Ashtanga is a Sanskrit word meaning “eight limbs.” Ashtanga yoga is the practice of the eight-limbed path, a series of steps one approaches in pursuit of the final step, Samadhi, enlightenment or bliss. The first two steps are the Yamas and Niyamas, interpreted as the do's and don'ts of yogic behavior such as non-violence, truthfulness, cleanliness, and devoted study. The next pair of steps concern the physical body: the practice of Asana, the physical postures of yoga, and Pranayama, mastery of the breath. The fifth step is Pratyahara, withdrawal from the senses, which prepares one for the next two steps: Dharana (concentration) and Dhyana (meditation). When mastery of the first seven limbs is achieved, Samadhi, a state of higher consciousness, is entered.
Ashtanga also refers to a specific style of hatha yoga pioneered by Sri K Pattabhi Jois. The Ashtanga style of yoga is a heating, detoxifying practice which incorporates the use of Ujjayi Pranayama ("Victorious Breathing") and bandhas (energetic locks) as tools of focus. Ashtangis begin with the Primary Series, and may progress as mastery is gained through up to 6 advancing sequences.
Bikram Yoga, commonly known as “hot yoga,” was founded by the legendary Bikram Choudhury, infamous for his flashy suits and fedoras. In a Bikram class, the practice rooms are heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit. The same series of 26 postures, designed to take the body through its full range of motion, is practiced in every class. It is acceptable and even recommended, should you choose to attend a Bikram class, that you wear as little as possible. And bring a towel.
Child's pose is a safe haven, a place to return to if at any time you feel overwhelmed or out of breath during your practice. Yoga classes often begin with this introspective, supported pose to prepare the mind and soften the body for the practice ahead. We start here because the practice of yoga is practice for life, and and we all begin as children.
Dharana means concentration. Yoga is a practice of both the body and the mind. Through practice of the postures, which are designed to create sensation in the body, the practitioner trains the mind to remain calm and focused in any situation. Yoga employs Pranayama and Drishti, breath control and fixed gaze points, as tools for developing concentration.
The Sanskrit term Prana is translated as the vital energy or life force, equivalent to chi or qi. In yoga, we aim, first, to gain greater awareness of the way energy flows throughout the body, then we seek to direct that energy in a more efficient way. Physical pain and illness are interpreted by yogic tradition as blockages in the energy channels that constrict the flow of Prana through the body. These blockages may be energetic manifestations of injury, trauma, or harmful patterns of thought. Practice of the asanas, or postures, clears these blockages and promotes the free flow of Prana in the body, ensuring good health and happiness.
The only failure in yoga is not getting on the mat. The rewards to be reaped from the practice are the truths inherent in the experience of the practice itself, not in the attainment of handstands or Hanumanasana.
The gaze, or drishti, is an important and often overlooked element of asana practice. Traditionally, each pose has an assigned gaze point. In my experience, however, these traditional gazing points can create strain in the neck, back, and shoulders. The important thing to remember when choosing your drishti for the duration of your stay in a pose is to select a spot that is easily seen, is not moving, and encourages the head to remain in a position that does not cause compression in the back of the neck. Once you have selected your drishti, do not look away. A steady gaze reflects a steady mind.
Hanuman, the seventh incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, was a powerful monkey chief. Legend has it he crossed the Indian Ocean, from Sri Lanka to the Himalayas, in one giant leap. Hunumanasana, or Monkey God Pose, is dedicated to Hanuman. It very closely resembles the splits.
Iyengar is an alignment-based style of yoga named for its founder, BKS Iyengar, legendary student of Krishnamacharya, the father of modern yoga. If you find yourself in the hands of an Iyengar instructor, expect to be thoroughly propped up with blocks, bolsters, and straps. Do not be afraid of the straps. They will not hurt you.
Jalandhara Bandha, or throat lock, is one of energetic locks employed in the practice of yoga. To engage Jalandhara Bandha, lengthen the back of the neck, then tuck the chin and draw it back very slightly. This lock stimulates the throat chakra, and is said to encourage thyroid function and healthy metabolism. The ancient interpretation of this effect is that the position of the throat prevents Jal, the 'water' or nectar of life which is stored in the skull, from dripping into the digestive fire in the belly.
