Yoga 101: Yoga for Beginners at Home
Yoga is an experience-based approach to life that aims to enhance your personal evolution at every level (physical, mental-emotional, and spiritual) through the regular practice of transformational activities.
Basics of Yoga
What is yoga?
The philosophy of Yoga proposes that we can find freedom in our lives, and that freedom will come from the relief of mental-emotional suffering. The means to diminish our suffering is by training the mind in order to change our mental-emotional habits (known as samskaras).
We do so using a variety of conscious practices such as posture and movement practices (asana), breath control techniques (pranayama) and a range of meditation practices (pratyahara, dharanam and dhyanam).
It is worthy of mention that long before approaching this grand goal of freedom (often referred to as enlightenment or realisation) there can be a number of other benefits from regularly engaging in such Yoga practices.
These include improvements in strength, mobility, flexibility, circulation, increases in energy, improvements in relaxation and ability to deal with stress and many other health benefits. These benefits are very helpful and indeed, are often of greater importance to students at the earlier stages of Yoga practice due to the level of suffering they cause. So before tending to the bigger goal of total freedom, Yoga first seeks to improve overall wellbeing in order to create a strong foundation from which the deeper work can begin.
Foundations of Yoga
The ground of our approach to Yoga comes from the teachings of Indian yogi, Sri T. Krishnamacharya. A renowned healer and scholar, Krishnamacharya taught such modern greats as BKS Iyengar (Iyengar Yoga), K. Pattabhi Jois (Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga) and Indra Devi. No other person had a greater impact on the evolution and modernisation of Yoga during the 20th century. Krishnamacharya died in 1989 and his work was continued by his son and closest student, TKV Desikachar, and the staff at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai.
Krishnamacharya’s fundamental belief is expressed in his oft-quoted saying: “Teach what is inside you, not as it applies to you, to yourself, but as it applies to the other.”
He insisted that the practices of Yoga must be adapted to meet each student’s individual needs (Viniyoga), so that Yoga could be truly accessible to all. This is the underlying principle that pervades every level of our teaching, as without it we feel that Yoga becomes a manipulative effort to change people beyond their true nature.
Our accumulated experience, amounting to more than forty years of study, practice and teaching, have shown us that this principle, along with the other attitudes to Yoga practice as taught by Krishnamacharya, protects and empowers Yoga students on every level. It is from this firm foundation of understanding that we pass on what we have learned.
Is Yoga a Religion?
Yoga does not meet the traditional definitions of a religion. Rather than broadcasting a philosophy or doctrine of its own, hatha yoga is a physical and psychological discipline that combines the learning and practice of asanas, pramayama, and meditation.
Because of its roots in Eastern religion and mythology, hatha yoga has often been associated with the Hindu religion. While both Hinduism and yoga have their roots in India, yoga is an independent tradition.
Its separate physical and psychological processes have no connection with religious beliefs. Additionally, dedicated hatha yoga practice has been found to enhance the religious practice or beliefs of practitioners, whatever their current beliefs.
While yoga is not a religion, there are, however, a set of ethics associated with it which complements the practice of hatha yoga. This set of yoga ethic principles include five yamas which are: non-violence; truthfulness; non-stealing; chastity; and non-greed. Also there are five niyamas which are: purity; contentment; self-discipline; self-study; and centering on the Divine.
Paths of Yoga
In The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which is a two-thousand-year-old collection of the oral teachings on yogic philosophy, there are one hundred and ninety-five statements which are a kind of philosophical guidebook for dealing with the challenges of being human.
The Yoga Sutras provides an eight-fold path called ashtanga, which literally means “eight limbs”. These eight steps are basic guidelines on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life. They are a prescription for moral and ethical conduct. They direct attention toward one’s health, and they help us to acknowledge the spiritual aspects of our nature.
The first four steps or stages concentrate on refining our personalities, gaining mastery over our body, and developing an energetic awareness of ourselves, all of which prepare us for the second half of the journey, which deals with the senses, the mind, and attaining a higher state of consciousness.
The first step deals with one’s moral or ethical standards and sense of integrity, focusing on our behavior and how we conduct ourselves in our interpersonal life. These are, literally, the controls or don’ts of life.
They include areas where we must learn to control tendencies which, if allowed expression, would end up causing us disharmony and pain. They are the same moral virtues that you find in all the world’s great religious traditions. The five yamas are:
- Non-violence (Refrain from harming or demeaning any living thing, including yourself, by action, word or thought.)
- Non-lying (Control any tendency to say anything that is not truthful, including not being truthful to yourself)
- Non-stealing (Curb the tendency to take anything that does not belong to you which includes not only material objects but also things such as praise or position.)
- Non-sensuality (Learn the art of self-control; to control the tremendous energy expended in seeking and thinking about sensual pleasure and to abstain from inappropriate sexual behavior.)
- Non-greed (Learn not to be attached to or desirous of “things”; to learn to discriminate between “needs” and “wants”.)
Niyama, the second step, are individual practices having to do with self-descipline, self-development and spiritual observances. These are the non-controls or the dos of the path. The five niyamas are:
- Purity (Strive for purity or cleanliness of body, mind and environment.)
- Contentment (Seek contentment and acceptance with what you have and with things as they are right now. But, also, seek ways to improve things in the future.)
- Self-control (Learn to have control over your actions and to have the strength of determination to do what you decide to do; to replace negative habits with positive ones.)
- Self-study (This requires introspection; studying our actions, words and thoughts to determine if we are behaving in a harmonious and positive manner in order to achieve the happiness and satisfaction we strive for.)
- Devotion (Devotion is the turning of the natural love of the heart toward the Divine rather than toward the objects of the world.)
Asana, the postures practiced in yoga, are the third step. In the yogic view, the body is a temple of the spirit, the care of which is an important stage of our spiritual growth. Through the practice of asana, we develop the habit of discipline and the ability to concentrate, both of which are necessary for meditation.
If the body is in proper working order and comfortable in one position for a long time, it can ultimately become a vehicle for spiritual powers, instead of preventing progress by bothering its owner with physical distress.
