘flu and was wiped out for a week. I believe ’flu is a clear out of the system too, preparing us for better things to come, a really extreme form of Kriya! After that, I was kinder to myself, realising the state I’d worked myself into.
It is how we approach our yoga mat that is important, as with anything in life, practising because we want to, rather than because we believe we should. There is no harm in having a ‘fallow’ period, in fact it is important that we do, because we can learn just as much about ourselves as we can when in the midst of our practice. Also, remembering that yoga is not just about the asanas; it incorporates focus on our breath and correct breathing, the Kriya, the delicious and restful Yoga Nidra or yogic sleep plus the power of visualisation: we can visualise a posture and it will be 80% as effective as physically doing it.
Yoga is a philosophy, a state of mind. I remembered a story I had been told by my yoga teacher: a yogi in India, unable to practise postures due to a physical problem, kept up his pranayama and kriya exercises and, after seven years, on returning to postures again, found he was just as supple as he had been seven years earlier and practising every day. So, listening to our bodies and minds, understanding ourselves and, above all, being as kind to ourselves as we like to think we can be to others, is a far better way to develop our yoga journey.