Yoga has certainly had a surge in popularity over the last couple of years. In some cities you can throw a rock in any direction and hit a studio. It may seem like yoga is reserved for those who are young, lean and posses a rather acrobatic aptitude. I am here to tell you that this is just not so! I believe in my heart of hearts that there really is a yoga practice for each and every person out there. There is so much more to yoga than handstands and putting your foot behind your head.
Yoga In The Beginning
In the beginning, the physical practice of yoga was just a way of stretching and strengthening every muscle in the body to facilitate sitting in meditation for as long as possible. Back then, yogis were men who literally lived in caves, had given up all possessions and were purely focused on attaining enlightenment. It was not something that everyone did, but rather was a practise for the spiritual man. (Yes, man. Only men practised yoga!) Then about 100 years ago a man named Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya was instructed by his teacher that he was to bring yoga out of the caves and back into society. Krishnamacharya went through several phases of styles of yoga himself. His mission was to bring yoga to the people, so that men that were career or family men could still practice. As I mentioned above, before Krishnamacharya, yoga was something that was reserved only for spiritual men. It is because of his work that we have yoga at all.
His teachings influenced the teachings of several other famous yoga teachers, most notably Pattahbi Jois – The founder of Ashtanga yoga, and where most of our “Power Yoga” classes found their roots, and B.K.S Iyengar, the father of Iyengar yoga, where much of our restorative yoga comes from. Ashtanga Yoga was designed for young teenage boys who were strong, athletic, and needed discipline. Ashtanga is a powerful series of postures, that are done in the same order,and practised the same way every day. There is a strong connection of breath and movement in this practice and is very good for settling and focusing the mind, as well as being a very strong physical practice. Traditionally, Ashtanga yoga used to be performed in public areas, like a circus, in order to attract people to the practice! You can still practice Ashtanga yoga today in its very traditional form. This is also where most other “Power” yoga forms came from.
Mr B.K.S Iyengar on the other hand, was the brother of Krishnamacharya’s wife. He was a sickly child, and Krishnamacharya was actually not interested in teaching him, due to the fact that he was so weak. Eventually, upon the incessant nagging of his wife (or so the story goes) he relented and started to teach Iyengar. Iyengar was not able to easily move into the postures and flows that Krishnamacharya was teaching at the time, and would spent countless hours in his room, using books and ropes to help him get into proper alignment. After a while of practising this way, he started to notice that the use of props, as well as the long holds were really benefiting him. This lead to the advent of Iyengar yoga, which in its purest form is a practise dedicated to perfect alignment, heavy use of props to get you into that precise alignment, and no linking of postures. We have Iyengar to thank for all the props that we so easily take for granted in yoga today, as well as many forms of restorative yoga.
T.K.V. Desikachar is one of Krishnamacharya 6 children. T.K.V Desikachar grew up practicing yoga with his father and brothers and sisters, but rejected the idea of God. When it came time for him to decide on a career path, he went away from the family home to study civil engineering. It was not until he was in his early 20’s, after he had received his degree in civil engineering, that he witnessed for himself the healing and transformational powers of the yoga practice, though the students of his father’s teachings. He has since become one of the leaders in the yoga field, offering a style of practice that encourages teachers to “bring the pose to the body, not the body to the pose.” This simply means that he believes in altering postures and using props in order to help the student attain the maximum healing benefit from each posture, as oppose to shooting for the perfect expression of any one posture. His style is slightly more dynamic than an Iyengar class, and is often thought of as the birthplace for what we now refer to as “yoga therapy.”
One last notable teacher to mention is Indra Devi, who was the first female student of Krishnamacharya. She literally had to beg to be taught, and was responsible for bringing traditional yoga to Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s.
What is Yoga?
To make this article complete, I do want to mention that there is so much more to the practise of yoga, the “being yoga” than just the physical postures. There are the 8 limbs of yoga, as described by Pantanjali in the Yoga Sutras. He describes there the 8 limbs of yoga, which are as follows:
1. Yamas – Ethical codes for right living, which are – non violence, truthfulness, non covetousness, abstinence (not necessarily sexual abstinence) and non-possessiveness.
2. Niyamas – Spiritual Codes or Observances – Cleanliness of the body, satisfaction with what one has, discipline, Study of the Vedic scriptures, and surrender to God.
3. Asana – Being the physical postures
4. Pranayama – Focused control of the breath
5. Pratyahara – Sense withdrawal
6. Dharana – focused attention upon a physical object (being a state of mediation)
7. Dhyana – Steadfast mediation, holding something in your minds eye that you are focusing on, but staying separate from.
8. Samadhi – Oneness, unity with source, becoming one with the object of meditation.
What Yoga Can Do For You
As you can see, asana was but the third limb of the eight limbs of yoga. It works well for us to start here in the west, because we are a very physically based society. The benefits of all the other limbs of yoga are too many to name in this article, but I would like to tell you about the wonders of the physical practice – the asana practice- of yoga. A good yoga class (aside from a restorative, and in some cases a very beginners class) will include the following categories of postures: Standing postures, Balance postures (can be standing or arm balances), Forward bends, Backbends, inversions and twists. They all have some general benefits, and they are as follows:
These postures are the ones we generally think of when we imagine yoga. The ones where both feet are on the mat, and we are in a semi upright or fully upright position. Examples include triangle posture (trikonasana) and Extended side angle posture (Parsvotanasana.)