Generally translated as breath control, this fourth step consists of techniques designed to gain mastery over the respiratory process while recognizing the connection between the breath, the mind and the emotions. The literal translation of pranayama is “life force”.
Yogis believe that it not only rejuvenates the body but actually extends life itself. You can practice pranayama as an isolated technique (simply sitting and performing a number of breathing exercises) or integrate it into your daily hatha yoga routine.
Pratyahara, the fifth step, means withdrawal or sensory transcendence. It is during this stage that we make the conscious effort to draw our awareness away from the external world and outside stimuli. We direct our attention internally. The practice of pratyahara provides us with an opportunity to step back and take a look at ourselves.
This can happen during breathing exercises, during meditation, during the practice of yoga postures, or during any activity requiring concentration. Detachment is a great technique for pain control and an excellent way to deal with uncomfortable symptoms or chronic conditions.
The practice of pratyahara creates the setting for dharana or concentration. Having relieved ourselves of outside distractions, we can now deal with the distractions of the mind itself. In the practice of concentration, which precedes meditation, we learn how to slow down the thinking process by concentrating on a single mental object.
The goal is to become aware of nothing but the object on which you are concentrating, whether it’s a candle flame, a flower, a mantra you repeat to yourself, a specific energetic center in the body, or an image of a deity.
The purpose is to train the mind to eliminate all the extra, unnecessary junk floating around, to learn to gently push away superfluous thought. Extended periods of concentration naturally lead to meditation.
Meditation or contemplation, the seventh step of ashtanga, is the uninterrupted flow of concentration. Although concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana) may appear to be one and the same, a fine line of distinction exists between these two stages.
Where dharana practices one-pointed attention, dhyana is ultimately a state of being keenly aware without focus. At this stage, the mind has been quieted, and in the stillness it produces few or no thoughts at all. Meditation occurs when you’ve actually become linked to the object of your concentration so that nothing else exists.
It is a keen heightened awareness, not nothingness. Your mind is completely focused and quiet but awake and aware of truth. Many methods exist to bring you to this state, but oneness with the object of your meditation, and subsequently, oneness with the entire universe, is the objective.
It is quite a difficult task to reach this state of stillness but it is not impossible. This state is a goal to keep striving for and, even if it is never attained, there is benefit from each stage of progress.
Patanjali describes this eighth and final step of ashtanga as a state of ecstasy. All the paths of yoga lead to this stage. This stage is one which most of us are unlikely to attain in this lifetime. At this stage, the meditator merges with his or her point of focus and transcends the self altogether.
When in this state, you understand not only that you and the object of your meditation are one, but that you and the universe are one. There’s no difference between you and everything else.
The meditator comes to realize a profound connection to the Divine, an interconnectedness with all living things. What Patanjali has described as the completion of the yogic path is what, deep down, all human beings aspire to: joy, fulfillment, freedom and peace
Branches of Yoga
While hatha yoga is the most familiar kind of yoga practice in the West, there are five other distinct and individual practices for the purpose of unifying both body and mind.
Called the “forceful path” this is the yoga of physical well-being. In the modern Western approach, hatha yoga is used primarily as a form of physical therapy. It consists of asanas (postures), pranayamas (breathing exercises), and meditation.
Raja yoga is considered the highest form of Yoga. Raja means “royal”, and meditation is the focal point of this branch of yoga. This approach involves strict adherence to the eight “limbs” or stages of yoga as outlined by Patanjali in The Yoga Sutras. Raja yoga is also known as “classical” yoga. The practice of raja yoga typically starts with hatha yoga, which gives the body the needed health and strength to endure the more advanced stages of training.
Karma yoga is the path of service. The principle of karma yoga is that what we experience today is created by our actions in the past. Therefore, all of our present efforts become a way to consciously create a future that frees us from being bound by negativity and selfishness. We practice karma yoga whenever we perform our work and live our lives in a selfless fashion and as a way to serve others.
Bhakti yoga describes the path of devotion. Seeing the Divine in all of creation, bhakti yoga is a positive way to channel the emotions. The path of bhakti yoga provides us with an opportunity to cultivate acceptance and tolerance for everyone we come into contact with.
While bhakti yoga can be considered the yoga of the heart, jnana yoga is the yoga of the mind, of wisdom, the path of the sage or scholar. This path requires development of the intellect through the study of the scriptures and texts of the yogic tradition.
Tantra yoga is probably the most misunderstood or misinterpreted of all the paths of yoga. Tantra yoga is the pathway of ritual. In tantric practice we experience the Divine in everything we do. A reverential attitude is therefore cultivated, encouraging a ritualistic approach to life.
You need not be limited to one expression or path of yoga. You may practice hatha yoga, taking care of your physical body; while simultaneously including raja yoga by adding meditation to your practice; performing karma yoga by engaging in selfless service to others and cultivating the lifestyle of a bhakti yogi by expressing your compassion for everyone you meet.
Styles of Hatha Yoga
There are several styles of hatha yoga, many of these have specific characteristics which reflect a particular teacher’s approach to asanas; others reflect the characteristics or teachings of a particular organization.
Like individuals, styles or schools of hatha yoga have their own personalities and approaches to practicing asanas. What distinguishes the different styles is what is emphasized, be it posture, breath, aerobics, dance, slow and rhythmic movements, philosophy or a combination of many factors.
Although the basic asanas and breathing exercises remain the same, how they are done, in what order, and where attention is focused while doing them constitute the main differences among the many schools. Regardless of your age or fitness level, you can find a style that will appeal to you and be most appropriate for your particular body or personality type.
This method combines the physical and spiritual. The purpose of Ananda yoga is to clear and energize the system in preparation for meditation. Each posture is viewed as a way to expand, or heighten, self awareness.
This process is enhanced through the use of affirmation, a distinctive feature of this system. Ananda yoga also teaches a series of poses called “energenization exercises”.
These exercises involve tensing and relaxing different parts of the body, coupled with breathing exercises to send energy to them.
Another characteristic of this technique is the emphasis it places on deeply relaxing into poses, keeping in mind that hatha yoga is a preparation for meditation.
