Yoga

“Before you learn to stand on your head, you need to learn to stand on your own two feet."
Swami Satchidananda

When you think of yoga, what images come to mind? If you are like most people who have not had any contact with yoga, you probably have thoughts of very slender people from India putting their bodies into contorted, pretzel-like positions and making hummy sounds for long periods of time. This is a familiar image due to the origins of yoga. But, behind this inaccurate stereotype lies a rich, practical method of achieving peak physical health, psychological well-being, and deep inner peace.

The term “yoga" comes from the Sanskrit root yuj, which means "to join" or "to yoke together."  Yoga literally signifies “union” of the body, mind, emotions and spirit into one harmonious and integrated whole. Swami Rama described yoga as an attempt to take into account all three sides of human life – the body, the mind, and the soul, or to put it differently, the physical side, the social side, and the spiritual side. The idea is that a healthy body is necessary to house the inner soul. Unfortunately, a physically healthy person may lack spiritual awareness, and even those who are both physically fit and spiritually aware may be lacking in their proper relationship with others. Yoga philosophy teaches ways of establishing harmony among the various sides of life. Once the mind and body have established harmony, once they have become integrated, calmed and still, healing happens at all levels. This chapter is an introduction to this very effective stress management vehicle known as yoga.

Background

Yoga is said to have originated in India nearly 5,000 years ago. The exact dates of its inception are not known but stone carvings found in archeological sites depicting figures in Yoga positions have been found in the Indus Valley dating back 5,000 years or more. In general, the tradition has been passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth, and from teacher to student. The Indian sage Patanjali is believed to have assembled together a collection of yoga theories and practices known as the yoga sutras (Yoga Aphorisms). The system that he wrote about has eight limbs or eight branches of yoga including 1) yama, meaning “restraint” — refraining from violence, lying, stealing, casual sex, and hoarding; 2) niyama, meaning “observance” — purity, contentment, tolerance, study, and remembrance; 3) asana, physical exercises; 4) pranayama, breathing techniques; 5) pratyahara, preparation for meditation, described as “withdrawal of the mind from the senses”; 6) dharana, concentration, being able to hold the mind on one object for a specified time; 7) dhyana, meditation, the ability to focus on one thing (or nothing) indefinitely; 8) samadhi, absorption, or realization of the essential nature of the self. Most yoga classes, books and videos today focus on the third, fourth and fifth branches of yoga, namely asanas (postures or poses), pranayamas (breathing techniques), and pratyahara (meditation). Collectively, these three make up what is commonly known as Hatha yoga. They are specifically designed, among other things, to reduce stress and restore balance.

Hatha yoga consists of (1) regulation of the mind and body through 14 different breathing exercises (pranayamas); and (2) over 200 balanced physical postures or poses (asanas) developed to exercise and lengthen all the muscles in the body. The physical postures (asanas) involve learning to control, regulate, and become aware of one’s physical existence. The emphasis is on giving complete mental attention to each movement, to the exclusion of everything else. With practice, different body functions become more integrated with one another. Energy from within is awakened, and the person practicing yoga feels radiant with vitality and energy.

There are several other ways of practicing yoga including the Yoga of wisdom (Jnâna-Yoga); the Yoga of service (Karma-Yoga); and the Yoga of devotion (Bhakti-Yoga) among others. One can spend many hours studying the philosophies of yoga disciplines, such as fasting, vegetarianism, disciplined thinking and many other areas of yoga. Practically all the information you could ever want in order to explore this expanded focus on yoga is currently available in classes, books and on yoga websites. The focus of this text is exclusively on hatha yoga. 

Yoga has no political or religious boundaries. Anyone can practice yoga regardless of age, sex or physical condition. If a person is interested in beginning regular yoga practice, it is probably best to seek out a class with a teacher who can provide guidance and instruction so that your initial experiences with yoga are positive ones. There are a wide variety of yoga classes currently available. See the box for a brief description of what these are.

Yoga is not designed to make you withdraw from the world and accept a reclusive lifestyle. On the contrary, yoga is about learning how to live life more fully, accomplishing more, with more joy and less stress.

