What is yoga?

Yoga is a combination of relaxation, breathing, and physical exercises which have been scientifically proven to provide a great benefit in improving a person’s health in all levels. You can become strong and flexible without putting unnecessary strain on the body and risking injury. The mind and emotions are also affected making you more clear-headed and balanced. 

Traditionally, yoga is practiced in a calm and quiet manner with all your attention focused on what you are doing right in the moment.  With regular practice, this attention and awareness translates to your daily life helping you to focus on the present moment instead of worrying and becoming stressed about things that have happened in the past, or ‘what if’ scenarios in the future.  

At a more philosophical level, according to the book ‘The Teachings of Hatha and Raja Yoga’ by Acharya Upendra Roy:

“Yoga is not a dogma, faith, or religion. Yoga is a practical philosophy that can be applied in everyday life, and in all walks of life. It does not bind you to superstitious belief, blind faith, or religious rights and rituals. It reveals the truth from within you, and leads you to the final goal  of life – the realisation of the Self. The true master is within you and you discover your real self through yoga. You walk your own path and gather experiences in life as it unfolds to you. Be free, fearless, and bold, open your eyes to the truth.”

Why practise yoga?

We often read about all the health benefits of yoga, but some people still have reservations. Here are some of the reasons people give and why they are not really valid reasons.  

Those bendy positions look impossible. Many pictures that you see are probably there to attract your attention. When you go to a beginner class, you will practise basic yoga postures which are simple and achievable. A good teacher can show you how to practise in the correct manner and encourage you to practise without force. It does not make a lot of sense to try to get into an impossibly strong position because, while it may look like fun, if you cannot hold it even for a few seconds, you cannot get any benefit from it. The benefits are achieved through regular gentle holding of an easy or moderate posture rather than force.

As your body gradually becomes stronger and more flexible, you will naturally go a little bit further. Practise yoga with a lot of patience and understand that muscles which have been tight for a long time will not suddenly become flexible after a few classes. Yoga is not only about practising postures. The breathing exercises (pranayama) strengthen the lungs and increase the level of oxygen in your body, giving you more energy and stamina. And as you start to feel good physically, any troubles or problems that are in your mind become less serious, and you start to look at things more positively.

Looks like nothing is happening. It may not seem like anything much is happening, but ask anybody who has attended a yoga class – many comment how even seemingly simple postures can be a real challenge. Yoga improves your fitness, but without a lot of sweating normally associated with exercise. It is practised with full concentration and discipline. Yoga is so effective because the brain and physical body work together, both focussed only on what is happening right in the moment. Of course, the best form of exercise is one that you actually enjoy doing. If you make the effort and try a few different classes, you should find a teacher and yoga style that suits you.

Too sporty for yoga. Sporty types love to move, but whatever exercise you are into, it is probably concentrating on certain muscle groups and neglecting others. The human body works as a whole: for example, if the legs are strong but the upper body is weak, or if your back is inflexible, at some point you will get injured. If you practise a proper combination of yoga postures regularly, all the different parts of the body will be exercised in a balanced way – something that most types of active sports cannot do. This will prevent future injury. The increased flexibility and strength, as well as the level of concentration that you develop can only complement your sport whatever that may be.

Too old to start now. If you find the right class and teacher and practise regularly, you will be pleasantly surprised at the improvement in those weak muscles, bad posture, joint pain, sleeplessness, breathlessness, and weak immune  system. These conditions should not be accepted as part and parcel of aging for which there are no ways to improve. Of course, you must consult your doctor before you start. But yoga postures can be modified to suit older bodies. And with that, combined with breathing exercises and meditation,  you will feel like a new ‘younger’ person physically and mentally!

Too inflexible for yoga. Yoga is exactly what you need! A good class and teacher means you feel no pressure to practise beyond what you can personally achieve. Approach your practice with a good level of commitment and patience – muscles which have not been stretched for a long time need time and cannot be hurried, otherwise you will get injured. Yoga, as it should be practised, that is, in a non-aggressive atmosphere, is very safe and effective, but it is not a quick fix. Look at it as embarking on a healthier lifestyle and investing just a couple of hours a week on improving yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Ok, so how do I start? There are many different types of classes and teachers – in yoga studios, community centres, sports gymnasiums, or private one-on-one sessions. This can all be confusing for a new practitioner. But rather than read about them, you really just have to dive in and try a class. The yoga style, the teacher, the ambience, physical environment, size of class, location – all of these factors are important to determine whether it is the right class for you and whether you’ll be able to keep up the practice. So try a few different classes and once you find one that you like, mentally prepare yourself and commit to attend at least once a week. Invest these couple of hours a week on your own health and you will gain tremendous benefits.

How do I know that this is the right class and teacher for me? After the class, you notice how incredibly relaxed you feel, as if you have just been on a holiday. And you have completely forgotten that you have actually done any exercise!   

Child's pose
Setu bandhasana - Bridge
Paschimottanasana - Entire posterior stretch