The Ashtanga yoga system is a rigorous practice comparable to the training of an elite athlete. Consisting of specific postures done in six successive series linked by the breath, Ashtanga yoga represents the most intensive form of hatha yoga.
The purpose of this continual flow of action is to create heat which produces a cleansing or detoxifying effect on the body. Ashtanga places equal emphasis on strength, flexibility and stamina.
Many fitness enthusiasts who thrive on intense workouts like this style. This style is often called “Power Yoga”.
Integral yoga combines all the paths of yoga – asana (postures), pranayama (controlled breathing), selfless service, prayer, chanting, meditation and self-inquiry – into one approach.
It emphasizes a more meditative rather than anatomical approach. Practicers of this style of yoga are encouraged to be “easeful in body, peaceful in mind and useful in life”. Integral yoga classes follow a set pattern and are 75 minutes in length.
This includes 45 minutes of asanas, a deep relaxation, a breathing sequence and ends with a meditation. Although challenging, the feeling of the class is gentle and meditative and reflects a traditional approach that benefits all aspects of the individual.
Iyengar yoga is probably the most widely recognized hatha yoga technique in the Western world. Iyengar yoga is practiced in a manner prescribed by yoga master B. K. S. Iyengar.
It is regarded mostly for its rigorous scientific and therapeutic approach, concentrating on correcting structural imbalances in the physical body. Iyengar teachers pay particularly close attention to the placement of the feet, hands and pelvis, as well as to the alignment of the spine, arms and legs.
Because of this attention to detail, the pace of an Iyengar class tends to be slow to moderate. Classes typically focus in great detail on only a few asanas so as to refine movements.
Standing postures are emphasized and, although you will be reminded to breathe, specific breathing techniques are not emphasized as much in this style of yoga as in some of the other styles.
Iyengar-style yoga also relies a lot on props – wood blocks, benches, sandbags, blankets, bolsters and straps as a support system to achieve greater symmetry and extension in the posture.
Less concerned with the structural detail of the postures, Kripalu yoga has been described as “meditation in motion.”
It emphasizes the student’s mental and emotional states as the poses are held, while encouraging a gentle, compassionate and introspective approach. Postures are held for a long time so as to explore and release emotional and spiritual blocks.
This inner-directed form of hatha yoga consists of 3 stages: willful practice, will and surrender, and finally, surrendering to the body’s wisdom.
Within each of the 3 stages, poses are offered in different intensities: gentle, moderate, and vigorous. In addition, spontaneous postures and sequences of postures are encouraged, guided by the body’s internal awareness.
Kundalini yoga is an ancient practice designed to bring forth the “Kundalini”, or reservoir of energy, stored at the base of the spine.
Through the use of breath, posture, chanting and meditation, this energy is stimulated and consciously directed through the chakras or energy centers along the spine.
Several breathing techniques are emphasized – alternate nostril breathing; slow, diaphragmatic breathing and a dynamic technique called breath of fire.
Sivananda yoga incorporates a five-point method of practice, which includes proper exercise, breathing, deep relaxation, vegetarian diet, positive thinking and meditation.
Following a standard format, Sivananda hatha yoga classes are based on a routine of breathing exercises, sun salutations, a series of 12 classic yoga postures and relaxation. A short mantra chant and prayers begin and end each class.
The method of Viniyoga represents a kind of middle path between the exactness of Iyengar yoga and the physically demanding Ashtanga yoga.
It is based on the principle of vinyasa krama, which means “an organized course of yoga study,” and combines asana, pranayama, meditation, text study, counseling, imagery, prayer, chanting, and ritual.
Yoga postures are tailored to the physical needs and limitations of each student, taking into account body type, emotional needs, cultural heritage, and interest. Emphasis is on the spine, and breath is considered more important than how the posture is done.
Breath and movement are consciously coordinated and the inhalations and exhalations are articulated in varying lengths and ratios. Typically, classes are private one-on-one sessions.
The main groups of yoga postures are: standing, seated, reclining (prone & supine), forward bends, back bends, side bends, twists, inverted and balancing postures.
These poses invigorate the mind and body by eliminating tension, aches, and pains. Internally, these postures stimulate digestion, regulate the kidneys, and alleviate constipation, as well as improve circulation and breathing by developing the strength of the legs and the flexibility of the pelvis and lower back.
Through regular practice, standing poses lend strength and mobility to the hips, knees, neck, and shoulders. On a psychological level, standing poses create confidence, enhance willpower, and strengthen character.
Generally, these poses are considered calming, as they soothe the nerves, eliminate fatigue, and refresh the brain.
They also help regulate blood pressure and assist in recuperation from illness, as well as promote restful sleep. Some poses are beneficial in that they increase flexibility in the lower back, hips and hamstrings.
These poses fall into two categories: prone and supine poses. The prone poses are done facing the floor, either on the hands and knees or lying on the stomach. They rejuvenate and energize the body and can be especially strengthening for the arms and back. Supine poses are done while lying on the back. For the most part, these poses are more relaxing and restful.
Reclining poses serve mainly to stretch the abdomen and increase the mobility of the spine and hips, thus opening the groin and strengthening the back, arms, and legs. The less strenuous of these poses traditionally are done at the end of a practice session to cool down the body and restore energy.
Forward bends improve the blood circulation, aid digestion and calm the emotions. They stretch the lower back and lengthen the hamstrings
Back bends invigorate and encourage deep breathing. They open and energize the body and mind; they develop courage and lift depression. They open the chest, stimulate the nervous system, strengthen the arms and shoulders and increase flexibility of the spine.
Side bends stimulate the main organs, for example the liver, kidneys, stomach, and spleen.
Inverted postures reverse gravity, bringing fresh blood to the head and heart, thus revitalizing the mind and the whole body. These poses tone the internal organs and glandular system, stimulate brain function, improve circulation and refresh tired legs.
These postures free, energize and balance the body. Sitting twists are the most intensive, as they increase the range of motion of the spine. They promote flexibility in the spine, hips and upper back, thus relieving backaches, headaches, and stiffness in the neck and shoulders.
