what is yoga
What is yoga, really?

What is yoga, really?

Yoga has become a stereotype in today’s world. When we suggest someone incorporates yoga into their life, we often hear responses such as “I am not flexible enough” or “I am too old”. Somewhere along the line yoga has become constructed as a skinny girl standing on her head and doing stretches.

Yoga is not about flexibility, or being able to walk on your hands, or hang upside down. Yoga is a lifestyle – it is in everything, and it is for everyone. As T.K.V Desikachar says, “Anybody can breathe, therefore anybody can practice yoga”.

How you practice yoga is up to you. Yoga is a medicine, a practice of self-discovery, connection and healing – inside and out. Pantajali – “the father of yoga”– stated that “yoga is a practice of quietening the mind”. The mind benefits from stillness, and the body benefits from movement. Yoga is the creation of harmony and synchronicity between mind and body. It is the union of the whole person – mind (breathing), spirit (meditation) and body (movement). It is this unity within ourselves which leads to balanced health and well-being. Yoga is an ongoing internal journey with yourself. It is learning to breathe again, learning to slow down, learning to explore and to develop a connection with yourself.

What is the goal of yoga?

Achieving the yoga pose is not the goal. Becoming more flexible, or being able to stand on your head is not the goal. Jigor Gor says “yoga is not about touching your toes; it is what you learn on the way down”. The goal of yoga is to create space – space in the mind and in the body. It is to explore, move and progress in yourself – internally and externally – where you may experience blockages and limitations. Yoga peels away the layers – the façade, the mask, the stereotypes and exterior; which so often we project out to the world. The layers which we are so deeply distracted by in this busy and over-stimulating society.

We are our true selves when we practice yoga. In that moment, on our mat, we are imperfectly, perfect; and we accept that. We embrace this imperfection, playing with our body and the poses, approaching them with curiosity. We observe what comes up for us, and we let go of judgement as it arises. Yoga is an incredibly creative process where we connect with, and find, ourselves – although the practice may not become easier, you become stronger. You develop a deeper sense of connection and understanding within yourself. Jason Crandell says, “the nature of yoga is to shine the light of awareness into the darkest corners of the body”.

Yoga is a moving meditation. Through yoga we practice mindfulness. We focus on our breath as it anchors us in the present moment, and in our bodies. B.K.S Iyengar explains that “yoga does not just change the way we see things, it transforms the person who sees. Your body exists in the past and your mind exists in the future, therefore in yoga, they come together in the present”. We accept where we are, in that moment. We honour our body, exactly as it is; meeting ourselves with compassion, kindness and love. Yoga allows us to truly appreciate our beautiful and strong bodies, as they are – scars, flaws and all – and enjoy what they can do. Yoga helps us become aware of the mind. We learn to recognise thoughts as they arise as we practice observation, showing up without judgement and embracing curiosity. Yoga allows you to make peace with who you are, and where you are, right now. It teaches you how to listen to your body. Yoga happens beyond the mat – anything you do with attention to how you feel, IS yoga. Therefore, the ultimate goal of yoga is to truly, authentically and unconditionally love, and really, it is to love yourself.

Where did yoga come from?

Yoga was discovered 5000 years ago in Northern India, however some debate that it goes back even further, approximately 10 000 years. The history of yoga can be divided into four periods: pre-classical yoga, classical yoga, post-classical yoga and modern yoga.

The pre-classical period considers various beliefs, ideas and techniques of yoga, which often contradict one another. Pre-classical yoga considers the Indus-Sarasvati civilisation, 5000 years ago. The Vedas – a sacred text made up of songs, mantras and rituals – were used by Vedic priests, and it is here where yoga was first mentioned. The Unpanishads – “mystic seeers” – then developed these into practices and beliefs. The most renowned scriptures of yoga are the Bhagavad-Gîtâ, composed around 500 B.C.E. This scripture explained how to “sacrifice” the ego through developing self-knowledge and wisdom (jnana yoga), and taking action (karma yoga).

Classical yoga was defined by Patanjali’s – “the father of yoga’s”– yoga-sutras – the very first systematic presentation of yoga. Patanjali divided yoga into eight limbs which are understood as the steps one can take to achieve enlightenment. These eight limbs strongly influence modern yoga today, two of which are asana (yoga postures) and pranayama (how we control our breath).

A couple of hundred years later yogis began to expand on yoga to incorporate the body in more depth. These practices focused on rejuvenating the physical body to enhance overall health and well-being. In contrast to the pre-classical period of songs, mantras and rituals, post-colonial yoga focused on the overall human system as a way to achieve enlightenment. These practices were used to cleanse both mind and body, and led to what primarily became “Western” yoga: Hatha Yoga.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s yogis travelled to the West where yoga began to be more popular. By the 1920s Hatha had developed in the West, and by the mid 1930s more than 200 books based on yoga had been written, and nine ashrams and yoga centres were active around the world. Yoga continued to spread around the globe, however it must be noted that the launch of Indra Devi’s – “the first lady of yoga” – yoga studio in 1947, her famous students in Hollywood, and her books on yoga for stress relief were key to the beginning of yoga’s development as a worldwide community.

