A quick search on any social media sight would make it appear that yoga is akin to gymnastics, acrobatics and that you need to be wearing a crop top to take part. Honestly this is enough to put me off, and I am a die-hard fan of yoga.
Yoga is an ancient practice which has been adapted, modified and altered in its transition from an eastern activity into a western form of fitness. Head along to any gym and you will find a yoga class on their timetable. There are even a plethora of yoga studios cropping up all over the place, offering a wide range of styles of yoga. It can be more than a little overwhelming, to say the least.
When learning about the history of yoga (check out a previous blog on this subject) we looked at the lineage, images from the Indus Valley dating back several thousand years. But most importantly was the notion of the yoga teachers who were instrumental in brining this practice from the Indian sub-continent all the way to the west. Many styles of yoga are named after or by these teachers, and each sub-section of yoga offers something different.
Over the years I’ve tried many different styles of yoga, because I’m a bit of a geek and love to learn new things and also because I truly love practicing yoga. My initial practice and training was in the Ashtanga method, as taught by Sri K Pattabhi Jois. The teacher I learned from, was taught by Pattabhi Jois’ son Sharth, so I can enjoy being part of this lineage too.
Ashtanga is a set sequence of poses practiced in the same order, 6 days a week. When a pose is successfully ‘mastered,’ the teacher will then ‘gift’ the next pose in the sequence to the student. It can take years to complete the Primary Series, and after this there are a few other sequences to work through. This practice offers limited poses but unlimited ways to refine them and to explore something new when stepping onto the mat. Here are my Top Tips if you’re just starting out with Ashtanga yoga.
After the physical postures are understood, we would then layer on using the breath and bandhas to achieve a lightness and greater focus in the practice. Ashtanga offers so many layers, just like this flower. It has beautiful parts and then other parts not-so-much. I suppose it’s practically a metaphor for life – it has beautiful parts and then others not-so-much!
It’s all these layers that make a yoga class so unique, and I’m leaving out the gym-based ones here because I find it very hard to focus when there’s thumping music just outside the door! We move through a variety of physical postures, each one looking completely different on all the unique individuals who are practicing. We then add in the breath to create a flow, a focus and to be the thread which strings together the poses.
Yoga is a whole-body experience, it’s not simply about the physical movements. It’s about learning how to accommodate your body within those physical movements. How to adapt, modify and change the poses to work for you. Yoga is not a one-size fits all, and the ultimate goal of attending a class will be different for everyone.
While Ashtanga offers me the chance to move through poses in a dynamic way, it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Yin yoga has been a part of my life for almost 7 years now, as I knew that I needed a way to slow down some more. Ashtanga is considered quite a yang practice – it requires effort, movement and provides some challenge. Yin is the opposite – it offers a lot of time for introspection while we remain in poses for up to 5-mintues.
Working with the deeper connective tissues, Yin yoga is the ideal way to explore some of the other layers of yoga – observing and concentrating on the breath and tuning into how we are feeling in the present moment. While the Ashtanga becomes a moving meditation, Yin yoga offers the stillness needed to truly explore the meditative possibilities within us.
These are only two styles of yoga; I have attended classes in various other practices and would encourage anyone interested to explore what’s on offer out there. Especially now that so many teachers offer opportunities to learn with them online. Whichever style of yoga you gravitate towards, please try to remember that it should always be much more than a fitness practice.
Yoga offers us the chance to heal our minds and bodies, when practiced with purpose and a mindful attitude. But if you come to yoga purely as a fitness practice doesn’t mean you’re missing out – the beauty of yoga is that it meets you where you are and if you need a modality to get you moving this is a great place to start. When (and if) you feel ready to explore some of the deeper aspects of yoga, come along to a class and see what else this ancient practice might be able to offer you.
If you’re not in my local area and would like to practice with me, here’s some videos to get you started. This video is an introduction to Surya Namaskara A (Sun Salutation A.) It’s a dynamic series of movements and it is also the beginning series of poses practiced in an Ashtanga class. Looking for more of a Yin practice, then try this video which offers a 10-minute morning session designed to release any tightness or tension within the upper back and shoulders area.