This group of postures also tones and stimulates the abdominal organs, thus aiding digestion and relieving constipation. Ideally, twisting postures are done after a series of sitting poses or forward bends, which gives the hips and spine a proper warm-up. When done after backbends, they tend to relieve any lower back discomfort.
Balancing postures develop lightness, strength and agility. They also help develop body control, muscle tone, coordination, and concentration.
In yoga, the body is gently maneuvered in all directions. Consequently every muscle is stretched and toned. The internal organs are massaged, squeezed, and expanded, improving their general function. The skeletal system is flexed, extended, rotated, and twisted, creating greater joint mobility. The spine is encouraged to maintain a healthy, upright, and pain-free condition. The circulation is improved. The breathing capacity and elasticity of the lungs is enhanced.
What is Yoga Breathing?
The body can go for many weeks without food and for days without water or sleep, but life will cease in a matter of minutes without air. Thus, the primary element of life is derived from the air we breathe. In yoga, this subtle element is known as prana or life-force.
Prana is not the air itself but the subtle life-giving element extracted from the air. The more life-force you have in your body, the more “alive” you are; the less life-force, the less “life”. Life-force is present in all forms of nourishment but it is accessible and most constant in the air.
Even though no one can live for more than a few minutes without breathing, most people are unaware of the importance of breathing properly. Most people use only a fraction of their full breathing capacity. A combination of stress, poor posture, long hours behind desks, and flat-stomach phobia turns many people into “chest breathers” – people who expand only the upper chest when they inhale. Chest breathing creates an imbalance in the oxygen/carbon dioxide ratio, which results in hyperventilation and dizziness.
For optimal health, breathing should be full and rhythmic using the diaphragm and ribs to fill and empty the lungs. Proper breathing is governed primarily by the movement of the diaphragm. As it descends, the abdomen expands drawing fresh air in through the nose and into the lungs. Deep abdominal breathing promotes a full exchange of air, keeping the oxygen/carbon dioxide ratio balanced. Proper breathing can tone up your entire system and enhance health and vitality.
Your inhalation and exhalation establish a constant flow of energy and release within you. The inhalation brings continuous energy into your body. The exhalation heals and relaxes you. Emphasis placed on inhalation will generally create a stimulating or energizing effect on the system; while emphasis on exhalation will bring about a more passive or relaxed state.
Breathing is a vital element of hatha yoga. Practicing yoga breathing, or breath control in yogic terms is called pranayama. The word “Pranayama” can be broken into two parts: Prana means life force and Yama means control. By conscious control of the breath, you can create a proper rhythm of slow, deep breathing.
Pranayama breathing exercises are the link between the physical and mental disciplines of yoga. Because the breath, body and mind are so closely linked, a change in one immediately affects the other two. By developing control of your breathing, you can bring about beneficial changes in your body and mind.
Yogic breathing energizes and cleanses the body, calms and relaxes the mind, and serves as a perfect warm-up for practicing yoga poses. In coordination with yoga poses, the breath unifies mind and body, balances opposing energies, and helps the body relax deeply and safely into each pose.
Like asana practice, pranayama practice has far-reaching positive effects on physical, mental and emotional well-being. It also encourages spiritual development.
Proper breathing provides sufficient oxygen for the correct and efficient functioning of every body cell. Without sufficient oxygen, the cells cannot metabolize food properly. Nutrients, including precious vitamins and minerals, are wasted.
Proper breathing allows the body to metabolize food efficiently and to rid itself of all the noxious gaseous by-products of metabolism, especially carbon dioxide. It nourishes the muscles and organs with oxygen. It dispels fatigue and anxiety.
Brain cells have a high rate of metabolism, so the brain requires much more oxygen, relatively, than any other organ of the body. A lack of oxygen results in sluggishness, fatigue, confusion, disorientation and a loss of mental balance, concentration, memory and control of the emotions.
A mastery of yoga breathing techniques is the best – and most readily available – tool for stress reduction. The common remedy for stress is to take a deep breath. Supplying the brain with sufficient oxygen is the greatest tool in stress management.
Yogic breathing exercises help to keep the two sides of the brain in balance. As well as controlling opposite sides of the body, the two halves of the brain deal with different functions and different aspects of our lives. The right side of the brain is calming, intuitive, inner-directed, emotional, subjective and deals with simultaneous reasoning and spacial and nonverbal activities.
While the left side of the brain is aggressive, logical, outer-directed, rational, objective and deals with sequential reasoning and mathematical and verbal activities. Proper breathing helps the two sides of the brain to work together.
Pranayama deepens breathing which stretches the intercostal muscles, strengthens the respiratory system and aids conditions such as asthma
Mental and Emotional Benefits:
By exercising control over breathing, you can learn to control the energy within the body, and ultimately gain full control over the mind. In yogic breathing exercises, the breath is seen as the important link between our physical and mental aspects. Pranayama cleanses and strengthens the physical body, but its most important benefit is for the mind.
Proper breathing soothes the nervous system; calms, steadies, and clears the mind; improves concentration, focuses attention, and increases the ability to deal with complex situations without suffering from stress.
In addition, proper breathing calms the emotions, increases emotional stability, helps with emotional control and equilibrium, reduces craving and desire, combats depression, helps in the relief of grief and sadness, puts you in touch with your inner self and gives you poise and serenity.
Sit comfortably in a cross-legged position on the floor or lie flat on your back in the Corpse pose. Place a cushion under the buttocks if you need more support when sitting on the floor. Hands may be relaxed by the sides or you can place one hand on the abdomen to feel it rising and falling. Relax your mind and body.
Inhale slowly and deeply through the nose, feeling your abdomen expand and rise while keeping the chest still. As you exhale, feel the abdomen sink down. Expand the abdomen on the inhale and contract the abdomen on the exhale. Practice this exercise for ten breaths (one inhalation and one exhalation equals one breath.)
Benefit: Breathing slowly and deeply brings air to the lowest part of your lungs and exercises your diaphragm which can greatly enhance breathing capacity. It relaxes mind and body, massages internal organs, calms emotions and induces restful sleep.
Rib Cage Breathing
Sit comfortably in a cross-legged position on the floor or lie flat on your back in the Corpse pose. Place a cushion under the buttocks if you need more support when sitting on the floor. Hands may be relaxed by the sides or you can place the hands on the sides of the ribs to feel them expanding and contracting.
