The Blissful Art of Yoga
Most of us in the Western world understand yoga to be an activity. In fact, it is a lovely activity that promotes flexibility, strength, postural improvement, breathing, relaxation and rejuvenation. There is nothing wrong with doing yoga for the sake of touching your toes, flattening your belly and/or balancing on one leg. However, the best part for me about being a yoga teacher is showing others that yoga is so much more. I often tell my students they will get the most from their time—and money—if their yoga also helps them realize and experience true kindness, deep compassion and even enlightenment. With the “go, go, go” momentum we live, I know this is not easy, but as ashtanga yoga guru Sri K. Pattabhi Jois once said: “Practice and all is coming.”
Born in India more than 5000 years ago, yoga was originally practiced strictly by men for the purpose of spiritual development. Away from the distractions of women and family life, these yogis spent their time in long periods of meditation. They developed yoga asanas—postures—in order to build their stamina and bring balance to the physical and energetic bodies. This pre-meditation ritual became known as “hatha yoga” or “sun-moon yoga”, referring to the solar and lunar energies, as well as to other opposing, yet complementary, forces.
The word “yoga”, in its rudimentary connotation, stems from the Sanskrit word “yuj”, which means to connect or to unite. Thus by definition, everything we do, be it making a salad or making love, can be a yoga and a union of supreme consciousness. It is this union with consciousness that rings most true for me, but to be honest, I still find yoga indescribable. Much like studying the cosmic universe, the more I practice, the more the classification of this ancient art expands beyond my understanding.
Each practice brings new inspiration and new discovery. After years of pushing my scoliotic spine into weird shapes, it’s now all about practicing and teaching what I call Sustainable Yoga for Long-Term Happiness. Inspired by Ayurveda and my 108 days of sun salutations, this approach encourages us to adapt the pace and postures of our practice according to our body’s and mind’s natural cycles, the seasons, as well as our own immediate needs. This also means that a session is unique and tailored—sometimes it’s ashtanga vinyasa, sometimes it’s restorative and sometimes it’s a flowing practice infused with elements of dance. Whatever the style, applying the principles of sustainability to my practice has freed me from the expectation that yoga needs to be something contorted and aesthetically pleasing. Yoga now feels euphoric, every time I practice.
It is my greatest honour to make my living sharing this sublime practice with others.
Before you begin…
- If you are new to yoga, have pre-existing medical conditions or are pregnant, consult your doctor before practicing.
- Practice on an empty stomach, unless you are diabetic, hypoglycemic or pregnant.
- It is recommended to drink water after the yoga practice, but not during.
- Wear comfortable clothing that will allow you to move without restriction.
- Practice barefoot on a non-slip surface like a sticky mat or on a cotton yoga mat. Other props like a chair, a strap, a yoga block, pillows, and blankets are suggested for some postures.
- Work on the edge between comfort and discomfort. If you feel sharp pain in a joint, ease out of the posture or use a prop for support.
- Inverted postures, like shoulderstand, are not recommended during menstruation.
- Pregnant women should avoid deep twisting poses and abdominal tightening exercises during the first trimester. In the last trimester, final relaxation (savasana) should be practiced on the side rather then flat on the back.
- Breathe deeply and steadily through your nose. Never hold your breath!
- Seek stability in a posture before flexibility.
- Kindly remember that yoga is a process of going deeper inside and connecting with the world around you.
+ Let go of competition, especially with yourself!
You may feel a little sensitive or emotional after your practice. This is normal, as yoga and meditation, dislodges deep tensions from the mind and body. Clear the residual tension by resting, drinking some water, eating good food and practicing again tomorrow!
Namaste. I bow to the same divinity in you that is also in me.
How to choose the perfect yoga class
Like any art, Yoga has a variety of styles to choose from, but selection can be a bit confusing especially for someone new to the practice.
Your opinion of yoga could largely be influenced by the type of class you drop into. Yoga is for everyone regardless of age, physical limitations, weight or stress levels. But, if you’ve had a negative experience with yoga, I would encourage you to read on and consider a practice that may suit you better.
The great yoga master, TKV Desikachar, wrote in his book The Heart of Yoga: “The starting point is never the teacher’s needs but those of the student. This requires many different approaches; there is not just one approach for everybody (…) It is not that the person needs to accommodate him- or herself to yoga, but rather the yoga practice must be tailored to fit each person.”
Here is a brief guide to help you find the right class for you.
This class is a powerful sequence of postures from the traditional Primary and Intermediate Series of Ashtanga yoga. In Sanskrit, “Ashtanga Yoga” literally means “eight-limbed yoga.” The asana or physical posture component of the eight-limb path is a vigorous path of connecting your breath and movement within in a set series. Previous experience of yoga is recommended for this style, since an understanding of the basic postures is required. This is a fluid and dynamic class that will help develop strength and concentration, and make you sweat.
