by Nicholas Orth
The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit term “yuj,” meaning to yolk, to join, to unite. In practicing yoga we aim to unite the powers of the mind and body and eventually to unite the self with the external world. Another way to put it is that we seek harmony: harmony within the body, harmony amongst our thoughts, and harmony between ourselves and the world around us. This is a rather tall and intangible order, and so yoga has been constructed as a system of practices, developed over thousands of years, designed to condition our bodies and minds so that we may progress towards this goal of achieving a harmonious state of being.
We begin with asana. Asanas are the iconic postures commonly identified as yoga here in the West (downward facing dog being the most widely recognized example), but in reality it is only one of the “eight limbs” comprising the system of yoga. Asana is the starting point, the physical practices with which we embark on the yogic quest, using them to condition and purify the body and to afford us glimpses of the profound mental states to be encountered further on down the path. Certain prominent yogis have viewed asana practice as functioning primarily to condition the body so that one may eventually sit comfortably in meditation for the long stretches of time necessary to achieve samadhi (the final stage, or limb, of yoga), but for our purposes this is not true. Ideally, asana will be integrated into a comprehensive practice along with the other limbs of yoga, but even if taken by itself, this first limb is an extremely healthy addition to any lifestyle. Strength, flexibility, concentration, and quality of breath (a seriously underestimated determinant of health) will all be improved greatly with regular practice, and so regardless of whether you seek enlightenment or just to get in shape, here are a few things to know in order to get started:
1. Try out a yoga studio (or better yet, try out a few)! Practicing from videos or books alone just won’t cut it. Yoga is a practice that requires surgical precision in the alignment of its postures and utmost attention to detail in breathing technique. A DVD will be unable to correct your mistakes and remind you of the details that you are forgetting, rendering it highly probable that you will quickly ingrain bad habits into your practice. Not only will these habits rob you of many benefits that come along with correct practice, but may actually end up injuring you if regularly repeated.
Moreover, yoga in your living room just isn’t as much fun. At some stage along the journey you will have to begin practicing at home and without the direct guidance of a teacher, but as a beginner you will be much more likely to stick with it if you attend a studio and receive the support that its community has to offer. The yoga world has its own culture, and you’ll be missing out if you stay at home. So get out there, meet new yogis, take new classes, and experience new teachers. Yoga should not be viewed as a chore that you have to do once or twice a week on your living room carpet before dinner; it’s a fun and invigorating part of your life, and you’ll be able to see this much more clearly if you go out and experience it live.
2. You’re not too fat, too inflexible, or too old for yoga. That’s like saying you have too many cavities to start brushing your teeth. Every yoga studio offers classes for beginners, and if you attend enough of them I guarantee that you’ll find someone fatter and stiffer than you. A good yoga studio will start you out with the absolute basics, and even if some of the basics are too much for your body, the teacher will show you how to modify the postures so as to make them accessible. Most instructors are kind, caring people who are passionate about yoga and using its powers to heal and empower others. And even if you come across a couple of bad ones: just go find a new studio! I assure you, there’s nothing to be afraid of.
3. Try out different styles. Since being recorded for the first time in a systematic text thousands of years ago in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, yoga has branched off into many different schools, all sharing the same goal but going about it in different ways. Many of us take one yoga class, love it, and continue on exclusively with that instructor or that style without ever capitalizing on the wealth of different experiences contained within the world of yoga. This is a mistake. Some classes place more of an emphasis on the physical exercise aspect, others more on the meditative and spiritual. Some have an ancient, perhaps ritualistic demeanor, while others appear very modern and free-spirited. Some are easy, some hard as heck. You wouldn’t go to a buffet and completely pig out on the first yummy dish that you find, so don’t do the same with yoga. Take advantage of the rich diversity that yoga has to offer and most likely you’ll find something that keeps you coming back.
Nicholas Orth is a graduate of the Yoga Center of Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota, holding an inter-disciplinary certification in yoga instruction and a Bachelors Degree in philosophy. He has worked as a yoga instructor in Wisconsin and currently lives in Pico Bonito National Park, Honduras, where he continues his study and practice of yoga. To reach Nicholas with questions or comments, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.