Sunday, September 19, 2010

Yoga 101

A close friend suggested that I should include a Yoga 101 story to give readers that are newcomers to yoga some additional background. What he really said was, “what does an investment banker or mechanic need to know about yoga; it can come across like you have to be a full-in practitioner to get the benefits.” I appreciate that question because what I do not want to do is give the impression that one has to jump in head over heels to yoga to benefit from a practice. There are plenty of benefits to be gained regardless of how often or how little you practice.

Remember that I am coming from my own place. My relationship to yoga has evolved drastically over time. There were many years when I hardly practiced at all. My energy and time was focused on other priorities. Nowadays though, the practice of yoga holds a different meaning for me than it did before. I also happen to have more time available. For those reasons, I am interested in bringing awareness to yoga and the benefits that it can potentially offer. Having time now is also the reason that I can even practice as frequently as I do. I understand that there are times in our lives when we really do not have time for anything, much less to take care of oneself.

My understanding and relationship with yoga now helps me understand the world that I live in. (I had other understandings in the past.) However, I also understand that one does not have to be so “committed” to yoga so as to get good health benefits from practicing. Even practicing just once a week can still have a positive effect. And, even running or walking once a week is better than nothing too. Yoga is not the only way to heal oneself. The point is: we have to move to survive and I am among those that argue that movement has a lot to do with happiness as well.

I have already explained the reasons why I practice yoga, but let me try to explain some of the basics about yoga that might help someone like me who used to not be aware of it or what it had to offer understand a resource that is available.
  • Yoga can be practiced and gains can be achieved by any one of any age, shape or fitness level, whatsoever. Period.
  • Yoga can be just an exercise. One point of this blog is to promote ideas to improve health and wellness. Exercise, no matter the kind, is essential for health and wellness. If you want, just use yoga to get those endorphins moving in your body and brain. The idea is really committing to take care of the body in whatever way works best for you. That does not have to be yoga.
  • Yoga can be more than just an exercise. Where you take the practice and what you can take from it is entirely in your own hands, literally.
  • There are many different types of yoga. You do not have to follow one branch. Yoga can be as basic as breathing deeply and closing your eyes so you can look within and see what you find. It can also be as challenging as learning to focus enough to be able to hold a headstand in the center of a room.
  • I am not a yoga teacher nor have I even felt ready to take a teacher training but my current understanding of how a more physical class is structured is thus:
A full-on 90 minute practice will generally have a few parts:
  1. a warm-up series (or two) consisting of forward bends, chest openers, semi-push-ups, sun salutations and other basic stretching movements;
  2. a flow geared towards getting one's heart-rate up by combining together many of the warm-up movements at a faster rate;
  3. a deep stretch series that is used to reach deeper muscles that have, by that point, been warmed up;
  4. a cool-down period where the body moves slower and you can enjoy the fruits of your labor;
  5. some classes start and end with group chanting.
  • One of the things I like about yoga is that it has a slow start, tough middle and great cool-down at the end. The final pose, called savasana (corpse pose), is the icing on the cake. After you have worked really hard, you get to lie down, close your eyes, relax and just zone out to think about whatever or nothing at all.
  • Physical poses or postures are the heart of yoga. The intent is to use yoga poses to discipline and strengthen the body which can help to bring balance to the body, mind and spirit.
  • The language of yoga is Sanskrit. The word asana, which means pose in English, is often included within the name of the pose, such as adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog pose), balasana (child's pose) or tadasana (mountain pose).
  • There are a few words you will hear over and over again. Resources are abundant online to help you understand what someone is trying to mean by their words.
  • A practice does not have to last 90 minutes. Most classes here in Santa Monica last 90 minutes, but there are plenty of studios with shorter classes. Even 15 minutes of controlled breathing a day can drastically improve your health.
  • You do not have to do everything the teacher tells you to do. It’s your practice and only you know your body and your own limitations. Many injuries have been sustained because people push themselves further than they should. Just do what you can and listen to your own body. (Learning to listen to and understand your own body is part of the awareness yoga can help you develop.)
  • One of the joys of practicing frequently is learning to be able to do new poses over time. It gives you something to work towards. Expect to fall frequently.
  • Even though you are usually in a group setting, you are not supposed to be comparing yourself to anyone. Even if someone is doing a hand stand in the middle of the room or right next to you, it’s not like they walked in to their first class able to do that. They too were once a beginner and had to work hard and long to make their body look natural in some very seemingly unnatural poses.
  • Looking around can still help, especially when you are beginner. If you do not understand the teacher’s instructions, take a peek at someone else. Just avoid comparing yourself. And always remember, the person next to you could likely not have any idea what they are doing either.
  • Don’t forget to breathe. Breathe deeply and try to breathe through your nose. Breathing deeply is the cornerstone of yoga. Some teachers argue that breathing is the essence of yoga. Learning to control the breath, work with the breath, discipline the breath and learn from the breath is, well, challenging to say the least.
  • Take a break if and when you need to. You can take a break at any point in the practice. Relax in to “child’s pose”. Or even go straight to “savasana”. You can even walk out the door if you have to. No one understands what you may be experiencing in your life or needing in the moment better than yourself.
  • Remember to fully hydrate yourself before and after a practice. Some classes can get pretty hot.
Those are the basics I have for now. Stay tuned for Yoga 102 another time.

In case you are interested in watching the practice of yoga, here is a 10-minute introductory video from Youtube. I do not know who the teacher is but the video has been watched over one million times which really only means that it has been watched over one million times.

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