Yoga is a global mass movement practiced by more and more people worldwide. We look at what the physical aspect of yoga has to offer and why everyone is getting hooked. We also explain some of the principles behind the practice from asanas to pranayama.
Millions of people around the world use hatha yoga as a daily practice. As India's Prime Minister, Narendra Modi says, 'Yoga embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfillment; harmony between man and nature; and a holistic approach to health and well being.' In its essence, yoga is both a physical and spiritual practice and has many meanings, interpretations and practice interventions beyond the movement form we are most familiar with. John Philp, author of the Yoga Inc, claims that the booming business behind yoga has little to do with the yogi's original purpose of providing spiritual salvation. In a western context it seems the runaway trend is mostly rooted in the exercise system that teaches a series of poses practiced in a spirit of mindfulness.
Yoga comes from the Sanskrit root word Yuj which means to unite, to yoke or connect and is described as a state where the body-mind and soul meet in harmonious unison. Yogis practicing the physical aspect of yoga cite benefits ranging from stress reduction, flexibility, increased energy, improved focus and an overall feeling of wellbeing. Regular practice is known to have a rejuvenating effect on all bodily systems including the circulatory, glandular, digestive, nervous, musculoskeletal, reproductive and respiratory. At its simplest level, yoga quiets the mind and opens the body. Although there are many forms, variations and means of practice, the poses work in unison with the energy flow of the body and serve to open up the channels and hubs of subtle energy. Breathing, postures and energy locks correct, heal, and stimulate vital energy in the body. It's a holistic system that addresses body, mind and spirit and that's why participants feel immense benefits after a class.
As Nataraj, director of the Sivananda Yoga in Kerala India says, 'People are leading more and more stressful lives, and they find that yoga is a system that really helps them find balance and peace of mind. The goal of yoga, after all, is detachment and enlightenment,' he says.
Writer Sadhguru says, 'Yoga is not an exercise; it is an ancient technology towards wellbeing and ultimate liberation'.
Many yoga teachers weave in lessons on important principles like kindness, truthfulness and self-discipline. Studios often give their members a sense of community and create initiatives that highlight purpose building and self-actualisation. Fundamental to yoga is non-judgement and compassion, both to the individual and others. Yoga allows attunement to the individual self ' body and mind. It creates space for exactly where we are, while letting go of judgment. Included in the practice is the underlying spirit of compassion, awareness, and acceptance. With a culture of inclusivity, yoga becomes accessible to anyone and everyone.
Although the history and progression of yoga is complex and not easy to trace, here are some of the influential teachers and influencers contributing to the spread of yoga.
Sage Patanjali (accurate birth time unknown)
Some say Patanjali lived around 150 BCE and others place him around the 3rd century BE. Sages and seers of that time preferred anonymity and it's difficult to ascribe accuracy to much of the earlier information. For reference sake, Patanjali is spoken about as a figurehead of yogic science and attributed as the author of the Yoga Sutras. This is a notable guidebook of classic yoga made up of 195 aphorisms or wisdom verses. Patanjali defined yoga as Chitta Vritti Nirodha, which loosely means that if you quiet the modifications and activity of the mind, you are in yoga.
Swami Sivananda (1887 ' 1963)
Having studied medicine and after treating hundreds of patients, Sivananda found immense depth in the healing benefits of yoga. During and after years of pilgrimage, monasticism and study Sivananda wrote almost 300 books on spiritual matters and inspired an abundance of Sivananda schools of yoga. He believed, 'an ounce of practice is worth tons of theory.' Humour was one of the top practices he recommended and he taught the Yoga of Trinity (Trimurti Yoga) that combines Hatha Yoga, Karma Yoga and Master Yoga.
Tirumalai Krishnammacharya (1888-1989)
Tirumalai is often spoken of as the father of modern yoga and the architect of Vinyasa. Asana practices like Iyengar, Ishtar and Bikram have been influenced by his teachings. As an Ayurvedic practitioner his bias emphasised whole body healing. He apparently mastered control over his heartbeats and is believed to be able to stop his pulse. He was a teacher to Indra Devi and Patanjali Jois. According to his son, Krishnamacharya described the cycle of breath as an act of surrender: 'Inhale, and God approaches you. Hold the inhalation, and God remains with you. Exhale, and you approach God. Hold the exhalation, and surrender to God.'
Paramhansa Yogananda (1893 ' 1952)
Author of the astoundingly popular book, Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramhansa offered meditation and Kriya yoga techniques to the world. He founded the Self-Realisation Fellowship in America and Yogoda Satsanga Society of India. Using breathwork, mantras and meditation he encouraged techniques to accelerate spiritual development. 'Kriya yoga is the easiest, most effective and most scientific avenue of approach to the infinite. In contrast to the slow, uncertain 'bullock cart' theological path to God, Kriya may justly be called the 'airplane route,' said Paramhansa.
Pattabhi Jois (1915 ' 2009)
Pattabhi Jois taught Ashtanga yoga which became hugely popular in the West and practiced by many celebrities. It's a physically demanding and dynamic practice based on the ancient text Yoga Korunta. 'The whole purpose of Hatha yoga is to purify and control our senses. It is the ultimate science of helping us discover what lies behind the apparent reality of body and mind,' explained Pattabhi.
Bellur Krishnamac har Sundararaja Iyengar (1918 ' 2014)
BKS Iyengar is considered one of the foremost yoga teachers in the world, and is the author of many books on yoga including, Light on Yoga, a source book for yoga students. Iyengar started hundreds of yoga centers, his discipline known as Iyengar, focuses on the correct alignment of the body in each pose. At the age of 95 he reportedly could still perform sirsaasana (headstand) for half an hour. He is recognised by millions of followers in more than 70 countries. 'By drawing our senses of perception inward, we are able to experience the control, silence, and quietness of the mind,' said Iyengar.
