One of the most common responses I get from people when I tell them I’m a Yoga Teacher is: “I’d be no good at Yoga I can’t touch my toes!”, this is often followed by an embarrassed chuckle. My usual reply is: “Yoga isn’t really about that.”, which is greeted with a look of confusion or a “Yeah right!” kind of look. Of course rather than leave them in a state of confusion, I go further into explaining that Western Media is mostly to blame for their lack of understanding, and ourselves on social media sites we are all guilty of sharing photos of Asanas (Physical Postures) which creates an identity of what Yoga looks like. Usually to help end their confusions I quote The Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali (The original Yoga manual/bible if you like): ‘Yogas’ citta vrtti nirodhah’ : – ‘The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga’. This can be further translated to: ‘Stop the mind chat‘, which more often than not leaves them looking more confused!
So what is Yoga? Yoga is more about stilling the mind, than just fancy postures and bending yourself into a pretzel. That’s not to say the postures aren’t important or a big part of Yoga, they just aren’t all that Yoga is. A description you might read at a Gym or a Studio of what Yoga is might go something like this: Yoga is an ancient form of exercise using stretching postures linked with breathing, to create a mind, body connection. Yoga helps to alleviating stress and muscular tension. These types of descriptions aren’t far off, but they are talking about primarily Hatha Yoga (Physical Yoga) and what you might experience during a one to one an half hour class. There are in fact seven identified paths to stilling the mind (seven types of Yoga if you like) they are:
Hatha Yoga – Physical or Forceful Yoga. This is the most commonly practised type of Yoga in the West, and includes various different styles including: Vinyasa Flow, Ashtanga, Bikram, Kundalini etc. All forms of Hatha Yoga don’t just solely include the Physical Postures either (breathing techniques, muscular contractions, where your eyes gaze are very important), but I’ll let you find out the rest by going to classes… It’s important to note, Hatha Yoga is often labelled as a style of Yoga, when really it is an umbrella term covering all styles of physical Yoga. As a now labelled style you tend to find Hatha Yoga classes are a more slower, chilled style of Yoga.
Raja Yoga – Royal Yoga. A system of mediation, that goes about stilling the mind, a common method for Raja Yoga is the Eight Limbs of Yoga followed in the Ashtanga method.
Bhakti Yoga – Yoga of devotion. The is literately as it sounds – devotion to something, usually the divine. But it could be to making someone you love happy.
Jnana Yoga – Yoga of knowledge. Through meditation the practitioner becomes more aware and more knowing of their true self.
Karma Yoga – The yoga of selfless action. This one is pretty well known, do good things with the right intentions and good things will come back to you. When practised enough these good acts can be seen as a type of sacrifice.
Mantra Yoga – The yoga of chanting or mantras. Keep singing or repeating those affirmations and bring focus the mind. Stilling it of unnecessary and unwanted thoughts, stripping away what the mind is and still the mind in doing so.
Tantra Yoga – Yoga of technology. Now this isn’t as it sounds, no playing with your smart phone won’t bring enlightenment! It’s more complex techniques, such as: Visualizations, working on Charkras, The Subtle Body, Astronomical Constellations etc.
So there is my brief description of the Seven Paths of Yoga, you can find out more at the website where I got my Yoga teacher qualification: yogalondon.net and of course other trusted sites. But that’s not it in our quest to find what is Yoga! I would encourage you to look at the Eight Limbs of Yoga of which Asana (Physical Postures), is just one of them. Here they are (click on the Yoga Jounal link (above) to discover more):
- Yamas – Ethical Considerations: Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (Truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (moderation) and Aparigraha (non-possessiveness)
- Niyamas – Self Observation: Saucha (cleaniness), Santosa (contentment), Tapas (Fiery Cleansing), Svadhyaya (self study) and Isvara Pranidhana (devotion to the universal)
- Asana – Physical Postures
- Pranayama – Breath Control
- Pratyahara – Sense Withdrawal
- Dharana – Concentration
- Dhyana – Meditation
- Samadhi – The end goal, enlightenment or nirvana
So when your Yoga Teacher says you can practise Yoga off of the mat, you know what they’re talking about. It’s important to note here that there are many benefits to the physical yoga postures, you will improve your: Flexibility, Coordination, Strengthen, Metal focus. But rather than list the tons of benefits The Yoga Journal has a great lists of 38 benefits for you to peruse. Yoga when viewed as a whole system, is really a way of life. Take these suggestions as you like, with seriousness or with a pinch of salt. One of the main things I have learnt so far in my practise, is the Eight Limbs of Yoga are suggestions, not commandments. The end goal if you like is to reach Samadhi. If that’s not your end goal, you can still gain a lot from them. If they don’t work for you that’s cool. Be a nice person, lose the ego and practise practise practise, and you’ll pretty much be there. I hope this rambling has made sense and has helped those who are looking for more of an explanation of what Yoga is. I hope it hasn’t repeated too much of what is already out there, but at the same time I hope it has consolidated some of the vast resources online in a brief piece of writing. Also I hope this helps those who think they cannot do Yoga due to physical restraints and shows you that there is more to Yoga than just Asana.
With Peace, James
p.s if you’re in Bristol and want to checkout my classes visit my timetable to see which one is nearest you.