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  • Writer's pictureTheia Jones

What actually is yoga, anyway?

Updated: Dec 31, 2023

Everything you need to know when starting a yoga practice for the very first time.



A gift from the mystic division, yoga is an arcane, introspective exploration of the soul and the world encapsulating it. With a history spanning several thousand years, yoga’s popularity must be owing to something special.

Perhaps it’s just an effective workout, or perhaps it’s something more. And you don’t even realise it. But perhaps it’s nothing, but everything, all at the same time. And maybe that’s the point.


Yoga today differs from its rusty roots in antiquity. On the surface, it appears to be a media-hungry ritual of likes and follows, expounded by complicated contortions. A seemingly colonised quorum, first impressions of yoga can be daunting. But the superficial sub-reality of social media isn’t what yoga is.


Often, it’s a deeply personal experience enmeshing one with their consciousness, delivering existential meaning and a sound moral compass to live a decent life by. And where some plunge headfirst into the philosophical pool, others are happy to approach yoga purely for the physical health benefits.


Whatever your reasons for starting a yoga practice, here’s the information you need to get going and understand what on earth is actually going on.




A present from the past

It’s easy to be put off starting a yoga practice with a continuous carousel of flawless acrobats infiltrating every #yoga thread on the planet.


But yoga is subject to evolution, just like everything else. I like to keep an element of tradition in my classes, but I understand we don’t live in 3,000 B.C. And culture changes, so we need classes to meet the needs of modern life in this moment.


After all, one of yoga’s key lessons is to surrender to, and be present in, the moment.

Yoga is thought to have originated in India circa 3,500 years ago – pre-dating periods of Antiquity. Originally a system of philosophy, physical postures were introduced to help practitioners adopt a meditative seat for lengthy periods. These postures, known as asanas, were simply a physical means to achieving the ultimate spiritual goal: enlightenment, (known as bodhi in Sanskrit -the language of the yogic order), through connection to the self, the universe, and everything within it. The word yoga means union; to yoke or join together, and deep meditative contemplation was the modality for our yogi ancestors to make such connections.  


Ancient yogis had a limited physical practice. Their retinue of postures wasn’t the exhaustible repository we exercise today.


Modern styles of yoga are linked to those that emerged in the 10th Century. Based on Patanjali’s Sutras, (ancient scriptures), there was a new path to walk to bodhi, with an eight-pronged lifestyle-based holistic approach, known as the Ashtanga, now being observed.

Often depicted as a wheel, (possibly to instil the notion of encompassing union and holism), the spokes of the Ashtanga developed over time. Naturally, different teachers placed more value and emphasis certain spokes of the wheel.


Since asana achieved dedicated focus, it too developed. Postures cultivated alongside social evolution and inherent human need. They became a tool for mediating the increasingly challenging nature of the world.


And in the 20th century, yoga transplanted to the west. Docking in the tumultuous port of chaos that was western society, the now expansive entity of asana-centric yoga was delivered and adapted in response to western values.


Find your tribe

In 2024, there are numerous styles of yoga. Everyone eventually finds their niche. When you’re starting out, get curious and try a few different styles to discover what resonates with you.


Hatha

Hatha yoga focuses on conscious intent through physical movement and control of the breath, to achieve the ultimate goal of self-realisation and enlightenment.


Classes today place prize in pranayama and asana practices that include a wide variety of postures. The breath is used as a guide to support the physical and mental layers through the poses. Ideal for beginners and advanced practitioners alike, a well-led class can be exhilarating and rewarding on both a physical and a spiritual level.


Yin and Restorative

The principles of Yin Yoga are sedimented in the Far East. Introduced to the west in the 1970’s, Yin is based on ancient Chinese Taoist techniques.


In yin yoga, postures are held for longer periods with the intention of penetrating deep into the body’s tissues, releasing stagnant emotions, encouraging the flow of chi (energy, which is prana to yogis), allowing greater flexibility in the body.


Classes are generally longer (around 75 – 90 minutes) and focus on a limited set of postures. Restorative yoga is similar but may include slow flows and a greater mix of postures. Both Yin and Restorative yoga are suitable for any ability, providing an escape from the mania of everyday life.


Ashtanga and Vinyasa

Far more challenging, Ashtanga and Vinyasa are similar in nature but have slightly different formulations.


Ashtanga Yoga, (not to be confused with the philosophical ashtanga mentioned earlier), is a prescriptive sequence. Ashtanga’s sequence is lengthy, so the sequence is most likely dissected into smaller sequences and rotated periodically. It’s demanding, exhilarating, and empowers one to explore the limitations of their mind and the edges of both body and will.


Vinyasa, meaning ‘to place in a special way’ offers challenging, creative sequences, linked together in a continuous flow. More choreographed than Ashtanga, Vinyasa can offer an intense workout, encouraging incredible focus and concentration. 


The mother tongue


In yoga class, you’re likely to hear all sorts of terminology and phrases. Here are a few of the most common ones to keep in your repertoire.


  • Asana: the physical postures performed in a class.

  • Bandha: a way of internally locking muscles, or muscle groups, to help steady and deepen postures.

