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What is yoga?

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WHAT IS YOGA?

It took me about 10 years of exposure to yoga before I ever enjoyed my first class. 

My first experiences with yoga were frankly, terrible

On most occasions, I would try a yoga class, but the clothes I was wearing were really getting in the way. For instance, I would wear my standard workout outfit that consisted of baggy pants and a baggy shirt.

Within the first downdog or forward fold, my shirt would go over my head and I was drowning in shirt for the rest of the class. Or the pants being too baggy, I would step on them and literally trip myself. Had someone offered advice about wearing tight fitting clothes for class, that could’ve changed my experience.

So, I came to yoga with LOTS OF QUESTIONS. My intention for this space is to answer some of the questions that go unanswered about practicing yoga.

So, my first question today is what is yoga?

First, I want to say this. I am a student on the path, sharing what I know with you, other students on the path. I don’t want to speak on behalf of yoga, or be an authority on “what yoga is.” Frankly, that can be highly controversial.

Yoga can actually refer to several things. First, yoga is a state or goal. According to one of my favorite teachers, Seth Powell at Yogic Studies, yoga can be described as either a state of mind or as a discipline. As he says it best, “Yoga by means of yoga.”

Being in a state of yoga may refer to the art of remaining the same, or balanced in regards to success and failure, even, balanced, equanimity. In a yogic state of mind, one is unphased regardless of the outcome. Yoga is about developing a calm mind that allows us to act in the world from a place of non-reactivity.

According to Patanjali's school of yoga thought, yoga is the stilling of the turnings of the mind. Whether we are aware of it or not, our minds are being filled with an array of mental activity all of the time. When one enters into a state of yoga, those turnings cease and we no longer identify with the construct of our identity. Consider all of the things we think everyday, about ourselves, about other people, about the world we live in. We experience the world as we are, and not necessarily as it is. 

So that is a little taste of yoga as a state of mind or being.

Then there’s yoga as a discipline.

This includes some common practices that you may be aware of like asana (the poses themselves), meditation (where we sit and notice our thoughts), and intentional breathing techniques, chanting, and even devotion to a higher power. 

Yoga as a discipline can also feel very confusing. We hear words like Hatha yoga, vinyasa yoga, Bikram yoga, hot yoga, goat yoga (lol), you name it and there’s a type of yoga for it. What do all of these things mean and how are you supposed to pick a class from a list of classes?

I could go into defining all of these types of yoga, but honestly, you could Google it just the same and receive many answers to these questions. For me, I found it was less important as to the type or style of yoga, but more about finding a teacher that I liked. Once I found teachers that I liked, I practiced what they were teaching and I found a path for myself.

Personally, I practice in the vinyasa style of yoga.

Vinyasa style is very popular nowadays and it’s pretty easy to find classes and teachers in this style. Vinyasa refers to the linking of breath and movement. As we move our bodies through the practice, we are encouraged to use our breath as a guidepost for the movement. So for instance, certain movements are associated with the inhale and the exhale. When we fold forward or want to deepen a pose, we might do that movement with an exhale. When we lengthen, expand, or make our bodies bigger in the pose, we do that with an inhale. Mostly, what I enjoy about the vinyasa style of yoga is that it becomes a moving meditation. I’m able to focus on simple movements, my breath, and creating a “flow state''.  A flow state might refer to the experience of calm, and having a singular focus like where your eyes are settling in the pose, what your breath is doing in the pose, etc. In my experience, being in a flow state takes some time and familiarity with the postures. I find this type of yoga to be nourishing to my nervous system, and it helps to reduce the amount of thinking that I do when I’m practicing.

Practice is another word that you might hear a lot when yoga is referenced.

We refer to it as a yoga practice. Yoga practice refers to the idea that yoga is something we will never perfect. Rather, it’s something we always practice. Practice refers to the application of ideas, principles, methods, to produce regularity and habit. Anything we do over and over again is practice. There is no destination in a practice, rather we do it for the sake of creating repetition and discipline

When I teach yoga to students, I subscribe to the notion that I teach principles rather than poses. Obviously, the poses are important, but even more important is what we’re practicing while we are in those poses. There are five main principles that I teach:

  1. Gaze: This refers to where you are placing your eyes in the pose. It is calming to our nervous system when we can fix our eyes to one, unmoving point and develop a relationship with our sense of sight.

  2. Breath: There are many different techniques for breathing, especially in yoga. One of the first things I focus on with new students is to practice breathing with your lips sealed. We can develop a powerful relationship with the sound of our breath, and use it as a resilience building technique in our everyday lives.

  3. Foundations: This refers to our interaction with the earth itself and noticing where our body is landing in space (proprioception). Noticing the way our hands, feet, and core engage in the pose to create a powerful relationship between ourselves and the ground we inhabit.

  4. Heat: In some forms of yoga, heat is added to the room up to and even over 100 degrees. The type of heat I’m talking about refers to the heat that is created when we are disciplined. You may find yourself getting a little bit sweaty during your practice. Embrace the heat. It helps you to move with a little more ease, and symbolically builds resilience in the body for when life gets us heated or emotional.

  5. Vinyasa: When the eyes are focused, the breath is steady, we are connected to our bodies in space, and disciplined heat is rising, we enter the flow state. In the flow state, we aren’t thinking, we are present. The flow state gives our brain a break from all of the constant thinking and processing. When you enter the flow state, it’s like a vacation for your brain. You will notice after your practice that you feel calm and less reactive.

Nothing that I’ve written in this article is exhaustive by any means. This is a starting point. When I first started practicing, I had very little idea about what was going on. It helps having someone you can ask questions to. Let me be that friend for you!

What other questions do you have about yoga or practicing yoga or getting started? Leave your questions in the comments and I can even use some of those questions to create further articles.

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