 

Yoga Styles Overview

Classical or Traditional Hatha Yoga focuses on a traditional approach to Hatha yoga, that is, it has not been adapted in any particular way. This mellow form of yoga focuses on simple poses that flow from one to the other at a very comfortable pace. Participants are encouraged to go at their own pace, taking time to focus on the breathing and meditation in their practice. This yoga is ideal for winding down at the end of a tough day.

Iyengar Yoga is a classical style of yoga that is softer on the body and is perfect for beginners and those who haven't exercised in a while. It uses props such as chairs, straps, blocks and pillows, and even sandbags, to compensate for a lack of flexibility, which is helpful for anyone with back or joint problems.

The key to any style of yoga is to get the fundamentals and form correct. Iyengar yoga focuses more on symmetry and alignment and also meditation. Each pose is held for a longer amount of time than in most other yoga styles, developing a state of focused calm.

Benefits of this type of yoga include toning muscles, eliminating tension and easing chronic pain. When weak areas of the body are strengthened and stretched, our bodies return to their correct alignment.

Ashtanga (Power Yoga) is the preferred choice for athletes; Ashtanga yoga is light on meditation but heavy on developing strength and stamina. The poses are more difficult than those performed in other styles and students move quickly from one pose to another in an effort to build strength, stamina, and flexibility.

This style is suitable for anyone in reasonable physical condition but should be avoided by those who are new to exercise. Even "beginner" routines are physically demanding workouts. Ashtanga yoga takes students through a warming up of the body to "activate" the muscles. Students then move from one pose to another in a continual flow and combine the inhale and exhale of the breath with movements.

The cornerstone of power yoga is the sun salutation, a twelve-pose flowing series which is modified in various ways known as the primary and secondary series. Attention is paid particularly to linking the breath to each of the movements. 

Kundalini yoga incorporates mantras (chanting), meditations, visualizations, and guided relaxation. It focuses on healing and "purifying" the mind, body, and emotions. Kundalini yoga is designed to activate the kundalini energy in the spine.

This energy activation is achieved with poses, breath control, chanting, and meditation. Kundalini yoga is beneficial in dealing with addictions, and many people find it to be a natural way of releasing endorphins just by breathing and doing the poses.

Bikram Yoga is done in a hot room that is 90-105 degrees Fahrenheit (to replicate the temperature of yoga's birthplace in India). This style of yoga moves sequentially through 26 postures that are performed in a precise order. The Bikram series warms and stretches muscles, ligaments and tendons in the order in which they should be stretched according to Bikram Choudhury, the developer of this style of yoga.

When combined with the heat, Bikram yoga makes for a tough workout. The exercises are very physical and the intensity is high. This style is recommended for yoga veterans and extremely fit individuals only.

Kripalu yoga is more spontaneous, flowing, and meditation orientated yoga. Kripalu yoga starts with the first stage which is primarily postural alignment while intertwining the breath and movement. The poses are held only a short time.

The student progresses to the second stage which includes meditation and the poses held for longer periods. Finally, the practice of poses becomes a spontaneous dynamic movement. The essence of Kripalu yoga is experienced through a continuous flow of postures while meditating, for gentle yet dynamic yoga.

What is Hatha Yoga?

The practice of yoga postures (asanas) differs significantly from conventional exercise such as aerobics, weight-training, jogging, etc. The goal of asana practice is to restore the mind-body to its natural condition of well-being, alertness, and potential peak performance. Developing muscle strength cardiovascular fitness and other health benefits are possible in the process but are commonly seen as secondary objectives.

The asanas or postures are a discipline for the body, which in turn positively affects the mind. These effects flow into the emotions and the muscles, organs and glands as well. Asanas balance the nervous system. They increase flexibility, improve circulation, strengthen muscles, aid in digestion, support stress-related conditions and improve breathing capacity and the elasticity of the lungs.

Asanas are gentle stretching movements designed to rejuvenate and bring balance to the entire body. This happens in several ways. First, yoga postures increase blood supply to specific areas of the body and stimulate them with a gentle squeezing action. This gives the internal organs a massage. The asanas make use of gravity to further increase blood flow to targeted areas. For example, an inverted pose such as the headstand increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain enhancing its ability to function optimally. The shoulder-stand causes an increase in blood flow to the thyroid gland. Yoga poses also increase flexibility in the spine. This ensures a nervous system connection to all parts of the body since the nerves from the spine extend to all of body’s tissues, organs and glands. The yoga postures are designed to stretch and relax muscles, increase flexibility in the joints, and stretch ligaments and tendons. With a focus on long, deep breathing, oxygen rich blood flows throughout the body. Most asanas work on more than one area of the body at the same time. For example, the twisting asanas bring benefits to the spine, adrenal glands, liver, pancreas and kidneys.

