About Yoga in General
Essentially ‘Yoga’ in the West refers to the physical practice of yoga postures (asanas), while focusing on breathing as a technique to calm the mind. It’s a discipline such as Pilates, Qi Gong, Tai Chi etc.
While we tend to focus on the physical health benefits, it’s worth knowing that technically, the physical practice of yoga is only one of the 8-steps of ‘Yoga’ towards reaching enlightenment. The other 7 steps are focused on mastering our character and behaviour, towards ourselves, society and the universe.
The term ‘Yoga’ is derived from the literal meaning of "yoking together" a span of horses or oxen, but came to be applied to the "yoking" of mind and body. A more global understanding of ‘Yoga’ than the first definition, includes the spiritual practice, that aims to transform body and mind.
Given that Yoga has existed in India for over 5000 years, there are thousands of books dedicated exclusively to the subject of defining what ‘Yoga’ is. Indeed, one of the many joys of becoming a yogin or yogini, is that there is always more to discover. Unfortunately I can not therefore do it justice within a couple of paragraphs, but warmly encourage you to begin your own deeper adventure !
That said, there is no need to be put off by the spiritual origins of yoga. Participation is open to all and there is no risk either of indoctrination or conflict with existing beliefs. A typical class in the west involves breathing exercises, physical practice & a moment of meditation. Have a look at our welcome page for more info on the health benefits of regular yoga practice.
We very much look forward to the joy of practicing with you !
Why practice it?
In order of depth: yoga tones the muscles & increases flexibility, introducing ranges of movement one seldom performs in every day life; it strengthens the core muscles, massages & detoxes the internal organs; deep breathing techniques improve the respiratory system and concentration, while removing stress. An efficient yoga class should leave the student energised & present, yet pleasantly relaxed.
Is it for me?
As you can see from above, there are many levels on which to appreciate yoga & to reap its benefits. In the west we tend to have sedentary lifestyles which causes our muscles & connective tissues to shrink over time. Yoga obligates the muscles to stretch back to their full capacity, thereby avoiding the poor posture and a variety of ailments & injuries in old age.
Our bodies are also faced with high levels of toxicity from the foods, drink and hygiene products we ingest on a daily basis. Many people are unaware that the body relies heavily on the lymphatic system for removal of the build up of these free radicals that cause ageing. However, unlike the circulatory system of the blood, the lymph has no pump & relies on movement to manipulate the glands much like a hydraulic system. In essence, toxins are squeezed out of the body by a system of valves that ensures a one way transit. Yoga is designed to do exactly this, in just the right sequence, to eliminate toxins and cleanse the body optimally.
Is it more for women than men?
It has been encouraging to see a steady rise in the numbers of male practitioners in yoga studios during the past 5-10 years. Again, Yoga really has something for everybody, kids included, and there are many different types of yoga, some which may appeal more to women and others to men. Neither sex has more of a 'natural aptitude' as women tend to be more flexible, while men tend to have more upper-body strength, both of which are necessary for advanced yoga practice.
Do I need to be very fit?
I will elaborate more on the philosophy of yoga below. For now allow me to say that the physical practice of yoga is only one aspect of a much bigger picture, a microcosm training our behaviour towards ourself & society in general. There was a time when it was believed competition was essential to drive progress. Today we are realising the exponential potential of open-source collaboration. In short, you would only need to be 'very-fit' if you were entering a competition and this is completely incoherent with the philosophy of yoga. The most important is that you listen to your body and not only respect your limits, but are thankful for where you find yourself in your practice today. Increased fitness may indeed allow you to take your expression of yoga to the next level, but the expression is only changing, it is not ‘improving' on the real goal, which is the feelings you have inside that you can attain from your very first class.
Do I need to be very flexible?
I hope the message is coming through that all you ‘need’ for yoga is to be motivated to attend a class, with the right attitude! It is not necessary to already be very flexible, as this would be like reading a book from the last page to the front. Your body will surrender it’s tension, unlocking just the right amount of flexibility for you at your stage of practice. Furthermore, people that are naturally flexible, or 'hyper-lax’, have to be mindful not to over-stress their joints, while in less flexible people there is little risk of this.
Should I avoid yoga if I have a physical injury/ condition?
