WHAT IS YOGA?
Beginners are often concerned about what to expect from a Yoga class – the only experience you may have had is of pictures of celebrities such as Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, Goldie or even Russell Brand tying themselves up in knots or chanting ‘omm’ solemnly. You may be concerned that you are not ‘flexible’ enough or not a ‘naturally’ calm person or you may be worried about how much ‘better’ everyone else will be. However, you may have heard about the health benefits of Yoga from the press or from friends: ‘Yoga sorted out my bad back’, ‘Yoga made me feel calmer’ etc and be curious about whether it could be something that would work for you.
The good news is Yoga IS for the inflexible and the agitated and those recovering from injury or childbirth as well as for the already fit, dynamic and strong. Despite having danced in my youth, when I sat in my first Yoga class, nearly 20 years ago I could barely sit in crossed legs – so I can understand the concerns of ‘not being flexible enough’. In fact, with a regular Yoga practice you get more flexible as you age – not less – now, of course, I can sit in crossed legs very comfortably. But increased flexibility is only the tip of the iceberg regarding all the wonderful benefits you will enjoy from a regular Yoga practice.
YOGA FOR HEALTH
Yoga – is a science that was developed in India thousands of years ago. It is the oldest system of personal development in the world, encompassing body, mind and spirit and the word Yoga is a Sanskrit word meaning union. Throughout the West Yoga incorporates the practice of Asana, (postures) Pranayama (breath control/mindfulness) and Relaxation. The wonderful thing about Yoga too is that it is so different from other forms of exercise – unlike running or other sports, where your mind is allowed to wander and roam – Yoga yokes the mind into the practice – what does this mean?
Asanas are the physical postures. The combination of asanas or postures exercise every part of the body, stretching and toning the muscles, joints and spine. This creates great suppleness and flexibility throughout the entire body while toning the internal organs, glands and nerves, thereby the respiratory, digestive, circulatory, endocrine and reproductive systems all benefit. Physically, as long as your breath doesn’t become ‘ragged’ you are working with your body – but Yoga is not about pushing yourself to the max and risking injury – on the contrary it is a practice of self nurture where, for sure, you will stretch and strengthen the body but you will not push it beyond it’s limits into pain and injury.
So as you are transitioning into and out of postures or Asanas, through repeatedly drawing the focus to the breath, you are thinking about the feel of earth underneath the soles of your feet, you become aware of the feeling of the air between your fingers of your lungs gently pushing into the ribcage as you inhale.. all these observations help keep your mind ‘in the moment and in the room’ rather than focussing on the past or the future, worries, to-do lists or even ego-centred concerns we all have such as ‘how do I look doing this pose?” In Yoga the end goal is not to do complicated postures with your mind everywhere but in the moment, it’s to reach that ever elusive state in our culture, to be content with the here and now even if that means your hamstrings feel like a taught guitar string while your neighbour is effortlessly relaxing their head to their knees!
Pranayama is the science of breath control. Breath is the essence of life which most of us take for granted. It is the first thing we do when we are born into the world and it is the last thing we do when we leave and every moment in between is connected by breath. Reconnecting with the art of proper breathing can greatly enhance the quality of our health and our emotional and mental well-being. Breath is the most vital process of the body, effecting the functioning of each and every cell, is intimately linked with the performance of the brain and our levels of vitality and resistance to disease. Furthermore as the state of our mind is deeply connected with our breath the practice of Pranayama promotes a calm and contented state of mind.
Relaxation is the natural state of our body and mind but because of the pace of our lives we rarely achieve a state of true relaxation. In Yoga we begin and end the class with relaxation and mindfulness. A few minutes of relaxation at the beginning of the class enables us to let go of the day, our worries and anxieties, allowing the mind to become clear and relaxed and helps to release any unnecessary tension and tightness in the body in preparation for the Asanas that follow. As the whole body relaxes certain physiological changes occur in the body; muscle tension is reduced; the breath becomes slow and deep; activity in the mind slows down; there is a decrease in the activity of the sympathetic or ‘fight or flight’ nervous system and an increase in the parasympathetic or ‘rest and digest’ activity. A few minutes of deep relaxation is more effective than many hours of restless sleep. Release of tensions, relaxation and mindfulness practice are the secrets of your peace of mind.