These days, it seems like the word on everyone’s lips…but what does it mean?
Over the past few decades, the art and science of yoga has been gaining more and more attention. Every week, thousands of people the world over attend yoga classes or watch yoga videos or sign up for yoga retreats. But what is yoga, really?
Yoga comes from ancient India. Figurines depicting people in yogic postures date back to the dawning of the Indus valley civilization of 1000bc. The Sanskrit word yoga comes from the root yuj, which means to unite. Yoga is the ancient science of uniting our bodies, lives, hearts and minds with our deepest inner power. The philosophy of yoga is based on the understanding that the essence of the human being is divine- that at the core of each person there is a place of indescribable freedom and light and that that light is no different than the divine creative light of God. The practices of yoga evolved as various means for people to discover that inner power and then gradually to become established in it.
The ancients who first developed the systems of yoga understood that every person is different with different needs and lifestyles. Different practices are appropriate at various times in ones life, climates, seasons, and geography. As a result, many different types and categories of yoga evolved. Each has its own means for attaining the same goal of ultimate union.
Let’s take a look at a few of the main categories of yoga practice…
Bhakti yoga is the system of yoga whereby the practitioner unties with the divine energy through devotional practice. Intense love is cultivated through practices such as chanting, mantra repetition, prayer, and worship.
Jnana –pronounced yaana- means knowledge. Jnana yogis unite with the divine by refining their understanding and outlook about the nature of themselves and their universe.
Karma yoga is the yoga of action. The practitioners of Karma yoga engage in action with the understanding that they are not the one doing the work. Karma yogis may use a project as significant as a freedom struggle, or an action as simple as walking to cultivate their experience of union.
Hatha yoga is probably the most common form of yoga practiced in the west. Hatha (literally sun-moon) yoga outlines a comprehensive approach that is aimed at uniting with the divine through the cultivation of balance.
Typically hatha yoga is the yoga being offered at your local yoga school. In hatha yoga, balance is brought to our actions, our minds, and our bodies through a number of practices for the body and mind. The most popular of these practices is known as Asana, or posture.
Yogic postures bring balance to the body by breaking through habitual patterns of movement and posture. The yogi systematically learns to stretch the stiff sections of their body and strengthen the parts that are weak. Bones are properly aligned with each other, and students learn to rest habitually active parts of their being and bring life into habitually stagnant areas. Yoga also emphasizes the connection between the body, mind, and breath. Yoga postures are performed with acute sensitivity to patterns of breathing and have the ability to bring evenness to the breath, which yogis understand will bring evenness to our minds. The asanas are often complex and require tremendous mental focus and reflection; because of this, asana practice is often used as a support for meditation.
With its combination of physical challenge and mental serenity, yoga asana practice has fast become one of the most popular exercise modalities in the west. Practiced in moderation, yoga is safe for joints and can be practiced by anyone regardless of their age or physical fitness. It is very effective means for getting into shape and produces a softer-looking body that is considered more attractive than the muscle-bound athletic ideal. Some proponents of classical yoga practice claim that the more subtle and traditional goals of yoga are sidelined in favor of the physical practice; none-the-less, yoga practice is at the center of a whole generation of people learning to bring healthy balance into their bodies and minds. America alone has and estimated 15-20 million people practicing yoga every week.
While hatha yoga helps people get their bodies into shape and their minds into stillness, it is also said to help many medical ailments. New York teacher Jill Satterfield founded Vajrayoga after an experience of radical healing through her yoga practice.
“In my early 20′s, I was stricken with a mysterious, crippling abdominal pain. After many surgeries, the pain persisted and I was told I would never heal fully and had to learn to deal with the chronic pain…. that’s when I decided to help myself.
“Through yoga and meditation, I became intimate with my body and mind – seeing the two as reflective elements of each other. It took 7 years to fully heal my ailments physically (shocking the medical profession) but the most interesting aspect of the healing was the profound insights I gained about my emotional and subtle body. Healing is not flat. It involves our hearts, minds and bodies. The ancient traditions of hatha yoga, meditation and contemplation are far greater than most of us imagine. Fortunately, they are alive and well for those of us ready to take advantage.
Vajra Yoga originated from my practices, my healing and with the kind support of my Buddhist teachers. Helping others to help and know themselves is the best life I could ever dream of living.”
Devotees of practices like meditation and yoga will swear by the practice, but researchers are beginning to recognize the medical and psychological effects of the practice as well. Brain science researchers at the University of Wisconsin recently published a study showing marked increased activity in the left pre-frontal lobe (the “happiness center”) in the brains of regular meditators.
