I was inspired to write this post by the countless conversations I’ve had with yoga students and teachers about the variety of styles on offer in the modern yoga scene. Inevitably, these conversations point to a general confusion of terms when describing a particular class style or approach.
“Inhale, and God approaches you. Hold the inhalation, and God remains with you. Exhale, and you approach God. Hold the exhalation, and surrender to God.”
This quote from my teacher’s teacher, Sri T. Krishnamacharya, contains a profound insight into the religious nature of Hatha Yoga. The word religion comes from the Latin religare, which means to bind or join, a meaning shared by the root of the word Yoga, yuj.
“The success of Yoga does not lie in the ability to perform postures but in how it positively changes the way we live our life and our relationships.”
— TKV Desikachar
Much of the modern yoga scene is centered around the performace and display of complex and difficult postures. There are a lot of reasons for this, one of which is that it's the simplest way to sell yourself as an expert. "I can do this, you can't, but if you pay me I can show you how".
Mastering a posture often requires only that one be born with a certain body type, but mastering an internal posture of calm, compassionate equanimous presence takes a lifetime of practice and self-reflection. And you can never do it alone.
Desikachar would also say “yoga is relationship”, which to me, means that we can only realize yoga (union) when there are two of something, and it's the quality of the relationship between those two things that defines success in yoga.
True union between two people means that both are relating to each other in present time — what's happening right here and now — without allowing old patterns or preconceptions to get in the way of authentic connection. This is liberating for both people — to be free of someone's old ideas about who they expect you to be, so that you can be truly alive and expressing who you really are, right now. And vice-versa, to drop your preconceptions about the other person allows you to experience them fresh every day.
Think of how wonderful it is when you're on vacation in a new place where no one knows "the old you" and you're completely free to be who you want to be. You can give this to your partner, your family and you can give it to yourself. It takes some work and letting go of a little (or a lot) of baggage, but what a gift to offer someone — the opportunity to be who they want to be.
It's January 1st, and all over the world, there are thousands of people taking advantage of yoga studio new-member deals in a quest to become stronger, more flexible, and hopefully, more calm and centered.
These days, most everyone is aware of the countless benefits of yoga breathwork and stretching exercises, and even doctors are starting to recommend yoga to their patients. However, many of the people I speak to feel intimidated by the idea of going to a yoga class full of young and fit folks, and many of the classes offered at popular studios are not accessible for a large demographic of people.
So, how is someone who may not be in "yoga shape" because of age, inactivity, or other factors, supposed to even begin a yoga practice, and how do they make sure that they're actually receiving the benefits promised by all the medical studies and sales pitches?
The first thing they can do is to learn a little bit about what constitutes a therapeutic yoga practice. Most of the studies that have been conducted to research the positive benefits of yoga have focused on yogic breathwork, simple stretches and movement, and basic mindfulness. The studies show that a really simple yoga practice really works — as long as it includes three key elements of therapeutic yoga: accessible postures, breathwork and mindfulness.
The problem that a new practitioner faces when they start going to studio classes, is that most teachers don't cover the basics of yogic breathing, and the posture practice is often focused on challenging or pushing the students to their limits (and often beyond) — instead of meeting them where they're at. Not to mention that very few classes even include meditation and are often so fast-paced and music-driven that it's nearly impossible to pay attention to the subtleties of what's happening with your breath or in your body.
So, where to begin? If you're interested in vinyasa classes — which is a popular style that integrates breathwork and movement (and the style I teach) — it helps if you understand the basic principles of 1) how to breathe and 2) how to link your movement to your breath. In most of the vinyasa classes I've been to, the teacher may tell you to focus on your breath, or mention ujjayi breathing, but they often never offer the basic instruction on how to do it.
I remember the first time I was in a class where the teacher focused on the basic principles of vinyasa (thank you Joanna!) and how everything immediately clicked for me — I finally got what they were talking about all this time! Yoga! Yes! I began to feel for myself the benefits of this way of practicing, and so now when I teach, I always go over the fundamentals — even with people who have been practicing for a long time, because I know that I went to classes for years without receiving the basic instructions that help make your practice safe, effective and most importantly, enjoyable!
Once you understand the fundamentals of how to practice, it can be a good idea to start practicing at home to "get in shape" and become familiar with the basic postures that you'll probably encounter in most yoga classes. You can do this by practicing with videos geared toward beginners, consulting a teacher privately, or taking on a beginner-friendly home yoga challenge.
If you've made a resolution to "start yoga" or "do more yoga", congratulations! A regular yoga practice can go a long way toward helping you feel more calm, strong and connected, which incidentally, is the name of the free 30-day yoga challenge I'm facilitating this month (wink, wink).
If you want to join over 100 people from around the world, ages 20-68(!) go over to calmstrongconnected.com to sign-up.