BEGINNERS INFORMATION: - WHAT TO EXPECT AND HOW TO GET THE MOST OUT OF YOGA PRACTICE
There are several reasons why you might be attracted to yoga - you may desire good health, flexibility, strength, calmness, concentration, spiritual evolution etc.. Although all of these can be obtained through yoga, the original purpose of practice is to prepare you to sit for meditation.
However, meditation is only possible if you can sit still in a comfortable and relaxed manner for an extended period of time. For most of us this is impossible. Our modern lifestyles have given us a great deal of stress and made our bodies stiff so that it is painful to sit still even for a short time.
So before one can even think about meditation, the body needs to be brought into a healthy condition. This is the first stage of yoga known as asana practice. Asana practice is a great tool for increasing the flexibility and comfort of the body and also helps to relax the mind. Asana practice is also a very effective method for either maintaining or returning one to good health.
Therefore yoga is a wonderful tool that has many benefits regardless of your ultimate goals. If you just want good health, strength or flexibility, yoga can give that to you. If you want deep transformation, self knowledge and states of bliss elicited through meditation, it can take you there also. But before you can meditate and achieve the highest levels of yoga, first the body and mind have to be returned to good health.
Vinyasa and Surya Namaskar
Yoga regards the body and mind as two sides of the same coin and approaches positive health from both sides simultaneously. Bodily pain or sickness leads to mental stress and mental distress results in muscular and joint stiffness and physical discomfort.
If you just try to stretch a muscle without relaxing the mind or if you try to relax the mind without eliminating bodily pain, you will have little success. It has been discovered that through yoga practice, by soothing both body and mind together, we achieve much greater success in achieving good health, relaxation, physical comfort, concentration and many other desirable benefits.
The link between body and mind is breathing: breathing is normally an unconscious, automatic process managed by the autonomic nervous system, but it is the one automatic function that we can consciously adjust for physical and mental benefit. This is yoga's secret body-mind hack - by consciously adjusting the way we breathe, we simultaneously positively affect both the mind and the body.
So the very first exercise we teach in yoga is a method for consciously modifying the breathing pattern, known as vinyasa - or breathing-movement system - a synchronization of breathing and movement.
Although this first exercise (Surya Namaskar) moves the body through 9 specific positions, each one synchronized with breathing - the perfection of the bodily positions are initially less important than the quality of breath synchronization. Many new students worry that they are too stiff to "do" yoga. Breath and movement synchronization is the key to making the body flexible.
Flexibility comes through stretching the muscles while relaxing the mind and is facilitated by heat. The muscles stretch more easily when they are warmed up, while they stiffen when cold. The breathing-movement system heats up the body while moving the body through pose and counterpose - this is a very effective method for increasing flexibility.
Breathing-movement system is rhythmical and fluid - this also has the effect of relaxing and concentrating the mind - making the physical practice feel like a moving meditation, while the combined heat element and the different bodily postures have a healing and detoxifying effect on the body.
The movement-breath synchronization is the key to and the foundation of yoga practice. Flexibility, strength, concentration and good health are the outcome of this fundamental principle.
How to Breathe
In yoga practice, we aim to breathe as smoothly and deeply as possible and to maintain this depth and smoothness while challenging ourselves physically and mentally with different actions, balancing, strength bearing positions, concentration etc..
While smooth breathing leads to greater mental stability, concentration and balance, depth of breath can help us to deal with negative emotions, reactions and ill health.
Most people use only about 30% of their lung capacity. In the first place this means a much less than optimal intake of oxygen and expelling of carbon dioxide. Shallow or incomplete breathing is associated with a tightness in the throat, chest and abdomen - this again is associated with various psychological or emotional stresses and limitations.
Deep breathing has an important physiological impact on all the systems and organs of the body. Deep breathing massages the heart, helps it to pump the blood, as well as stimulating all the organs of the abdomen: the liver, kidneys, stomach, spleen, intestines etc.. So breathing is one of the most important tools, in fact, the fundamental tool used in yoga, and healthy breathing is an essential factor in good health as well as emotional and psychological wellbeing.
Yoga and Ayurveda teach that breathing should be done through the nose: the mouth is for eating and speaking and the nose is for breathing. According to Ayurveda, breathing through the mouth can lead to heart disease.
The hairs and mucous membranes in the nose filter dust and other particles from the air, while the air is humidified and its temperature is moderated before it reaches the lungs.
In yogic breathing there is a slight contraction at the back of the throat that acts as a valve that slows down the volume of air that passes to the lungs and allows the length of the inhale and exhale to increase. Long smooth inhales and exhales facilitate calmness of mind and concentration. This constriction of the glottis also elicits a slight hissing sound that is soothing to the mind.
