When you think of fitness and different forms of exercise, does yoga spring to mind? Well it should! In the stressful times in which we live, people are in search of inner health and a good sweat is no longer enough to achieve total fitness. Once described as “hippie meets army bootcamp”, yoga is now being embraced by the mainstream as a form of exercise that not only relaxes, but also rejuvenates and revitalises.
What is Yoga?
Yoga is an age-old philosophy believed to have originated over 5,000 years ago with the ancient forest dwellers in the Indus Valley (now Northern India). Through their observation of nature and their search within themselves, they evolved physical postures and breathing exercises with the aim of bringing balance between the physical body, the mind and the spirit (action, intelligence and the higher self). This kept them in a state of vitality and clarity, and in tune with their environment … and so yoga was born.
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The word yoga, meaning union or integration and discipline, comes from the Sanskrit root yug. Yoga seeks to unite physical health and peace of mind through movement, breath awareness, relaxation and meditation techniques. By performing various poses in a flowing sequence and in relaxed surroundings, this ‘union’ can be achieved.
According to Liz Lark, author of Power Yoga (Allen & Unwin $26.95), “through the practice of yoga, we are aiming to integrate the body, mind and emotions to bring about a state of balance, drawing ourselves deeper into the present in search of the eternal moment”.
Consider your options
Not unlike most religions, yoga has branched out from its original form (as you would expect after 5,000 years!) Practitioners have taken postures and techniques and modified them to suit their needs. Today, yoga has 8 main branches, or ‘pathways’:
- Bhakti yoga – the path of love and devotion
- Jnana yoga – the path of knowledge and wisdom and deep understanding of the self
- Karma yoga – the path of selfless action and service. The main principle is to act unselfishly, without attachment and with integrity.
- Raja yoga – “Royal” or classical yoga leads to mastery of the mind through meditation
- Tantra and Kundalini yoga – the most complex of all, this is a strict spiritual discipline involving complex rituals and visualisation of deities (divine beings).
- Mantra yoga – the use of sound (repetition of word or phrase) to influence the consciousness, with the sound harmonising the body and focusing the mind.
- Guru yoga – the path of dedication. The teacher is the main path of spiritual practice.
- Hatha yoga – the path of physical discipline
Westerners generally tend to be less spiritual than their Eastern neighbours, so it is the Hatha path that is the most commonly practiced. Hatha yoga provides physical postures that promote flexibility, endurance and strength. A form of Hatha yoga that has become trendy among the ‘in’ crowd of Hollywood is call Astanga yoga, or ‘power’ yoga. It is a very athletic form of yoga and is commonly practiced by the likes of Madonna, Demi Moore and Ralph Fiennes. Although ‘power’ yoga has been around since 1916, it has only become popular in the last few years.
Liz Lark, who stumbled upon power yoga while holidaying in Southern Crete and has been teaching it since 1995, says: ”Astanga yoga is far more than a workout. It is an art, creating a new relationship with the body. Physiologically, it is a complete fitness system, a remarkable combination of strength, flexibility and stamina, opening an exciting pathway to lifelong health and a deep level of relaxation which is accompanied by a sense of rejuvenation. It is ‘mind medicine’: the mind is softened and focused as you shed tension and disease”.
Regardless of which yoga path you take, all paths share these fundamental practices – awareness, relaxation and conscious breathing.
Awareness is the ability to play close attention to something, to be consciously present, to be mindful. Yoga is attention training. Try this simple exercise. Pay attention to your right hand for 60 seconds. Focus on your hand and nothing else. Did you do this? Let’s be honest … your mind drifted after a few seconds, didn’t it? Yoga teaches you to reign in your attention whenever it strays.
Relaxation is the conscious release of the unnecessary tension in your body, so yoga is especially recommended for people who find it hard to relax.
Breathing is life. In fact, in the Sanskrit language, the same word (prana) is used for breath as for life. Yoga teaches you to breath deeply and regularly and there is a strong emphasis on correct breathing techniques. Breathing assists relaxation, which of course is why we say “take a few deep breaths and relax”.
Most people are poor or lazy breathers. Perfecting the breathing technique can have far-reaching benefits. In her book Breathe for Life (Hardie Grant Books $24.95), Sophie Gabriel highlights the benefits of deep, powerful and proficient breathing, including:
- increases metabolism
- tones all muscles used in respiration, thus improving posture and tightening the tummy
- keeps lung tissue elastic, allowing you to take in more oxygen and perform physical activities better
- improves general health and strengthens your immune system, since your internal organs receive a better supply of oxygen
- releases accumulated tension, allowing you to relax more easily and alleviate stress
- subdues physical pain (such as in childbirth)
Reasons to practice yoga
- helps you recover, maintain and improve your health
- enhances fitness, thus giving you more energy
- provides muscle strength, flexibility and improved posture
- teaches deep breathing techniques, which aid in the removal of toxins, increases metabolism, regulates heart beat and assists relaxation
- empowers you to approach all life situations with clarity and serenity
- helps harmonise relationships by developing patience and control
- easy and convenient, with lots of classes, books and videos
- liberating – it builds willpower and puts you back in charge of your own life
To get the most out of yoga, you have to believe in its philosophy and be willing to commit long term. It does take some time to perfect techniques and build up your flexibility and strength. Only stretch yourself to a comfortable level. (Those people who can tie themselves in knots have probably been practicing yoga for years). Ensure your teacher is fully qualified and always start at the beginning, no matter how fit you are. Asthma sufferers particularly benefit from the breathing techniques. Yoga is also great for children as there is no weight-bearing involved … and having a relaxed child is every parent’s dream!
“The body is a precious possession. Yoga asks you to take proper care of it so you can enjoy not only health, but also longevity and, ultimately, enlightenment.” – Georg Feuerstein, Ph D (founder and director of the Yoga Research Centre).
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