Introduction to Yoga

Yoga classes are widely available these days in gymnasiums, Yoga studios, community settings and other places. There are many different styles of classes, some traditional and others which have a fusion of Yoga with other forms of exercise. Some are geared to beginners and others incorporate advanced postures and other yogic practices. But what is Yoga? Where does it originate from? What is its purpose? What does a Yoga class involve? Let me gently guide you to explore this journey.

Yoga originates from the East, and comes from the Sanskrit word ‘yug’ meaning union. It is the joining of the individual self to the universal self. This means letting go of the ‘I’ or ‘me’ ego and seeing yourself as being a part of the vast universe, being interconnected to others and the divine. There are many classical definitions of yoga, but they all summarize Yoga as being a skillful science to gain mastery over the mind. Yes, it is not primarily about the physical yogic postures, known as asanas, but the main goal is about disciplining and controlling the mind!

Yogic tradition mentions that there are five ‘layers’ to our existence, known as Panch Koshas. The first is matter, our physical body. The second is the life force that keeps us alive and breathing. The third is the mind that allows thoughts and emotions. The forth is the intellect, which helps to distinguish right thoughts, words and actions from those that wrong. The intellect layer is highly developed in us humans, compared to other living beings. The fifth is the bliss, happiness and freedom layer. When developed, this final layer helps us not to be reactive to incidences in daily life and helps us to see the good and divine in all.

Yoga helps to enhance ones physical, mental, intellectual and spiritual personality. It works on all five layers of our existence mentioned above. Therefore, it benefits all these aspects of our existence. At the physical level, Yoga helps to relax the muscles. This further helps to increase flexibility, improve digestion, reduce stress and have deeper, slower breathing (amongst many other physical benefits). The deeper, slower breathing is linked to more oxygenation to all parts of the body, making the body energized and the mind more focused. A balanced body and mind increase willpower and creativity at the mental level.

This further helps to sharpen the intellect and calm the mind, causing less ‘drama’ in life as one learns to be less reactive. This further increases happiness, joy and bliss as one sees the positive in everyone and everything. One learns to live in the moment, with gratitude.

There are four main streams of Yoga in traditional Indian texts. Karma Yoga is the path of selfless actions, without any expectation for the returns. An example is the unconditional love and care a mother gives to her child, without expecting anything for herself in return. Bhakti Yoga is the path of  devotion, which includes prayers and surrendering to the divine. Jnana Yoga is the path of wisdom, self-reflection and gaining spiritual knowledge. An example of Jnana Yoga includes meditation to ‘go within’. Raja Yoga is the path of willpower that includes the eight limbs of Saint Patanjali’s Asthanga Yoga. These eight limbs of Raja Yoga include yamas (restraints, like non-violence), niyamas (observances, like contentment), asanas (physical postures), pranayama (breathing techniques), pratyahara (control over one’s five senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (eternal bliss). Most yoga classes are based on Raja Yoga, which includes the physical postures, with some other components like breathing techniques and meditation.

To practice Yoga, the most important prerequisite is to have an open mind! One needs to be humble enough to experience something new with a positive mindset. It is best to practice Yoga on an empty stomach, according to one’s capability, being mentally focused while doing the class. To comply with good practicing guidelines, the instructor requires the participants to fill in some forms. A yoga mat is required. Blocks, cushions and straps are optional. A water bottle is recommended to keep hydrated. Comfortable clothing should be worn. A shawl, cardigan and a pair of socks can help to keep warm during relaxation and meditation.

A classic Yoga class involves grounding and setting an intention, joint loosening exercises, warm ups, physical postures, breathing techniques, relaxation and meditation. Some involve universal starting and ending prayers in Sanskrit.

We practice Yoga to some extent already, be it prayers, volunteering work, being of service to our near and dear ones, gaining spiritual wisdom, meditation or finding joy in the present moment! Would you like to progress along this journey? A consistent, small step at a time helps to make a positive difference in the long term. Comment below and share your thoughts.

Seema Shah has worked in healthcare for over a decade as a clinician in UK. Her interest in holistic health made her explore various fields over the years, and has enabled her to come up with a unique plant-based holistic health coaching approach. She trained as a holistic health coach at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. In 2009, she trained an a raw food chef. Furthermore, her passion for yoga and meditation led her to train as a yoga instructor. Seema also loves to inspire and educate people to use essential oils for their health and wellbeing. In her spare time, Seema loves to express her creativity through the world of colours by painting, which she finds therapeutic.