Founded by John Friend in 1997, Anusara is a system of yoga that teaches postural alignment using a set of biomechanical principles known as the Universal Principles of Alignment™. This style has grown in popularity in the last few years due to its uplifting philosophy which, according to anusara.com, “celebrates the heart” and recognizes the good in all people. The word “anusara” means “flowing with grace,” “going with the flow,” or “following your heart.”
Bring a towel and water bottle for this class. Bikram is a hot and sweaty practice that is done in a sauna-like room, where the temperature can get up to 45 degrees Celsius. Named after its founder, Bikram Choudury, this form of yoga follows a set series of 26 postures designed to detoxify the body. This practice is not meant to be meditative or relaxing. Although most Birkam studios claim that the style is for everyone, if beginners and students recovering from injuries or have unstable blood pressure, may want to think twice.
Hatha yoga is another name for general yoga. Hatha yoga refers to the union of opposing elements, such as mind and body, static and dynamic energy, hard and soft, Spirit and Matter, etc. The term hatha also implies force or determined effort. The variations on this style are numerous, but hatha classes commonly involve awareness of breath and moving from one pose to another at a slower pace than ashtanga or power yoga classes.
Developed by B.K.S. Iyengar in India, this traditional style of yoga articulates strict postural alignment. Mr. Iyengar is one of the living masters in the field of yoga. This is a slow practice, designed to heal the body and strengthen the mind. Props like blocks, belts, bolsters and even wall apparatuses are used to support the student’s abilities and limitations. Patience is an asset in this slow moving practice.
Kripalu Yoga is a creative, three-stage practice tailored for Westerners. The first stage, postural alignment and coordination of breath and movement are emphasized, and the postures are held for a short duration only. In the second stage, more experience student hold postures longer and meditation is introduced. The final stage is the advanced level of practice where students learn to focus on the subtleties of the body and mind.
Popularized in the West by Yogi Bhajan, this type of yoga is said to cause the dormant “Kundalini” energy at the base of the spine to move into the rest of the body and restore health. Kundalini yoga can include chanting, hand positions, breathing techniques, and sometimes a vigorous aerobic type workout with repetitive motions and little emphasis on form or holding positions. The main goal of the class is to revitalize and allow the life energy in the body to flow.
In Sanskrit, “moksha” means “joy or happiness.” Although this class is not as hot as Birkam yoga, Moksha yoga is also practiced in a heated room with mirrors and follows a particular sequence of poses albeit different from the Bikram set. Developed within the last decade by Ted Grand and Jessica Robertson in Toronto, the emphasis of this style is to “stretch, strengthen and tone the muscles” while detoxify and rejuvenate the body through the sweat glands.
Power / Flow / Vinyasa Yoga
Derived from the Ashtanga yoga tradition, power yoga or Vinyasa yoga is dynamic and flowing and postures are held for a maximum of five breaths. Power yoga, flow yoga or vinyasa yoga is interpreted differently by each instructor and therefore, the intensity and emphasis of the practice varies. Generally, this style involves constant movement and doesn’t usually follow a set sequence. This is a challenging class that builds strength as well as flexibility and offers a relaxation at the end of the practice.
Sivananda yoga is another classical form of yoga and is based on the teachings of Swami Sivananda and Vishnu Devanada. This is the first style of yoga that was practiced in the West and having opened in 1959, the Sivananda Yoga Vendanta Center in Montreal is one of the oldest yoga studios in North America. Sivananda yoga is a slow moving practice that encourages students to rest between poses or exercises. Chanting and mediation is also included in most classes of this kind.
For more information about where to find yoga classes in your area:
Frequently Asked Questions About Yoga
What is Yoga?
Yoga is Sanskrit for “union”, the union between the mind, the body and the spirit. It is a traditional discipline in Hindu philosophy and is based on a volume of texts called the Yoga Sutras. The first three volumes of the Yoga Sutras were written in the 2nd Century BC. However, historians claim that a fourth book was added in the 5th Century AD. The authors of these texts all wrote under the same name, Patanjali, meaning “divine descendant”. The practice of yoga is therein described in eight stages and called ashtanga yoga, meaning “eight limbs” or raja yoga, meaning “royal yoga”:
The practice of yoga is described in eight stages – Ashtanga-Yoga, meaning “eight limbs” or Raja Yoga, meaning “royal yoga”:
Yama: Ethical precepts that are meant to be applied universally. The five Yamas outlined in Patanjali’s classical yoga system are:
- AHIMSA: The practice of peace and reverence for all
- SATYA: The practice of truthfulness
- ASTEYA: The practice of appreciation
- BRAHMACHARYA: The practice of self-restraint and continence
- APARIGRAHA: The practice of generosity
Niyama: Guidelines for individual conduct or discipline. There are four Niyamas:
- SAUCHA: The practice of purification or cleanliness
- SANTOSHA: The practice of contentment
- TAPAS: The practice of ardor or austerity
- SVADHYAYA: The practice of Self-Study and the Study of Scriptures
- ISVARA PRANIDHANA: Dedication to the Universal/ to the Divine/ to God
Asana: Seat or physical posture that strengthens the body so that one can hold a pose for a long time with distractions.