This type of breathing is not only helpful in yoga practice but in life outside the yoga shala. Conscious breathing on your way to practice will make your practice deeper and more effective, while breathing calmly through the nose in stressful situations will allow you to control how you react - or not react.
Deepening the breath is facilitated by the control of certain muscles.The main muscle used in breathing is the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a large dome shaped muscle that presses down on the abdominal organs during inhalation. If you just keep the stomach totally relaxed, the belly will bulge out with a deep inhalation.
In order to breathe into the whole chest area, to relax and expand the restricted areas around the heart, upper chest and throat, this downward action should be restricted somewhat by preventing the belly from bulging out. When the lower abdominal muscles of the transverse abdominis are engaged on the inhalation, the diaphragm cannot descend so much. Instead the rib cage expands in a horizontal and upwards direction.
Not only do we wish to breathe deeply and expand the chest and lungs, we also want to exhale completely and empty the lungs of air as much as possible. In addition to expelling the carbon dioxide from the body, complete exhalation is the only thing that will facilitate deep inhalation. Relaxation, concentration and the higher stages of yoga are associated with long smooth exhalation, while energy for work and oxygenation of the tissues is associated with inhalation. They are both equally important.
Deep breathing in yoga practice is facilitated by movement of the arms and the torso. The nine movements of the first exercise (Surya Namaskar) help to stimulate full exhalation and inhalation.
When you start doing some of these yogic exercises, at some point you may find your heart racing. When this happens, there is a tendency to speed up the breathing. However, it is found that if you slow down your breathing, your heart rate goes down. Breath and heartbeat are intimately linked. In yoga, the heart is controlled via the breath - this is how yogis are able to slow down and eventually stop their hearts - by completely controlling the breath.
Although, in the Western world, the heart is regarded as the engine, the driver, the primary function, in the East, the breathing is regarded as primary. In the West we are concerned primarily with heart health - when the heart stops, life is over. In the East it is felt that life begins and ends with breath.
How to Develop Flexibility
Flexibility is the result of gradually stretching muscles. Muscles are elastic and after stretching they contract again. If you stretch intensely they can contract to become even shorter and tighter than before. For this reason stretching should be done gradually and smoothly with breathing to facilitate simultaneous mental relaxation (tense mind = stiff body).
The day after stretching, muscles are often tighter, and the day after that they can contract still further. For this reason it is important to practice daily - then the muscles begin to lengthen cumulatively over time. If you take several days off because you feel stiff, the muscles will contract further, giving you an uphill battle - you will be taking one step forward and two steps back.
Flexibility can be increased by warming the body before practice by taking a shower and by massage. Wear warm clothes to and from practice to prevent the muscles stiffening up.
Certain foods and lifestyle habits make the body stiff. Good diet is extremely helpful. It is also helpful to go to the bathroom before practice. For many people this is a challenge initially, but yoga practice is particularly good for getting digestion into a healthy condition - so with time, elimination will happen daily in the morning before practice.
Yoga sequences are designed to intelligently open up the body over time. A practice will start with simple stretches and gradually become more challenging as the body becomes more flexible. Repetition is the key. In the beginning a new student has just a short practice that is repeated daily and gradually increases over time.
Relaxation - Shavasana*
After practice students are advised to lie down on the back and relax for 10 minutes in shavasana (corpse pose). Often the hardest part of this practice is mental. The mind remains active and it is hard to lie still. In this case pay attention to the breathing. If necessary, count 100 slow breaths.
This is one of the most valuable and important practices. It allows one to integrate and assimilate the benefits of asana practice. If you just get up after a couple of minutes you can lose the whole value of the practice.
If tension or pain is experienced in the body while lying down, focus on the area of deepest tension or pain and consciously try to relax it. You can use the breath - try to breathe into that point of the body on inhale and to consciously relax it while exhaling.
It is common that when we have pain, that we unconsciously tighten muscles around the afflicted area, perhaps with the intention of giving it protection. This actually increases the pain and tightness. Try to be aware of what tension is associated with the afflicted area and what is caused by mental tensing around the area. Other apparently unconnected parts of the body can also tense up as the result of pain.
You can also scan your whole body moving progressively from head to toe and identifying areas of tension, taking several breaths to relax each part of the body. In each case breathe into the area of tension and then consciously relax it as you exhale. If tension is acute, you may continue focus on one area through more time.
Keep the breathing relaxed, do not tense up with the pain in the body. After scanning the body and consciously releasing, be sure to just lie there and relax the whole body. In a good shavasana you will feel a bit like you had a short nap. It acts as a reset or reboot to your system. You will know you have rested enough if you "go out" or lose consciousness or awareness of your body/thoughts for a while.
