The ABCs of Yoga – From Breathwork to PosturesPaul Martino May 23, 2019
Article endorsed by Canadian School of Natural Nutrition csnn.ca/wellness
Sure, yoga is “an ancient system of postures, breathing exercises and guidelines for living a fulfilling, healthy and above all honest life.” But what does that really mean? What’s the point of all this breathing and slow-motion exercising? Sure, it has been around for about 3,000 years and, yes, it is one of six systems of Indian philosophy. Then again, you want details — even to carry your own when you’re just at a vegan house party and the young and nubile start talking about their pranayama or whatever they call it. Who knows? You might take lessons and you’ll need to know what you’re getting into, right? No books, just a good explanation of the philosophy but without all the stretching. Read on. We’ve got just what the doctor ordered.
ENERGY . . . WHAT ENERGY?
If you can’t accept the unproved notion that all of us and all things are imbued with an invisible energy, you’re just going to have to suspend that disbelief for now. In Indian philosophy, everything is permeated by the universal spirit or energy.
Trees, plants, animals, mother earth and humans all have a divine spirit within them. The word yoga is derived from the Sanskrit word: yuj, which means to bind, join and yoke, to focus our attention on something, to unify. In this way we unify our divine spirit with that of the universal energy.
The language of yoga is Sanskrit. No, it was never offered as an option at college because it’s a forgotten language now for the most part and is only really used in the context of yoga and spiritual practices. The yoga poses or asanas are all named in Sanskrit; and energy work is also referred to in Sanskrit.
Yoga spans all religions and belief systems so it doesn’t matter if you believe in a god, in guides, angels or nothing at all. The teachings in yoga are respectful to the environment, mother earth and the universe; it’s a good way to live your life, but you take what you need from it, to fit in with your own way of living.
There are eight practices of yoga. By these, we are meant to lead our lives:
• Yama – Universal moral commandments
• Niyam – Self purification and discipline
• Asana – Posture
• Pranayama – Control of the breath
• Pratyahara – Withdrawal of the mind from outside distractions
• Dharana – Concentration
• Dhyana – Meditation
• Samadhi – A state of super-consciousness bought about by union with the universal energy through the previous seven practices
THE UNIVERSAL MORAL COMMANDMENTS
These commandments are designed to guide us into living peacefully and in harmony with yourself, with others and with all living things. Without these life would be full of chaos; you can see examples of this when we hear news of mindless killings and abuse. These people have strayed off the path of what is good to what is evil. The commandments are: Non-violence; Truth; Non-stealing; Self restraint; Non-coveting; Self purification; Discipline
While yama are the universal commandments, niyama refer only to the individual. They help us as individuals to get the best from our lives in an honourable and moral way. These guidelines are: Purity of the mind, body and spirit; contentment in life and in your self; austerity to achieve your goals; education to bring out the best in ourselves; dedication to the universal spirit or energy.
THE ASANAS OR YOGA POSTURES
Asanas or postures tone the body; over time they make us more flexible, stronger and allow greater endurance. Greater awareness and control are asserted over the body. The inner organs are cleansed, the blood purified and toxins are eliminated.
Practising asanas allows us to tap into our own energies as well as connecting with mother earth and all that dwell on her. Gradually over time we can still the mind, the breath becoming smooth and regulated. This leads us to a higher state of consciousness, banishing fear and anxiety and embracing the all encompassing love of the universe.
Pranayama refers to all the aspects of breathing and control of the breath. Inhalation, exhalation, and holding of the breath. When practising the asana it’s important to learn control over the breath so that it can flow in and out of the body with no effort. We often start on an exhalation to clear the body of carbon dioxide so that more oxygen can then in turn be inhaled.
We learn control of the breath during class allowing it to flow smoothly and in unison with movements and postures. Often we try to fight with the breath, especially in a particularly hard pose but when we learn to relax it will just flow through.
