A common misconception about yoga is that it's just a good way to stretch your muscles. In reality, yoga is a path to holistic fitness that benefits body, mind and spirit. On a physical level, yoga builds strength, flexibility, endurance, balance and body awareness. It is also perhaps the only form of physical training that benefits the glands and hormones of the endocrine system. Mentally, yoga promotes relaxation, alertness, sensitivity and the ability to concentrate. Spiritually, yoga promotes a profound awareness of our union with the Divine. It is this union that the word yoga (yoking) refers to. Regular practitioners of yoga notice a whole spectrum of benefits, including deeper breathing, better eating, a straighter posture, and calmness of mind, from which joy arises like a lotus blossoming on a still pond.
In spite of our modern misconceptions, the practice of yoga has always been a spiritual one. Yoga evolved in India some 4000 years ago, in a culture that possessed a high level of sensitivity to the body's subtle energy. The Indians and the Chinese created a fascinating variety of techniques from this awareness of qi. In acupuncture, energy pathways or meridians that course throughout the body are understood, and vital organs can be deeply affected by a well-placed needle on the corresponding meridian. Shiatsu massage is based on the same principles, using touch and pressure on the meridians to balance and soothe the body's energies. In tantric sex, qi is directed away from the genitals and upwards, following the connecting meridian along the spine, activating the mind and the spirit as it moves. In the martial arts, qi is focused and diverted into a precise and deadly blow, the kiai. Breathing exercises and dietary regimens are used to understand and control the reception of qi by the body, and reiki is used to balance and heal the energy of another. Finally, in meditation, qi is calmly observed and used as a catalyst for spiritual awakening. Yoga combines holistic physical development with meditation to bring the practitioner closer to inner peace and enlightenment, as well as integral health.
Hindu philosophy identifies seven major energy centers within the body. These energy centers, known as chakras, are associated with particular functions in the human being. The following table very briefly introduces the seven chakras pictured at left. This page provides some more detailed information.
This context helps explain the mental and spiritual benefits of yoga. Mental illness can be defined as an excess or deficiency of energy in one chakra or another; for example, over-aggressiveness is an excess in the third chakra, and introversion a deficiency in the fifth. Particular yoga poses or asanas target particular chakras, helping energy to flow more freely through them, and thus balancing excess or deficiency and promoting integral health. A second important function of yoga and meditation is the lightening of one's energy, which helps it flow to higher chakras that are often largely dormant. As the 'function' column above implies, the journey towards higher chakras is associated with one's own spiritual evolution, as well as with the evolution of life on Earth. This is not to say that the lower chakras are in any way inferior. The health of any one chakra promotes the health of the entire being. The sun salutation is one set of asanas that addresses each chakra in turn, and is thus an excellent integral workout in itself.
All philosophy aside, there are a number of practical pointers that will help with a successful yoga practice. I've divided these into beginning, novice, and intermediate levels. Advanced yoga training isn't available over the internet, even if I were qualified to give it.
Follow this link for a list of partner yoga poses.
Tips for Beginners.
- Love your limitations. It's great to be inspired by advanced practitioners, but straining to get into tortoise pose is a recipe for injury, and feeling disappointed with oneself is a recipe for quitting the practice. Everyone progresses at their own pace and has their own talents and challenges. Enjoy being where you are.
- Always breathe deeply, without forcing.
- Resist the temptation to skip the final relaxation. This is the time when the benefits of yoga are integrated into your being, and aside from that, it should be enjoyable for its own sake.
- Focus your mind. Explore the sensations in your body, without judging them; you will get to know your body much better, know what you need to work on, and start to feel more at home in a very nice way.
- "Namaste" means "the light within me salutes the light within you." Let that beautiful greeting settle into your mind and shine out from your heart.
- Learn to distinguish the "good pain" of a deep stretch from the "bad pain" of overstretching or joint strain.
- Relax. Your yoga time is for yoga; there is nowhere else to be, nothing else to do.
Tips for Novice Practitioners.
- Begin to practice at home, when you feel confident doing so. Find a clean, relaxing place in your home or outdoors and do your own set of asanas. I suggest that each set include forward bends, backward bends, a spinal twist, and an inversion.
- The poses that are most uncomfortable reflect the areas that need the most development. Two common examples are the bound angle/wide angle/forward bend series, and downward-facing dog. Both of these can be incredibly beneficial. Don't shy away from the troublesome poses, and don't torture yourself with them either; in time you will learn to enjoy them.
- Your flexibility will improve more by gentle coaxing than it will by force. Try not to overstretch.
- Synchronize your breath with your movements, inhaling as your body expands, exhaling as it contracts.
- The headstand is one of the most rewarding yoga poses. Learn it with supervision after you've mastered the shoulderstand, and once you've learned both, follow a headstand with a shoulderstand and not the other way around.
- Cobra, locust and bow is a classic sequence that's great for one's back.
- Get into easy pose or corpse pose and see if you can feel your subtle energy. It may be a warmth, a tingling, or perhaps just a sense of increased lightness. Notice how when you move your awareness to a certain part of your body, the qi follows. In time you may learn to direct it with your mind.
Tips for Intermediate Practitioners.
- You may want to learn about mudras (hand gestures), bandhas (energy locks) and kriyas (yogic cleansing rituals), and incorporate them into your practice.
- Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha, by Swami Satyananda Saraswati, is a fantastic yoga text, and an invaluable gift to any serious practitioner or teacher of yoga.
- With the help of the above book, you can combine your meditative focus with the right asana to open one chakra or another. Enjoy the benefits this can bring.
- Corpse pose, if it's well-mastered, can make your body more relaxed than it is during sleep. Ten minutes of savasana can therefore be a decent substitute for a nap, or take the place of sleep during an all-nighter. In order for this to work you need to know what incoming sleep feels like and gently resist it if it comes.
- Begin to eliminate music and other distractions from your practice, especially from the meditation. Without music to occupy your mind, you will be forced to focus on feeling your body and its energy. This demands concentration, but it also develops it fairly intensively. That being said, don't feel guilty about using music once in a while for a less intense session.
- Reaching an advanced level in yoga requires the same mental, physical and spiritual health that the practice develops. Avoid pride and competition and your practice will continue to evolve. There are always new challenges in yoga, and that makes it a lifelong process of learning and enjoyment... so learn, and enjoy.