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What is Yoga?

Yoga is a holistic concept that unifies the physical, mental, spiritual and emotional aspects of the self so that the person who practises it feels in total balance and in harmony with otters as well as with his or her environment. 

 

Yoga is a Sanskrit word which means the union of mind, body and soul. It follows from this that the individual person is a whole and must be viewed as such; the total integration of the mental, physical, emotional and spiritual self is necessary in order to have a balanced life. 

 

According to philosophers such as Patanjali and scripture like Bhagavad Gita, in order to practise an effective yoga routine, you must combine yoga poses or ‘asanas’ with meditation and deep thinking that will help you discover and understand yourself, and get closer to God.

Physical and Mental benefits of yoga practice

Physical yoga practice is often called a “moving meditation”. Flowing movements from one yoga pose to another is a way of calming the mind, becoming fully present and, at the same time, creating body awareness. 

Yoga can offer deep peace and relaxation. Just the deep breathing from the diaphragm, that yoga teaches, has a tranquillising effect. A long, slow, steady breath has a direct effect on the nervous system. It decreases stress hormones, slows heartbeats, regulate blood sugar levels. While the twisting and stretching of the asanas improves the circulation, sends fresh oxygen to the brain, and a fresh blood supply which revitalises and rejuvenates all the cells and internal organs. The end result of correct yoga breathing is a calmer mind and a relaxed, oxygenated body. 

Visualisation and meditation techniques, used during the practice, help to calm and focus the mind, providing a necessary distance from day to day worries. 

Added to that, regular yoga practice, tone and strengthen the entire body. Studies show that it can also relieve age-related conditions such as arthritis, rheumatism and osteoporosis. It helps to cure insomnia and depression, as well as building the immune system to prevent further illness.

Health and Spiritual Benefits of Yoga 

Increases flexibility and agility

Promotes better balance

Increases feelings of well-being and improves body image

Regulates high blood pressure

Reduces pain, including that caused by chronic back problems, arthritis and osteoporosis.

Helps relieve depression

Reduces stress, anxiety and worry

Benefits the heart and increases cardiovascular function

Increases immunological and digestive function

Elicits the relaxation response

Helps with weight loss

Improves sleep

Increased capacity for empathy and compression

More energy and vitality

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Ashtanga and Hatha yoga asana practices.

Ashtanga yoga is a dynamic, hot yet structured form of yoga that was conceived and popularized by Sri T. Krishnamacharya and later his disciple, K.Pattabhi Jois in Mysore. It is broken up into 6 groups of poses. There is one primary series, one intermediate series and 4 advanced series. Ashtanga yoga is a physically demanding yoga style where it takes years to perfect the Primary series. The series contains all the necessary elements for establishing health and purifying one’s body. Breath serves as a guide as one flow from one pose to another. Also, sun salutations form an important part of an Ashtanga yoga practice and each of the Ashtanga yoga postures needs to be held for 5 breaths before moving into another pose. A full Primary series class lasts for about 90 minutes where each movement corresponds to an inhale and exhale along with Drishti or visual focal point. 

Hatha yoga is the most practised yoga across the world, as it is a slow and gentler form of yoga. Hatha yoga is quite a versatile form of yoga that can be adapted to individual needs.

Both, Ashtanga and Hatha yoga practices follow the 3 points of attention, the Tristana, that create the foundation of the practice - Asana or pose, Drishti or Point of concentration and Pranayama or Breath. 

Drishti means “vision”. Directing the mind to a single point of attention prevents the thoughts from wandering and focusing on the external. Drishti is an essential tool for finding balance whilst physically moving. 

The most common pranayama in yoga asana practice is a breathing method based on Ujjayi Pranayama (Breath of Victory). We all hope to attain victory over the cycle of suffering and past negative behaviour patterns. 

Both, inhalation and exhalation are done through the nose, whilst constricting the back of the throat and creating a whispering sound. The benefits of Ujjaji breathing: improved concentration, helps to release tension throughout the body, generating heat and energy in the body.