Gently contract the abdomen. Inhale slowly through the nose into your rib cage. Do not pull the breath deep into your lungs, but keep it focused between your ribs. Feel the ribs expand outward and the chest open as you breathe in. As you exhale, feel the ribs contract inward. Repeat five times.
Benefit: Relaxes the mind and body and strengthens the lungs.
Sit comfortably in a cross-legged position on the floor or lie flat on your back in the Corpse pose. Place a cushion under the buttocks if you need more support when sitting on the floor. Hands may be relaxed by the sides or you may place one hand on the abdomen and the other on the rib cage to check that you are breathing correctly.
Inhaling slowly through the nose, feel the abdomen expand first, then the rib cage, and finally feel the air filling the upper chest. Your abdomen will automatically be drawn in as the ribs move out and chest expands. Slowly exhale, emptying the lungs from top to bottom.
Your shoulders and head should stay essentially in the same position throughout; don’t raise your shoulders on the inhale or slouch forward on the exhalation. Your inhalation and exhalation should be about the same length of time. Do not hold your breath either at the top or the bottom of the breath but make the transition smooth. Inhalation is done from the bottom up and exhalation from the top down. Repeat five times.
Benefit: This is the technique you will probably use most often to combat the tensions and stress in your life. You can use it anywhere, anytime to calm your mind and help quiet physical responses to stress – rapid heartbeat and breathing, and tense muscles. Use this technique to center yourself before your meditation and before asana practice to make them even more effective.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Sit comfortably in a cross-legged position on the floor or on your knees in Thunderbolt position. Keep your spine and neck straight, but not tense. Do not lean forward. Place a cushion under the buttocks or the knees if you need more support. Rest the left hand on your left knee.
Extend the thumb, ring finger and little finger of your right hand and fold down your other two fingers into your palm. Start by closing your right nostril with your thumb and inhale slowly and deeply through the left nostril for a count of 8.
Then press the ring and pinky fingers against the left side of the nose, sealing the left nostril closed while keeping the thumb against the right nostril, and hold for a count of 8. Lift the thumb from the right side of the nose, opening the right nostril. Exhale slowly and fully through the right nostril for a count of 8.
Inhale slowly and deeply through the right nostril, still holding the left nostril shut for a count of 8. Cover the right nostril with the thumb and hold for a count of 8. Release the left nostril and exhale through the left nostril for a count of 8. Repeat sequence five times.
Benefit: Calms and balances the mind and body, aids relaxation, improves concentration, strengthens respiration.
Sit cross-legged on the floor or on your knees in Thunderbolt position. Keep your torso straight and do not lean forward. Place a cushion under the buttocks or the knees if you need more support. Inhale slowly, keeping the mouth closed and partially closing, or contracting, the back of your throat to slow down the breath.
Hold for a few seconds. Exhale, again partially closing or contracting at the back of the throat to slow down the breath. This breath will make a hoarse hiss-like sound like steam being released from a radiator. Repeat five times. As you get better at this, try to exhale for longer than you inhale.
Benefit: Increases lung capacity, opens the chest, relaxes the nervous system, increases oxygen in the blood, reduces phlegm and strengthens the immune system.
What is Yoga Meditation?
Meditation can be defined as a state of consciousness characterized by stillness and inner calm. The ultimate goal is the attainment of supreme spiritual peace. Meditation takes you beyond the restless activity of the mind to a deeper, more peaceful space.
Meditation is mental maintenance. The mind needs to be stilled occasionally to keep it working at peak efficiency. Teaching yourself how to relax your mind and release it from the stress of thought for a short period each day keeps it clear and clean. You’ll think better. You’ll see more accurately and with more insight. You’ll be able to concentrate and focus on things like never before. You’ll be able to truly relax.
Meditation differs from deep sleep or relaxation in that it involves active mental effort rather than total rest. As well as relieving stress and replenishing energy, it can bring you physical, mental, and spiritual peace. You will develop awareness – the capacity to notice fully every event in your life as it happens.
Although you don’t need to formally meditate in order to practice hatha yoga; nor is the practice of hatha yoga mandatory in order to meditate – the two practices support one another. Through the practice of yoga, you enhance both your abilities to concentrate and to relax – the two most important requirements for meditation. The practice of yoga is a stepping stone toward successful meditation.
The first requirement of meditation is the power to concentrate. The objective is to direct the mind to dwell exclusively on one subject. While the subject of attention may vary, all forms of meditation have as their goal the centering or focusing of one’s attention, or mental energies.
Through focusing your attention upon a single subject, there is an integration of the mind, body and present moment, and your capacity to attend to one moment at a time with clarity and sensitivity is enhanced. Regular meditation practice instills a sense of living in the present moment – facing pleasant and unpleasant emotions, thought patterns, fears, and cravings without distraction.
At first, sitting still may feel strange and you may think you are wasting time. But you really are making excellent use of a relatively short span of time; you are retraining your mind to be more effective and creative. Short periods of inner quiet will refresh your mind and body.
Through meditation you can gain new perspectives on life. You could spend a whole lifetime seeking outside yourself for happiness, but in reality it can only be found inside. Meditation helps you to understand yourself. With time, you will discover where your true nature and abilities lie. It will inspire you to find your own creativity and inner resources. You will feel encouraged to get the most benefit out of each day.
Like other yogic paths, meditation is nondenominational. Meditative practices are part of many religious traditions. There are several common principles: outwardly, an awareness of posture, breath and mental control; inwardly, a spiritual search. Buddhism is best known for its teaching on meditation, and takes various forms, including Zen. The Islamic Sufi Way, Judaism, Christian mysticism, and many Paths of Yoga also include meditative practices.
Meditation requires patience, understanding and practice. Try not to expect any particular result. If you have no expectation, you will not get discouraged and stop practicing, and because you don’t stop practicing, you will gradually become more and more comfortable in this different state of meditation. You will look forward to it – like going to meet a good friend or taking a quiet rest. As with learning and perfecting yoga postures, meditation is a lifelong quest.