  • Chakra: meaning wheel, chakras are seven specific points on the body that process vital energy (prana).  

  • Drishti: a gaze point for stability and focus. All postures have Drishti directions – usually a part of the body to look towards/past, and then focus on a steady spot beyond.

  • Mantra: spoken or sung phrases repeated continuously for a set period of time.

  • Mudra: hand gestures that were traditionally used to seal in prana (vital energy) in the body.

  • Namaste: this infamous saying, “my soul honours your soul”, is a gratuity expressed at the end of a practice.

  • Om: an energetic epithet expressed as the universal sound of everything. Pronounced “aum”, this incantation is usually recited to close a practice.

  • Prana: this is simply the air we breathe but, philosophically, it’s vital energy and life force. It’s the medium that connects us all together.

  • Vinyasa: in a Vinyasa class, you’ll hear your teacher cue a ‘vinyasa’. This vinyasa is a set of four postures that link together other postures in a sequence.


Top 5 beginner's poses


Having awareness of some foundational postures is great to have in your repository when embarking on your yoga journey.


1. Balasana – Child’s pose

This can be advanced by parting the knees and allowing the torso and belly to sink down to the mat. Stretch out the arms overhead or grab on to the heels for simple but effective variation.  


2. Tadasana – Mountain pose 

Mountain pose might not resonate with you at first. It may seem dull and ineffective. But like everything in yoga, it has a purpose. Close the eyes and pay attention to the feet – are they moving? Where is your weight going? Try to shift this weight and achieve an even distribution that will pay dividends in achieving steady postures.


3. Dandayamana Bharmanasana – Balancing Table

Balancing table is an excellent starting point for learning to engage your core. The abdominal muscles are imperative in a yoga practice and holding your asana. Modify this balance by drawing in lifted knee to lifted elbow, then reextending. Curl up into the spine and pinch in the abdominal muscles to keep a steady position.


4. Uttanasana – Standing forward fold

Although it seems simple, there’s a lot of intricacies to consider in Uttanasana. The core should be engaged, spine elongated, and knees soft. Usually, this forward fold is performed with straight legs but bend your knees to begin with, until the hamstrings become looser. Fold forward from the hips, not the lower back, and allow the body to relax down, keeping the head heavy.


5. Adho Mukha Svanasana – Downward Facing Dog 

A modern household name, this humble pup is intrinsic to all styles of yoga and is a constituent of the vinyasa flow mentioned previously. Don’t let looks be deceiving, DFD is seldom executed correctly on the first go.


There’s a lot of weight going in opposing directions. Bend the knees if the hamstrings are tight, slide the shoulder blades down the back and away from the ears, and hug the ears with the elbows (rolling the elbows inwards) so they don’t splay out to the sides. Draw in the abdominals and allow the head to be loose – look back toward the knees or belly and aim to drive the chest back toward the legs.



Looking the part


Traditionally, loose cotton clothing was worn when performing the physical portion of a yoga practice. Today, our tastes have aberrated away from plain linen pants and tunics. While the latest leggings might be alluring for social media posting purposes, think about the practicality these have to a period where you may be getting sweaty. Your skin needs to breath and cotton is ideal for this. Harem style pants are available in an array of beautiful patterns and natural fabrics. They provide enough room for full mobilisation in stretches too.

If fashion is a crux for you, do your homework and invest wisely. Big brands aren’t cheap and often don’t actually offer any technical benefits. Pair with loose and airy tops and, if you’re female, an appropriate sports bra for support and comfort.


A good yoga mat is essential. Often, they aren’t designed and manufactured with the interests of the environment at heart, so, if this is important to you, do your homework and invest in a mat that has longevity. My rule of thumb is, “buy cheap, buy constantly”, because cheaper things wear out faster, and will cost way more in the long run. "Grippiness" is often an issue for yogis and most mats don’t compare to Liforme for this functionality.


A bolster, block, brick, and strap are also good pieces of kit to have on hand as your practice advances. Bricks are perfect to have on hand from day one. They act as a medium between you and wherever you can’t reach, or where you may need extra support. Blocks are flatter and tend to be used for comfort, such as when meditating. Bolsters and straps are more commonly used in Yin and Restorative yoga practices, helping to support the body and move deeper into poses.




Soul food for thought


There is no right or wrong, or good and bad in yoga. Everyone starts somewhere, and no true teacher would tell someone they’re good or bad at yoga. It’s an evolution and a journey, so there’s never going to be a point where perfection exists. But there will always be another step to take along your path – going deeper and further into your exploration.


And remember, yoga isn’t gymnastics. Although modern yogic systems have fostered more complex postures, requiring an advanced level of flexibility, they aren’t instantaneous for anyone and, like gymnastics, they’ve been designed on a performance basis and are unachievable for most people (including most teachers).


You also don’t have to be spiritual to start, it can be a purely physical relationship, sharpening your mind, focus, concentration, all while strengthening your body and exploring its limitations. Most practitioners do eventually become more curious about the philosophy and spiritual side of yoga, but it’s ok if it doesn’t happen to you.


Yoga is a beautiful medium for self-expression and using the body as an instrument to convey messages within the self, reconnecting to the very essence of what makes you who you are.

 



 



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