Introduction to Yoga
by Lori J. Batcheller
In recent years, yoga has been steadily gaining popularity as a means to get and stay fit and healthy and achieve more balance and harmony in an often-busy world. Today, an estimated 18 million people practice throughout the United States—in private studios, retreat centers, company wellness centers, and their own homes. Originally designed to purify the body and provide the physical strength and stamina required for long periods of meditation, hatha yoga, or the practice of physical postures known as asanas, also opens many channels of the body, especially the spine, so that energy can flow freely. Ultimately, people who practice yoga regularly not only feel better physically but also report an increased sense of happiness and peace within themselves and with the world around them.
HistoryYoga was developed in India an estimated 5,000 years ago as a philosophy and practice for achieving a balanced state of body, mind, and spirit, leading to optimal functioning or thriving. The word yoga essentially means union and is derived from the Sanskrit word "yuj," or to yoke, referring to the union of the individual and the Divine.
While hatha yoga is the most common form of yoga in the West, the practice of asanas (postures) constitutes only one branch of an eight-limbed path outlined by the Indian sage Patanjali an estimated 2,000 years ago in the Yoga Sutras, a guidebook that provides the inspiration for most of today's yoga practices.
In addition to asana, which is the third limb of the yoga path, the other seven limbs include yamas (ethical restraints), niyamas (spiritual observances), pranayama (breathing), pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (absorbtion). Pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, and samadhi can enhance and be incorporated into a hatha yoga asana practice with attention to slow and deep breathing, inward focus, and finding the edge of stretch or effort without pain, strain, or fatigue.
The Benefits of Hatha YogaThe word hatha comes from the Sanskrit "ha," meaning sun, and "tha," meaning moon, and refers to the integration of the active and receptive aspects of ourselves. Specifically, consciously performing yoga poses leads to a body that is both strong and flexible; a mind that is alert yet calm; an ability to both take action and to surrender; and an awareness of self and others. By turning the attention to the breath during hatha yoga practice, we slow down our busy thoughts and become more present to each moment.
Regular yoga practice offers numerous benefits to body, mind, and spirit, including
- Toning and strengthening. As a form of isometric exercise, the prolonged holding of yoga postures tones the muscles as well as internal organs.
- Increasing flexibility. Gently holding yoga poses at the edge of comfort stretches and lengthens muscles, tendons, and ligaments allowing them to become more flexible.
- Improves respiration. Deep breathing during yoga practice opens the chest and strengthens the diaphragm.
- Improves concentration. Moving mindfully while maintaining awareness of the body and breath develops focus, attention, and concentration.
- Promotes relaxation. The combination of gentle stretching, deep breathing, meditation, and guided relaxation releases body tension and calms the nervous system and emotions, giving a sense of renewal to the body, mind, and spirit.
- Builds internal and external awareness. As a focused practice, yoga builds awareness of the body and feelings, along with increasing awareness of the needs of others, our communities, and our world.
- Facilitates improved health. In addition to exercising the mind and muscles, yoga exercises and massages the glands and organs and increases circulation throughout the body, resulting in improved digestion, elimination of toxins, and the promotion of overall health.
Anyone can do yoga—young and old, male and female, athletes and couch potatoes, and people of any religion or spiritual belief system. And this ancient practice requires no special equipment. A pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt work just as well as a made-for-yoga outfit. Going barefoot is ideal, and most studios provide yoga mats and any additional props and blankets. All that is needed to begin a yoga practice is a desire to live a more integrated and balanced life.
If you are initially shy about joining a class, purchasing a video or DVD can be a great introductory experience. Many of us, however, find it difficult initially to get motivated on our own. Participating in a regular class with the same teacher over time can be one of the more rewarding aspects of a yoga practice. We are inspired by and learn from our teacher and our fellow yogis and yoginis.
Some use yoga as a way to support and enhance another primary physical practice, such as dance, martial arts, or other athletic endeavor; some take a yoga class once or twice a week as a part of their overall self-care practice; and yet others fall in love with yoga and make it a way of life. In any case, it is a beneficial practice on all levels. Start slow, keep your mind and heart open, and trust your body.
Finding a Class, Choosing a TeacherSome great ways to find a class and teacher that work for you, other than simple convenience and scheduling issues, are to (a) accompany a friend who is already attending a class until you feel comfortable to experiment with new classes and teachers on your own, (b) seek out a recommendation from a friend or colleague for a class, teacher, or studio that has been rewarding for them, (c) find a friend who is also interested in trying out yoga for the first time and embark on this new adventure together, (d) search schedules for local community centers, colleges that offer adult education programs, and retreat centers; or (e) simply look in the yellow pages or online for a nearby studio, and take the leap!
A good rule of thumb is to try a few different classes before you decide if yoga is right for you or not. Each teacher has a different style and approach, and every style of yoga has within it practices and approaches that differ from other styles. Your body, mind, and spirit will let you know when you have found the right yoga for you.
Note Even if you are athletically competent, strong, and fit, yoga will likely be a new experience for your body, and a beginning class is a great place to begin your exploration of yoga.
Lori J. Batcheller, MA, MPT, is a certified Kripalu Yoga teacher, journal writing instructor, and freelance writer who contributes regularly to Kripalu Center publications. A former Kripalu long-term volunteer, she teaches Kripalu Guest Yoga and R&R workshops.
© 2006 Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the January 2006 issue of Kripalu Online. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.