“Before you learn to stand on your head, you need to learn to stand on
your own two feet."
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
Specialist John C. Kimbrough describes the benefits of regular yoga
overall physical and mental health. |
and delays the onset of fatigue and makes up for lost sleep.
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.
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. |
the mind, body and breath for sitting concentration/meditation
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.
Dean Ornish, author of
Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease
a yoga-based therapy scientifically with his patients. In one of his
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
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
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
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
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
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
A position, posture, or stance in yoga
Yoga – Form of yoga using postures, breathing methods and meditation
Pranayama – Yoga breathing techniques
(female, yogini) – A trained yoga expert