Yoga 101: New to the Practice?
Although the word Yoga is quite common around the world it does not mean that everyone knows exactly what it means. In this article I will try to explain what Yoga really is (although once you begin on your journey, it can mean different things personally), how it relates to your health and happiness, and what to expect if you go to a yoga class.
The word Yoga originates from the ancient Sanskrit language spoken by a religious group in India called the Brahmins. Yoga means “yolk” or “union” and further describes a practice involving discipline, balance, strength and flexibility. In India it isn’t unusual to see people performing a yogic set of asanas and pranayam dedicated to the Sun in the morning and for Hindu holy-men, Yoga is a fundamental part of life.
I must preface that what I am trying to describe and put into words is an activity that is nonverbal in many ways, as those who follow the journey of yoga can tell you. For some it will bring a spiritual awakening into their lives, others it will provide an exercise/fitness regimen or an overall program of keeping physical and emotional wellbeing. At the heart of the practice most would agree, it seeks to unite your body and mind.
For those new to yoga a common question is which branch or style of yoga should they try and what are they? Here are some of the Yoga styles that are practiced here in the West:
Ananda Yoga: classes focus on gentle postures designed to move the energy up to the brain and prepare the body for meditation. Classes also focus on proper body alignment and controlled breathing.
Anusara Yoga: is a relatively new form of yoga (1997), which pairs strict principles of alignment with a playful spirit. Postures can be challenging, but the real message of Anusara is to open your heart and strive to connect with the divine in yourself and others.
Ashtanga (or Astanga) Yoga: is the name given to the system of yoga taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. This style of yoga is physically demanding as it involves synchronizing breathing with progressive and continuous series of postures-a process producing intense internal heat and a profuse, purifying sweat that detoxifies muscles and organs. The result is improved circulation, flexibility, stamina, a light and strong body, and a calm mind. Ashtanga is an athletic yoga practice and is not for beginners.
Bikram Yoga: is the method of yoga that is a comprehensive workout that includes all the components of fitness: muscular strength, muscular endurance, cardiovascular flexibility and weight loss. The founder, Bikram Choudhury, was a gold medal Olympic weight lifter in 1963 and is a disciple of Bishnu Ghosh, brother of Paramahansa Yogananda, (Autobiography of a Yogi). One of the unusual but most beneficial aspects of Bikram’s yoga practice is the 95-105 degree temperature which promotes more flexibility, detoxification, and prevention of injuries. This is the only yoga style that specializes in using the heated environment.
Hatha: is an easy-to-learn basic form of yoga that has become very popular in the United States. Hatha Yoga is the foundation of all Yoga styles. It incorporates Asanas (postures), Pranayama (regulated breathing), meditation (Dharana & Dhyana) and kundalini (Laya Yoga) into a complete system that can be used to achieve enlightenment or self-realization. It has become very popular in America as source of exercise and stress management. The ideal way to practice the Hatha Yoga poses (asanas) is to approach the practice session in a calm, meditative mood. Sit quietly for a few moments, then begin the series, slowly, with control and grace, being inwardly aware as the body performs the various poses selected for the practice session. Do not overdo the asanas or try to compete with others. Take it easy and enjoy.
Integral Yoga: This traditional type of yoga combines postures, breathing exercises, selfless service, meditation, chanting, prayer, and self-inquiry.
Iyengar Yoga: developed by yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar more than 60 years ago, promotes strength, flexibility, endurance, and balance through coordinated breathing and poses that require precise body alignment. The poses are generally held longer than in other styles of yoga. In Iyengar, you slowly move into a pose, hold it for a minute or so, and then rest for a few breaths before stretching into another. Equipment like cushions, blankets, straps, and blocks to help the less flexible also distinguishes Iyengar from other types of yoga. Although Iyengar incorporates the traditional postures, or asanas, that make up the broader category of hatha yoga, the cushions and other props revolutionized yoga by enabling everyone — even the elderly, sick, and disabled — to practice. Because of its slow pace, attention to detail, and use of props, Iyengar yoga can be especially good if you’re recovering from an injury. Iyengar is still one of the most popular types of yoga taught today.
Jivamukti Yoga: Developed in 1986 by Sharon Gannon and David Life, the Jivamukti Yoga method expresses the spiritual and ethical aspects of the practice of yoga that have been disregarded or devalued in contemporary times. It is a vigorous and challenging asana form with an emphasis on scriptural study, Sanskrit chanting, vegetarianism, non-violence, meditation, devotion to God and the role that music and listening play in the practice of yoga. Life and Gannon currently operate a popular yoga studio in New York City.
Kali Ray TriYoga: A series of flowing, dancelike movements was developed by Kali Ray in 1980. The practice also incorporates pranayama (breathing exercises) and meditation. Kali Ray runs the TriYoga Center in Santa Cruz, California.