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Women Practicing Yoga

HATHA YOGA

Hatha yoga is considered to be the oldest form of yoga. The ‘ha’ represents the sun, and ‘tha’ represents the moon, therefore it means joining and balancing the energies of the sun and moon. However, the literal meaning of the word ‘hatha’ is force; therefore, it refers to a set of physical techniques.

These physical techniques include asanas or poses, pranayama or breathing techniques, mantras, mudra or hand gestures, and meditation. In the Western world, hatha yoga is understood as a set of physical postures that help shape and tone the body. But, actually, hatha yoga is much more than just a physical practice. It means integrating ethics, proper diet to cleanse the body of impurities, positive thinking, and gratitude to cleanse the mind of negativity, meditation for spiritual development, in your life so that you can become a calmer and optimistic individual.

According to Gheranda Samhita (a text about yoga written in Sanskrit), hatha yoga is a sevenfold yoga that helps you cleanse your body, strengthen and balance your body, calm your mind, liberate yourself, and find inner peace and light. The text itself is divided into seven chapters, and each one of them describes the seven aspects of hatha yoga in detail.

Hatha yoga serves as a foundation for all the other forms of yoga that have evolved. Although the origin of hatha yoga still remains slightly mysterious, its practice can help you release stress and feel more positive and calmer.

Warrior One

ASHTANGA
YOGA

On the other hand, Patanjali, a renowned philosopher of yoga, wrote about the eight limbs of yoga, or Ashtanga (asht: eight, anga: limb). Patanjali’s eight steps are meant to help you lead a purposeful and peaceful life. This form of yoga is a perfect blend of ethics and discipline.

The first limb is yama, and this is a behavioural step of Ashtanga; these are the moral codes that tell us how to engage with the world ethnically. They include ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (sexual responsibility), and aparigraha (non-attachment). The second limb, niyama, deals with spiritual observances and discipline. These are ethical guidelines that define how one should relate with self. They include sauca (cleanliness), santosha (contentment), tapas (heat and purification), svadhyaya (spiritual self-discovery and study), and ishvara (devotion to the divine). The third limb is asana, which, as mentioned before, means body postures. In Hinduism, the body is considered a temple which must be looked after in the best way possible. The fourth limb is pranayama, which refers to breathing techniques, as yogis believe that they can actually extend their life by practising focused breathing. The fifth limb is pratyahara, which means detaching oneself from the surroundings while being aware of it. This practice gives us a chance to step back and observe ourselves. The sixth limb is dharana which means concentration. The seventh is dhyana, which means contemplation and meditation. By practising all these, we finally achieve the eighth limb, Samadhi, which means ecstasy.

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The spiritual side of Yoga

While most people take up yoga training for its physical benefits, the practice of yoga can benefit us in various other ways. Yoga is deeply rooted in spirituality, and many of the postures have deeper objectives that go beyond simple stretching and strengthening of muscles. The holistic effect that is attained through yoga enables practitioners to not only improve their physical strength and flexibility, but also their emotions, mentality and concentration.

This ancient science goes far beyond the mere physical aspects, by way of deepening the connection between mind, body and most important of all, the spirit. The spiritual aspect of yoga can help yogis develop integration of the inner being as well as oneness with the Supreme Consciousness. And it all starts with the body and the asanas or postures.

In yoga, the nature and environment that surrounds us is essential, witnessed in the many Sanskrit and English terms for asanas (postures) that are derived from animals and plants, and that pertain to their special characteristics or qualities, such as the Lotus for example. Apart from these, some receive their inspiration from the Earth and others have their roots in ancient spirituality. However, each name has a deeper, hidden meaning.

Let’s examine the nature of some of those postures in detail.

Lotus Position

PADMASANA
Lotus Pose

In the ancient traditions of Asia, the lotus flower is often a symbol of purity and “spontaneous” generation, representing divine birth, spiritual development and creation itself. A lotus flower is on a journey from its roots embedded in the muddy waters, stemming upward, emerging into the light and blooming into the beautiful flower we know it to be.

