Yoga: The Beginner’s Guide
The myriad benefits of yoga are only slightly more numerous than the myths that pervade this classic form of fitness, namely: it’s only for girls, or hippies that are into incense and chanting; it’s practiced in either smelly, stiflingly hot studios, or very slowly among the over 65s; and, most ill-informed of all, it’s a pursuit only for the flexible. The truth is there are more yoga styles than ever before – some steadfastly true to their ancient routes, others modernised and modified, but all devised to lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety, and develop strength, balance and flexibility.
A brief history…
Yoga’s beginnings were developed by the Indus-Sarasvati civilization in northern India over 5,000 years ago. The Vedas were a collection of texts containing songs, mantras and rituals to be used by Brahmans, the Vedic priests, and the word ‘yoga’ was first mentioned in the oldest sacred texts, the Rig Veda. Yoga was slowly refined and developed by the Brahmans and Rishis, mystic seers who documented their practices and beliefs in the Upanishads, a massive work containing over 200 scriptures the most renowned of which is the Bhagavad-Gîtâ, a scripture said to have been composed around 500 B.C.E. The Upanishads took the idea of ritual sacrifice from the Vedas and internalised it, teaching the sacrifice of the ego through self-knowledge, action (karma yoga) and wisdom (jnana yoga).
In the pre-classical stage, yoga was an often contradictory mishmash of various ideas, beliefs and techniques, but its classical period is defined by Patanjali’s yoga-sûtras, the first systematic presentation of yoga written some time in the 2nd century and describing the path of Raja yoga, often referred to as ‘classical yoga’. Patanjali organised the practice of yoga into an ‘eight limbed path’ containing the steps and stages towards obtaining Samadhi or enlightenment. Patanjali is often considered the father of yoga and his Yoga-Sûtras still strongly influence most styles of modern yoga.
The different styles of yoga…
Before the romanticism of a healthy, calm and contemplative new hobby carries you away, have a read through this beginner’s guide to the different types of yoga there are out there to practice; there will be a style of yoga to suit you whatever your size, shape, or temperament and it’s important to remember that flexibility is a consequence of yoga, not a precondition.
Iyengar and ashtanga yoga come from the same distinguished provenance and were both developed by teachers taught by Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, widely regarded as the ‘father of modern yoga’. Iyengar is all about alignment and though you’ll do fewer poses in a session, the emphasis falls on exploring the subtle tweaks and twists required to grasp each one perfectly, so it’s brilliant for beginners. The aim is to get a firm grasp of the placement and fundamental structure of each individual pose and often, props, such as belts, block and pillows are used to help aspiring yogis find their feet.
Hatha is to yoga what beer is to alcohol: the lighter, less tough one you try before moving on to the hard stuff. Which is to take absolutely nothing away from hatha (or indeed beer), which remains a very popular and effective yoga style, it’s just that what hatha means in yoga speak is the physical practice of yoga poses – the asanas – so it’s really an element of all yoga styles. Today, hatha refers to a more basic, gentle class of slow-paced stretching and simple breathing exercises with no flow between them.
- Pattabhi Jois, the founder of ashtanga yoga famously said: “Practice, and all is coming,” which pretty much sums up ashtanga, an athletic and more challenging style of yoga where students learn a series of poses and practice at their own pace while a teacher adjusts and advices until that practice is smooth, uninterrupted and able to be done at a steady pace. The philosophy is that the yogi will learn to rise above mistakes and setbacks and that this skill will spill out into all aspects of life.
If a yoga style has the word ‘flow’ succeeding its name, it means that it’s taught in sequences that flow from one pose to the next without teachers stopping to chat about the finer points of each pose. Influenced by ashtanga, vinyasa is without question yoga, but it’s definitely a workout too and the name ‘vinyasa’ is often used as an umbrella term to differentiate this. If you’re new to yoga and your fitness is a bit rusty, you’ll definitely feel it and you may be out of your depth as it’s a vigorous style designed to condition the whole body as well as the mind; probably a good idea to attend a few classes and get a feel for the basics before embarking on an entire trip.
Anusara yoga was only created in 1997 and is a distinctly modern style, but one that is built upon the foundations of hatha, a much older and historical discipline with which it shares basic elements such as a focus on the traditional ‘asana’ – poses. Otherwise, anusara deals with goals of self-esteem, self-empowerment and general stress reduction, and aims to establish a positive mind-body connection through a series of yoga poses combined with chanting and centering meditation.
Based on the teachings of Hindu spiritual teacher, Swami Sivananda, this style of yoga is more to do with spirituality than exercise. It was devised to preserve the health and general wellness of the practitioner and is based upon five fundamental yoga principles: proper exercise (12 asana poses), proper breathing (pranayama), proper relaxation (savasana), proper diet (vegetarian) and positive thinking (vedanta) and meditation (dhyana). A typical 90-minute class combines the practice of 12 core poses with Sanskrit chanting, breathing exercises, meditation and relaxation.
Interesting bikram yoga fact no. 1: every class you go to, anywhere in the world, follows the same sequence of 26 poses. Interesting bikram yoga fact no. 2: the sweat-fest that is bikram was devised long before clever marketers rebranded it ‘hot yoga’ and was in fact the early 1970’s brainchild of eponymous yogi, Bikram Choudhury. Bikram put together the 26 strengthening and stretching poses to target the muscles as well as flush the body’s organs of toxins and the style is practiced in a heated room to help release the toxins on their pesky way.
As much a way to get to grips with the basics of meditation and stilling the mind as it is a workout for the hips, pelvis and lower back, yin yoga finds its roots in the Taoist tradition and concentrates on seated postures. Poses can be held for up to 10 minutes and the aim is to develop both flexibility and the ability to just let it go – ideal for people who really suffer from stress and for sport Billys whose joints are tense and overworked.