Yoga can be more than just something you do once a week: It can be used every day in many ways. My yoga class is a lesson to be applied and used as often as possible during the working day, not a workout to increase the pulse rate, although you can do that by holding simple poses for a longer time. Whether you’re sitting on a chair in front of a computer, standing serving at a bar or digging a trench, yoga gives you ways of breathing and moving that can sustain and revitalise you. Yoga means union, specifically of mind body and spirit, to create an awareness of where you are and what you’re doing.
What is yoga?
Hatha yoga has spawned many sub-branches in its thousands of years of development (it originated in India, possible as early as 5000BC (McEvilley 2002). Yoga came to the West in 1893-4 when Swami Vivekananda toured Europe and the United States. It remained a relatively esoteric practice until the 1940s when, Paramahansa Yogananda (pictured right, author of Autobiography of a Yogi ) established Kriya Yoga, a lineage of Hatha Yoga, in the USA. Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga was introduced into the USA in 1948 by Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, and his disciple K. Pattabhi Jois. Interest in yoga continued to grow, with an expansion of schools and techniques in the “flower child’ era of the 1960’s and is now firmly established and offered by many gyms and spas, although often purely as a form of physical exercise.
My personal yoga history goes back to 1969. I was an aspiring hippy-flower child, a young country kid free in the Big City and trying all sorts of new things for the first time. I came across a yoga class at RMIT, loved it and then went on to study Hatha yoga and meditation at the Gita school in Alfred lane Melbourne (http://www.gita.com.au), and had the privilege to be taught by the founder of the school, Margarit Segesman. I went to Gita off and on for many years. It is still a great school, now run by Lucille Wood and Di Lucas, but it moved to Punt Rd (traffic, traffic). So I switched to Mangala Studios in Carlton (just up the street from work at Melbourne Uni) for creative yoga and yoga/dance, with Peter Hockey and Claudia Mangiamele (http://www.mangalastudios.com.au). Peter’s meditation techniques were tremendously valuable to my family when my husband underwent chemotherapy (he’s very healthy 15 years later).
For many years I had a regular yoga daily practice and ran casual classes for friends. I'd travelled to India and Nepal and adopted some Buddhist practices, but in 2010 I went to Sri Lanka to do an Ayurveda therapy course and became aware of the essential links between Life, the Universe and Yoga. I re-read Autobiography of a Yogi in Sri Lanka and what had seemed weird, off-the-planet ideas in 1970, now made more sense. I was curious about Kriya yoga, the form of yoga that combines, among other practices, Hatha and Kundalini yoga. It was time to get serious about teaching yoga. I enrolled at VIYETT because they have a detailed, academic course and took older students. Then I discovered that the principal, Maya Hansajati is a Kriya yoga devotee, and another inspirational teacher. I’m so fortunate in finding the right teachers at the right time! There is so much to learn and Yoga is such a multifaceted practice, I feel that even a somewhat mature flower child like myself can be a teacher. I’d love to still be teaching yoga in 30 years time, at 90 plus (Alexandra David Neale, pictured, was a pioneering lady Yogini,and lived to over 100).
How to practice yoga
Hatha yoga provides a set of physical exercises (asana) breathing techniques (pranayama) and mental exercises (mudras and mantras) that improve strength, balance and flexibility and relieve stress. Yoga aims to increase your awareness of how you move, breathe and think, training you in mind-body awareness for improved health and fitness. It is primarily a spiritual practice, but with very practical applications.
All this can be done without standing on your head!
Yoga is not just for young, strong fit people (contrary to the yoga class advertisements in the health magazines). Although real work-out yoga is available for those who want it ( Ashtanga, Bikram, Bakram, Iyengar), yoga can be adapted to suit anyone. Yoga has been shown to benefit people with many debilitating and chronic diseases (see the Research pages: The benefits of yoga)
In fact if you think you can’t possible do yoga (too old, fat, inflexible, unfit) you are the person who will get the most benefit from it.
Yoga at the basic level is simple, but not easy. The asanas look easy, but the trick is to effectively combine movement and breath and to hold poses and relax into them. In class, it’s important to concentrate on doing the pose correctly to the best of your ability, but not to compete with others on bending further or holding the pose longer. The important point is to feel your body working, to back off when you feel any strain or pain, but then go back into the pose and try again. It’s very useful to shut your eyes and breathe into a pose, so that you don’t feel pressure to perform in a group.
Without breath we’re dead, yet most of us pay very little attention to maintaining and training our lungs. We no longer have to run from sabre toothed tigers, so selection for good lung function no longer operates! Yet breath and the passage of oxygen into our body is vital and maintaining this as we age can stave off cardiovascular and mental decay ( see Getting inside your head). Yoga includes an awareness of breath during asana and also separate breathing exercises to clear the head and lungs. Like asanas, pranayamas look simple, but require concentration and regular practice to be beneficial.
Everyone is aware of the classic OM chant, the basic vibration that really makes your whole body hum when you sound it. Yoga has a whole range of chants that are fun to do, and non-threatening for folks who think that they can’t sing (everyone can sing, just some folk you want to listen to more than others). Mantras can also be used as silent chants for meditation. They focus the mind, aid breathing practice and are great stress pressure valves (chant, don’t rant!).
Mudras: Hand waving!
Hands are part of our communication system, with gestures used in every language as signs and signals. The classic mudra is hands placed together pointing upwards: this is prayer position in many cultures. Other classic mudras include the chin and dhyana mudras (see pictures left ) seen on many statues of the Buddha. It is amazing how effective hand positions are in changing moods. Try being angry with your hands in prayer position! These mudras are used in meditation but can also be used discreetly as circuit breakers in stressful situations and as affirmations for courage or calm. For example, mudras can be linked with the Reiki precepts (see Reiki ) for a daily affirmation.
McEvilley, T. (2002). The shape of ancient thought, Allworth Communications. .