Symbolically it represents the perfection of the human being, who is with her body or “roots” in the world (like the roots of the lotus in the mud of the lake), but with her mind dwelling in the Divine, such as the lotus blooming above the surface of the water.

When the lotus pose is perfected one attains complete detachment which is symbolized by the petals of the lotus flower. When splashing water onto the lotus petals, the droplets will roll off the petals and will never stick to them. Similarly, the yogi will not remain attached to anything in the world even though he is “drenched” with the water of the world.

The Lotus Pose is the regular-seated meditation posture yogis assume for meditation and pranayama (breathing exercises). Breath is an energizing and purifying aspect for the human body. Deep, slow breathing energizes and purifies our bodies. Yoga practice helps us tune into our self, allowing us to discover our true nature and exquisite potential.

Warrior Two

Yogic philosophy has it that one’s biggest enemy is self-ignorance. Being ignorant or not fully aware of yourself can cause intense suffering for yourself and others. The Warrior posture allows one to embody the idea of courage, bravery and strength necessary to face your own inner demons – overcoming ego and ignorance.

VIIRABHADRASANA
Warrior Pose

The 3 primary Warrior poses in yoga all involve strong extended legs pressing into the ground, powerfully extended arms and an active, engaged core. The Warrior posture helps your body develop not only physical strength, but also the spiritual readiness for the inner battles that the mind and heart must wage and win.

Pool Reflection Stretching

BALASANA
Child’s Pose

It seems to be one of the simpler poses, yet there is more to the child’s pose than meets the eye. In this pose, you kneel on the ground with your legs tucked underneath, your torso resting on the thighs, arms by your side or stretched forward and palms resting on the floor. This posture symbolizes and intensifies your connection to the childlike attitude of surrender.

The goal of this exercise is to be in a state of non-doing, especially important if you are tense, highly-strung or stressed out. This posture is about creating a shell of quiet tranquillity, allowing the spirit to rest and nurture itself, removed from external pressures. The emphasis on proper breathing in this posture further strengthens the connection between mind and body, inducing a state of calm awareness that helps you to fully relax. You allow yourself some quiet time for your mind, heart and body to integrate, resulting in a state of deeply satisfying wholeness.

Tree Pose

VRKSASANA
Tree Pose

A popular asana practised in yoga, the objective of the Tree Pose is to achieve balance. However, in this instance balance is not achieved in a rigid manner, but much like a tree. Your foot stays rooted in the ground while your body may gently and almost imperceptibly sway, like a tree does in the wind. The freedom of movement coupled with balance and being rooted develops the spiritual acceptance of your body’s firm, yet transient position in the world.

Shavasana

SHAVASANA
Corpse Pose

Most yoga sessions end with Shavasana, or the “Corpse Pose.” It’s a relaxation pose, performed while lying on your back with your eyes closed and your arms extended alongside your body. This asana requires your body to be completely still, so your mind can be drawn inward, allowing you to indulge your inner self without any distractions, be it movement or thought.

The spiritual aspect of the posture invokes surrender, giving up one’s intentions, goals and worldly pursuits in acknowledgement of the fact that there is a sense of completion and peace to be found in mere stillness and tranquillity. It’s important to remember that the yogic version of death is seen as the culmination of one’s life, making it highly important for all. This posture mimics death in a manner that helps you prepare for the inevitable end that awaits us all. And to prepare you knowing that death is a state of utter relaxation, as if relaxing into one’s own Self. There are three ways to relax: physical relaxation, when the body is still and the muscles fully relaxed, mental relaxation, when the mind is unruffled by thoughts and emotions and finally, spiritual relaxation, when the mind merges in the inner spiritual Self.

A good yoga practice is one that allows its practitioners to achieve peace – with themselves and the external world they inhabit. The spiritual aspect of yoga emphasises the attainment of peace and clarity of mind, while perfecting the posture is of secondary importance.

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