Yogi Bhajan (1929 ' 2004)
Although commonly known as Yogi Bhajan, the teacher was born Harbhajan Singh Puri, and when he became a United States citizen in 1976, changed his name legally to Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogiji. He is credited with bringing Kundalini Yoga, the 'Yoga of Awareness' to the Western world. As an inspiring teacher, he attracted a huge following. 'Your mind is your servant, your body is your vehicle and your soul is your residence,' says Bhajan.
Bikram Choudhary (born 1944)
Bikram is well known for teaching yoga in studios heated up to 40 degrees Celcius. His classes consist of 26 postures performed in sequence and is taught in over 500 certified yoga studios worldwide. Each pose is designed to benefit a specific bodily systems. 'Yoga is the perfect vehicle for change of yourself. First by creating and strong and powerful body and mind. It is a starting point from which you can begin to realise your human spirit.'
Before heading off to your yoga class, you may find it helpful to familiarise yourself with some of the descriptive terms you are bound to hear. Original yogic texts were written in
Sanskrit, said to be the oldest language known to man, and the postures and principles are often described with Sanskrit words. Here's a short guide to yoga vocab...
These are the physical postures or poses in the practice of yoga. They sometimes involve balancing, twisting, holding and are done on the floor, standing, inverted or upright. They can be done on their own or in succession. One of the main sequences is the surya namaskar or sun salutation which is a series of asanas done one atfer the other.
A bandha is an energy lock using specific muscles in one or more points in the body. Practicing a bandha lock has benefits like rejuvenating the organs, increasing circulation and purifying energy channels.
This is a focused practice often using conscious breathing and higher contemplation to reach deeper levels of consciousness and calm the mind. The idea is to achieve a permeating and unfailing sense of calm and wellbeing.
Many teachings are offered under the guidance of a guru who serves as a mentor, teacher, or guiding light. Guru means weighty and is meant to depict someone with mastery and knowledge.
Hatha yoga describes any of the physical practices of yoga. With 'ha' meaning sun and 'tha' moon it indicates the unifying aspect of opposites - bringing together all existence into wholeness and unity.
'Man' is mind and 'tra' is instrument or vehicle. A mantra is a sound or sounds, syllables, a single word or groups of words repeated with the goal of creating positive transformation. The emphasis is often on the vibrational quality of the sound rather than the words themselves.
Positioning the body in a certain way has an influence on the energies of the body, or mood. An example of a basic mudra is a hand gesture that connects the tip of the index finger with the thumb creating a closed circle. Mudras can stimulate parts of the brain, redirect the flow of energy in the body and improve concentration.
Various translations exist but it is commonly known to mean 'the divine in me honours the divine in you'. Another translation is 'I honor that place in you where the whole universe resides. And when I am in that place in me, and you are in that place in you, there is only one of us'. It's often used as a respectful greeting, farewell or to close a yoga class.
This is a sound frequently chanted or uttered before, after or during a yoga class. It's considered the first sound of creation, a seed sound heralding the unbounded universe and the manifest and unmanifest aspects of God. Repeated with the correct intonation it is said to resonate through the body and penetrate to the centre of one's being.
The word 'prana' means life force or breath and 'ayama' means lengthen. Pranayama is the formal practice of controlling the breath to facilitate inner stillness and awareness. It's used in meditation and during the physical practice of yoga.
This is a restorative pose usually practiced at the end of a class during final relaxation. It's known as a challenging pose as it calls for absolute surrender and deep relaxation. It allows the body to process the information and benefits from previous asanas.
Ujjayi is also called the ocean breath or hissing breath. Breathing is done through the nose and a slightly narrowed throat which makes an oceanic sound. It is known to have many benefits like building internal heat, maintaining rhythm, clearing toxins, staying present and more.
Vi means in a special way and nyasa is to place. Although there are many layers and meanings to this word it denotes an artful way of living where skill and awareness is applied to all the rhythms of life including self-development, personal care, relationships and evolution. It can also apply to a series or flow of yoga poses.
This age old discipline covers a way of living that guides the practitioner towards achieving liberation. It includes practices like physical postures, breathing, meditation, service to others, discipline, philosophical study and more.
ANATOMY OF A POSE
Each asana or yoga pose has multiple benefits and a specific way it should be practiced. There is never an end to mastering a pose as the individual practice of yoga will always bring new challenges. In fact, yoga isn't about mastery it's more about the art of interacting with the challenges we face along life's journey.
DOWNWARD FACING DOG
[ Adho Mukha Svanasana ]
This is a primary pose in yoga and one of the base asanas in the sun salutation. It's also an excellent pose to practice on its own. A practiced yogi will use the downward facing dog as a resting pose.
*Start by kneeling on the floor. Connect your hands with the floor out in front of you.
*Spread your fingers out widely and ground them on the floor. Your index fingers should be parallel to each other.
*Put your knees directly below your hips. Turn your toes under and as you breathe out lift your knees off the floor.
*Before you straighten your knees, lengthen the line from your tailbone up the length of your spine. Then lift your pelvis and straighten your knees so your body turns into an inverted V. Lift
your butt towards the sky.
*Feel a lift from your ankles up towards your inner thighs. Your heels may not stretch all the way to the floor but the idea is to work towards that. Your knees should be straight but not locked.
*Press the index fingers into the floor. Feel your shoulder blades against your back, widen them outwards and draw them down towards the pelvis. Your spine should be in a perfect long line, not rounded in or curved back.
*Relax your head and neck area but don't let it hang. After one to three minutes bend your knees to the floor and rest in child's pose.
FOCUS : Energetically this pose allows energy flow through the root chakra and a pooling of energy in the solar plexus.
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