Many practitioners of yoga forget its roots. In the West, so much emphasis is on the body, physical training, and fitness aspects of the practice. Using yoga in this way is not yoga in the true sense. What’s missing is the mindfulness and experience that is yoga. To obtain health, in general, one must keep the mind, body, and subtle self (or soul, if you will) connected. Yoga is one of the few practices that incorporates all of those things. It does not require one to be religious or even spiritual, but it does insist on constant questioning of the self to find meaning in life. At its minimum, practice should beg the question: Why do I do yoga?
Religion and Spirituality in Yoga
Yoga’s beginnings were in India and expressed, according to historical records, around the 2nd century BCE. It does not mean that yoga itself did not exist prior to that, but that ancient Indians were putting words to these philosophies at that time. Yoga is a Sanskrit term meaning “to yoke” or “to unite.” Unity is an important factor, as was discussed earlier, in that yoga is intended to connect the body with the soul and the mind. Thus, someone very practiced in yoga is referred to as a yogi or yogini.
Yoga has its roots in many Eastern religions, but it is one of of the orthodox schools of Hinduism. In some of the schools of Hindu religion, the goal of yoga practice is to become one with god. For others, it is to obtain spiritual insight. In many religions, they are one in the same. To become one with god it to obtain enlightenment and visa versa. In the Hindu faith, yoga is a form of religious worship. People of other faiths, however, have embraced yoga as a way to find peace within themselves, and therefore access to their own gods. Many Christians, for example, have embraced yoga not for its religious history but for its ability to help someone come closer to God. They do not see it as a threat to Christianity.
Atheists practice yoga, as well. There is no need to ascribe to the religion that underlies yoga in order to benefit from the awareness of the mind and the self. These things should be important to all of humanity. Wellness is a balancing act between the mind, the body, and the self. Yoga is just one way to understand and facilitate this connection.
This is why yoga is so flexible. It can be incorporated into the lives of people with varied personal styles, preferences, and fitness levels.Whether you are practiced yogi who prefers to spend their time on the mat doing Ashtanga yoga at home, or a beginner who is just starting to understand postures through a guided Hatha yoga class, yoga can work for you. Beginners may enjoy the class environment more since it is conducive to sharing ideas and techniques. It can be done with strangers, friends and kids with the assistance of a certified yoga instructor. A great teacher can create a learning environment that’s right for people just starting to understand yoga. This community or class can make those new to yoga feel supported as they work through challenges.
Below are aspects of yoga practiced in most general yoga courses, and can be applied over many types of yoga popularly practiced today.
While doing yoga, not all energy and attention is focused on the asanas, or physical poses. In order to tie in elements of the mind and understanding of the self, one must meditate. The aim of meditation is, at its highest level, to reach a state of bliss and happiness that can only be attained by being close to god or tapping into consciousness. It is access to both the primitive in us and pure consciousness. These philosophies, of course, are too deep to delve into here, and though these terms may be new to beginners, they are often discussed in the context of yoga. Again, as a flexible system, yoga does not require you be a follower of any religion, but it does open discussion about the self, the nature of consciousness, and the path or paths people use to gain their desired goal. For some, the goal is as simple calming their “monkey mind,” gaining awareness and control of the mind, or understanding their world a little better by exploring ideas in the safe space of their mind. Yet for others, the goals are related but more advanced: delving deep into the the mind to access memories, confront deep fears and anxieties, reaching a state of pure bliss.
This part of yoga is easily neglected. Hopefully, those inspired to make yoga a part of their lives find meditation inextricable from their practice.
The asanas are what people are most familiar with. Familiar poses such as downward dog, butterfly, and tree pose are seen in advertisements and other forms of media. These beautiful movements and vinyasa flows build strength and power in the body. Asanas and their variations differ depending on what school of yoga you belong to. Below are descriptions of just a few new and old schools.
o Hatha: This is the most common form of yoga practiced by the modern world today. It can be practiced at home, in a class, or by taking vacation-like retreats all over the world.
o Vinyasa: Is very similar to hatha in its actual poses, but the transition from one to the the other is focus here. Fluidity and constant movement and breathing is the goal.
o Ashtanga: Offers an advanced and vigorous yoga program. Not recommended for beginners.
o Triyoga: A type of hatha yoga that focuses on posture, breath and mental focus to create balance. Kundalini yoga is a major inspiration for this new variation.
o Antigravity: A trendy yoga that incorporates props and aerial acrobatics into practice. Asanas are performed suspended from the ceiling, and this method is said to encourage proper alignment.
o Hot/Bikram: Hot Yoga is Hatha Yoga that is performed in 90-minute periods in a very hot (95-105°F room at 40% humidity) room. The reason for the hot space is that it encourages safe stretching of the ligaments and muscles (not to mention sweating!).
o Iyengar: This is a prop-heavy form of yoga. Alignment and position is of great importance during practice, and is actively corrected by instructors. Iyengar yoga can be very beneficial to those healing from injuries.
o Pilates: Pilates is NOT a form of yoga, however, it is similar in its mission. Pilates, like yoga, practice is a sequence of poses done slowly and deliberately, and it incorporates breathing.
o Shiva: Less focused on the bodily asanas, it works with breathing exercises and devotional studies and meditations. Shiva Yoga relies heavily on the Vedas, and it is very religious in nature and practice.
o Thai Yoga Massage: Has those being massaged maintain different asanas during the session. The asanas allow for deep muscle access.
o Yin: A combination of hatha yoga and Chinese Taoist principles. Poses are held for several minutes, and the body is allowed to relax into the poses. Movements are slow and deliberate. Practice can be personalized to anyone’s needs.
Anyone who has taken a yoga class will know there is MUCH emphasis on breathing. Awareness of breath is often the first skill taught to a student in any of the yoga schools. Every asana is meant to be performed using moderated breath. Easy, basic breathing exercises to advanced pranayama techniques can be found at every level of yoga. With time, students will find they have improved their ability to control their breath.
This skill is especially helpful with those suffering from anxiety, stress, and relaxation issues. Yogic breathing techniques can be very useful in curbing these controllable problems.