These postures help to:
- build strength
- build a foundation for other postures in yoga
- build awareness of the body in space, build awareness of alignment and proper positioning of the body
- bring focus into the practise, To aid you in building upon what you are currently able to do
- Will help to set the foundation to more challenging asana.
- centring and grounding
- help to bring focus to the mind
- these postures will make you sweat, and can help to warm the body.
These postures tend to be accessible to most people, and are postures that most people learn when they first start doing yoga.
A branch of standing postures are the externally rotated standing postures. These are postures where you are turning your hip out at the joint help to warm up hips, and help to increase the range of motion in the hip. .
These postures build balance, as is denoted by their name. They usually involve standing on one leg, or standing on your hands, in arm balances. Tree posture (Vriksasana) is an example of a standing balance posture, and Crow Pose (Bakasana) is an example of an arm balance.
These postures help to:
- These postures are extremely helpful for everyday life. As we age, the liquid in our inner ears (which has a profound effect on how well we are able to maintain our balance) becomes thicker, and so the little hairs that bend and stand up when we are changing position move slower
- As we practice and work on our balance it makes us more durable in life, and less likely to fall and hurt ourselves, which again, is so important as we age.
- Help to build strength in the legs, arms and core.
- Arm balance postures help to strengthen the entire upper body, build focus and are fun!
These are amazing postures for stretching the back of the body. They are much like how they sound, moving the spine forward over the legs, opening up the back of the body. There are standing forward bends like Standing Forward Fold (Uttanasana) and seated forward bends like West Side Intense Stretch Pose (Paschimottanasana.)
These poses help to:
- These postures are especially important for our lower bodies, which tend to be over tight in our society today
- They are also amazing for helping to massage the internal organs, which promotes cleansing and detox of those organs
- These postures are also quieting for the mind, and promote a sense of “turning inward”
- These postures help to cool the body
- These postures promote relaxation, and a calming of the nervous system
These postures are SO important for us in the West. Back bends involve bending the spine backwards, so that we are opening up the front of the body. There are small back bends like Cobra Posture (Bhujangasana) and large back bends like Inverted Bow Posture (Urdhva Dhanurasana.) We are used used to being hunched over desks, or just hunched over in general.
These postures help to:
- Open up and stretch the hip flexors, shoulders, chest and abdominal area, which are all chronically over tight in our western world
- Help to alleviate breathing problems as it creates space in the chest.
- These postures are more stimulating, and can be used as a pick me up if you are feeling sluggish or tired
- Create space for emotional release – opening the chest is an energetic signal to the body that you are safe to feel
- Strengthens the back body through contraction
In my opinion, inversions are some of the most therapeutic postures that yoga has to offer. They involve lifting the hips so that they are above the shoulders and the head. This can be by going completely upside down, like in Headstand (Sirsasana) or by going partially upside down like in Plough posture (Halasana.)
Its list of benefits are a mile long, some of which include:
- both calming and invigorating, depending on the inversion that you choose. Shoulder stand is more calming, whilst a head stand is more invigorating.
- Will aid with circulation, bringing fresh blood to the head and upper body, as well as encouraging the draining of built up fluid in the lower extremities.
- Helps to improve digestion by flipping the weight on the digestive organs, as well as possibly stimulating peristalsis -which is the wave like contractions that move your food through your digestive system.
- These postures also strengthen the upper body, promotes a new view of the world (by literally flipping your perspective) and help to enhance body awareness.
- Inversions are an excellent place to work on expanding our comfort zones (many people find flipping upside down to be unnerving) you don’t have to stand on your head to reap the benefits of inversions. Downward facing dog posture is considered an inversion, and can be done by most everyone!
These postures involved a twisting motion of the spine. Generally this is going to mean that you will be moving your shoulders so that they are not in direct alignment over your hips, but are facing to the side, in relation to where your hips are facing. Some examples are half Lord Of the Fish Pose (Ardha Matsyendrasana) and Stomach Churning Posture (Jathara Parivartanasana.)
These Postures will help to:
- These postures literally wring out your digestive organs while you are in your twist, and then encourage fresh blood and fluid flow to those organs as you un-twist yourself.
- They are very good for increasing mobility of the spine.
- They are amazing for promoting digestion and elimination, as well as promoting the flow of fluids through the lymphatic system.
- Promotes the release of trapped gas from the digestive system
- Very detoxing for the internal organs
The Bottom Line of Yoga and Its Benefits
As you can see, a well balance practice is going to help with getting things moving in the body, and due to their work on the internal organs, can have a profound detoxing effect for the body. Practising yoga regularly will also improve your flexibility, your balance and your strength, which makes you more durable out in the world.
The practise of yoga will also connect your mind with your body. In the West, we are chronically dissociated with our bodies. When we practise yoga, we are encouraged to connect with out breaths, to start to take note of what our breath is doing, and to start to alter the breath. This is the absolute fastest way to connect with your body. As you connect with your body, you will begin to notice what your body is feeling, how it is reacting to your life situations, and to what you are eating. As you deepen your practise, eventually you will start to open up to what your physical form actually needs. This is how it helps you to fight cravings. When you are connected to your physical form, in the flow of respecting and honouring it, you will want to treat your temple with only the foods that feed, sustain and nourish it.
I believe that there is no limit to the benefits of yoga, on a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual level. Your practice will be what you want it to be, and you will get out of it what you put in.Seek a qualified teacher in your area (look for someone who has at least their 200 hour level training that is recognized by the Yoga Alliance.) Do not give up on yoga if you do not like your first class. Find a style, a studio and a teacher that resonates with you, and allow your practice to unfold from there. Happy Bending!!
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