Yoga postures work on all dimensions of the mind-body: Physically, the body experiences healing; muscle strengthening, stretching and relaxation; all tissues and organs in the body get a “workout;” and even the nervous system returns to a more balanced state. Yoga makes the physical body healthy, strong, fit, flexible and more immune to disease helping to alleviate those physical disorders which have a cause linked to or connection to psychological or system imbalance.  Mentally the mind cultivates quietness, peacefulness, alertness and a heightened ability to focus and concentrate. Because of this, one can relax study and understand oneself better; develop a more balanced state of mind. Yoga may also help people overcome being at the mercy of their emotions, habits and unhealthy conditioned responses. Emotionally, yoga frees the mind from anxiety, worry and tension and transforms negative emotions, traits and behaviors into positive and higher states. It can make an individual more sensitive, caring and compassionate to the needs of others. Spiritually, yoga prepares one for meditation as it develops inner strength. Yoga experts claim that yoga helps an individual evolve spiritually as it enables him or her to understand and accept life’s situation and experiences from a broader perspective, thereby increasing faith in a higher process of life and faith in God and the goodness of life. Behaviorally, yoga redirects wasted energy away from behaviors that could be detrimental to well-being. It leads to a more balanced and harmonious interaction with others and inner peace of mind. Yoga brings about a deeper state of relaxation which makes an individual more fruitful and more able to enjoy life. Additionally, yoga helps us on our own development and growth. When a person is in a particular poses, she moves in the direction of her physical limits of flexibility. Once she has found that limit, she eases back a little and then, with each exhalation, moves through that limitation, slowly, gently, and easily. With regular practice of this process in her poses, she translates moving through her limitations into other areas of her life where she has set up perceived barriers. As she meets challenges that seem difficult, she steps back just a bit, breathes, and does what is necessary to easily move through that barrier. Little by little, she expands and grows in all areas of her life with confidence because she has practiced doing it every time she practices yoga.   

Directly related to stress management, yoga activates parasympathetic nervous system activity, which, as mentioned in earlier chapters, unleashes energy, restores the immune system, and fixes many problems that are a result of a chronically activated fight-or-flight response. Yoga relaxes us deeply!

Health Benefits of Yoga

An early study with Indian yogis, most of whom practiced Hatha yoga, reported that in ninety-eight yoga sessions, the following characteristic pattern of physiological alterations occurred during yoga practice: (1) an extreme slowing of respiration to 4 to 6 breaths per minute; (2) more than a 70 percent increase in electrical resistance (GSR), indicating a state of deep relaxation; (3) a predominance of alpha brain-wave activity; and (4) a slowing of heart rate to 24 beats per minute from the normal rate of 72 beats per minute. Each of these alterations in physiology indicates deep levels of relaxation.

In a study conducted in Japan with female college students, hatha yoga was compared with progressive relaxation and its effects on heart rate, blood pressure, physical self-efficacy, and self-esteem. Results showed both treatments were effective in lowering heart rate and blood pressure and in improving self-esteem.

Yoga Specialist John C. Kimbrough describes the benefits of regular yoga relaxation practice:

bulletBetter overall physical and mental health.
bulletRelieves and delays the onset of fatigue and makes up for lost sleep.
bulletHelps access and cultivate the skillful and healthy elements of the unconscious mind. This brings about a spiritual unfoldment and leads to better mind-body integration and harmony and effortless living.
bulletHelps minimize and alleviate illusions, fatigue, confusion, inessential burdens and develops a living that is more skillful which allows us to let go of disturbing thoughts and feelings. It helps us deal with the life stresses we experience and brings about greater freedom from negative conditioning and repressed memories.
bulletPrepares the mind, body and breath for sitting concentration/meditation practice.

