Last week, I mostly focused on why you should give yoga a chance, especially if you’ve had a bad experience that put you off.
This week, I thought I’d explain the basics of yoga – where it comes from, what it’s all about, and how it benefits your body – from the very down-to-earth perspective of a regular person (me).
Disclaimer: The information in this article summarizes what I’ve gleaned from going to lots and lots of yoga classes. Any inaccuracy or lack of clarity is my own.
Where it Comes From
Yoga is an ancient meditation tool that originates in India. In its pure form, the purpose of yoga was NOT to build core strength, correct posture, or make you sweat. It was a moving meditation. The practice of syncing movement with breath, or holding a physically uncomfortable posture for a really long time, quiets the mind and helps the practitioner stay present.
What it Really Is
What we think of today as “yoga” – the flowing movements, the pretzel poses – is only one aspect of the true, original practice. There are actually Eight Limbs of Yoga. (They have a Sanskrit name too, but I forgot it.) The moving practice is just one of the limbs.
What we practice in modern, Western yoga (mostly), are the Asanas (body postures) and Pranayama (breathing exercises). The other limbs address things like morality, compassion, friendliness, self awareness, and devotion – and there’s an equally cool-sounding Sanskrit name for each one. Ancient yoga is a holistic blend of all these aspects.
What Happens in a Yoga Class
Let’s take your basic, beginner yoga class. You’ll start by talking – the instructor will want to know if you’ve ever done yoga before, and if you have any injuries or other physical concerns. Most classes start with some sort of meditation – sitting or standing, focusing on your inhales and exhales. The instructor guides you through this.
Next, you may do Sun Salutations. This is a flowing sequence of poses that line up with the breath, and take the spine through its full range of motion. There are many different variations on this. You’ll start out slowly, taking time to understand the alignment and desired position for each component of the Sun Salutation. There’s forward bend, downward dog, high push up (like a plank), low push-up (chaturanga), and some others.
After that, you may move into some Warrior poses – these are my favorite. After your standing practice is done, you’ll do several seated and/or reclining poses. Bridge is usually a staple in any beginner class. Then you get to do your final rest – savasana, corpse pose. This is when you just lie there on the floor and relax. It rules.
Some instructors use only the English names for poses: “downward dog,” “tree pose,” “corpse pose.” Others use the Sanskrit names: adho mukha svasana, virksasana, savasana.
(Here’s a trick: the word asana (AH-sah-nah) means “body posture.” Every yoga pose is something-asana.)
Most instructors use a blend of both. My favorite teachers call their poses in both languages. This is great, because there are a lot of different English names for the same pose, but only one Sanskrit name. Plus, I love the sound of Sanskrit.
What Else You Need to Know
It’s important to understand that your yoga practice is for YOU and you alone. If your muscles are tight and your joints crackle and pop, if you can barely bend over halfway while everyone else is a jackknife, IT DOESN’T MEAN YOU SUCK AT YOGA.
It’s hard to get your head around this in today’s culture of achievement and competitiveness. But there’s no such thing as being “good” or “bad” at yoga. The very fact that you’re doing it, IS the success. The whole point of yoga is to practice slowing down your mind and tuning into what your body is doing (or, in some cases, NOT doing.)
Watch out for instructors who imply that yoga poses have a goal – to touch your nose to your shins in forward bend, for example. In my humble (but strong) opinion, this inadvertently creates a sense of failure and discouragement in students who might be insecure enough about their budding yoga practice. And anyway it’s not true.
Your goal, in every single yoga pose you do, is to get the most benefit out of that pose. If you’re forcing yourself into a backbend that makes your lower back spasm – not benefiting. Even if everyone else is doing it.
It takes a lot of patience, and a really great instructor, to figure out the little modifications and adjustments to customize your practice. But when you get it right? Oooooohhhh, it’s sweet.
If your interest is peaked, check out our Therapeutic Yoga Info Session, on June 4th at 6pm. Our clinically trained instructors will be there to answer any questions you have.