The benefits of yoga

Yoga is a powerful medicine. There is ongoing research illustrating the positive and healing impacts that yoga has on both mind and body –

Yoga improves our physical health. It enhances flexibility, strengthens muscles, supports our posture and spine, prevents the breaking down of cartilage and joints, and betters the health of our bones. Yoga is often prescribed by health care practitioners for various conditions. For example, the American College of Physicians suggests yoga as a first-line treatment for patients with chronic lower back pain. The John Hopkins Review found gentle yoga practices to ease joint pain and discomfort in patients with arthritis. Regular yoga practice has been associated with a reduction in blood pressure, stress, inflammation in the body and organs, as well as excess weight. It drains your lymphatic system and boosts immunity, enhancing our well-being.

Yoga also supports mental health. It has an ongoing calming effect. It regulates the adrenal glands and makes us happier. It has been found to increase serotonin levels and decrease cortisol levels. Individuals who practiced approximately three times per week experienced being able to fall asleep, and stay asleep, more easily; they also had an increase in energy and mood, and felt less stressed. According to the National Institute of Health, yoga calms the nervous system.

Yoga has become an evidence-based approach to support mindfulness, mental health, stress management, healthy eating and weight loss. It enhances our focus, and encourages self-care and empowerment.

What are the different styles of yoga?

Yoga has been broken down into various styles by different practitioners and influencers over time. Some of the more traditional physical practices include Hatha, Iyengar, Ashtanga and Bikram yoga. Hatha translated means “the physical practice of yoga”. This style is more generalised, and less intense, and often useful for beginners. Iyengar yoga is a valuable style to assist in learning about body alignments. This practice incorporates various props to help beginners find the posture with support. Ashtanga yoga focuses on a breath and movement sequence following a series of poses. This practice can be quite vigorous. Bikram yoga takes place in a heated room and follows 26 specific postures which are perceived to strengthen and lengthen the muscles, whilst the body sweats out toxins. Vinyasa yoga has become very popular across the world. It is often referred to as a “flow”, as teachers move from one pose to another, without stopping to discuss the posture inbetween. Although this is a generalised term, Vinyasa practice varies depending on the teacher, as these can be intense, slow or basic.

Other yoga styles take a more eclectic approach, focusing on both mind and body. Yin yoga focuses on passive postures to bring the mind and body into a space where we can release and heal. The poses are held for approximately eight minutes at a time. Yin is about learning to sit through challenges, letting go and embracing patience. This mindful practice affects and teaches us about the mind and body, and how to cope with life off of the mat. In contrast, restorative yoga is a relaxing practice that comforts the body. Restorative postures are also held for a length of time, however the intention here is to be comfortable and use the pose as a technique to soothe and recover. Props are specifically used in this practice to support and comfort the body. This practice aims to rejuvenate and heal. Kundalini yoga focuses on movement in the spine. This practice emphasises breathwork, mantras, chanting, song and meditation, together with movement.

All of these styles overlap. Although you may attend a class that is a particular style, you will often find different styles to show up along each practice. Ultimately, it is the teacher’s style that becomes evident in the practice, and how they use yoga to work with the mind and body, and how this relates to you.

How, and where, do I start?

Yoga appears to be available across most locations, and online. However, it is important to be aware of yoga as a broad umbrella term. There are different styles and approaches to yoga, and teacher’s all have different intentions for their practice. Sometimes this can be overwhelming. Each teacher will have a unique approach, and even if teachers practice the same style of yoga, no teacher will teach the same.

Step one: Locate a yoga teacher that you find appeals to you and ask questions. Explore the options available to you and start to understand what the teacher’s style is about. This will help you to narrow down your focus and select a practice and teacher in line with your specific needs, goals and interests.

Step two: Try. The only way we discover if something is aligned with us is if we give it a try. You may find you dislike one style, but then when you practice that style with another teacher, you actually enjoy it! Yoga is about embracing the adventure. Play with the various approaches, explore and taste the practice. You will begin to relate to yoga and take from it what you want, as you find and develop your own unique flow.

Step three: Have fun! Do not see yoga as a chore, or as something you need to tick off your to do list. Play with it. Embrace the journey, and see what yoga brings up for you. Allow your mind and body to benefit from the practice, and see how you can use and embrace yoga in your life.

Come and play

Yoga allows us to play in our bodies. Yoga is a delicious tool which assists us in exploring our mind, body and breath. We return to ourselves – a beautiful thing to do when we live in such a frantic, busy and distracting world. Yoga inspires us to move the body, stretch, bend, play – celebrate what the body can do! Yoga emphasises how all of our bodies, and minds, are different and unique. In yoga we do not compare ourselves to others. We embrace and love our incredible bodies, and enjoy them.

WernFitness facilitates this practice. Our knowledgeable and experienced team of yogis and coaches are there to guide you, to share with you, and support you in finding your movement, breath and flow. With time often being a challenge – especially in today’s fluid landscape – our team brings your yoga practice to you. We offer one-on-one and group sessions, and workshops, which allow you to explore different styles and practices. Each person is unique and so we do not take a generalised approach. We work with our clients to support and empower them in their practice, as we create what they want, in their time, wherever they are.

So come and play, let us share with you so you can share with yourself. As Jason Crandell says, “Yoga is the perfect opportunity to be curious about who you are”.

This article was written by Bianca Aimée Kramer.

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