Knowing Your Asana From Your Ashtanga – The Basics of Yoga

People practice מורת יוגה for all sorts of reasons: to stay fit and trim, to achieve a sense of inner calm and well-being, to gain increased flexibility and coordination, and to improve their posture. But to the uninitiated, the practice of yoga remains a mystery. What exactly is yoga – and why do we care?

The word “yoga” means union in Sanskrit, and it aims to create a basic union behind mind, body and spirit. This is achieved through a combination of flexibility and strength, which usually is carried out by a striving to create and perfect a series of yoga poses, known as asanas, or postures exercises.

While creating the same exercises day after day may sound repetitive and mind-numbingly dull – at least to the uninitiated – to adherents of yoga the case is exactly the opposite. In theory, at least, people bring a varied and different approach to the postures each time they do them, often with the help of a teacher, or guru, who teaches and guides them along the way.

In addition, chanting, meditation and breathing exercises are taught concurrently alongside the postures, so people should feel varied benefits which affect them both inside and out. But as yoga can be tricky and is physically very demanding, many people give up at the onset. Others, however, try it a few times and become converts for life.

The practice of yoga is a varied one, which is why there are so many types of yoga being taught and practiced all over the world. Many people have heard of Hatha yoga, which is actually an all-encompassing word for all types of yoga. Other actual types, in alphabetical order, include:

Ashtanga yoga. Literally means “eight-limbed yoga”, as the path of internal purification contains eight spiritual practices which followers are advised to follow. They are: moral codes; self-purification and study; posture; breath control; sense control; concentration; meditation and contemplation. There are strict sets of poses which should, in an ideal world, be followed to the letter. This type of yoga is both athletic and requires a strict sense of order and is also referred to as “power yoga”.

Bhakti yoga. Achieves calm by visualizing, thinking about and feeling a Divine Being. Sometimes referred to as the Yoga of Love or Yoga of God. Requires one to want their own oneness to become a “twoness” with a higher power.

Bikram yoga. Started by Bikram Choudhury, this type of “Hot Yoga” is practiced only in a very warm room. It is though that the heat helps flush nasty toxins from the body and thus assists in making the limbs more flexible. Helps you sweat out your problems as well as become stronger and more coordinated.

Iyengar yoga. This type of yoga concentrates on the use of props (no, not that kind) to achieve yoga poses. Wooden belts, blocks, ropes etc help those practicing Iyengar yoga achieve the various asanas, or poses, and thus help their body, and eventually their mind, become stronger.

Mantra yoga. People practice yoga techniques coupled with the repetition of certain monosyllabic sounds, or mantras, such as “um”, “oh” and “ah”. The idea is that once a person chants a specific sound endlessly, it will enter their consciousness until the subconscious is revealed. A bit tricky, that one…

Raja yoga. Helps increase meditation techniques by directing your life force towards the object upon which you are meditating. Translates as a “kingly” type of yoga.

Viniyoga. Incorporates regular breathing techniques to help practitioners practice yoga poses that are suited to them as individuals. Gives credence to the idea that as we grow and develop so must our yoga techniques, the way in which we achieve specific poses, and the poses themselves.

Cat. Basic stretch on all fours designed ideally to stretch out the spine. Get down on hands and knees, then lift back and arch gently like an angry or surprised cat. Some practitioners advise hissing loudly like a cat as well, to get full benefit from this pose (yeah, right!).

Cobra. Lie on floor on stomach then raise up and place hands on floor, near the shoulders. Inhale then raise yourself from the floor, raising your chest with your back arched (don’t lift belly-button from floor). Exhale as you lower yourself to the floor and repeat as many as seven times.

Upward Facing Dog. Much like the Cobra (above) but your arms remain straight while your stomach is lifted from the floor. Stretches many parts of the body, including the lungs, back and abdomen. Is thought to help alleviate symptoms of depression.

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