The American Yoga Association has given details of how yoga has been found to be helpful in alleviating the symptoms of the following conditions: Addiction, AIDS/HIV, Anxiety and stress, arthritis, asthma, back and neck pain, chronic fatigue, depression diabetes, fibromyalgia, headaches, heart health, hypertension, incontinence, infertility, insomnia, multiple sclerosis, pain management, PMS/menopause, and weight management.

Every symptom that occurs as a result of chronic activation of the stress response can be positively improved through regular practice of yoga. During yoga practice, the stress response turns off during the duration of the session. As a result, the body functions that are altered when we perceive a need to run or fight return to homeostasis. This balanced physiological state allows the body to correct problems that have occurred due to chronic stress.

 

Research Highlight

Dr. Dean Ornish, author of Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease uses a yoga-based therapy scientifically with his patients. In one of his studies he and his colleagues randomly assigned 48 middle-aged male and female outpatients with coronary artery disease to experimental and usual-care control groups. The patients in the experimental group were prescribed an extremely low-fat vegetarian diet and moderate exercise; were given training in stress management including enhancement of social support among the group members to increase compliance; and were advised to stop smoking. The stress management training included yoga-based stretching exercises, breathing techniques, meditation, relaxation, and visual imagery. The patients were asked to practice these at least 1 hour per day, and were given 1-hour audiocassette tapes to help them practice. The patients in the control group were not asked to make any similar lifestyle changes but were free to do so.

The experimental group, compared with the control group, realized a significantly greater drop in total cholesterol levels (24.3%) and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels (37.4%); high-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels did not change significantly. Patients in the experimental group reported a 91% reduction in the frequency of angina, a 42% reduction in the duration of angina, and a 28% reduction in the severity of angina pain. In contrast, the control group reported a 165% rise in frequency, a 95% rise in duration, and a 39% rise in severity of angina pain. The investigators assessed 195 coronary artery lesions in both groups by quantitative coronary angiography at baseline and periodically for about 1 year. For the experimental group, constriction of coronary arteries decreased from 40% to 37.8%. For the control group, coronary artery constriction increased from 42.7% to 46.1%. The authors of the study commented that coronary artery disease is progressive and the control group’s results demonstrate that the usual advice to change lifestyle and medications are not sufficient to halt progression. The results of the experimental group give early indications that, for heart disease (our culture’s number one cause of death), radical changes in lifestyle, including yoga-based therapy may be a potent alternative.

 

How to do Yoga

Yoga asanas are designed to develop the body with three primary aspects of fitness: power, flexibility, and balance. Every pose combines one or more of each of these aspects to some extent. Some poses may develop balance more than flexibility. Other poses are designed to develop strength and power. Working on a wide variety of poses develops each of these aspects of fitness throughout the entire body.

Each pose has a specific Sanskrit name and a corresponding English equivalent. For example, the Standing forward bend is called Uttanasana (OOT-tan-AHS-ahna). Many of the asanas have animal names, such as the camel posture and the eagle posture. This is because yogis created their asanas, in part, by observing animal behavior. They noticed how animals instinctively stretched and contracted their bodies. For example, after a cat is finished with a nap, it instinctively stretches, arching the spine in both directions.

It is not crucial to know the names of the various poses in order to do them correctly. It is, however, important to do them correctly. With time and practice, the names become a natural part of your yoga practice.

Asana practice for beginners and experienced yogis is essentially the same, the difference being the intensity of the poses and the flexibility of the student. In general a typical yoga session consists of proceeding through a series of poses, being mindful of what is happening in the body, entering and ending each pose slowly, breathing fully and deeply in and out through the nose, and enjoying the process. That’s yoga!

Yoga poses are done in a variety of positions including standing, sitting, kneeling, lying on the back, lying on the stomach, on the hands and knees, and in an inverted positions. Each asana might have a number of variations. Depending on ones skill level, the poses may be modified to any of the variations. This is why yoga is appropriate for people of all levels of fitness and flexibility.

If you have never done yoga before, you might find that many of the poses resemble the stretching exercises you did when you were in physical education classes in junior high and high school or when you stretched out as in preparation for a sporting event. Many of the poses are the same with more emphasis placed on fluid movement between postures and increased awareness of breathing.