It goes without saying that a good degree of common sense and, if necessary, consultation with a medical professional are the first point of reference with this question. That said, having been on retreats where we’ve meditated ten hours a day, I’ve observed the ego’s armoury of aches & pains it conjures up. All these seemingly responsible reasons to convince you to avoid facing yourself with something life-changing! Please take a moment at the start of the class to let us know what is your concern. We can then either avoid postures which will exacerbate the problem or give you modifications to the main posture that are less intense. It is worth being mindful of avoiding over-stressing the wrists and the lower back & that some inversions should not be practiced if you have high blood-pressure or are pregnant. But don’t worry! Follow the golden rule of listening to yourself and respecting your (temporary) limits and you’ll be just fine.
Should I expect physical contact?
During yoga practice we are constantly striving for correct alignment and it’s often much easier for the teacher to notice any imbalances with a little distance. Not only can these little adjustments to your posture be incredibly rewarding and allow you the experiential memory of where you’re going, but they can also prevent you from hurting or straining yourself. Unless it is a relatively small class, or a class dedicated to tandem postures or acro-yoga, typically we will only intervene if necessary. Usually, with patience and persistance, the body finds it’s way to alignment by itself. However, if for whatever reason you would prefer not to be touched, please do not hesitate to let us know and we will be happy to respect your choice & will instead instruct you verbally.
Will I be indoctrinated into a religious tradition?
While Yoga originated from the Hindu tradition in India, the physical practice is independent of religious beliefs and all are most welcome. In addition to the Western names for the postures, we will use the Sanscrit out of respect for the origins of the practice and as a gentle reminder that the wisdom is 5000 years old. It will also help you to know the Sanscrit names for your practice in other centres, as they are commonly used.
We may well chant the word ‘Om’ three times at the end of the class. Some traditions believe that as creation began, the divine, all-encompassing consciousness took the form of the first and original vibration, manifesting as sound “OM". The vibration of "OM” therefore symbolises the manifestation of the essence of all things in form. "OM" is the reflection of the absolute reality, it is said to be without beginning or end and embracing all that exists.
Whether the symbolism appeals to you, the health benefits of working with the vibrations of sound and music are well known and documented. The word ‘Om’ works particularly well as the ‘O’ part encourages us to vibrate sound from the ‘depths’ of our belly, progressively stretching the sound outwards with an increasingly open mouth and then finally the ‘m’ allows us to finish with a vibration through the lips that resonates across the face at a more superficial level. We warmly encourage you to try it as, like yoga, on whichever level you wish to experience it, the sensation is very satisfying! That said, if you are not comfortable with this, please do not hesitate to refrain from this part of the class without any judgement whatsoever from us.
Who invented it & when?
There is much controversy on the subject as the philosophy and practice of yoga grew gradually in India from approximately 5000 years ago. It’s development can be split into 5 periods:
Vedic yoga - grew from the Indus-Sarasvati Civilisation dating back to 7th millenium B.C.
Preclassical yoga - 2000 years until 2nd Century A.D
Classical yoga - Patanjali during 2nd Century A.D.
Postclassical yoga - Developed during the 200 years post Patanjali
Modern yoga - Began with Swami Vivekananda at the ‘Parliament of Religions' held in Chicago in 1893. Followed by Paramahansa Yogananda in Boston from 1920 who established the 'Self-Realisation Fellowship'. The great exponent in modern times of Hatha Yoga was Sri Krishnamacharya in the 60's & Swami Sivananda in the 70's.
Why was it invented?
Vedic yoga - revolved around ritualistic life & sacrifice as method of joining material & spiritual worlds. Sacrificers had to focus their minds for prolonged periods of time, transcending the limitations of the ordinary mind is the root of Yoga.
When successful, the Vedic yogi was graced with a “vision” or experience of the transcendental reality.
Preclassical yoga - Came into it’s own with the approx. 200 Upanishads- gnostic teachings on hidden unity of all things- Bhagavad-Gita. Various preclassical schools developed all kinds of techniques for achieving deep meditation to transcend the body and mind and discover true nature.
Classical yoga - also known as Raja-Yoga. Patanjali is often mistakenly known as the creator of yoga. In fact he brought yoga to the people, developing a system of 8 steps of consciousness to separate matter from spirit and restore spiritual purity.
Postclassical yoga - as opposed to the period of philosophical duality above, post-classical re-affirms the unity of all things. Focus turned from mental abstraction and desire to exit the body, to seeing body as a temple of the spirit. Led to the development of Tantra-yoga of which Hatha-Yoga is just one approach
Modern yoga - the many branches of yoga developed & it grew in the west, combining with sport psychology, and the first female practitioners taking it up in the 60’s