Yoga basics: An intro to modern-day yoga practices

I took my yoga teacher trainings in Nosara, Costa Rica. My teachers emphasized accessibility (everyone can do yoga), inquiry (yoga is a way of self-awakening), experiential learning (yoga is a science where we learn from our own direct experiences in life), and meditation (the purpose of yoga). They would say: If you have a spine, you can do yoga. And they would ask us: Why do you practice yoga? For what purpose do you practice these postures, breathing exercises and meditations?


At first, I was confused by their interpretations of yoga. After all, I simply thought yoga was the vinyasa flow class I had been taking for the ten years prior to my teacher training. I loved the athleticism that my classes had required. Once these teachings landed, I felt so grateful that my understanding of yoga was one of accessibility, inquiry and self-awakening. I continually explore my personal yoga and the purpose it serves in my life. Today, I practice yoga because I feel calm, whole, strong, energized, and aware when I practice. I have never ended a practice with a sense of regret, wishing I spent my time on something more useful. Instead, I feel more alive and present as a result of my yoga.


When yoga came to the West, the practice morphed into many different forms. Over time, the word "yoga" became associated with downward facing dog and sexy yoga pants. We can walk into a yoga studio in downtown Los Angeles and find a group of people in spandex clothing standing on their heads in a heated room, sweat dripping down their faces. Two blocks away, we can walk into a room of people dressed in their day clothes quietly meditating in a seated position. Meanwhile, a group of people are gathered on the beach, sitting in their bathing suits and facing the waves, practicing alternate nostril breathing. Which one is yoga?


The word "yoga" means “to yoke.” Yoga is the union of mind with spirit during meditation.


Yoga came to the West in the early 20th century and provided solutions to some of the problems we were facing at the time. The issues we faced back then have only grown more profound. We are moving faster than ever before. And our thoughts are often stuck in the past, causing depression, or racing forward to the future, causing anxiety. Regardless of the fact that we are busier than ever and moving quickly, we often spend our days sitting in front of screens. Despite the emerging technologies that have provided a global network of connection, we oftentimes feel disconnected from ourselves and our communities. These habits have led to a rise of illness, disease and addiction. Recent research suggests a lack of human connection is at the root of many addictions, rendering addiction a social disorder rather than solely a substance disorder. 


Interdisciplinary yoga offers many solutions to modern-day dilemmas, drawing from contemporary mind-body disciplines while also rooting the practice in the ancient scriptures of yoga. This is kind of like many modern university degrees that draw upon several fields of study to bolster the student's knowledge and experience. Risking being accused of impurity (which is BS anyhow), the goal is to meet people where they are at and provide them with the experiences that will help them in the world today. I see this shift toward interdisciplinary studies, in universities and yoga alike, as a positive movement, promoting critical thinking. Interdisciplinary education allows us to learn from what has happened in the past and also look at the world we live in today from as many angles as possible so we can make our best choices in the present moment.


During yoga teacher training, we learned about Yogi Patanjali's eight limbs of yoga. Patanjali's Yoga Sutra defines ashtanga (ashta = eight, tanga = limbs) as a pathway to bliss. When these eight limbs are interpreted in a way that makes sense for people living in the 21st century, they can shed light on many of the problems we face today.


The first two limbs of yoga, the yamas and niyamas, provide an ethical and moral structure that can help us to navigate modern-day society. We are encouraged to know ourselves deeply and live simply. Coupled with the practice of seva yoga (service), the first two limbs of ashtanga guide us to share our material goods, wealth and skills with the greater community. 


The yoga that is popular in the Western world today focuses on Patanjali's third limb of ashtanga yoga, the asana practice. Asana refers to yoga postures, translated by Don Stapleton as to sit in the seat of one's self. Practiced to calm the fluctuations of the mind and enter a state of awareness, asana invites us to pay attention to our physical bodies, which are so often neglected in our fast-paced lifestyles. That said, modern yoga is oftentimes reduced to an exercise class with a purely physical, aesthetic focus. These classes resemble Scandinavian gymnastics with physical postures that are strenuous, sometimes missing out on the depth yoga can offer. 


Many of us are initially drawn to yoga, because the postures stretch, strengthen and tone the body. I have friends who go to yoga to strengthen their core and know of others who want a yoga butt. I started yoga fourteen years ago, because I could not touch my toes after years of competitive sports. My hamstrings were so tight and my ankles were so weak, I would roll my ankle walking across my college campus. I was 18 years old. And, although I was drawn to yoga to improve my flexibility and get some exercise, I received the added benefits of self-awareness and a connection with my spirit. 


There is nothing wrong with getting stronger, more flexible and toned as a result of a yoga asana practice. The problem occurs when yoga is conflated with difficult physical postures like handstands and downward facing dog, making yoga inaccessible to many people who do not possess a high level of athleticism, strength and/or flexibility. If a person is able to perform the perfect handstand, but he or she is a judgmental asshole out in the world, does that make this person a gifted yogi? I think not. So, if some of the yoga you have seen or experienced feels inaccessible to you know this: There are many teachers and studios, myself included, who offer therapeutic and restorative practices. In addition to postures, many teachers offer seated and reclined meditations. Everyone is welcome to yoga.


When I attended my first teacher training, I was taught that yoga postures do not need to be physically strenuous to benefit us. That said, it has only been in the past two years that I have understood in my own body and life how true this is. I have come to believe that the restorative and therapeutic practices of yoga can often benefit people more than strenuous classes, regardless of a person's age and athleticism. At the same time, I appreciate different experiences of yoga at various hours of the day and phases of the week, month or year.


The final four limbs of yoga are pranayama (breathing exercises), pratyahara (withdrawal of external, sensory focus), dharana (concentration), and dhyana (meditation). These practices help us to slow down, breathe deeply, increase and contain our energy, focus our attention, and meditate. These final four limbs of yoga lead us to samadhi, or bliss.


Regardless of whether or not we find our way to our bliss bodies, we begin to know ourselves deeply when we follow the path of yoga. In this process of knowing myself and accepting both the light and the dark within myself, the love that I am capable of giving and receiving grows. That said, the changes that I have experienced as a result of my yoga practice occur slowly, over time. Oftentimes I become aware of thought patterns and behaviors and reactions. I go through a long period where awareness is all that I have. I continue the patterns and reactions, but instead of feeling numb and unconscious, I have an inner witness that is observing my life and shedding light on the way I am being in the world. This phase of seeing but not yet changing is, oftentimes, very uncomfortable. I find that it is my relationship with the behavior or pattern that changes and then, eventually, a healthier behavior or pattern replaces the old way of being that no longer serves me.


I am still as imperfect as I have always been, regardless of the fact that I practice yoga and meditate. But I am happier. As a result of my yoga practice, when I am faced with my same tendencies that I have had for a lifetime, I have more compassion, understanding and space to choose a healthier response. I have experienced many habits and patterns that formed during my childhood that I needed to change in order to lead a healthy, happy life. I found that yoga was the practice that helped me to know and love and accept myself. With self-acceptance and self-love, I am able to make the changes I need to live a healthy, compassionate and happy existence.


Enough about me and more about you. How does yoga support you in your life?