Meditation progress is cumulative; even if you think nothing is happening, the daily effort is increasing your concentration and willpower and helping you to gain control over your mind. Control of the mind is the key to success in life. If you can become the master of this dynamic and vast source of potential energy, you have access to a powerful resource.
The Benefits of Yoga Meditation
Meditation is beneficial for everyone, especially those with hectic, stressful lives. It teaches you how to manage stress; which in turn enhances your overall physical health and emotional well-being. In meditation, the overactive mind is calmed and turned inward.
Meditation soothes the nervous system, balances the right and left hemispheres of the brain, centers attention, gives perspective and clarity, improves the powers of concentration, improves memory, improves confidence, gives a sense of purpose, frees the spirit, and increases spiritual strength.
If you practice meditation every day, even for just a few minutes, you will soon notice that the rest and relaxation that you feel begin to suffuse your entire life. These periods of stillness can be as refreshing as an hours nap, because for a few minutes you are taking a mental vacation from all the cares, responsibilities and involvements of your daily life.
Meditation unites mind and body. You can find peace of mind by learning to detach yourself from troubling thoughts. A full and active life with less stress and anxiety promotes restful and refreshing sleep. You will feel more energetic and able to cope with life.
The practice of meditation enables you gradually to gain control over your own mind – over the thoughts, dialogs and emotional upsets that revolve incessantly in your mental conversation. This control is tremendously helpful in reducing such debilitating feelings as anger, fear, depression, negativity and boredom.
Meditation lowers the rate of metabolism – the rate of using oxygen and producing carbon dioxide. The lactate concentration of the blood decreases sharply also. Blood-lactate level is related to anxiety and tension. The heartbeat tends to slow down. There also tends to be changes in the pattern of brain waves.
In meditation, the brain waves are in a different state from those of either waking or sleeping. The most usual report of these changes is an increase of slow alpha waves. Alpha waves are brain waves that are associated with a drowsy state or, in meditation, a very relaxed yet alert and attentive state. In addition both sides of the brain are active.
Meditation helps to prolong the body’s period of growth and cell production, and reduces the decaying process. After the age of 35, our brain cells die off at a rate of 100,000 per day, and they are not replaced, but meditation can reduce this decline, as it changes the vibratory makeup of both the body and the mind. In this way, meditation can prevent or minimize senility.
Meditation promotes physical relaxation and calm. A relaxed state is good for the heart and lowers the blood pressure. It has been found to help relieve suffering from angina and arrhythmia and to lower blood cholesterol levels. It decreases perspiration, slows the rate of respiration accompanied by a decrease of metabolic wastes in the bloodstream. It recharges the batteries and increases physical stamina and enhances the immune system.
Meditation has been shown to provide other health benefits as well. Diabetics can benefit from meditation. Meditation has been shown to improve the regulation of glucose in patients with adult-onset diabetes. It has been shown to help asthmatics by lessening the emotional reactions that often precede attacks and improve the flow of air in constricted airway passages.
It has been shown to lessen the level of pain in chronic pain suffers and thus lower their reliance on pain-killers. The causes of the pain ranged from backaches and headaches (both migraine and tension) to more serious cases seen in pain clinics.
As you meditate you will find yourself more at home in the universe, more at ease with yourself, more able to work effectively at your tasks and toward your goal, closer to your fellow man, less anxious and less hostile.
When and Where to do meditation in yoga?
You can practice meditation at any time of day or night; but try to establish consistency. Meditation benefits you most from being performed every day at the same time and, if possible, in the same place. Traditionally, the morning is considered the optimal time because you are less likely to be distracted by the demands of your day.
When you wake in the morning or before going to bed at night are times that lend themselves well to a period of stillness and reflection. However, afternoon or early evening is also fine. Wait at least a half an hour after eating – up to three hours after a heavy meal – so there will not be competition for energy between digestion and meditation.
The best way to start a meditation practice is to sit daily for five to ten minutes. After the habit has been established, gradually lengthen the amount of time in five-minute increments. Short, regular sessions are fine, and better than infrequent long sessions.
After some time, you will probably sit for longer periods and discover the pattern that suits you best. You may add 5 to 10 minutes of meditation at the end of your asana practice, or do 15 to 20 minutes or longer independent of your yoga practice.
When not to Meditate:
Don’t attempt to meditate at a time of day that is always busy, or if you are overstimulated by caffeine or alcohol, because you may well be distracted. You may fall asleep if you are tired, or after a big meal.
If you’re feeling depressed or even just a little blue, it is not a good time to meditate. If you are filled with negative feelings, meditation could actually concentrate them and make you feel worse. The physical action of doing some yoga postures will move impurities and negativity out of the body. Meditation is best practiced in a positive frame of mind.
It is helpful to create a special place to meditate; to create a certain simplicity around you that reminds you of the importance of giving care to your inner being. If possible, find a place that is somewhat secluded from excess noise and disturbance; one that is pleasant and warm. It may be simply a corner of your bedroom that becomes a dedicated space.
Turn off the telephone and television and as much as possible create an external space of silence and calmness. But, try not to worry too much about any external noise. There will always be some noise beyond your control. Use earplugs if external noise is disrupting your concentration.
If meditating outside, choose a place where you feel safe and relaxed, and there is little extraneous activity to disturb you. Practicing outside in a place of natural beauty makes it easier to relax and prepare the body for the peaceful side of meditation.
Positions for Yoga Meditation
Sitting is the most commonly recommended posture for meditation. There are a number of classic seated poses: Easy Seated Pose: sitting cross-legged on the floor; sitting in Half Lotus or Lotus position; or kneeling in “Japanese-style”. Sitting in a chair with your legs uncrossed and your feet flat on the floor also works and is often the best choice for beginners.
It is most important that your spine remains erect and that you feel steady, relaxed and comfortable. To maximize comfort when sitting cross-legged on the floor, place a cushion or folded blanket or towel under your buttocks to elevate them and gently guide your knees down toward the floor. This helps support the natural lumbar curve of the lower back.
