There has been a lot about Yoga in the press lately. For example The Daily Mail recently had a daily 4-page supplement, for a whole week, on the benefits of yoga.
More and more people are discovering yoga, and they realise that yoga is not a ‘fitness class’ for the already fit and flexible, but is for everyone. In a typical yoga class you will find all age groups and both men and women, with various levels of health and fitness. The main reason why yoga is becoming increasingly popular is because it allows students to find stillness in a world consumed with chaos. Peace and tranquility achieved through focused training appeals to everyone and has enormous benefits.
Yoga’s deep breathing and meditation practices help foster an inner shift from to-do lists, kids and spouse’s needs, financial concerns and relational struggles, to something a little bit bigger than the day-to-day issues you face. Yoga helps relieve stress and unclutter the mind, and helps you get more focused.
Many types of yoga
Most classes taught in the West are based on Hatha Yoga. There are many different styles of Hatha Yoga such as Iyengar, Ashtanga, Bikram and many others; so it is possible to find a style that suits you. You can practice in a class, at home, in private sessions, watching a DVD or do an online class. There is a huge variety of options available to suit your goals and needs.
A good place to start is to go to a beginners, Hatha Yoga class which focuses on basic postures, at a comfortable pace, and also incorporates all the different aspects of yoga such as breathing techniques, meditation, philosophy and relaxation. Also, by going to a class, you have the benefit of an experienced teacher who can help you do the postures and exercises correctly.
Strength and flexibility
The yoga postures help to strengthen your body from the inside out and each of the yoga poses are designed to improve the muscles around the spine, the very centre of your body, which is the core from which everything else operates. When the core is working properly, posture is improved, thus alleviating back, shoulder and neck pain.
The digestive system also benefits when the deep stretching in yoga is combined with a healthy diet. This can relieve problems such as constipation, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other digestive disorders. The deep stretching also helps to release muscular tension.
More than physical exercise
The physical yoga postures are only one aspect of this 5,000 year-old system of personal development. Yoga aims to still the mind – surrendering mental projections.
In one of the major texts on yoga, “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” it says that the goal of yoga is ‘cittavrttinirodah’ (Sanskrit) which means, ‘the cessation of mental fluctuations’. It means a state of complete relaxation, inner peace and stillness, yet it is a dynamic and alert stillness with great presence, awareness and aliveness, rather than a sleepy or foggy state of mind. It is the integration of body, mind, breath and soul to oneness, a state of feeling whole and at one with ourselves, people around us, nature, the planet and the Universe.
Instead of allowing our mind to fill our days with worries, repetitive (negative) thoughts and thoughts about the past and the future, we realize that we can use yoga to train the mind to become still. This is a very important concept. When the mind is still we will view life in a very different way and we find that we can have a life filled with peace rather than struggle, regardless of the experiences we have. When we are calm on the inside we are more resilient to outside challenges and can view them with an attitude of compassion (for ourselves and everyone involved) and detachment.
A simple technique to use for achieving stillness of mind, is to focus on the breath. We can do this while laying down in stillness, in a seated meditation pose or during yoga postures. As you practice this, you will notice how a great sense of calm develops and it gradually deepens the longer you practice. You are training your mind to focus and relax. This has a profoundly healing effect on all aspects of your life.
It removes the need to criticise; feelings of anger or depression or of inferiority. It allows us to accept ourselves fully as we are and also to accept other people as they are. We see the beauty rather than what is wrong in everything; including ourselves. We realize that there are lessons to learn in every experience we have, and also that every experience is a gift. We give of ourselves in a relaxed, generous and joyful manner and respect the fact that we also need rest and quiet time. We create balance and live in harmony with ourselves and everything around us.
Benefits of yoga
There is now a vast amount of research on the benefits of yoga and how it helps to keep you healthy, heal aches and pain, and keep sickness at bay.
I myself have experienced the healing power of yoga in a very real way. Many years ago I was working as a freelance translator. I was very busy and often had crazy deadlines. At one point, I was also travelling to various places in Europe to give lectures. I started to have intense pain in my neck, right arm and shoulders from all the stress and long hours in front of the computer. I also had difficulties sleeping. As I had previously done a little bit of yoga, I started to do some gentle yoga and breathing techniques. The result was astonishing. I could almost immediately feel how the tension eased in my shoulders and neck. I also felt so much more relaxed and in balance.
Having now been teaching yoga for many years, I have heard countless stories of how yoga has helped my students. The benefits are almost too many to list, but here are a few:
✓ Improves strength, flexibility & posture
✓ Prevents cartilage and joint breakdown
✓ Protects your spine
✓ Improves bone density
✓ Increases your blood flow
✓ Drains your lymph and boosts immunity
✓ Lowers your blood pressure
✓ Regulates your adrenal glands
✓ Makes you happier! Increases serotonin levels
✓ Improves blood sugar balance
✓ Helps you focus
✓ Promotes deep relaxation
✓ Improves your balance
✓ Releases tension in your muscles
✓ Helps you sleep better
✓ Improves breathing
✓ Improves your digestion
✓ Gives you peace-of-mind
✓ Increases self-esteem
✓ Eases pain
✓ Builds self-awareness and selfrespect
✓ Builds a connection with your deeper self
Here is a simple yoga exercise that you can do anywhere:
1 Sit or lie down with your spine straight.
2 Focus on your breathing and allow it to settle down into a relaxed rhythm.
3 Place your right hand on your abdomen, just above your navel.
4 Place your left hand on your upper/middle chest.
5 Focus your attention on your right hand on your abdomen.
6 With practice you should feel the hand rise up on the inhalation and sink down on the exhalation. This is diaphragmatic breathing, sometimes also called abdominal breathing. The movement of your right hand is an indication that you are using your diaphragm in the correct way and that you are breathing deeply and fully. The left hand should be more or less still. It may take a little practice to get the hang of this, especially if you are suffering from stress, but most people learn very quickly.
Practice this for 5-15 minutes.
This way of breathing is very useful, for example, if you are nervous about flying or travelling, if you feel tired or stressed or if you suffer from insomnia.