Kukkutasana is a challenging arm balancing posture which requires one to wriggle one's arms through one's lotus-bound legs and lift the lower body from the floor. The English translation of Kukkutasana is Cock Pose. Teehee.
Lulemon Athletica, makers of status- and asset-enhancing athletic wear for the hip and fit crowd, does charge a pretty penny for their stretch pants, but they also offer free classes in their stores and do their fair share to promote yoga teachers in the community. So, while I won't buy their wares, I might wear them if they happened to be given to me. (Hint. Hint.)
When many think of yoga, they think of flexible folks dressed in Lycra twisting, bending, and stretching their bodies in all directions. However, meditation is an important element of yoga as well. While practicing the postures can be a moving meditation, the act of sitting in stillness and drawing the mind inward is an important practice that contributes to the well-being of both the body and mind as one gains greater understanding and compassion for oneself.
Generally in the practice of yoga, breath is taken in and out through nostrils rather than the mouth. This is done for a few reasons: the breath is warmed and filtered of any impurities in the sinus passages before it reaches the lungs, which is said to improve immune health and create heat in the body which encourages the release of toxins. Breathing through the nostrils also results in less water loss than mouth breathing, which quickly dehydrates the mouth, allowing one to continue their practice without the constant need for water.
Be open to the transformations that are waiting to take place in your life. Open your heart to those around you. Open your mind to the possibility that the limitations of your body may not be as inhibiting as they seem. Open yourself to the possibilities.
How do you define pain? Consider that perhaps your need to label your sensations as pain is the very thing that is causing you to hurt. Consider your real pain. Consider it, acknowledge it, and then just let it go.
Value quality over quantity in your yoga practice. The best way to bring about the change you seek is to do it every day. Make this achievable by setting reasonable goals for yourself. Instead of committing to ninety minutes a day when you know you don't have that kind of time, aim for twenty minutes a day of focused quality practice time, then extend the duration as you are able.
You'll hear a lot about relaxation in yoga. Sounds easy? It's not. Go ahead. Give it a try. Really and truly relax. Let go of thoughts. Let go of expectations. After a few moments, you may find your muscles twitching, your toes wiggling, or your eyebrows furrowing with the focus of your intention. This is not relaxation. Try again.
Savasana, or Corpse Pose, is the final resting pose in any class of nearly any style of yoga. Traditionally, it is practice for death, the practice of letting go with grace and ease.
Pay attention to your toes. Allow them to express themselves as individuals. Years of immobilization in shoes can disfigure and weaken them. Use the many opportunities in your practice to give your toes the care and freedom they deserve.
Ujjayi Pranayama, “victorious breathing,” is a controlled method of breathing in which the back of the throat is contracted slightly, resulting in a long, slow breath with a soft, hissing sound resonating in the throat as the practitioner inhales and exhales. Ujjayi Pranayama is commonly used during the practice of asana because the friction of the breath dragging through the contracted throat builds additional heat in the body, which amplifies the detoxifying effect of the postures. It is called the “victorious breath” because the chest is lifted and broadened as the rib cage expands, creating a proud posture with the body.
The Sanksrit word Vinyasa means, loosely, “to place in a certain way.” More commonly, it refers to a flowing form of yoga in which the poses are linked through movement, and the movements of the body are linked with the breath.
Yoga classes today are typically dominated by those of us with two X-chromosomes. Interestingly, the asanas as they are now commonly practiced were originally designed for men, specifically young men with lots of energy in need of proper direction.
What is yoga, really? How does one define it? The word itself means “to yoke,” or unite. To bring together. To make as one. In the practice of yoga, we unite the body and mind, and the individual self with the infinite self, which is indistinct from all that surrounds us. This is Samadhi, the ultimate culmination of yoga.
Zen Yoga, as the name suggests, is the practice of a combination of Zen and Yoga, among other things. Zen Yoga emerged in 2002 as an offshoot of yoga which incorporates elements of tai chi, qigong, and gentle stretching as an accessible form of breath-based movement. Philosophically, Zen Yoga fuses facets of various Eastern philosophies, including but not limited to Zen, Shamanism, and Taoism as a means toward holistic health.