Yoga is an ancient spiritual practice, working on body, mind and breath to bring them into harmonious union with each other. It has been practised in India for centuries as a path to enlightenment and final liberation from the karmic wheel of life, death and rebirth. On a more mundane level it can help ease medical conditions and has many beneficial physical and psychological effects.
What is its History?
The ancient sage Patanjali is credited with systemising the Yoga philosophy. His ‘Yoga Sutra’, written over 2000 years ago, remains the basis for the Yoga practice of today. The eight limbs of Yoga are as follows:
Yama: ethical principals
Niyama: rules of personal conduct
Asanas: Yoga postures
Pranayama: breathing techniques
Pratyahara: control of the senses
Dharana: mental concentration
Samadhi: union with the divine
The limb most familiar to us in the West is the asanas, or Yoga postures. These can be done both to relax and to energise the body and include standing, sitting, supine and inverted postures, twists, balancings and backbends. The asanas are practised by both the complete beginner and the advanced student of Yoga, with different postures for each level of ability.
How To Get Started
Yoga is suitable for everyone, although certain asanas should not be performed if you have particular illnesses, injuries or physical conditions, e.g. during menstruation or pregnancy.
It is best to find a qualified teacher, who can guide you through the asanas and correct any mistakes. One-to-one tuition can be helpful for chronic symptoms; otherwise a class is fine. A good teacher will try to give individual attention to every student. It is important to listen to your body and to be aware of your level of fitness. Pushing yourself too far in the beginning can cause injuries which may take months to heal, so be patient and learn to practise Yoga for the love of it rather than striving for the impossible in the first week.
Once you are familiar with some of the asanas you may wish to practise at home as well as going to a weekly class. If you would like to do this but you find it hard to be self-motivated, tapes are available which will guide you through a sequence of poses. It is probably best to be familiar with the asanas from a qualified teacher before using a tape. If you become a real devotee you might even consider going on a Yoga holiday!
What are the Physical Benefits?
The asanas work to develop strength and suppleness, stamina and poise. There are Yoga postures for every part of the body and, practised properly, they can improve the functioning of the internal organs and the oxygenation of the blood. The asanas also affect the breathing, making it deeper and more relaxed. Yoga can help ease certain chronic conditions, but this should only be attempted with the help of a qualified instructor.
What are the Psychological Benefits?
The side effects of practising the asanas include increased concentration and alertness and a more centred and well balanced disposition. Whatever the problem, there are Yoga postures that can aid or alleviate your condition.
Beating the Monday Morning Feeling
Surya Namaskar, also known as Salute to the Sun, is a sequence of movements traditionally done before sunrise to increase energy, alertness and agility. It can be repeated three or four times in quick succession and would add no more than five or ten minutes to your morning routine.
Developing Mental concentration and Focus
If the body is balanced and poised it makes sense that the mind will follow suit. Balancing poses are easiest to do in the morning, but if practised in the evening can help regain any mental focus that may have been lost during the day. The simplest of these postures is Tadasana or mountain pose, which involves standing with the feet together, toes spread apart and with the weight evenly balanced over all parts of the foot. The pelvis should be tucked in so that the back is not arched and the arms should hang at the sides of the body, palms face down. Lift the head to lengthen the neck and keep the facial muscles relaxed.
Energising the Body
Standing poses develop strength and are helpful in the morning or for regaining energy after a tiring day. Some people prefer not to do them too near bed time as it can be hard to fall asleep immediately afterwards. The three forms of Virabhadrasana, or warrior pose, develop muscular strength and stamina and can also improve your sense of balance. As their name implies, they help induce a positive and focused frame of mind – perfect for when you need to take on the world.
Unwinding and Preparing for Sleep
If you have been busy all day it can be hard to let go of all the concerns that have occupied your mind. To prepare for a deep and restful sleep try doing some sitting postures, particularly forward bends. These stretch the muscles in the backs of the legs and, as the head is brought forward towards the feet, the brain is provided with a fresh supply of blood and the mind becomes relaxed and refreshed.
Power, Joy and Self Expression
If you need to be outgoing, upbeat and fiery when your energy is rather low, a few backbends could give you the boost you need. These are very strong poses and should not be held for too long. They have an opening effect on body and mind; toxins can be released and old emotions that have been locked away for months or years can suddenly burst forth again. As with the standing poses, this group of asanas is probably most suitable for the morning or afternoon. They can be too energising for the end of the day.
Reversing the Pull of Gravity
To ward off the effects of ageing and physical degeneration try some inverted postures.
These can be calming and relaxing, like Salamba Sarvangasana (shoulder balance), or stimulating like Sirsasana (head balance). These poses are good stress-busters and develop the sense of balance, both mental and physical. Women are advised not to do this group of asanas during menstruation.
An Internal Tonic
Twists improve digestion and can help relieve backache, headache and stiffness. They can be done lying, sitting or standing and give a wonderful feeling of freedom to body and mind.
Each Yoga session should end with some moments of relaxation and calm so you can enjoy the feeling of peace and stillness that the asanas produce. Savasana, or corpse pose, involves lying on your back, with the neck lengthened and the limbs extended away from the body and the eyes closed. The breathing should flow gently into and out of the body as any remaining mental or physical tension is released.
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Sophia Nicholson is a writer and teacher based in Hertfordshire. She has been studying and practising yoga since 1992.