Yoga: a beginner’s guide

Posted on Posted in Meditation, Training Guides, yoga

This is an excerpt from a story I wrote for ABC News Online + Health Matters. Read the full story here.

First things first: yoga is not about being ridiculously flexible or standing on your head.

In fact, centuries before Instagram and activewear, "doing yoga" didn't involve the body at all.

At its core, yoga is a practice for tapping into your mind and poses are just one way of doing that.

Yoga's philosophy is based on eight limbs; only one of them, asana, is about the poses. The rest: yama, niyama, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi, are best described as moral and ethical codes to live by.
 
These codes are intended to help people live meaningful and purposeful lives; to have compassion, and not be ruled by the ego and mostly useless thoughts that can control our lives if we let them.

 

What's the mind/body connection?

The terms 'mindfulness' and 'mind/body' connection are thrown around a lot in the yoga world.

But what do they actually mean, and how do they relate to making shapes with your body?

Mindfulness or 'mindful awareness' is focusing your attention on what is being experienced here and now, without reacting to or judging it.

 

It involves learning to recognise when you're getting carried away by thoughts and then deliberately choosing to ignore them in favour of being completely present in the current moment.

The poses (asana) are a way of using your body to practise mindfulness or mindful awareness.

Moving from one pose to the next helps you to be in the moment by focusing on breathing and moving in synch (which is so absorbing it doesn't leave much mental space to focus on worries or distractions). This is the mind/body connection.

After a while, this movement actually creates a form of mental stillness, because you no longer consistently get carried away with the never-ending monologue that's happening upstairs. Instead, you're just in the moment. Consider it a moving meditation.

For some people, asana is preparation for a more formal meditation done sitting or lying down. The yoga postures clear the body of restless energy so it's easier to focus the mind.

Eventually, all the practice at 'quietening the mind' translates from the yoga mat into the rest of your life, but it's a process. Like most things in life, consistency is key.

I'm not flexible enough!

Fact: turning yourself into a pretzel doesn't make you 'good' at yoga.

One of the biggest misconceptions about the practice is that you need to be flexible.

You might be as mobile as the Tin Man, but if you're completely present with your breath, mind and body, then you're doing yoga. Your tight hamstrings have nothing to do with how you respond or react to the contents of your head.

In any case, there are many different levels of asana and most of them don't involve contorting your body into gnarly shapes.

Belief that flexibility is vital for yoga makes many think it's an activity better suited to women, who are often naturally more bendy.

In fact, men often benefit more from the physical side of yoga, because they're generally more prone to having tight muscles.

 

How to choose the right yoga for you

It's a good idea to try some different types of yoga to see which ones you like best.

If you're looking for a workout, heated vinyasa or Ashtanga could be up your alley.

But if you're after something a little more chilled, hatha or yin might be more your speed.

When you're starting out, find a teacher who demonstrates poses and cues alignment clearly.

This doesn't always happen in more advanced classes, where students have been practising for a long time and understand alignment.

Also, in large group classes, it's difficult to cater to everyone.

Hatha: Many types but generally a gentle form.

Vinyasa: Involves flow (moving from one pose to the next without stopping). Often done in a heated room.

Yin: Poses done sitting or lying down, held for 3-5 minutes, to deeply release muscles and connective tissue.

Bikram: Series of 26 static poses performed in the same sequence in 38°C. Classes are 90 minutes.

Ashtanga: More vigorous style, involving moving from one post to the next without stopping. Poses always performed in the same sequence.

Iyengar: Static style, with emphasis on proper alignment. Props, like blocks, straps and chairs are used.

 

Yoga should not hurt!

Everyone is built differently with unique areas of weakness and tightness, so your yoga poses might look totally different to someone else's - that's normal.

In fact, some poses might not work for you at all. You never have to do every pose in class.

You'll feel challenged, especially if your muscles are tight. But you should never feel pain. The idea is you just go to the edge of your comfort zone; you don't have to push through any barriers or force anything.

 

If you have dodgy knees or ankles, there might be some sitting poses you want to skip; a bad back you probably want to avoid backbends; and inversions are usually best kept until you've got a few years' experience under your belt.

Do I have to do the spiritual/mental stuff?

There are plenty of folk who only do yoga for the physical aspects and that's OK.

But others find once they start feeling the mental benefits, it makes them curious about exploring the other sides too.

Gone are the days where doing yoga and meditation require you to wear linen pants and leather sandals.

A modern-day yogi can be anyone from a corporate high-flyer who meditates in their office, to a student practising in their share-house lounge room.

If you're curious about trying yoga, but are worried you'll look like a confused mess during your first few classes, know that you definitely will.

So take a big breath and just own it - no-one but you even cares.

Before long you'll get the hang of it. Just like most things in life, we get better with practice.

The mental and physical benefits of yoga can be astounding, but they come with patience, consistency . . . and a sense of humour. After all, you are creating weird shapes with your body.

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