Friday, 18 June 2010

Yoga basics

Someone pointed out to me that often in this blog I take for granted some knowledge of both tarot and yoga.  So, I thought I'd write something on the basics of each subject.  There will also be a post on how and why to combine them :)

Yoga is a very ancient practice, written about in sanskrit texts from long before the Common Era.  However, there is much debate as to what exactly was meant by it in those days, and how much yoga has changed over time.  Some academic authors have suggested that in fact what most people think of as yoga - doing a sequence of bendy poses - is in fact a very recent development, established only in the last 150 years!

So, if not just about following a sequence of poses, called asanas, what else is yoga about?

In the traditional texts, and particularly the yoga sutras (aphorisms) of Patanjali, there is much talk of yoga being an eight-limbed discipline.  Eight-limbed is translated as ashtanga (sometimes spelled astanga), which many people have heard of.  Once again, though, what most people think of as ashtanga - a seriously dynamic, sweaty, difficult and set sequence of yoga poses - is not actually the origins of this term, either!  The original ashtanga refers to eight-limbs or practices of yoga.  These are:

Yamas - restraints on your behaviour in particular in relation to other people.
Niyamas - observances, inner directed behaviour.
Asanas - originally this just meant seat, so the idea of yoga as sitting meditating is probably truer to the concept as described in ancient texts.  These days asana is taken to mean any pose/position you take physically as part of a yoga practice.
Pranayamas - different breath exercises.  Many classes will start with one of these, while some styles of yoga actually call for you to breathe in a different way from normal through-out the class.
Pratyahara - drawing your attention inward, for example by listening to your breath in a yoga class, or at the start of meditation.
Dharana - focusing your attention, for example on staying with your breath in a yoga practice, or on a visualisation during meditation.
Dhyana - sustaining your awareness, so if your focus drifts you bring it back to what you were doing.  This is a lot harder than it sounds.
Samadhi - some people talk about this as being reaching enlightenment.  I also really like how Donna Farhi describes this: "The return of the mind into original silence."

This eight-limbed system is described in the sutras or aphorisms of Patanjali.  These are seen as a codification of all yogic knowledge up to that point (between 200 BCE and 500 CE depending on who you believe).  I have already blogged about one of these sutras: stiram, sukham, asanam.  So, one down, a hundred and ninety five to go ;)

As well as this eight-limbed approach to yoga, there are also different types of yoga, as well as different styles.  What I call types are taken from traditional texts, while styles are the different forms offered in asana classes today.  So, types include: 
Bhakti yoga - devotional yoga, prayer.
Hatha yoga - a "balanced" sun and moon practice - generally used to describe a physical practice of asanas. 
Jnana yoga - yoga of "knowledge" - study.  
Karma yoga - doing good works.
Raja yoga - the "royal" path, mainly referring to meditative practices.

As for styles of yoga, common ones include, but are by no means limited to: 
Ashtanga - a very dynamic, structured practice.
Bikram - class takes place in a heated room.
Hatha - a more "traditional" practice, with less emphasis on flow/dynamism/power.
Iyengar - the focus is on perfection of alignment.
Jivamukti - another dynamic practice, integrating chanting, breath work, meditation and a flowing practice.
Power - lots of standing work using the legs (biggest muscles in the body) to promote heat, and challenging upper body strength.
Vinyasa - a dynamic, flowing form of yoga, where the practice will be varied depending on the focus chosen for that class.  For example, the focus might be on hip openers, breath work, or balancing poses.  


As a general piece of advice in choosing a class, I'd say that the label given to the class is less important than the teacher.  So, maybe try different classes and see who suits you.  You might find you loathe the same "style" by a different teacher!

Also, there are some really good DVD's out there these days.  Click on the Yoga link to the left if you'd like some suggestions. 

So, peeps, had any experience of yoga classes you'd like to share?  Or how about things you've always wondered about yoga?  

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