(Jackie teaches and lectures on Yoga please contact her for further information on the above icons...ed)
Yoga is often perceived as the process of unrolling a mat and undertaking a series of stretching and strengthening poses with the odd relaxing pose thrown in at the end. It provides a chance to wear some brightly coloured stretchy clothes and show off how long we can stand on one leg...
So I’ll begin by explaining that yoga is not exercise, nor is it reserved only for the young, the fit, the thin, the mobile or the flexible. Yoga does not discriminate. Yoga meets you where you are and encourages personal mental and physical growth.
B.K.S. Iyengar said that if you can breathe, you can do yoga.
Yoga - a small word representing a simple, yet complex, versatile and diverse discipline that can positively permeate every aspect of a persons life by soliciting enquiry into the health of ones intellect, emotions, ego and physicality.
To each and every individual, it will address both physical and mental strength, agility and flexibility through the direction of breath, awareness, energy and meditation so that regardless of age, fitness, size, faith or physical ability, yoga is able to help a person discover and appreciate what they as individuals, and their body can do - rather than what they can’t.
“Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.” B.K.S. Iyengar This message refers not simply to the physical body but to the mind, the consciousness and all of life and the life force (prana) within and outside of us.
The ultimate goal of yoga is not that a person touches their toes or balances on their head but that a person discovers harmony and balance within, through self-realisation in order that this harmony and balance can equally be reflected outward.
In contrast to the physical aspect of asana (poses) in yoga, what we’re actually learning with the help of asana, is to still the seemingly endless babbling of the whirlpools in the mind. What we learn through our asana practice is to maintain dialogue with our breath in order that we can set our mind in peace and calm.
Ok, so yoga classes in general, whatever flavour they be, require that we wear comfortable clothing. And, the majority will take you through a series of considered, often challenging, physical movements together with moments of stillness, but... no matter how difficult a pose may be, these observances are the most basic external aspects of yoga and a while a lucky beginner might find a headstand easy to master, they may find the true nature of yoga somewhat more difficult to grasp and rewarding to experience.
In a nutshell, by tradition, practice begins by working through the 8 limbs of yoga, addressing and finding some level of accomplishment with one limb before we can understand, appreciate and work on the next.
The first limb is ‘Yama’ and here we address our integrity, behaviour and conduct.
The second limb is ‘Niyama’ and here we are required to pay attention to, and strengthen, our self-discipline.
The third limb is ‘Asana’ and this is what many people consider to BE YOGA and is really where most people start their journey as far as they’re concerned – but I rather think that the first 2 limbs were already subtly in play, but not yet recognised, because one way or another they led this person to a class or home practice of Asana. Attending practice in itself requires some discipline and why are we there if we have not in one way or another questioned ourselves... our physical or mental state...
The fourth limb is ‘Pranayama’ whereby the breath is directed within the physical body to bring about a mind body connection. Some traditions require a proficiency in Asana before moving on to Pranayama which can be a practice in its own right although it is often integrated within an Asana practice.
The fifth limb is ‘Pratyahara’, a conscious effort to withdraw the senses from external stimuli, cultivating detachment from them and their recognition of the outside world. Our attention is directed inwards.
The sixth limb is ‘Dharana’ whereby having removed distractions through Pratyahara, we can concentrate our attentions on the distractions of the mind itself and learn how to slow the mind down.
Next comes ‘Dhyana’ which is essentially meditation. The mind slowing can enjoy an uninterrupted flow of stillness, being both aware and without the effort of focus. It is a magical place to find yourself.
Then, if we have earned it, we come to ‘Samadhi’ and transcend the self completely. With this, all dualities cease and we become interconnected and one with all things.
Well, that all sounds just perfect I’m sure but it’s not easy to come by – so while yoga is not “exercise”, it is an exercise in finding our true nature, our ‘atman’, our essence.
After 1999 and after about 6 months of yoga, I thought I wasn’t a beginner any more – and then suddenly, 10 years later, I realised that I had actually only then just moved on from being a beginner. This wasn’t because I finally managed Bird of Paradise pose with ease, in fact that came many more years later, it was because I finally clicked into the positive changes taking place within the essence of my true self. In classes, I stopped being aware of what the person on the mat next to me was doing and became only aware of what my body was doing and where my mind was while it was doing it. Not only this but I realised that yoga didn’t end when I stepped off the mat and changed clothes.
Now, heading closer towards the age of 50, able to do the splits, a comfortable backbend, headstand, arm balance, whatever, I realise that I will always feel like a beginner because this yoga thing is my life and there is always more to learn and always more practice to be done. I practice yoga when my children press all the wrong buttons, I practice yoga when the traffic is so bad that it looks like I will miss my class. I practice yoga when somebody I don’t know says something rude to me and I practice yoga when somebody says something I don’t agree with. Every day I feel sure that yoga has taught me something new and simply helped make the day a better one.
Yoga is a state of mind, a desire for balance within, an understanding of one's limitations and a guide to help us strive towards being the best that we can be.
You don’t have to look hard to find unlimited articles on the physical and mental benefits of yoga but to appreciate the effect that these betterments bring to each individual is something that can only be experienced.
Unroll your yoga mat and put on your brightly coloured stretchy clothing. Participate. Research. Investigate. Understand. Benefit. Appreciate.
Yoga improves (amongst other things)proprioception, balance, coordination, flexibility, stamina, strength, concentration, circulation and well being. It can reduce stress hormones, improve blood pressure, reduce anxiety, improve bone strength, improve lung capacity, stimulate the digestive system and promote a sense of calm.
But the reality is that yoga does much much more than the sum of the above.