Yoga, unique in many ways, is certainly so for its union of disciplines. It can be a method of fitness, a stretching practice or a process of calming the mind. There is no wonder why people get confused and overwhelmed when looking at starting yoga, or why people debunk it as ‘not for them’. But are these simply just excuses, or are their concerns rooted in a misunderstanding of what yoga really is?
What is yoga?
The word yoga, comes from the Sanskrit ‘yug’ meaning to unite, and is hence often interpreted as a union of disciplines. The form yoga is found in today is accredited to an Indian sage, Patanjali, who is believed to have collated the practice of yoga into the ‘Yoga Sutra’; a collection of statements written over 2000 years ago that serves as a philosophical guidebook. The Yoga Sutra outlines the eight limbs of yoga which include asana (postures), pranayama (breathing), and dhyani (meditation) which are arguably the three most common practiced limbs of yoga found today. The other limbs include restraints, observances, and concentration and are believed to all be a process in which to reach total absorption or enlightenment.
Do you have to be spiritual?
Of course, yoga is rooted in spiritual traditions, but it has developed into something much more diverse. From an ancient yogic perspective, yoga is the transition of currents of energy between the layers of our physical, astral, and causal bodies. Today, the starting point of yoga is much more simple. Do you have a mind and a body? Are you breathing? Of course. Then you can hugely benefit from yoga, which is designed to enable you to think more clearly, breathe more easily, and move more efficiently. If you take away all spirituality because it doesn’t serve you, then this is the clear starting point of yoga: integrating the mind, breath, and body.
And when it comes to ideas such as ‘Om’, which is often chanted at the beginning and end of yoga practice, this is still accessible to even the most cynical among us. The ancient yogis were saying the same as scientists today: the universe is moving and vibrating and nothing is ever completely still. In yoga, these vibrations are the sound of Om, and it exists in the sounds of our every day life, such as a flowing river, the wind blowing through the trees, or leaves crunching beneath our feet. See it as an awareness of nature and our place within this universe, and there is no need to be overwhelmed.
Is it mostly stretching?
Today, the most commonly practiced limb of yoga is asana, which encompasses the physical postures you see when people practice yoga. These postures are designed to enrich the body and provide physical strength and stamina which ultimately allows you to meditate for long periods of time. Many of these postures, especially within ‘Yin’ and ‘Restorative’ yoga, do involve deep stretching. However, cardiovascular fitness and muscle strength is also built up quickly and is vital for more advanced practice. Not only does this help our body become fitter and stronger, but through practice we integrate our breath, allowing for ease of movement both on and off the mat.
This is why yoga is much more than just stretching; physical practice is just one aspect. By connecting the movement of our body with the business of our mind and the flow of our breath we are able to direct our attention inwards. This has a remarkable effect on helping us understand our internal processes and thought patterns, helping us to accept them without judgement of labels, creating an awareness of experience. Yoga is a practice not a goal. We should not be trying to become more spiritual, more fit or more flexible. It’s a journey towards acceptance, unconditional love, and understanding of the self. Yes your body will likely become more flexible, but so will your mind.
Do you have to be flexible to start with?
Regardless of your currently flexibility, you’re in the perfect position to start yoga. Many gym goers who are incredibly fit and strong have pain in their body which roots from a lack of flexibility. Many people who are naturally flexible are critical about their lack of fitness and have the desire to give up when yoga practice gets more active. Do you already have to be good at something before you start having lessons? No, we start lessons in order to learn, and yoga is no different. Don’t compare yourself to others, because the only person you should be comparing yourself with is yourself. You will find that your body and mind are always shifting and developing from day-to-day, so how could you compete against anyone else who is also having a unique experience. Whatever your starting place, yoga you will serve to improve your agility, and this will also be balanced by strength, coordination, cardiovascular fitness, and overall well-being.
Everyone’s journey is different, especially with such a multi-faceted discipline, so if you truly want to discover what yoga and its benefits are, start practicing today and learn.