In modern yoga schools, you can find a wide continuum of yoga practice. Some schools are very traditional others have adapted western modes of being. Some teachers focus on the more spiritual aspects of asana practice, others approach the practice purely as an exercise routine. Some styles of yoga –like the Ashtanga method developed by K. Pratabhi Jois- are more vigorous and physically challenging. Others, like John Friend’s Anusara yoga, encourage students to take their practice to a deeper, more spiritual level. Whoever you are and whatever walk of life you come from, you’re bound to find something in the vast world of yoga that fits your needs.
If you want to jump into a yoga practice, it may be a good idea to do some homework. Before beginning classes, shop around. Ask questions of the teachers. Ask where they were trained and what their focus is. Many schools offer free introductory classes. After that, consult your doctor or health care practitioner to ensure that the practice is suitable for you.
Boxes and Tables
1. Different types of asana classes
Ashtanga Rigorous, challenging, Anusara Challenging, with an emphasis on attitude Viniyoga Gentle, therapeutic Iyengar Exacting, focusing on alignment and balance Kundalini Focus on breathing and movement spiritually-oriented
2. Yoga Schools in Different Cities
New York: Vajrayoga Iyengar/Buddhist meditation: Vajra Yoga Studio
Shri Yoga Anusara: Shri Yoga
Chicago: The Yoga Circle Iyengar/therapeutic: The Yoga Circle
LA: Golden Bridge Kundalini: Golden Bridge LA (S. Pasadena)
Mission Street Yoga Anusara/family: Mission Street Yoga
Miami: Miami Yogashala Ashtanga: Miami Yogashala
Houston: Wellness 3D Viniyoga: Wellness 3D
If you’d like, you can try this simple asana sequence and follow it with a short meditation session. Before you begin, take a moment and consider your intention for practicing yoga. You may remember the meaning of the word yoga means “uniting with your divine inner power”.
1. Urdvahastasana Upward Extension (with interlocked fingers)
Stand with your feet about 12” apart. Make your feet parallel as if you were standing on railroad tracks. Breathe through your nose- feel your breath come all the way in and out. Interlace your fingers, bend your elbows, and raise your hands over your head. Turn your palms towards the ceiling and slowly stretch your arms up until they are extended fully. Take 3-4 breaths though your nose in this position. Release.
This asana stretches the spine and shoulders and brings draws breath into the lungs, oxygenating the entire body.
2. Uttanasana Intense forward bending pose
Begin in the same standing position as number one. Place your hands on your hips and bend your knees. Breath through your nose and slowly bend forward. Let your arms release towards the floor. Straighten your legs gently. Allow your head to hang and take 3-4 breaths through your nose. Slowly roll back up one vertebra at a time.
Uttanasana streches the spine as well as the backs of the legs. Bringing your head downward also brings fresh blood supply and oxygen to the brain. This version of uttanasana should not be practiced by pregnant women beyond their first trimester. Pregnant women can vary the pose by placing their hands on a table top or high stool.
3. Viparita Karani Passive inverted pose
Lying on the floor, bend your legs and move your hips close to a wall. Extend your legs up the wall and stretch your arms above your head on the floor. Lay for 1-5 minutes. Pregnant women may separate their legs 12-15″. To exit the asana, bend your knees and roll to the right. Come up slowly and gently.
This asana brings rest to the legs and rejuvenates the nervous system. The brain and abdominal organs become oxygenated and the lymphatic system is stimulated.
4. Chair Bharadwajasana Simple twisting pose
Sit sideways on a firm chair with the chair back at your right side. With your feet on the floor and spine extended, turn the center of your chest to towards the chair back. Grasp the back of the chair with both hands, keep breathing and twist a little deeper. Release back to center. Repeat on left side.
5. Sitting meditation
With your feet flat on the floor, rest your hands in your lap and close your eyes. Breathe evenly through your nose and pay close attention to each breath. Gradually relax each section of your body beginning with your head and face and moving down to your feet. Continue watching your breath for five to 15 minutes.
D. Harshada Wagner is a meditation teacher and author based in New York City. Considered among the top teachers of his generation, Harshada travels widely teaching meditation and leading deep meditation workshops and retreats. He is the founding director of Banyan Education, an organization whose mission is to promote meditation and help people from all walks of life cultivate happiness and enjoy a rich inner life.
Harshada’s Living Meditation CD series, co-produced with Inner Splendor Media (http://www.innersplendor.com), have topped the New Age charts on iTunes and Amazon.com.