Yoga today is huge. It has become a way of life, a status (“I’m a yogi”), a fashion. Whilst totally worthy of the hype – it really does increase flexibility, strength and help you to relax – 21st century yoga often comes across as a little intimidating. If you are not a twenty-something who can contort your body into various pretzel-like twists, do a headstand on demand then wander around for the remainder of the day in your Lulu Lemon get-up, iced green tea in hand, you may feel a little out of the scene. For a darkly comic visualisation, check out Summer Chastant’s web comedy series ‘Namaste, Bitches’, filled with slyly manipulative insta-yoga stars whose competitive natures are masked behind greetings of “namaste” and “gratitude”.
But no, no, NO! This is entirely wrong and a massive shame. I think that the following few paragraphs could change your life, really. Yoga at it’s core is a true blessing, a fantastic way to combat anxiety, to take a break from the strains of daily life and for self-accomplishment. Through understanding yoga’s history, its values and distortions, your mind will be freed from what you may think yoga is, or what you have found it to be so far and you will be better equipped to search for a practice that offers only the good, pure stuff.
Yoga is an ancient art, originating in India. The word itself is in Sanskrit, meaning something along the lines of “perfection/ polished/ refined” as well as “united/ purposeful”. Yoga originated as an oral tradition with strong links to the Hindu religion, before Indian sage Patanjali wrote everything down in his 2,000 year old work the ‘Yoga Sutra’.
In this work, Patanjali outlines the eight ‘lines’ of yoga:
“yamas” : restraints
“niyamas” : observances
“asana” : postures
“pranayama” : breathing
“pratyahara” : withdrawal of senses
“dharana” : concentration
“dhyani” : meditation
“samadhi” : absorbtion
The most ancient form of yoga is Hatha, meaning “willfull/ forceful” which focusses on preparing the body for meditation through series of breathing and physical exercises to both strengthen the body and calm the mind. This practise has now morphed into what the modern world simply calls ‘Yoga’. Yoga hit the western world as early as the late 1800s, and arrived in Hollywood in 1947, which kickstarted the phenomenon that continues today.
There are many different types of yoga practice, each with a different focus. These were first divided amongst the ancient practices of yoga, which definitely do NOT belong in ‘Yoga 101’! More applicable are those readily available today, which include (although are not limited to):
1. “Ashtanga”, a rigorous practise which links a series of postures to the breath.
2. “Bikram”, working through a series of postures in an artificially heated space.
3. “Hatha”, essentially a generic term referring to yoga based on physical postures, most popular in the west.
4. “Iyengar”, which focusses on correcting each pose individually to achieves proper alignment.
5. “Vinyasa”, meaning “flow”. A choreographed routine of travelling through poses in a dance-like sequence.
6. “Restorative”, aimed to heal the mind and body through poses held for long periods of times, with the aid of various props. Intended to relax the body.
So what is all the Yoga hype about?
Yoga not just an exercise class, it has a unique focus on mental wellbeing in addition to the various physical benefits offered, through breathing, meditation and relaxation. For instance, whilst suffering from panic attacks and anxiety, my doctor suggested I try a regular yoga class before exploring treatments such as anti-depressants. Reluctantly following her advice, I did and learned to control my breathing and sync it with my movements, thus preventing that ‘out of control’ feeling brought about by hyperventilation. Similarly, I noticed that the majority of exercises prescribed to my mother by her physiotherapist to stretch her back were the same moves as I performed in the ‘Sun Salutation’ exercise at my yoga class. Yoga offers very real health benefits to a variety of problems, and any good teacher will check with a newcomer regarding any weak physical points, or areas of pain, and thus adopt the exercises to them.
The biggest misconception of yoga is that it is a practise centred around gynamistics or strength, full of lean, muscular students contorting their bodies into unthinkable poses and rising up into a headstand on demand. This is a belief often reinforced by (terrible) teachers. I once took a class which left me feeling dejected and clumsy after the teacher continuously praised another (very flexible) student for the various tricks she could perform. She praised the high standards of “new york yoga” teachings, passively comparing her own class, who she dismissed as under-achievers. I understand how similar experiences could put anybody off yoga.
However, once I travelled to the source, to India where I took classes by Buddhist monks and generations worth of instructors, I realised that the aforementioned teacher was blind. True instructors focus only on helping the student. If you cannot reach your toes, there is no shame in adding a wooden brick (or two, or three) to help you achieve the stretch, or to bend your knees in ‘downwards facing dog’ to fully flex your back muscles, which is the integral aim of the pose. Real instructors will provide levels of poses to accommodate all students, and recognise personal achievements in each one. They do not judge, nor even think of flexibility or strength as focus.
So I encourage you to seek out a kind teacher, who aims to encourage students to feel great about themselves. Because, I promise, once you find one, you will understand the hype.