At its truest, most authentic level, yoga is a spiritual practice. The word yoga can be interpreted as ‘union’ or ‘to yoke’. This infers the coming together of two or more things on many levels. You could think of it as a union of body and mind, breath and being, heart and soul, inner and outer consciousness and more besides. In classical yoga terms, it is the coming together of the individual consciousness and the Absolute Consciousness, or, in other words, God.
The yogi practices regularly, over a period of time, in order to attain enlightenment or, in the sacred language of Sanskrit, the state of Samadhi. There are many paths the yogi can take to reach self-realisation. These include, for example, Jnana yoga, which is the study of sacred scriptures, Karma yoga, the yoga of service and Bhakti yoga, a devotional practice.
However, the most common practice in the west is that of Hatha Yoga.
This includes the physical practice of postures, or asanas, that we associate with the typical yoga classes that can be found in almost every town in modern Ireland. On a physical level, the benefits of hatha yoga are huge. Practising makes the body strong, supple, healthy and well balanced. It promotes good lymph and blood circulation; it can regulate hormone production which in turn leads to optimal functioning of other physiological symptoms.
Also importantly, through breath work (pranayama) the central nervous system is toned and calmed, and this is why yoga is so often recommended for those suffering stress or anxiety.
Yoga comes from ancient India, and its roots can be traced back five thousand years, to what is known as the Vedic period. In the beginning, it was an oral tradition, with teachings being passed on and preserved from guru or teacher to student. It is only as the Vedic period progresses that we see the first written scriptures. Texts from this period are called the Vedas. The oldest Vedic text is the Rig Veda and Upanishads, and these teachings are still studied today by yogis all over the world.
The Mahabharata, with over a thousand verses, is the world’s longest epic. This is dated somewhere between 9th and 4th century BCE. Contained within this epic is the very important and well known text, the Bhagavad Gita. There are many references to yoga in the Gita.
Patanjali – The Father of Modern Yoga
Probably the most famous text associated with modern yoga is the yoga sutras of Patanjali, which is dated somewhere between 400BCE and 200AD. In the Sutras he created a handbook, where he clearly maps out the path to enlightenment, and most yoga teachers and students will have a copy of this book on their shelves today. Amongst many other things, he talks of the 8 limbs of yogaor Astanga Yoga, including…
- The Yamas (the ethics of how we conduct ourselves in the world)
- The Niyamas (the ethics of how we conduct ourselves when no one is looking)
- Asana (the physical practice)
- Pranayama (breath control)
- Pratyahara (the withdrawal of the senses)
- Dharana (concentration)
- Dhyana (meditation)
- Samhadi (bliss or enlightenment)
Yoga in the Modern World
The guru Krishnamacharya (1888 – 1989) developed the yoga practice as we know it today. He had three famous students, who went on to develop their own schools of yoga, one of whom was BKS Iyengar, his brother in law, who was largely responsible for bringing yoga to the West. The other two students were Pattabi Jois, who developed Ashtanga yoga and Krishnamacharya’s own son, Desikachar, who continues on his father’s teachings to this day.
All of the yoga schools you may have heard of (Iyengar, Ashtanga, Anusara etc) are all forms of Hatha yoga. What makes one school different from another is the method they use to practice, and the attitude or philosophy behind that method. Iyengar yoga has a strong focus on alignment, and innovatively uses props such as blocks, ropes and belts to help all body types practice and stay in poses for a long time. Mr Iyengar is still alive and practicing in his nineties, and his infamous book ‘Light on Yoga’ is used in almost all yoga teacher trainings around the world.
Ashtanga yogis have a very athletic practice, and move in and out of poses with the breath. This creates heat so that impurities are burnt, and muscles gain great flexibility.
Anusara Yoga which I am most qualified to comment on is one of the new schools of yoga to emerge over the last thirty years. There is a strong focus on alignment, and poses are both held for some time as in Iyengar yoga, and flow (move in and out with the breath) as in Ashtanga yoga. What marks this system as different to the others is the emphasis in the teachings on our innate worthiness and perfection. This stems from a more evolved yoga philosophy, arising around 1000 years after Patanjali’s classical yoga. This evolved system is called Tantra, and is based in a non-duel philosophy which tells us that there is only one Absolute Consciousness, and that Consciousness lives inside you as you.
This method is so empowering and uplifting, and is my chosen path as a yogi.
Yoga off the Mat
It is important to say that yoga is not just practiced on a mat. As a yogi, I aspire to live by the teachings and ethics in all aspects of my life. The modern Tantric scholar, Dr Douglas Brookes, reminds us “that life is a gift and not a problem to be solved.” If we can remember this as we go about our daily lives; getting on the bus, dealing with a cross child, a grumpy shop assistant, it radically changes and brightens our attitude. We simply have to look at the wonder of creation; it is always present, and always waiting to be seen.
I went to my first yoga class over 35 years ago, but started practicing seriously over 20 years ago when I was introduced to Iyengar yoga in San Francisco. In the intervening years, I continued to study and practice and explore various schools and types of yoga and philosophy. I did my first teacher training in 2002 and have since been a ‘yoga nomad’ with almost 1000 hours of study and trainings taken around the world with various teachers.
I have finally found my yoga home with Anusara Yoga and Tantric Philosophy. I love to share yoga with everyone, no matter what their health status, age, background, sex etc. Yoga is effective even if you never think about the philosophical aspects. If you go to a weekly yoga class, you will experience a feeling of centeredness, strength and connection to your body. As a teacher, I am amazed to watch people’s bodies transform over the course of time. I can share the delight that students feel when they experience that change in themselves. This can be as simple as being able to touch their toes for the first time in years, or the ecstasy of going upside down for the first time.
If you would like to try yoga, then finding a good teacher is important. As well as having a firm understanding of alignmentso that they can teach in a safe and progressive wayyoga teachers need to have their own regular practice. You should find out the teachers qualifications and experience to see if their teaching is suitable for you. Most importantly you should ‘feel’ a connection you’re your teacher. Other qualities to look for in a good teacher are compassion, honesty and an open heart and mind.
When you find a good teacher, and introduce yoga into your life, you will very quickly experience the transformational powers of this ancient, sacred and life-changing art form.