Pranayama: Rhythmic control of breathing in order to encourage complete relaxation and rejuvenation.
Pratyahara: Through the practice of pratyahara, which means “sense withdrawal,” the practitioner strives to control his thoughts without being distracted by his surroundings—look without seeing, hear without listening.
Dharana: Mental concentration for a long period of time.
Dhyana: Meditation or unbroken mental focus so that one can transcend memories influenced by one’s ego and by one’s attachment to material possessions.
Samadhi: Absorption with the Absolute; super-consciousness; a state of joy and peace where the practitioner achieves total freedom.
What is Hatha Yoga?
Hatha yoga is another path within the ashtanga yoga system as it incorporates all the eight limbs or stages. The word “hatha” is made up of two Sanskrit words, “ha”, meaning sun and “tha”, meaning moon. Hatha yoga refers to the union of opposing elements, such as mind and body, static and dynamic energies, hard and soft, spirit and matter and so on. The term “hatha” also implies force or determined effort. John Friend, founder of anusara yoga, says: “Hatha yoga does not force what is unnatural upon someone, but rather uses the inner power or force of love, action and knowledge to create a life of fulfilling discipline.”
Who can do yoga?
Yoga is for everyone, not just for the young, supple and svelte. Whether it be sitting on a chair stretching one arm over the head or balancing in a handstand, there are many different ways to do yoga and therefore everyone can benefit from it—infants, children, adolescents, adults, seniors, overweight people and those with special needs. However, it is imperative to understand one’s own physical limitations and adhere to them. Advise the instructor if you are pregnant or have any medical conditions such as high blood pressure, migraines, asthma, back pain or joint or muscle injuries. Certain postures may have to be modified for your comfort. If you move slowly, then you will experience yoga bliss by witnessing your body’s own awakening and rejuvenation. If you move too quickly, you will miss this vital process and likely injure yourself.
What are the benefits of Yoga?
Increased flexibility and muscular strength and tone; improved postural alignment; relief from back pain and migraines; more efficient breathing; strengthened abdominals, improved balance; better controlled blood pressure and diabetes; improved circulation, digestion and elimination.
Emotional and psychological:
Stress management; improved self-confidence and self-esteem; increased energy level; controlled psychosomatic conditions and improved sleep.
What do you need to do yoga?
Essentially, you don’t need anything, but bare feet, comfortable clothing and an open space to practice yoga. However, practicing on a sticky yoga mat or on a cotton yoga mat is highly recommended, not only for comfort, but also to prevent injuring oneself in postures where one might slip. Other props such as a chair, a strap, a block, pillows, and blankets can also help you with postural alignment, especially when you are just starting.
When should you do yoga?
There isn’t a certain period in the day that is better than others for yoga although some people may prefer practicing at a specific time. You should leave at least two hours between eating and yoga, so that the body can digest properly. For women, doing yoga while menstruating can alleviate cramps and other menstrual discomforts. However, you should be cautious while doing inverted poses. Some women find it uncomfortable and choose to avoid inversions during their moon cycles, but others have no problems with these postures.
How often should you do yoga?
Doing yoga only once or twice a week is better than nothing. However, in order to get the most benefits, it is best to incorporate some yoga practice into your daily life. It doesn’t have to be a 90-minute ashtanga class. Practicing just a few sun salutations in the morning or some breathing exercises before bed can be very beneficial. For weight loss, aim to do at least one hour practice three to six times a week.
How long does it take to experience the benefits?
The short-term benefits of yoga, such as relaxation and relief from muscle tension, are instantaneous. Long-lasting benefits are experienced on an individual basis, depending on personal discipline—how long one practices and how often—and on the severity of a condition. It is important to seek guidance from an experienced instructor, who can assist you in the postures and make sure that you are doing them correctly.
Can yoga help you lose weight?
Yes, yoga can be an efficient form of cardiovascular exercise. Remember, the only way to lose weight is to increase energy output and decrease energy input. According to a study conducted by Bob Otto, Ph. D. at the Human Performance Lab of Adelphi University in New York, dynamic forms of yoga, such as power yoga*, ashtanga yoga and vinyasa yoga can burn up to 540 calories per hour, which is equivalent to running a kilometer in seven minutes. A recent survey compiled by the Yoga Journal, an American specialty magazine, reported that 52 per cent of 1,880 people polled said they had experienced weight loss as result of regular yoga practice. Although yoga can do wonders for physical fitness, it is important to remember that the psychological benefits can be just as powerful, if not more so. With regular practice, you become more in tune with yourself and your eating habits will likely improve. Yoga is about creating balance and harmony in all aspects of life.
* Based on traditions of ashtanga, power yoga is a dynamic, flowing form of yoga, which encourages the participant to rest only at the end of the practice.