In the beginning…

Did you know that the part of yoga that just about everyone loves the most – I’m talking about asana or the movement practices – was originally designed for young, Indian boys? In the grand and very rich tapestry that is yoga history, spanning some 3,000 years, I think this begs two questions for us: 1) why are adults so obsessed with a practice that was originally designed for children? and 2) what type of yoga existed before the dynamic, physical practice that dominates Western classes today?

Let’s start by first exploring the last question. Most people don’t realise that in the beginning, asana mainly consisted of seated meditative poses. The term asana in Sanskrit, means “seat”, specifically, the seated pose that you take for meditation. The reason for this is found in the purpose of the practice, which was largely based in devotion to the gods and the development of spiritual awareness. The original yogis were a group of devoted, monk-like practitioners who were taught yoga one-on-one, via a student/master relationship. For years at a time – often living in very remote caves, forests, or mountain areas – these yogacharyas (students of yoga), studied the yoga scriptures, such as the learning to recite the Bhagavad Gita and the various Upanishads. In addition to sitting in meditation for many hours a day, they also learned pranayama, or the science of restraining and directing prana. Since their lives would have been rather physical, walking great distances daily, squatting to prepare food, to eat and, of course, to empty bowels, the need to engage in an overly physical practice would have been largely unnecessary. The original yogis were scholars, devoted to the practice of yoga as a whole. Asana, being the third of the eight limbs of yoga, as outlined by the sage Patanjali, was a stepping stone towards enlightenment; a way of keeping the body supple so the mind would not be distracted whilst sitting in meditation.

The answer to the first question is totally subjective, of course, so forgive me if you disagree. Our obsession with the overly physical practice, in my mind, has much to do with the overly sedentary lifestyle that many of us lead. Human beings are made to move, and generally, we enjoy moving. So, after a day – where we may have sat in a car driving to work, only to sit at a desk for many hours, to then sit in the car on the way home again – it is no surprise that there is a desire to move our bodies. Much like the young Indian boys, for whom yoga asana was originally designed, we relish the opportunity to stretch, strengthen and move in a form of exercise that we love. Those of you with children may have heard the term to describe the frenzied activity required by kids before they can relax – it’s called “shaking the sillies out.” Perhaps our liking for intense vinyasa is our adult version of moving like kids at a Wiggles concert, so we sleep soundly at night? The Global Yoga Survey 2021 – the largest survey of yoga practitioners ever conducted worldwide – agrees, indicating that the most popular forms of yoga are, indeed, hatha and vinyasa yoga.

An uptight mind cannot exist in a relaxed body

I’d love to be able to say I thought of this statement, but alas, I cannot. I do, however, wholeheartedly agree with it, and I believe it is one reason why so many people love to engage in a physical yoga practice. Let’s not forget that our modern lives need a modern approach to a yoga practice. Not only does a very physical form of yoga “shake the sillies out” – helping to disperse pent up energy and get us in the zone for a deeper practice – but it reduces tension in the body by systematically stretching and strengthening the muscles, and this we find, is very relaxing. This is perhaps a major reason why the number of people practising yoga, worldwide, is increasing each year. Sadly, the 2021 survey, did not track the uptake of yoga amongst practitioners; the last survey that did this was in 2016, where The Yoga In America study found that 36 million people in the U.S.A. alone, practise yoga – up 50% from 2012. The number of studio popping up in Melbourne, suggests a similar uptake. I often, unofficially survey my students at the Australian Yoga Academy (AYA), to find out what has brought them to yoga. Most of the time I receive one of three answers: the first reason is the need for stress reduction; the second reason is to help address a physical injury or concern, (such as a sore lower back), and the third reason is the pursuit of an exercise regime that they hope to stick to. So what of the desire for spiritual awareness, where is that? Not a high priority it seems. The desire to learn to meditate? Nope, not really. As the owner of a yoga school, does this absence for the need to pursue these rather important rungs of yoga bother me? Not one bit. The reason for this is because I know – I have seen it in the 17 years that I have been teaching yoga – that for many people, the desire to learn the deeper elements of yoga comes after they have fallen in love with the physical. It’s almost as though there is a light-blub moment when the student realises that their physical practice makes them feel amazing, as though all their tension really does melt away to the soothing sounds of their teacher’s voice. I’m convinced that this understanding of the mind-body connection, is what keeps people returning class after class, and eventually, this realisation fuels a curiosity for meditation, mindfulness, pranayama, and all the benefits that result. The 2021 survey provide an abundance of useful information regarding how yoga practitioners approach their practice and I’d encourage you to read it in more detail. It’s a fascinating read for any yoga studio owner, particularly.

Yoga for every stage of life

Thank Vishnu for modern, scientific studies to prove to us what the ancient yogis already knew! We are blessed with so much robust research to outline the great benefits that we may gain from an holistic yoga and meditation practice. Wherever you are in your life, yoga and meditation can help you. Some particularly pertinent examples are in these areas:

Youth – Our young people are subject to stress and pressures that have never been experienced before through the influence of social media. A yoga and meditation practice helps our young people to develop resilience, helps with social and emotional regulation and improves overall perception of health and well-being. AYA is one of the only schools in Australia to offer Yoga Alliance International Registry recognised, Youth Yoga Teacher Training and yoga teacher training specifically for school teachers.

Prenatal – There is much to be done to change the narrative around birth culture in Australia. A comprehensive Prenatal and Postnatal Yoga Teacher Training program, such as AYA’s program, (also registered with Yoga Alliance International Registry), can help yoga teachers to advocate for birthing mums and their partners. Prenatal yoga can help prevent poor birth experiences through childbirth education and preparation for birthing. Evidence exists to show that a regular prenatal practice helps mums to have an increased tolerance to pain, downgrades lower back discomfort and increases the flow of oxygen to baby in utero.

Elderly – Being advanced in years does not mean that a physical practice is out of reach. In Yoga As Medicine, Timothy McCall devotes a whole chapter to working with the elderly, including how various postures may be modified and noting the benefits such as improvements in grip strength, mobility, mental agility, balance, sleep quality and social connections.

There is a form of yoga for everyone

Whatever your jam, there is a form of yoga for you. And there is a teacher to suit every body, mind and spirit as well. When you first choose a yoga class, style and teacher there are many things you might consider; everything from the location and cost of the class, through to how welcome you feel when you arrive and how you resonate with the teacher. There is no right or wrong here – that’s useful for both teachers and students to understand, Remember, that what you want and need as a student may change over time. So, let me ask you this? What do you need in your life right now? If you’re super tired or recovering from an illness, then perhaps yin yoga is best for you right now? If you come from a strong, exercise background such as dance, gymnastics or ballet, then you may love the commonalities that you find in the Astanga practice. Those of you who have had a yoga practice for many years,
will probably notice how the practice has evolved, as you, too, have evolved. This is how it ought to be. A few years ago, the esteemed Leslie Kaminoff, author of Yoga Anatomy, did a series of workshops at AYA. I remember him saying something like, (and I am paraphrasing), that it is our job as yoga practitioners to practise in a way that means we can still be practising when we are 90. Sounds good to me. Too often, I have seen students damage their health, both physically and mentally, because of a deleterious approach to their practice based on what they think they should be doing to be a “good” student. The best thing every student can do is to work with a reputable and clever yoga teacher who can help the student to evolve in their practice with svadhyaya (self-exploration), in mind. I tell my teacher trainees, especially, that we must use our practice intelligently, mindfully and approach it with
care so that we nurture our whole being and be a living embodiment of the essence of yoga.