Relax your arms and place your hands on your thighs or in your lap, with the palms in a relaxed position either facing up or down. Roll your shoulders back and down and gently lift the chest. Keep your neck long and the chin tilted slightly downward. Depending on which technique you are following, the eyes may be opened or closed. Breathing is natural and free.
This is a moving style of meditation – highly recommended by many teachers. You walk slowly and consciously, each step becoming your focal point. Destination, distance and pace are all incidental. Relax your arms at your sides and move freely, coordinating your breath with your steps.
For instance, you might breathe in for 3 steps and breathe out for 3 steps. Or you can just breathe freely. Although you can practice walking meditation anywhere, try to choose a setting you like – the beach, a favorite park or a meadow. Getting somewhere is not the purpose; rather the complete involvement in the act of walking becomes your meditation.
Hatha yoga is also a form of moving meditation, where mind and body are united by conscious awareness. Every pose takes concentration. Yoga integrates and harmonizes the mind and body through visualization, breathing, and movement. Tai chi and dance can also be used as moving meditations.
This is another meditation that is often recommended for those who find sitting difficult, and martial artists find that it builds physical, mental and spiritual strength. Stand with your feet hip-to-shoulder-distance apart. Knees are soft, arms rest comfortably at your sides.
Your whole body should be aligned in good posture; shoulders rolled back and down, chest open, neck long, head floating on top and chin parallel to the floor. Either keep your eyes opened or softly close them.
Even though lying down is associated with relaxation, the classic corpse pose is also used for meditation. Lie down on your back with your arms at your sides, palms facing upward. Touch your heels together and allow the feet to fall away from one another completely relaxed.
Place yourself in a symmetrical and comfortable position with the appropriate support under your head and knees if needed. Your eyes may be opened or closed; although it is easier to stay awake with your eyes open. This position entails a greater degree of alertness to remain awake and focused. Therefore, beginners may find it more difficult to meditate in this position without falling asleep.
Hatha yoga students are most often introduced to meditation through the Corpse Pose which is done at the conclusion of each practice session. This pose brings about deep relaxation, as the body is still, yet passively alert and fully supported by the floor. In this pose, muscles relax and lengthen, passive breathing – necessary in all postures – takes over, and quiet concentration builds.
Ways To Meditate
Concentration meditation is the focusing of the mind upon a single subject. Through this attentiveness, the mind is united with the present moment. The subject that is chosen for attention will differ according to the meditation style, but the objective of sustaining a focus remains the same. The intention is to cultivate an undistracted and undivided attentiveness.
The subject that is chosen serves as a steady anchor, a lifeline amidst the swirls of thoughts, images and sensations. It is a place to continually and gently return to each time you become lost or entangled in the streams of activity that pass through your mind.
The sustaining of the focus upon a single object requires both perseverance and patience as you are faced again and again with the habitual wandering of the mind as it departs into past and future. It is not willpower or striving that enables you to penetrate this habit but practice, consistency and the right spirit of dedication and acceptance.
Any attempt to resist or push away the thoughts that arise will only increase their intensity. A gentle but consistent returning of the attention to the selected focus is the way to bring the mind to calmness.
Mantra yoga employs the use of a particular sound, phrase, prayer or affirmation as a point of focus. Traditionally, you can only receive a mantra from a teacher, one who knows you and your particular needs. Transcendental Meditation (TM) espouses the practice of mantra yoga.
If you choose to meditate on a sound, you can create your own mantra – silently or audibly repeating the word or phrase that is calming to you, such as “Om”, “peace”, “love”, or “joy”. Affirmations also work: “I am relaxed” or “I am calm and alert” are good. Think “I am” as you breathe in and “relaxed” or “calm and alert” as you breathe out.
Once you have chosen a mantra, do not change it. A chant involves both rhythm and pitch; either in Sanskrit or reciting a meaningful prayer or affirmation in any language. Using a tape of chants or listening to a relaxing piece of music are also options.
Imagery or Visualization:
This involves visualizing an object such as a flower, a meadow, the ocean, a clear sky, a calm lake, a blank movie screen, or a chosen deity. Any object can be used; pick an image that gives you a relaxed, quiet feeling. With your eyes closed, visualize that image until you experience a quiet feeling.
Then gently let go of the image – let it dissolve – and let the quiet feeling remain as long as you can. Go back to your image as often as you need to in order to remain still. Be careful that you don’t get so involved in the image that your mind gets carried away by memories and perceptions associated with that image.
You can also focus on one of the body’s chakras, or centers of primary energy, for your meditation subject to enhance the energy associated with that chakra. The Saturn chakra is at the base of the spine and is the source of dormant or coiled energy. The Jupiter chakra is behind the lower abdomen and is the source of creative energy and passion.
The Mars chakra is behind the navel and is the source of action energy. The Venus chakra is behind the heart and is the source of compassionate energy and emotion. The Mercury chakra is in the throat and is the source of communication energy.
The Sun chakra is on the forehead between the eyebrows and is also called the “Third Eye”. It is the source of perceptive energy, unclouded thinking and intuition. The Thousand Petalled Lotus chakra is at the crown of the head. It is the source of enlightenment energy, bliss and self-realization.
This involves using the breath as a point of focus such as observing the breath as it is without changing it in anyway. You do this by observing every nuance of the breath and each sensation it produces: how it moves in your abdomen and torso, how it feels as it moves in and out of your nose, its quality, its temperature, and so on.
Though you are fully aware of all these details, you don’t dwell on them or judge them in any way; you remain detached from what you’re observing. Or you may mentally think “in” while being aware of the breath coming in the nostrils and “out” while being aware of the breath leaving out of the nostrils.
Then shift to simply observing the breath, noticing its own natural rhythm and its movement in your torso. By using earplugs you can increase your concentration on the sound of your breath.
Another way to observe the breath is to count it. Breathe in for 3 to 7 counts and breathe out for the same length of time. Another way to count breaths is to count breathing cycles. Inhale normally and then count on the exhale. Count up to 4 then start over. Or count the breaths from one to ten and then start again. Do this by inhaling and mentally counting one, then exhaling and counting two. Begin again when you reach ten.
