By Tonya Madia, RYT, RMT, LMBT
“Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali
Yoga is an ancient practice believed to have originated in India approximately 5,000 years ago. Developed originally as a practice for enhanced meditation through breath awareness, the focus on asanas, or physical postures, did not come about until much later.
Around 400 CE, Patanjali codified yoga in his work titled The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. Divided into four chapters or books, the Yoga Sutra contains 196 aphorisms, and a clearly defined eight-limbed path having two parts: the Yamas (ethical standards) and Niyamas (observances or disciplines).
Through careful observance and application of the Yamas and Niyamas one can achieve Samadhi, a state of absorption, or oneness. The Yamas and Niyamas are intrinsic to any yoga practice, starting with Ahimsa, the objective of kindness and the intention of doing no harm. It is through the practice of Ahimsa that the student learns to honor his or her body.
Yoga is a Sanskrit word which means to yoke, or bind. It is the discipline of creating a union between body and mind in order to rediscover our true self. It is an ever-changing energy that flows through our consciousness. As we allow ourselves to arise, abide and dissolve into each pose, the patterning of consciousness subsides. In Sutra 1:41 Patanjali states: “As the patterning of consciousness subsides, a transparent way of seeing, called coalescence, saturates consciousness; like a jewel, it reflects equally what lies before it whether subject, object, or act of perceiving.”
While yoga began as a practice to enhance meditation, in the West what we refer to as yoga is actually Hatha yoga. Hatha yoga focuses on the third limb of the eight-limbed path, a set of physical exercises designed to align your skin, muscles, and bones. The postures are also designed to open the many channels of the body—especially the main channel, the spine—so that energy can freely flow.
Hatha is translated as ha meaning “sun” and tha meaning “moon.” This refers to the balance of masculine aspects—active, hot, sun—and feminine aspects—receptive, cool, moon—within all of us. Hatha yoga is a path toward creating balance and uniting opposites. In our physical bodies we develop a balance of strength and flexibility. We also learn to balance our effort and surrender in each pose.
When starting a yoga practice, it is helpful if you can find a local class geared toward beginners. Time and time again I hear people say that their first experience with a yoga video did not hold a candle to the experience they had in an actual class. Often, attempts to begin a yoga practice with a video are quickly aborted, as a video cannot offer you feedback or assist you with finding your way in a particular pose. There is also a lot to be gained energetically from being in a room filled with yogis and yoginis that is lost with a video, so, while videos can be a great tool for those with some experience with the asanas, I find they are not always the best way to begin your yoga journey.
I frequently hear potential students express concern that they are not flexible enough to do yoga; rest assured, it is not necessary to be flexible to do yoga. Anyone can do yoga, and while there are some advanced poses in which the experienced yogi can bend themselves into unbelievable positions, this is not the case with a basic yoga practice. Also, any yoga pose can be modified to meet and accommodate specific ability levels.
Another common concern I hear is with regard to finding the right yoga class. With so many different types of yoga available, it can be difficult, even intimidating, to those just starting out. I always recommend starting with a gentle beginner’s class to learn the basic poses and become aware of your level of flexibility and endurance.
Since everyone is different, some people find that they enjoy remaining in a beginner’s class for many months, while other’s find they prefer more of a challenge. For those who prefer more of a challenge, I recommend trying an Ashtanga (Sanskrit for eight limbs) yoga class. In an Ashtanga class, the same series of poses are practiced in the same order, creating a dynamic, and physically demanding practice. Because the same poses are explored in the same order for each practice, core strength quickly develops and the student’s level of skill grows quickly.
Once you have started your practice and become familiar with the basic poses and breathing techniques, it is important to explore different classes, teachers, and teaching styles. Everyone is different and different practices appeal to different people. Try as many types of classes as you can, and most importantly, have fun and never judge your self; accept where you are in your practice with no attachment to outcome. Simply be present and continue to practice. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, founder of Ashtanga Yoga, was known for saying: “Do your practice and all is coming.”
I always recommend two books for those who are ready to begin their yoga journey, the first is Bringing Yoga to Life, by Donna Farhi and the other is Yoga Body, Buddha Mind, by Cyndi Lee; both authors provide wonderful insight for the reader into the practice of yoga.
I have heard it said that yoga is a journey that leads us home to ourselves. I wish you all the best on your journey!