Yoga what's it all about.
Dear Yogis & Yoginis
There are over a hundred different types of Yoga. If you would like to see an excellent video highlighting some of them I would recommend the DVD "Enlighten up". The evolution of yoga is illustrated as The Tree of Yoga in a book "The Spirit of Yoga" by Christy Turlington which is a beautiful introduction for those becoming interested in the discipline and a source of inspiration for those who have already made it a part of their lives. The book takes yoga back to its historical, philosophical and cultural roots and shows how it can be applied appropriately to life in the West.
As I am an Ashtanga teacher registered with the Independent Yoga Network (500 hours registered) this article will relate to the Ashtanga practice.
As a result of what people see and read there is a popular misconception that Yoga is stretching and trying to get your body into a pretzel shape. The more 'Asana' or physical yoga postures you do the more flexible you become but that is not the aim of yoga. The bigger picture is that we are trying to reach the '4th level of consciousness', a state beyond the physical. Most of us attain 3 levels, waking, sleeping & dreaming. The 4th level is achieved through meditation and 'Asana' or yoga postures help prepare us for meditation.
I think that sometimes it is easy to lose the essence of what Ashtanga Yoga is about. Although it is a physical and dynamic activity that promotes stamina and flexibility it is primarily a mindfulness meditation. It does not matter how flexible you are or how perfectly you can hold a pose, the process is about attention to how you feel in that moment, while maintaining a smile, riding the ‘ujjayi’ breath and holding the Bandhas (core strength locks) with awareness.
During the Ashtanga sequence we aim to combine the following:
The Breath: When we arrive for our yoga class the mind is usually buzzing with thoughts of what you have done that day, what you doing tomorrow, what will you have for dinner, have the kids got clean sports kit etc etc etc. We use the breath to anchor the mind during the sequence, the mind is inquisitive and when it hears the "Darth Vada" sound of Ujjayi breathing it hooks on to the sound - you have captured the mind and engaged on the dance of the breath, the mind stills and you are a step towards meditation.
With modern equipment the outcomes of meditation are measurable; it is known that the Alpha and Beta brain waves change and new neuro-network pathways are created making the part of the brain responsible for happiness and compassion more active. There are many ways to meditate and this breathing technique is one of the easiest anchors to the mind. Ujjayii breath it is also extremely useful to use if you are feeling stressed - certainly gets you a seat on the train?.
Smile. It is said that the smile is the barometer of the practice - if you cannot hold the smile whilst practising you are trying too hard and need to back off. When you smile the Ujjayi breath is better and the body relaxes more and you can go further in the postures. What actually happens is your body will say the the brain "this feels hard" the brain replies "we are smiling", the body responds with "Ok we must be enjoying this" and consequently relaxes. It is import to train the body's neuro transmitters in this way so that you enjoy the practice more. The more you enjoy the practice the more you will do it, the more regularly you take the practice the better you will feel; it is not rocket science. Smiling and laughter, even when not felt from the heart, elevates mood and flood us with good neuro peptides and I certainly welcome a whole host of those.
The Locks or ‘Bandhas’. There are three internal energy locks, called ‘Bandhas’. These muscular locks help create a safe and steady platform on which to build the physical elements of the practice. During the sequence we engage two of these bandhas.
The first lock is located at the base of the spine. This lock is an gentle internal lifting of the lower organs. In men it is a lift of the perineum (the flesh between your two veg and your anus), for women it is a lifting of the cervix. When starting out it is often easier to find the pelvic floor achieved by engaging the muscles you would use to stop yourself from urinating.
The second lock is located below the navel. This lock is engaged by pulling in the lower abdomen towards the spine. A good example of this would be the muscles we engage when standing on the beach in our swimming costumes.
For those of you wishing to know more about this I would recommend the book ‘Moola Bandha, The Master Key’ by Swami Buddhananda
If you lose the breath or either of these locks during your practice, don’t worry, it will come with time. The most important thing is to enjoy your practice and keep smiling.
If you would like to do yoga with me and cannot get to my classes in Oxted or Croydon, although some dates have sold out, there are places available at my Yoga Retreat in Spain
Remember, life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass...its about learning how to dance in the rain.
Yours in Yoga,