Updated: Jun 26, 2019
When I mention the word 'yoga' most people think of a certain type of yoga that consists of exercise. And, health care professionals even recommend it as a form of (gentle) exercise - the NHS website says:
"Yoga is an ancient form of exercise that focuses on strength, flexibility and breathing to boost physical and mental well being. The main components of yoga are postures (a series of movements designed to increase strength and flexibility) and breathing"
So, what else can Yoga mean and how has its meaning changed over time?
So we see Hatha Yoga, Hot Yoga, Vinyasas and even DDP Yoga now along with Yoga Nidra, Iyenga Yoga and so many others - the list seems endless and must be really daunting to the new comer and even seasoned practitioner. How can we make any sense of this at all?
Well for me there are two major distinctions. As explained above, on the one hand Yoga seems to be about exercise and on the other it is about physical AND mental wellbeing. Sure, there are plenty of sources that show physical exercise can improve mental well being and it is also known that mental health can affect positively physical health. For me the newer forms of Yoga, those that focus on the physical exercise only, are exactly that - exercise classes. I have no issue with exercise classes and indeed would always promote them as great ways to improve physical health and, as suggested above, thereby helping with mental health also. What I do have a problem with is calling it Yoga - Yoga is not simply about physical exercise, it's a bit like telling a visitor that Trafalgar Square IS London - London is so much more and Yoga is so much more than physical exercise.
So if you want an exercise class go to one, maybe even go to hot yoga or DDP Yoga (notably introduced as a form of Yoga by an America professional wrestler!) and get, or keep fit - I applaud that. If you want Yoga then attend a traditional Yoga class such as Hatha Yoga. In fact, most teachers of Hatha Yoga (including myself) are still modernising the original since we include many standing postures which were not included in the original discipline of Hatha Yoga (mostly seated and involving much more meditation). I teach Hatha Yoga broadly and include, what I consider very important, other aspects besides physical postures and exercise. These include the following phases:
Initial relaxation - approx 5 minutes to free the mind of the days troubles and leaving aside any thoughts about the future - being in the here and now and preparing to immerse ourselves into our practise for the next hour. Also during this phase the teacher may introduce breathing exercises such as encouraging abdominal breathing or yogic breathing.
Short period of mobilisation and stretching - commonly known as the warm up
The Asanas - these are the things most people think of and include sun salutations and adopting various poses/postures or Asanas (Sanskrit (आसन) meaning "sitting down") such as Warrior I and Tree Pose (there are hundreds!). Throughout the movements there is an emphasis on coordinating the breathing with the movement such that, in the main, movements that open up the body are performed while breathing in and those closing the body are performed while exhaling (examples of opening movements would be back bends, cobra and up-dog etc and closing movements would include standing forward bend, down dog etc). The whole idea is to help movement of Prana (life force, oxygen etc) around the body efficiently and fully.
Relaxation/Mediation - approx 10 minutes - this is the end of the class but very important. It is a time during which the practitioner relaxes and meditates under instruction from the teacher (I prefer teacher to instructor as the latter makes me think exercise class). It can consist of a body scan (Westernised versions called mindfulness may be familiar to readers) or a guided meditation on a theme - it is intended to be a spiritual experience and even those that do not like to get too close to things spiritual it is at least very relaxing and rejuvenating! Also during this phase the teacher may include other breathing aspects (pranayama) which is central to Yoga - examples are humming bee breath and alternate nostril breathing. Lastly, it can be an opportunity to introduce Mudra - these are mostly the hand shapes that are adopted while seated and people often associate with meditators saying Om - another time I will talk specifically about Om!
So over time Yoga has become less and less about meditation and spiritual awakening and more and more about physical exercise - to the point in some modern forms where it is exercise only. Teachers of Hatha Yoga generally strive to keep some of the original spiritual aspects alive and, for me, this is essential otherwise we lose Yoga altogether - you don't have to be religious to benefit from spiritual experiences and to sit with others while meditating (or even just enjoying a quiet moment in the moment) is a wonderful experience everyone can enjoy - it's beginning to appear in schools in the form of mindfulness which is great although I wish we Westerners wouldn't give things new names in order to claim them as out own - mindfulness has been taught in the East for thousands of years and is not something Mr Kabat-Zinn invented in the 70's although he is credited with introducing and spreading it to the West and, I guess, making it more palatable to the West. As an interesting aside, and something I may well blab on about often, is the apparent fear of Westerners of certain things until they are portrayed in a 'Western' or 'more palatable' way - take for example vegan food: I have lots of experiences where people (not so much nowadays) shy away (almost showing revolution) when offered a vegan meal yet the same people eat an apple or banana or potatoes or vegetable curry all of which are vegan but if you label it vegan (what it is) it's very scary. Same can be true of Eastern philosophies - label them as such and they are scary, rebrand them as something the West invented and they become the bees knees. Enough of my rant, back to the issue at hand:
So you can see, the modern(ish) Hatha Yoga class is about breathing (pranayama), meditation and physical movement (asanas) and is designed to promote health in our bodies, our minds and (if you believe in them) our spirits - I urge you to give it a go, you don't have to join in with the more spiritual aspects (not all my students say Namaste at the beginning and/or end of class - more on Namaste another day also!) but to give yourself time out is to give yourself love.
Namaste to all