WHAT IS YOGA?
Yoga is many things; a philosophy, an exercise routine, a therapy, spiritual pursuit, and for many people, a way of life. To the purist, that way of life embraces a centuries-old spiritual dimension.
The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit word yuj, which means to yoke, join, or unite. In a very real sense, yoga is the union of mind, body and spirit.
The form of yoga most popular in the West is an exercise routine designed to enhance and balance one’s life. Since it was introduced from India in the 1960s many styles have emerged, most of which are based on the traditional Hatha form.
This combines physical postures (asanas) and sequences with breathing exercises and many (including the form we teach) include relaxation.
Although a sense of general well-being is what attracts most people to yoga, it is also an ideal complement to many sports. It is widely and increasingly used as a therapy, and in the treatment of both physical and emotional or mental conditions, including MS, athsma, stress, anxiety and depression.
It may be the physical aspect of yoga that appeals to most people; but yoga is much more than a set of exercises. As a way of life yoga has an ethical and moral dimension, and includes the practice of meditation, concentration and breathing exercises (pranayama).
WHAT IS MEDITATION?
In many ways, Yoga is a form of meditation.
The earliest yoga exercises were part of the physical preparation for long sessions of sitting meditation, which the first yogis practiced in their quest for spiritual enlightenment.
Although much meditation has a spiritual aspect, and is common to many faiths, it is also practiced for many of the same reasons as yoga: to counter stress, boost energy, improve self-awareness and confidence, and for better physical and psychological health.
The key to much of the meditation practiced today is mindfulness or awareness.
Mindful meditation practice is based on age-old traditions (mostly the Buddhist meditation on the breath). In the practice one learns to stop, breathe, observe, and connect with one's inner experience. This leads not only to a deeper self-awareness, but also greater awareness of and empathy with others.
Like yoga, mindfulness can be practiced by anyone.
CAN ANYONE DO YOGA?
Yes. Whatever your age or physical ability, you can use Yoga to improve your life.
No matter how unfit or out of shape you may be, you can still do yoga. Don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s just for slim women in lycra doing impossible poses in glossy magazines— yoga is for everyone.
With so many styles of Yoga to choose from it’s fair to say that there is a form of Yoga that is right for for you. The important thing is to find a teacher who is sympathetic to your own needs and limitations
WHAT CAN YOGA DO FOR ME?
To be specific, Yoga can:
strengthen and tone your body
Yoga is rightly synonymous with flexibility, but yogis are strong too.
Yoga postures build core body strength by toning the muscles that support the body in a state of natural alignment, improving your posture.
The exercises also stretch and strengthen ligaments and put joints through their full range of movement.
Help you relax and de-stress
By calming the body and the mind and eliminating stressful toxins, Yoga leads to deep relaxation and a heightened sense of well-being. Yogic breathing exercises strengthen the diaphragm and expand lung capacity, encouraging deeper, freer breathing. Breathing properly is energising and healing.
Boost your confidence and self-esteem
When you’re fit and toned and carry yourself well you are bound to be more confident, at least outwardly. Yoga also works on the inner you, not only by helping you relax, but also by enhancing your self-awareness.
Increase your focus and concentration
By linking breathing and postures, Yoga strengthens not only your body, but also your mind. This expands your ability to be present in the moment, to focus on the here and now, to concentrate on what really matters.
As an added bonus, yoga will enhance your vitality, your joie de vivre, in ways that will make you constantly glad to be a yogi.
For more on how you can integrate Yoga into your life see Yoga for Life
HOW MUCH SHOULD I PRACTICE?
That is entirely up to you. The more you work at it and integrate it into your life, the greater the returns.
On a purely physical level a few basic stretches after you roll out of bed in the morning can energise and align your body. If you add a few breathing exercises to the stretches, your mind will settle into a balanced and attentive mode.
I don’t know of a better way to set myself up for the day ahead.
If all you want from yoga is physical well-being, the answer to how much yoga? need be no more than a few minutes of deep stretching and breathing every day.
However, it is important to have guidance. There are many good books and videos available today, but nothing beats a good teacher.
WHERE SHOULD I START?
Know before you start that yoga is not a quick fix for anything. A little yoga now is what matters, and a few simple stretches are the best place to start. In time you can investigate styles and choose one that suits your needs.
If you are even mildly serious about getting the most from yoga, you should work with a teacher. Even the most advanced yogis do. In fact, many purists regard it as essential.
If private tuition is not an option for you, look for classes small enough for the teacher to pay you attention. If you’re lucky enough to find teachers in your area who offer a free trial class, that can be a cost-effective way of finding someone whose style fits best with your needs and expectations.
Enrol for a beginners’ course if you can. In a typical 4-week course, you should learn enough about basic postures and breathing to confidently join in an open group session pretty much anywhere.
Be warned though: do not make the mistake of comparing yourself to yogis in books. This is like expecting to win marathon gold before you have finished a ten-miler. Most yogis in books and on the internet have years of practice behind them.
By all means set yourself goals, but focus on what you can achieve today. Fear not, yoga will teach you this.