Sunday, 21 September 2008

Yoga - Basics For New Practitioners

New to yoga? Start here! Yoga means union, and hatha is a combination of words meaning sun and moon. So, hatha yoga, which is the practice we are most familiar with in the West has a meaning stemming from the uniting of opposites. Yoga is an ancient Indian philosophy described by Patanjali in his famous Yoga Sutras as the spiritual discipline or practice with the intent of uniting the individual soul with the World soul.

Before the deep thinking involved discourages you, you can rest assured that in the West, and indeed for many Indian people, the modern practice of yoga encompasses only one or two of the original eight branches that Patanjali described. When you look for a yoga class, or an instructional book or video, you are selecting a system of postures to learn, which yoga practitioners as asanas know. You may be familiar with the most popular systems: Kripalu, Iyengar, Ashtanga or Power Yoga, Sivananda Yoga, Bikram or Hot Yoga.

There are a number of systems because there in no one single central authority in yoga. Every master teacher, or guru, perfects his own practice and passes it on to his or her students. In practice, when you choose a style, you should consider a few factors. First, what classes are offered in a convenient location to your home, school or workplace? You will find that similarities outweigh the differences, and attending a class more frequently will allow you to more fully enjoy and experience what the discipline has to offer you.

Next, you should consider the style itself. Keep in mind that there is no one "brand name" in yoga practice that is better than any others are. Many recommend starting out with an Iyengar beginner's class, since his famous style places an emphasis on learning precise movements, and also using props like straps and blocks to help less flexible individuals assume the necessary postures. Ask friends and colleagues for teacher recommendations, and go with someone well regarded and close by. You can always change your mind; the main thing is to get started with the learning process.

If you do not have a teacher nearby, you should pick up Yoga the Iyengar Way by Silva, Mira, and Shyam Mehta. This is probably the single best book in print for starting a new practice without a teacher. Even if you have a good school in your local area, consider getting this one as a reference, to reinforce what you learn in class. It has great pictures and descriptions of basic and intermediate asanas (poses), and the book has been thoughtfully arranged to teach several complete sequences of exercise.

Do not worry about the spiritual aspects of practice at first. Some schools, like the Sivananda program, emphasize vegetarianism, proper breathing and relaxation techniques and even meditation along with the beginner class. This can be too soon for people trying out yoga for some extra exercise or to lose weight. If you are curious about yoga, get started with the classes, and maybe the spiritual aspects will begin to appeal more at some point. It does not matter; many are content to go on for decades becoming excellent practitioners and get great benefits in terms of health or wellbeing, with minimal exploration of the spiritual side of yoga. Union of opposites, the body and mind, the self and others, the will and desires, are what this practice is about. How that manifests is different for every individual.

J.M. Smith is an avid yoga practitioner and teacher, and maintains a resource called Yoga for Weight Loss - where you will learn more about getting started, or getting that so-called "yoga body".

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