What is yoga?

The word Yoga shares the same roots as the word yoke or union, and means to unite or yoke together. It refers to the union of mind, body and spirit. It is a system of exercises and practices. Some of these have roots thousands of years old, some are modern. Many different people have taken these exercises and practices and developed them in many different directions. Today there are many, many different styles of yoga, and many different things carrying the name ‘yoga’. In my opinion, the essence of yoga – it is a set of practices and exercises the practising of which will make you a better, healthier, happier and more content person. There are some fundamental threads of this practice.

One significant thread is ‘being aware’. Awareness of what you are doing; what muscles need to work to perform a particular movement or to hold a posture; what muscles are working when they do not need to; the quality of your breathing; the quality of your contact with the floor; the quality, location and focus of your attention; the qualities of your motives for doing what you are doing; the qualities of your perceptions, …

Another significant thread is ‘balance’. A common misconception of yoga is that it entails performing amazingly acrobatic postures and moves. I don’t think this is helped by a lot of the available yoga magazines and published media. A casual flip through these mags shows beautiful, photogenic, scantily clad people, doing things relevant for professional dancers and body builders. Krishnamacharya said, “A yoga practice must be adapted to suit the period, location and specific requirements of the individual. The age and the constitution of the students, their vocation, capability and the path to which they feel drawn all dictate the shape of a yoga practice.” [quoted from Mark Singleton’s book, “Yoga Body – The origins of modern posture practice”, Oxford University Press, 2010, p188]. This is all about a balanced, relevant practice. Start at the place you are at and develop from there – progressively get stronger, more flexible and healthier. Become a better, happier, more content-with-life person.

In my opinion, there is no-one who cannot benefit from yoga.

See also: More on what Yoga is

What style of yoga do you do?

I don’t do any one style. What I am doing is influenced by many different styles and influences. The flow and endurance of Ashtanga, the precision of Iyengar, the ease and flow of Scaravelli. Also into the pot is Krishnamacharya’s advice on adapting the practice to be suitable for the individual student. Also into the pot is my training in osteopathy and naturopathy. I am looking to get a student to understand where they currently are, what their aspirations are, to understand their own body, how it works, what the issues are, where the barriers are – then work with that. Get stronger, get fitter. Build awareness in what movement feels like, what “right feeling” feels like, what “wrong feeling” feels like. Build awareness of what activities head towards fragility, and also what activities head towards robustness. Fundamentally, my premise is to arrive at old age fit and strong, or at least as fit and strong is you can be given your unique circumstances. Is that a style? I think it is more just using the tools in the Yoga toolset to work towards being a better, healthier person.

Do you use props?

No, I tend not to use props – though blocks are useful, and maybe straps. I think props certainly have their place, but my preference is to avoid them (apart from blocks, that I do encourage in the right place). My feeling is that yoga practice is all about the journey, an exploring of what you can do, what is good for you, what is not good for you. It is an exploring of where your capabilities lie, the characteristics of your own fabric. As you practice with regularity, you can feel the body-fabric change and adapt to what you are doing. You can feel that fabric strengthening up and become less fragile. For example, in the journey of practising towards a shoulder stand. Slowly and slowly the neck fabric strengthens, gets more flexible. The structure gets prepared for heading increasingly into the full posture. This does NOT mean on day-1 attempt to crank yourself into the full posture. It means progressing with patience and common sense, with awareness of what is appropriate. It means progressing with awareness that the body fabric takes time to change. Also for some people and conditions it might not be appropriate to do at all.

On the other hand, you can use a shoulder-stand prop to get you fully into an inverted posture, with no weight on the neck at all. You are in the posture, yes, and there are many benefits to inversions. But the neck fabric remains unchanged. You have by-passed the journey of preparing the fabric in progressing towards that posture. My preference is to use the journey to get that fabric physiologically robust. If it is right for us to achieve that full posture – great, we do so with the fabric of our body ready to do so. If it is not right for us to achieve that full posture – also great, we have strengthened up our fabric as much as is right for us. In this way you can arrive at old age in a body that fundamentally works as well as it can. Too much reliance on props tends to short-circuit this.

I am very flexible – should I ease back on end-of-range work?

(The person asking was tell and slender, with long standing shoulder pain that no one had been able to diagnose or remediate)
A talk slender frame can be very graceful, and often girls with such a frame are quite flexible. The downside is that nice, long limbs make nice, long levers – acting on joints with less supporting fabric than, say, a stockier build. I think this inherently puts those joints at risk, or at least makes them work hard, especially the shoulder joint which is a very mobile joint anyway. I think for a very mobile person, especially a slender one, they should work with practices that emphasise strength. Even more importantly then flexibility. When the fabric surrounding the joint is fundamentally strong and robust, then it will cope with whatever you ask of it. So, in the shorter term ease back on the big end-of-range work – not so much work towards flexibility, rather concentrate on strengthening. Movements like dynamic-cat, three-legged high plank, three-legged chatturanga, low plank held for 10 seconds and upward, low plank thread-the-needle – an easy 5 on each side. When the strength is there, then practice how you like. Over-emphasizing flexibility at the expense of strength might not show symptoms when your are young, but over the years and into your thirties, forties, fifties and upward, I fear your joints won’t thank you. The premise of the yoga work that I am doing to is to work towards a body that can handle what life throws at you – and for that you need both flexibility and strength.

What kind of yoga is best for me?

The term ‘yoga’ covers a really wide range of very different practices. Some practices very physical and dynamic, some very quiet and still. Some practices are physically very demanding, some are very gentle. Yoga is not one practice. I think you need to be clear on what you are looking for. Also, different teachers teach in different ways.

The kind of class that suits you will probably come down to

a) you resonate with the material being taught at that class

b) you resonate with the teacher

One piece of advice I think is important, usually, whatever you are looking for, you can find a yoga practice that suits you. If you are new to yoga, you try a class and don’t like it. Try a different class, try a different teacher. Don’t conclude yoga is not for you.