This involves focusing on a physical sensation such as how hot or cold your hands feel, or on a particular emotion or any area of discomfort you feel. Whatever you choose remains your point of focus for the whole practice.
Observing a physical sensation – becoming keenly aware of all its intricacies and yet remaining detached – can be more challenging than observing the breath.
Mindfulness meditation is slightly different from concentration practice; although it does hold within it an element of concentration. Where concentration practice is exclusive, focusing upon a single object while excluding other aspects of your experience, mindfulness meditation is inclusive.
Your body, mind, feelings, mental states, perceptions, sounds and sights are all equally embraced. Whatever is happening in any moment invites the application of mindfulness meditation; without judgement or preference.
Mindfulness is concerned not with just thinking about the present moment but also with the intention to understand what is actually taking place beneath your concepts, thoughts or ideas of what is occurring. In mindfulness meditation the focus of attention will shift in accord with the moment-to-moment changes that occur in your experience.
How to Meditate While Doing Yoga
Choose a time – morning, evening, or whenever you can rely upon not being interrupted. Find a place – as secluded, simple and quiet as possible. Choose whatever position you find most comfortable. It is important to be as comfortable as possible so you won’t be distracted by any discomfort.
Wear socks and cover yourself with a blanket if you need to so you won’t get cold. Decide on your point of focus. Whichever posture and method you choose, stick with them for the duration of your meditation period. Decide how long you plan to spend on your meditation – 10, 20, 30, 45 minutes or whatever you decide.
You can place a clock or watch where you can glance at it occasionally to keep track of the time. Or, if glancing at a clock periodically is too distracting, you can set a timer. Try to use a timer with a gentle ring and without a loud tick; or put it under a pillow to muffle the sound so it doesn’t distract you or startle you awake when the time is up.
Begin by bringing your attention to your breathing. Breathing is a key element in meditation and concentration. Begin with a few minutes of deep abdominal breathing to provide your brain with plenty of oxygen. Become aware of any tension in any part of your body and consciously relax it.
Let your exhalations carry out any tension or anxiety you’re feeling now, and use them throughout your meditation to expel any tension or anxiety that comes up. Then slow your breathing down, keeping it rhythmical, inhaling for 3 seconds and then exhaling for 3 seconds.
Proceed on to your meditation using whichever method you have previously decided upon. Do not be surprised or discouraged by how frequently your thoughts wander. When you realize that your mind has become distracted, simply return to your chosen point of focus.
Continue for the length of time you decided upon at the beginning of your session. Do not leap right up out of meditation. Come out slowly. Take 3 to 5 deep abdominal breaths. Open your eyes and slowly get up. Then go about your day with renewed energy and happiness.
You can practice meditation at any time of the day by remembering the feeling of meditation and also by reminding yourself to notice what is happening right now. Try to become completely aware of this second. Try to live in the moment.
My Favorite Yoga Meditation for Relaxation
Breath Counting Meditation:
Place yourself in a comfortable position so that you will have as few distracting signals from your body as possible; sitting, lying on the floor, or standing. Closing the eyes shuts out more distractions. Take a few slow deep breaths. Now start counting silently each time you breathe out.
Count “one” for the first breath, “two” for the second,”three” for the third,”four” for the fourth and then start with “one” again. Keep repeating this procedure until the time is up. The goal is to be doing simply that and nothing more. If other thoughts come in, simply accept the fact that you are straying from the instructions and bring yourself gently and firmly back to the counting. A variation on this is to include an “and” between the counts to “fill up” the space between exhalations.
This is one of the most widely used forms of meditation. It consists of a word, phrase or sentence repeated over and over and over again. The basic goal is to be doing one thing at a time, in this case repeating your mantra and being aware of your mantra and only that. Start by finding a comfortable position. Close your eyes, if you like. Take a few deep, slow, breaths.
Then start repeating your word or phrase. Do this either aloud or silently to yourself. Keep trying to think of your mantra and nothing else. Keep bringing yourself back to the task and trying to involve yourself more and more in it. Find a rhythm that seems natural to you and stay with it. Continue in this way for the set time
Essentially this meditation is learning to look at something actively, dynamically, alertly, but without words. Pick an object to work with (generally it is best to start with a natural object, such as a shell, pebble or twig etc.) and look at it the same way as if you were feeling it. Really look at it, learn it by eye. Take the object and hold it or place it at a comfortable eye range and just look at it.
Do not stare at one point on the object. Treat it as a fascinating new continent you are exploring nonverbally. When your mind wanders, or you find yourself translating your perception into words; gently return it to simply contemplating the object. Continue in this way for the set time. It is a good idea to stay with the same object for several weeks at a time before changing to some other object.
Meditating on a lit candle is a very old practice. It is gentle and calming. It is also a comparatively easy introduction to the art of concentration. Sit erect on the floor or in a chair, having placed the candle a short distance in front of you where you can see it clearly.
Gaze steadily at the candle flame for two or three minutes, noting first of all its outline – how steady it is, how it flickers – and the colors in the flame. As you begin to feel connected with the visual object, let your eyes close and sustain the visual impression of the candle in your mind. In the beginning you may only be able to do this for a few moments before the visual impression becomes vague or lost.
When this happens open your eyes once more and bring your gaze to rest again upon the candle in front of you. You may need to do this many times before you find you are able to retain the visual impression of the candle within your mind for longer periods. Continue in this way for the set time.
The Meditation of the Thousand-Petaled Lotus:
The basis of this meditation is the idea of the lotus with a thousand petals symbolizing that everything is connected to everything else. The center of the lotus is any word, idea, object or event you may choose. Each of the petals symbolizes the connection between the center and something else. Select something you’d like to meditate upon.
It is preferable to select something that creates positive feelings for you. Words like: “flower”, “love”, “peace”, “light”, “color”, “home” etc. After you have chosen the center word, get comfortable and contemplate it and wait. Presently your first association to it comes to you. Contemplate the connection between the two words for about 3 or 4 seconds.
You either understand the reason for the association or you do not. In either case you do nothing more than regard the two words for a few seconds. Then return to the center word and wait for the next association and repeat the procedure. Continue for the length of time you have planned. This meditation often leads to surprising insights about yourself.
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