* In many traditions this relaxation pose is called shavasana, though in Pattabhi Jois' system he just said "take rest" - in his teaching there is an advanced posture called shavasana, in which all the muscles of the body are tensed up - as in rigor mortis.
Yoga, Breathing and Psychology
Breathing patterns mirror our psychological or emotional states. Breath can be shallow or deep, restricted or limited. These patterns typically follow psychological states - we breathe differently when we are concentrating, stressed, exercising, relaxed, in pain etc..
There are three components to the breath - the inhale, the exhale and the interval between inhale and exhale. Inhale could be long and deep, while the exhale could be quick, or inhale could be shallow, while the exhale could be prolonged. There could be a pause after inhaling or one after exhaling.
The initial goal in yogic breathing is to make the breath flow evenly without holding or pausing the breath either after inhalation or exhalation. In general the goal is to try to give the inhale the same intensity (softness) and duration (length) as the exhale, but eventually, to facilitate deeper states of meditation or relaxation, the exhale is lengthened in relation to the inhale, while for becoming more energized, if feeling lethargic, inhalation may be emphasized.
Yoga practice may act as a microcosm of life itself. For instance, in attempting to perform an act of balancing in yoga, similar psychological challenges encountered in daily life arise - ie the fear of falling, the challenge of juggling more than one task at a time, of concentration - these may arise in an engineered, safe, laboratory-style setting.
If balance is a challenging issue in life, when a similar challenge is encountered in yoga (eg standing on one leg), one will observe that it affects the breathing pattern - one may hold the breath, it may become shallow, irregular or follow another pattern. These patterns are caused by the mental stress the physical challenge triggers - leading to familiar failure to overcome this particular type of challenge.
If, instead of allowing the psychological pattern that leads to failure (eg falling, when challenged to balance) - through moderating the breathing pattern, or rather by sustaining deep, smooth even breathing, when the tendency would be to hold the breath or for it to become stressed or erratic, we find that these challenges can be surmounted.
If you continue to breathe smoothly while trying to balance - you sustain balance. If breath, following mind, becomes stressed, you fall. If mind, supported by breath does not enter the stressed state, balance is achieved.
Small challenges, encountered and overcome in yoga practice can translate into success in similar challenging situations outside yoga practice - ie through learning to remain relaxed while challenged in a safe, limited or controlled environment, we learn how to remain relaxed in a similar real life situation. Equally we can learn how to remain concentrated, sustain balance, confidence, calmness etc..
You may think that once you have done your yoga practice, you are finished for the day, however, the purpose of yoga is to support us in life, to support us in the challenges we face in the outside world. When you leave class, that is when the real yoga starts!
Some different definitions of yoga:
Skill in Action
Union with God
Sickness and Injury
Yoga is good for health! Many students, when they have pain, injury or sickness stop practicing - however, this is the time you need yoga most! Yoga is extremely helpful for overcoming ill health and pain. Today doctors agree - if you have injured yourself, instead of taking bed rest, they recommend returning to exercise as soon as possible.
Practicing yoga helps to reduce symptoms of illness, helps to relieve pain and speeds up recovery from injury. If you have fever or have a severe injury, do not practice. If you have a cold, maybe it is better to practice at home, but if you do practice, you will feel better much sooner.
Let us know if you have pain, injury or sickness and we can help to adapt your practice accordingly. If you are unable to come to class, email us and we can advise you.
If You Have Less Time
The practice is structured with a beginning, middle and end. The beginning and conclusion should always be practiced. That could mean, if you only have 15 minutes, Surya Namaskar, the last 3 seated positions and Shavasana. If you have more time you can add either the standing positions or the rest of the finishing positions - depending on need. With more time add part of the series but always start with Surya Namaskar and end with the finishing postures.
It is much better to practice a little bit every day than a lot once in a while. Consistency is the key. This helps body and mind to feel in the best condition. The same applies to diet - staying consistent with the type of food, the amount of food and meal times will best support health and yoga practice.
Pregnancy and Menstruation
We recommend not practicing yoga during the 3 heaviest days of menstruation - this can lead to a disruption of the cycle. However, for women who experience uncomfortable cramping, a few simple postures and breathing exercises can be of help. At the very least, we do not recommend doing inverted postures (any pose where the head is below the pelvis) and one should relax the bandhas completely during menstruation.
Yoga can generally be safely practiced and be of great benefit during pregnancy with some adaptations, although in some cases, where there is a tendency to miscarry, resting during the first trimester is recommended. Please let us know if you become pregnant, so we can adapt your practice accordingly.
Do not be shy to ask questions! It is our job to give you guidance. If you do not find time to ask in or after class, email us if you have doubts.
Article completely reblogged for informational purposes from: Ashtanga Yoga NYC