Yoga is usually done barefoot with comfortable athletic attire or loose clothing that breathes easily. Consider wearing what you wear when you go to the gym as appropriate for practicing yoga. You might find it helpful to bring a towel with you and a yoga mat can be especially useful if the floor is hard. You can practice yoga nearly anywhere: at home, at school, in the office, at the beach, in a park, or anywhere you have some open space, peace and quiet, and some fresh air.

As you move into, and out of each pose, keep a part of the mind’s focus on the flow of breathing. In general, inhalations take place during expansion phases of a pose. Exhalations occur during the contracting phases of a pose. As a pose is held, allow the breath to flow like a circle going in through the nose, down into the lowest parts of the lungs, turning around and coming back out through the nose. Visualize the flowing breath like a moving Ferris wheel slowly moving around in a smooth circular pattern. There should be no jerkiness to the breath, nor should there be long pauses in the flowing breath between an inhale and exhale or between an exhale and inhale.

Move very slowly into each pose and back out of the pose. Never jerk through a range of motion. Take your time and allow the movements to move smoothly from beginning to end of a pose. While you in each pose, hold it for at least 20 seconds. Longer is better. It takes about 20 seconds for the muscles, the tendons, and ligaments to release and move into a stretching mode. There are some poses that involve movement rather than static stretching. Move through these movements slowly and easily.

Stretch to almost a maximal range of motion and then ease back just a little from there. This is where you start. As you are holding the pose, allow yourself to move ever so slightly more into the stretch each time you exhale. Let the exhale assist you in expanding. With practice you will find your body responding by easing you gently through your physical limits.

Keep your attention directly focused on what is happening in your body. Do not let your mind wander. As you maintain your focus, you can gently move through your limits and extend yourself while at the same time making sure that you are not overextending and causing unnecessary tissue damage. Never, never, never, push yourself through the range of a stretch to the point where you feel pain. It’s okay to have a feeling of slight muscle pulling, but pain is never a good thing when doing yoga. If pain is felt, the tissue is sending a message that it is being pulled or pushed too far. That leads to injuries and also creates a sensation of fear connected to that pose in the future. Staying focused on what is happening inside, listening closely to the sensations, and easing back when pain is felt, will prevent any damage and lead to a positive yoga experience. If you are one of those people who is not very flexible, yoga is an ideal exercise for you. Not only will your flexibility gradually increase with regular practice, but you will realize that everyone has a different level of flexibility and where you are now is just fine. Yoga is not limited to the most limber among us. Everyone experiences the healing effect no matter how far he or she can stretch into the poses.

Tips for Enhancing your Yoga Experience

Try to do yoga on an empty stomach. A full stomach inhibits your range of motion for many poses. A full stomach also drains your energy while your body diverts energy to digestion. Don’t eat anything less than about two to three hours before a yoga session. If you find yourself feeling extremely hungry before beginning, experiment with a light snack such as some nuts, yogurt, or some juice. Be sure to drink plenty of water before, during, and most importantly, after a yoga session.

You will experience benefits of yoga by practicing as little as one hour per week. Certainly, the more you do it, the more benefits you will experience the positive effects of yoga. Most yoga classes last approximately an hour to an hour and one-half. The recommendation for beginners is to try to practice about two or three times per week. One positive aspect of yoga is that if you only have 15 or 20 minutes to practice, you can select a few poses and do them fully in that amount of time. You might find that after continued practice your desire  to do yoga will increase just as those who exercise regularly come to enjoying working out regularly.

When possible, try to practice at the same time every day. The morning is a great time to work out stiffness from the previous night’s sleep and create energy and balance for the day. In the afternoon and evening, the muscles are warmer and looser allowing greater stretching to occur. Be careful, during these times, that you don’t overdo it and push yourself too far.

Go at your own pace. Don’t compare your progress or your flexibility with anyone else. Where you are is just fine and how fast you are going where you are headed is fine.

Take responsibility for your progress. If you are going to a class or following a video, listen to the feedback your body is giving to you. If you feel outstanding both an hour after practicing and the following day, you are on the right track. If you experience noticeable discomfort or pain at either of these times, lower the intensity of your yoga practice.