Kripalu: is called the yoga of consciousness. This gentle, introspective practice urges practitioners to hold poses to explore and release emotional and spiritual blockages. Goal-oriented striving is discouraged and precise alignment is not as important as in some other traditions. There are three stages in Kripalu yoga. Stage one focuses on learning the postures and exploring your body’s abilities. Stage Two involves holding the postures for an extended time, developing concentration and inner awareness. Stage Three is like a meditation in motion in which the movement from one posture to another arises unconsciously and spontaneously.
Kundalini: practice concentrates on awakening the energy at the base of the spine and drawing it upward. In addition to postures, a typical class will also include chanting, meditation, and breathing exercises.
Power Yoga: is essentially yoga with brawn. It’s the American interpretation of ashtanga yoga, a discipline that combines stretching, strength training, and meditative breathing. But power yoga takes ashtanga one step further. Many of the poses (also called postures or their Sanskrit name, asanas) resemble basic calisthenics — push-ups and handstands, toe touches and side bends — but the key to power yoga’s sweat-producing, muscle-building power is the pace. Instead of pausing between poses as you would in traditional yoga, each move flows into the next, making it an intense aerobic workout.
Restorative Yoga: In a restorative yoga class you’ll spend long periods of time lying on blocks, blankets and bolsters – passively allowing muscles to relax.
Sivananda Yoga: Like Integral Yoga, this traditional type of yoga combines postures, breathing, dietary restrictions, chanting, scriptural study, and meditation. The popular TV yoga teacher Lilias got her start practicing Sivananda Yoga.
Svaroopa Yoga: New students find this a very approachable style, often beginning in chair poses that are comfortable. Svaroopa is also a deeply therapeutic style of yoga that uses props, precision alignments and hands-on adjustments. Promotes healing and transformation.
Viniyoga: This is commonly used as a therapeutic practice for people who have suffered injuries or are recovering from surgery. It is a gentle, healing practice that is tailored to each person’s body type and needs as they grow and change.
Vinyasa: Focuses on coordination of breath and movement and it is a very physically active form of yoga. It began with Krishnamacharya who later passed it on to Pattabhi Jois.
White Lotus Yoga: A modified Ashtanga practice developed by Ganga White which is combined with breath work and meditation. Try taking into account your personality, goals and lifestyle before choosing one, or try as many styles as possible till you find one that you like.
Here are several tips before taking a yoga class or starting your practice
What do I wear? Loose-fitting clothing is good, don’t wear anything that restricts the blood flow and inhibits the correct breathing techniques. Yoga shorts, sweat clothes, yoga pants and of course, Lululemon http://www.lululemon.com supplies a large selection of yoga wear world wide.
Do I need a mat or towel? Most classes will provide a mat and towel but just to be safe ask ahead of time, and when in doubt bring both especially if it is a hot yoga or bikrams class.
How do I find a good class/teacher? Ask your friends or co-workers and check out the web for classes near you. It helps to read feedback on yoga studios or teachers.
Why is there chanting? Chanting has the effect of raising the level of vibration of the individual practicing the chant, and it can help the practitioner to be filled with peace, and feel calm and centered. You may feel self conscious when you hear this, but understand that you will never be judged.
What is Namaste? At the end of a yoga class you will hear everyone say the word “Namaste”. This means the belief that there is a Divine spark within each of us that is located in the heart chakra. The gesture is an acknowledgment of the soul in one by the soul in another. “Nama” means bow, “as” means I, and “te” means you. Therefore, Namaste literally means “bow me you” or “I bow to you.” To perform Namaste, we place the hands together at the heart charka, close the eyes, and bow the head. It can also be done by placing the hands together in front of the third eye, bowing the head, and then bringing the hands down to the heart.
Some classes can get crowded During one power yoga class that I was at there were toes almost brushing against my nose when I moved into Upward-Facing Dog pose. Sometimes classes will be quite crowded and small in space, try to get to your class early if you are nervous or perhaps try going with a friend.
Don’t be competitive Never force yourself into difficult postures, instead try keeping within your physical limits. Try practicing with awareness, self-respect and most importantly, Push & Yield. “Pushing” is actively moving the body further into the posture, gently exploring areas of tightness and “yielding” is a passive action where you wait and listen to the feedback from your body.
Importance of breathing, your breath is the single most important aspect of yoga technique. Always move with your breath and only move when you are breathing. Pranayama is loosely translated as prana or breath control and is used in yoga as a separate practice to help clear and cleanse the body and mind. It is also used in preparation for meditation, and in asana (the practice of postures) to help maximize the benefits of the practice, and focus the mind. Ujjayi is one of the most commonly used forms of pranayama, often called the “sounding” breath. It involves constricting the back of the throat while breathing to create an “ah” sound.
Whatever each of us can take from the practice of Yoga it is important to know that it should not be considered either right or wrong, but rather as a journey towards improving ourselves and humanity.