What is Yoga?
“Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence.” Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras 1:ii
Yoga is not just physical exercise – the Sanskrit word yoga means union: of body, breath, mind and spirit. The practice of asana (physical postures) together with pranayama (breathing techniques) and relaxation or meditation combines to create a sense of physical harmony, mental clarity and self-awareness.
The practice of yoga originated in India around five thousand years ago. It is an ancient eastern philosophy offering a holistic approach to body, mind and spirit that helps equip us to cope with the challenges of daily life. Today it is enjoyed by millions of people all over the world, of all ages and at all levels of physical fitness.
Regular practice of yoga can bring benefits on many levels, including:
- Increased flexibility, stronger muscles and bones.
- Improved posture and balance.
- Healthier joints.
- Improved lung function with slower and deeper breathing.
- A stronger immune system.
- Increased concentration and focus.
- Lower blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
- Reduced anxiety and stress.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
In addition, according to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one of the ancient texts that is often cited as a source for the philosophy behind yoga, eight “limbs of yoga” are described, each one relating to an aspect of achieving a healthy and fulfilling life, and each builds upon the one before it. The picture below shows an outline of these eight limbs or guidelines:
These eight limbs are the keys to living a “yogic” life although asanas (physical postures) are a perfectly good place to start:
Yama, or the way you behave: The five Yamas advocate non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence and non-possessiveness.
Niyama, or attitude to yourself: There are five Niyamas: cleanliness, contentment, austerity, study of sacred texts and oneself, surrender to a higher power.
Asana, or physical postures: Through asanas we free our mind and body from tension and stress. They relax, rejuvenate and give energy to the body in order to prepare it for meditation.
Pranayama, or breath control: Yogis regulate breath because they recognise the connection between breathing and state of mind, the nervous system and the level of life energy. It also improves your concentration skills.
Pratyahara, or withdrawal of senses: This is the process of diverting our awareness inside ourselves and away from the outer world. This practice allows us to look at ourselves from aside and achieve a higher level of spiritual development.
Dharana, or concentration: This is the state of focusing attention on a single point, without any distractions, which serves as a preparation for meditation.
Dhyana, or meditation: Meditation is the practice of constant, uninterrupted observation by the mind without a special focus. It is meant to increase one’s awareness and unify oneself with the universe.
Samadhi, or enlightenment: The ultimate, most coveted – and the hardest to achieve – goal of the eight limbs is the state of ecstasy coming from the feeling of unity with the universe. You experience infinite peace, harmony and awareness.
Why Do Yoga?
I can only speak from personal experience but my initial answer would be, why not? Of course I am biased, I eat, sleep and breathe yoga and it has changed my life in so many positive ways, but I know that everyone could benefit from this wonderful practice. People come to yoga to explore the physical practice or asanas and quite simply fall in love with how wonderful it makes them feel. Give it enough time and I guarantee you’ll get the yoga bug!
The difference between yoga and other forms of exercise is that it is SO MUCH MORE THAN JUST EXERCISE. It is a practice that encompasses every part of your being. You begin with the breath, becoming more in tune with its movements and learning how to use it to your advantage, then you explore your body and where it can take you, strengthening and stretching your muscles so that your body is able to cope with the physical demands of everyday life and rewarding you with a strong, toned and most importantly a healthy body, then finishing with the mind and learning how to relax and quieten down your thoughts and emotions to find an inner and outer stillness that is so very much needed in our busy day-to-day lives.
But will yoga help me lose weight?
This is quite often the question that people ask themselves before taking up a new form of exercise and rightly so. With our busy lives, trying to be and do everything within each 24-hour period, it’s no wonder that sometimes we don’t exercise as much as we should and that our approach to food is not always the healthiest or best for us which is why we naturally seek out a quick-fix approach to getting into shape and putting everything right again. BUT there is NO quick fix route to health and a healthy body. It takes time and commitment and this is where I think yoga fits in nicely. Yoga is not about counting how many calories we have burned in one session, instead it helps us learn to view our bodies differently. We begin to focus on what our bodies can ‘do’ and how our bodies ‘feel’ and we work towards improving our flexibility and strength (amongst other things) one step at a time. No more singling out areas of our bodies that we don’t like and criticising ourselves constantly, we start treating our bodies with respect and kindness and we are rewarded with strength,flexibility and good health and we begin changing both our relationship with our bodies and actually changing our bodies at the same time. It is not a quick fix weight-loss plan, it is a long-term investment in yourself.
I hope this little introduction has made you curious enough to take up a yoga class or start a little practice at home, I assure you that you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by taking this first step…