Be patient with yourself. Don’t look for immediate results. Release any and all expectations of how you should be progressing and simply let the experience of regular practice be sufficient. Yoga develops the body and mind at many levels, some of which may not be immediately observable. Trust the process and simply focus on regular practice.

Enjoy the experience. Associate pleasure with the joy of stretching, breathing, and smooth body movement. Your body will tell you that this is a very healthy and useful thing to do. You will experience a flood of positive feelings both during and after yoga.

The following is a table of common yoga poses. There are many more and there are variations to each one. This table contains asanas that you would commonly see at yoga classes or on productions of yoga (video/DVD/book) that you could purchase at most major bookstores.

Sample Poses

Table 1 is a demonstration of common yoga poses. There are many more poses than these represented here, and additionally, there are variations for each one. This table contains many asanas that you would commonly see at yoga classes or in yoga productions (video/DVD/book) available at most major bookstores.

As you practice these poses, try to put yourself in the same position as you see in the pictures. At first, you will probably find that you aren’t able to match the examples as you see them below. However, with regular practice, your body will develop sufficient flexibility, strength and balance to do them. To enhance your experience with the poses, keep in mind the suggestions and tips outlined in this chapter.

Table 1 – Common Yoga Poses

Mountain pose goes here

Figure 2 – 5.89 standing forward bend

Figure 3 - 5.102 side angle pose

Figure 4 – 5.108 - Dancing pose

Figure 5 - 5.92 warrior I

 

Figure 6 - 5.94 – Warrior I (continued)

 

Figure 7 - 5.100 – Warrior I (continued)

 

Figure 8 - 5.103  - Warrior 1 (continued)

Figure 9 - 5.98 Warrior II

Figure 10 - 5.96 – triangle pose I

Figure 11 - 5.97 – triangle pose II

   

Figure 12 - 5.66 - Thunderbolt

Figure 13 - 5.95 – Downward Dog

Figure 14 - 5.48 Child’s pose I

Figure 15 – 5.49 Child’s pose II

Figure 16 – 5.50 – Tiger Breathing

Figure 17 – 5.51 – Tiger Breathing

 

Figure 18 – 5.31 – Half Boat

Figure 19 – 5.30 – Half Boat (continued)

Figure 20 – 5.47 - Bow

Figure 21 – 5.24 – Full Locust

 

Figure 22 – 5.26 – Full Locust (continued)

Figure 23 – 5.46 – Half Bow

 

Figure 24 – 5.45 – Half Bow

 

Figure 25 – 5.72 – Sitting Side Bend

Figure 26 – 5.73 – Sitting Side Bend

Figure 27 – 5.76 – Staff Pose

Figure 28 - 5.59 – Head to the Knee

Figure 29 - 5.61 – Head to the Knee

Figure 30 - 5.62 – Head to the Knee

 

Figure 31 – 5.77 – Back Stretch

Figure 32 – 5.78 – Back Stretch

Figure 33 – 5.79 – Spinal Twist

Figure 34 – 5.111 – Front Body Stretch

Figure 35 – 5.14 – Bridge Pose

 

Figure 36 – 5.13 – Bridge Pose

Figure 37 – 5.39 – Upward Bow

Figure 38 – 5.40 – Upward Bow

Figure 39 – 5.41 – Upward Bow

 

Figure 40 – 5.5 – Corpse Pose

Figure 41 – 5.33 – Boat Pose

Figure 42 – 5.34 – Boat Pose

 

Figure 43 – 5.10 - Modified Supine Holding Big Toe Pose I

Figure 44 – 5.11 - Modified Supine Holding Big Toe Pose II

Figure 45 – 5.36 – Upward Straight Legs

Figure 46 – 5.35 – Upward Straight Legs

Figure 47 – 5.112 – Shoulder Stand

Figure 48 – 5.113 – Shoulder Stand

Figure 49 – 5.18 – Belly Turning Pose

 

Figure 50 – 5.19 – Belly Turning Pose

Figure 51 – 5.20 – Belly Turning Pose

Figure 52 – (p. 112) – Sun Salute

 

Key Terms

 

Asana – A position, posture, or stance in yoga

 

Hatha Yoga – Form of yoga using postures, breathing methods and meditation

 

Pranayama – Yoga breathing techniques

 

Yogi (female, yogini) – A trained yoga expert