This brings about many benefits: calmness of mind, clarity of thought, deeper enjoyment of the poses. These aren’t limited to your lesson — you can see marked improvements in normal life. We start to use the entire lung to induce vitality. Those who suffer panic attacks can learn to breathe deep into the lungs, calming and soothing the body. Lethargy and tiredness can be driven out of the body and mind from correct use of the breath.
WITHDRAWAL OF THE MIND
Working with the breath leads us onto the fifth practice of yoga which is Pratyahara — withdrawal of the senses or mind. By doing this we cut out those distractions which keep us from working to our optimum level. How many times have you sat at work and been distracted by a colleague or at home when the TV is on. We jump from task to task, not finishing anything we have started because we are constantly moving forwards and never living in the moment.
We have worked on the physical body in the asana’s, we have quieted the breath and withdrawn the senses, now we are ready to still the mind, to cease that endless chatter that goes on in our heads all day. Only then are we able to focus all our energies into the single task that we are doing at any given time. In this state we can achieve much and a still peacefulness can be enjoyed throughout the body, mind and soul.
When concentration is uninterrupted, constant, we enter the realm of meditation. Meditation literally means to contemplate, to bend our mind to something. During this contemplation the chakra’s become active (I will talk more of these in later features) and the energy flows freely without blockage through the body. A higher state of consciousness is achieved through meditation, a connection with the universal energy. From that comes unconditional love which we feel as complete joy and bliss.
This leads us onto the last stage of yoga — samadhi, the union of the soul with the supreme universal spirit. To the dedicated yogi, this is the ultimate goal of enlightenment.
THE BENEFITS OF YOGA
You’ve been waiting for this, haven’t you? This is where it all comes together.
Not all of us who practice yoga are going to want to adhere precisely to the eight stages of yoga. It takes a lot of dedication, time and effort to achieve all the mental states, to practice faithfully and to meditate regularly. We can, however, take what we need from these teachings and fit them into our everyday lives in a way that suits us.
It is essential when starting an exercise regime that you go to a reputable class so you learn how to do it properly. As you become more confident and learn the ‘do’s’ and ‘dont’s’ we can begin to practice more on our own. Your yoga teacher will take you through all of the teachings listed above and it’s then up to you how far you wish to take them.
You will be getting more from your classes than you realize, I challenge you all to note how you feel when you begin yoga for the first time and then to look again in six months. I’m sure you’ll feel subtly different — you might not be able to put your finger on it but you’ll probably feel calmer, more confident and joyful. You will also notice great changes within your body over time. Elimination is improved, the inner organs toned, the muscles become strong and more lean and endurance and stamina are improved immensely.
Yoga compliments all other forms of exercise by working in a subtle way on stretching, toning and strengthening. You will also be benefiting from the mental, emotional and spiritual aspects as well. The following benefits can be enjoyed through the various asana groups:
• Muscles are strengthened, lengthened and toned
• Joints released and nourished by increased blood flow
• Flexibility improved; Stamina and endurance improved
• Spine elongated and aligned; Tension is released
• Brings balance and poise
• Digestion and elimination are aided
• Blood circulates more effectively
• Internal organs nourished and cleansed
• Helps with menstrual issues, cramps, pains
• Great throughout second and third trimesters of pregnancy
• Hormones and emotions are balanced
• Invigorates or lightens the mind; Helps with depression
• Brings about peace and unity within
• Aligns energy meridians or nadi; Chakras are awakened and aligned
• Connection made and maintained between mother earth and the universal spirit
So the benefits are many. It’s a delight and a joy to learn and teach yoga, a wonderful journey of self-discovery. Everyone can take part and enjoy. You don’t have to be a noodle or super-fit. The only thing you have to bring with you is a sense of fun and a willingness to give it a go.
There are many good books with easy to follow instructions and clear pictures. They also touch on the spiritual side of yoga without swamping or alienating the prospective student. Very good for beginners although, frankly, I would recommend that anyone using a book should do so alongside “in the flesh” tuition.
And if you don’t actually want to “do” yoga, at least you can now understand what the heck everyone’s talking about, right?
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