Oftentimes when I mention to my friends or roommates that I am leaving to go practice yoga, the response I get is “what is that, stretching?” It seems that in the United States, yoga (which is slowly but surely gaining popularity) has received a somewhat un-rounded treatment in many people’s minds. The practice of yoga, to look at it on its surface, is composed of simple actions and concepts, which can be learned and retained quickly. However, this is only the first baby step in an extremely long journey.
It is far too brief to try to describe yoga as simply stretching, or even as a simple physical activity – rather, yoga should be viewed as a way to improve balance, strength, flexibility, and most importantly, what could be briefly described as mental peace. In such a hectic world, many people are bombarded by massive amounts of stress, which in turn have drastic effects on the body. Muscles all over the body become far more tense than is healthy, many people are afflicted with chronic headaches, stomachaches, acid reflux, chronic illness, or other symptoms, which many people regard as simply the normal way life is. However, many practitioners of yoga find that these symptoms tend to diminish or even disappear with the use of yoga. Ashtanga yoga, a popular, 2,000 year old system originally formulated into a single tome by an Indian seer named Patanjali, describes the path of the yoga journey as an eight-limbed journey (ashtanga literally means eight limbs).
The limbs are, extremely briefly, Yama (your behavior when relating to the world), Niyama (your behavior when relating to yourself), Asana (the postures practiced in yoga), Pranayama (recognition of the link between breath, body, and mind), Pratyahara (focus on the internal processes of ourselves), Dharana (concentration on a single thing, long periods of which leads to meditation), Dhyana (meditation, or clearing the mind, producing few to no thoughts at all, and Samadhi (enlightenment – this is the ultimate goal of yoga’s practice, where one feels transcendence of self, connection to all living things, and experience of the divine).
Yoga practice, especially in the United States, has come a long way in the 2,000 years since Patanjali wrote his Yoga Sutras, and some classes and teachers have lost touch with the goals yoga practitioners originally had in mind, leaning rather towards a truncated, asana based yoga practice. However, it is essential to keep in mind that asanas and pranayama practice are not for their own purposes, but rather to further your journey towards Samadhi.
Many people’s first concern is that they don’t have the proper equipment to practice yoga. This is a terrible conception, as no equipment whatsoever is needed, besides your mind and your body, to practice yoga. It can be a nice thing, however, to have a yoga mat to keep you from sliding on slippery surfaces (these are generally made of some variety of no-slip polymer), and comfortable, loose, unrestricting clothes.
To express how to breathe properly, or to do a posture properly, is very difficult on paper. It is highly recommended that you start your journey into yoga by finding a teacher or a club, which exist nearly everywhere. The experience of having a dedicated teacher to help you learn these difficult lessons is a huge help, and you will be amazed by how much more progress you will make there. However, to start out, there are a few basic poses and breathing techniques which can be described to help you begin.
Breathing is one of the most important parts of yoga. If you’ve ever gotten extremely angry, or stressed out, and taken ten slow, deep breaths, and felt a lot better, then you’ve had an experience of exactly what pranayama, or proper breathing technique, can do for you in your daily life. Hatha Yoga Pradipika states, “When the breath wanders, the mind is unsteady, but when the breath is still, so is the mind still.”
Mastering breathing properly is very difficult. However, the technique is fairly simple. First, exhale fully, allowing your upper chest to deflate, followed by your ribcage, and finally by your abdomen. Once your lungs are truly empty, breathe in slowly, inflating the abdomen first, followed by the ribcage, and finally by the upper chest. As you breathe out again, exhale in the opposite direction: first upper chest, then ribcage, then abdomen. Do not hold your breath at any time. As you move through the postures, allow your breathing to dictate your movement, rather than the other way around – within the postures, you will soon begin to feel the natural rhythm which your breathing and movement should take together. Keep in mind, again, that this is not a substitute for a teacher, but an introduction to the ideas of yoga.
A good posture to start out learning is the Sun Salutation, one of the most basic of yoga postures, but also one of the most valuable. The Sun Salutation is a series of postures, intended to be completed in a graceful flow which corresponds to your breathing. Oftentimes, the Sun Salutation is used as a warm-up before entering more complicated poses, but as a beginner, this pose should get you started along the path marvelously.
-Start in Mountain pose, with your feet about hip width apart, hands in prayer position (palms against each other in front of your heart)
-Inhale – as you do, raise your arms above your head and arch back as far as is comfortable
-Exhale – sweep your arms forward, bending at the waist and bringing your head as close to your knees as is comfortable, your hands by your feet.
-Inhale – place your hands on the ground next to your feet, and kick your right leg back, so you are in a lunge position.
-Exhale – step the left leg back to join the right, in essentially a push-up position. This is known as plank position. You may stay there a few seconds, or immediately lower yourself into stick position, as if at the bottom of your push-up, but not quite touching the floor.
-Inhale – stretch your upper body forward and up (everything below the waist should remain on the floor, while your abdomen and chest raise up), stretch your face towards the sky, giving a good neck stretch. This position is known as Upward Facing Dog.
-Exhale – lift your hips into the sky, facing downwards. The goal is to create a straight line from feet to hips, and another from hips to fingertips. This is difficult, but can be accomplished by raising and rotating your hips (look at yourself in a mirror if you think you’ve got it wrong). This is known as Downward Facing Dog
-Inhale – bring your right foot forward again, so you are again in lunge position.
-Exhale – bring your left foot to meet the right, so your head is at your knees as it was in Step 3.
-Inhale – rise slowly, bringing your hands above your head and arching back as much as is comfortable.
-Exhale – come back to Mountain pose, hands in prayer position.
As stated before, expressing these postures on paper is a very difficult thing, as mastering even the most simple of postures is not something which can be done in one class, or even ten years of classes. As stated previously, obtaining a teacher can be massively helpful in your spiritual development along this path, and it is highly recommended to find one, rather than to undertake the process on your own.