3 frequently asked ‘Yoga for Beginners’ questions
Where to begin?
If you are new to Yoga it’s natural that you will have some questions? More often than not we are recommended by friends or peers to practice yoga with a certain teacher, have been recommended to take up yoga by a GP to help with certain conditions such as back pain, anxiety or breathlessness and sometimes we may stumble across a local advert for a class near to where we live and want to find out more. I have questions for you, but you will also likely have some for your practitioner which is why I’ve decided to home in on some of the most frequently asked one’s in this article.
There are only 3, so I hope this is enough to start with? If not and you find yourself asking more questions along the way, do send your questions over to me, and if I can’t answer them for you, I will point you in the right direction so you can do a little further research for yourselves. After-all yoga is a path of self-inquiry, self-learning and so start with some questions before you begin to ensure this is something you are wishing to explore further for yourself.
1. What is yoga?
To introduce and go into the full history of yoga and its meaning is too much for this article, instead I will offer short, concise definitions, a little on its purpose and its history. I begin with two useful annotations set out below for you to consider;
“Yoga is the calming of the fluctuations of the mind in order to find unity within.” Chapter 1.2 The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, translation and commentary by Sri Swami Satchinanda
“Yoga is about learning to have a healthy relationship with our own mind.” Jivana Hey-man
From these comments we’re able to learn that;
- yoga is in fact more to do with the mind than the body
- yoga is relationship
- yoga relates to our over-all health
- yoga is a practice to help us calm the chaos of the mind
- …so that we can feel at peace – in unity within
Yoga is an organised system of physical, energetic, mental and spiritual applications designed to help us overcome suffering and obstacles that may be physical or mental so that we can move towards a clearer state of being (Unity). This comes through movement orientated postures and pauses designed to cultivate physical and mental strength, to empower us and uplift how we feel in ourselves, or about ourselves and ultimately in stillness where there is the possibility for us to feel freer in our bodies, our breathing and in our mind.
“Yoga is both the result or practice and the mind training that brings us into the joy of being fully present in this very moment.” Susanna Barkataki
A brief history
Yoga is translated from the Sanskrit word ‘Yuj’ which means to ‘yoke’ or ‘bind’ and is also translated as ‘unite’ or ‘unity’. Its roots are in ancient India dating anywhere between 2,500 and 10,000 years ago.* Yoga has been practised and passed on from teacher to student since then and found its way to the West in the mid 20th Century. Where originally yoga was practised in caves, on hillsides and by rivers, ultimately it reached out to the villages, the towns and now the cities in-person and online. It has evolved and adapted over this time to suit environmental changes to our overall physical and mental well-being.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali offer a practical and spiritual guide to the discipline and were written between 500 BCE and 400 CE in India.** The sutras comprise of 196 aphorisms and help us to understand what yoga is for, and how to achieve it. Other significant texts include the Bhagavad gītā and the Haṭha Yoga Pradīpika which provide useful and interesting descriptions of yoga, supporting the overall practice of yoga and its potential for liberation.
If you would like to read further into the history of yoga, you may like to read this accessible article on Yoga Journal; What is yoga? Understand the history behind the practice.
* Susanna Barkataki; Embrace Yoga’s roots, p35
** Susanna Barkataki; Embrace Yoga’s roots, p3
2. How does yoga differ from other forms of exercise?
“Of course yoga has physical benefits, but the real benefits are on the subtle levels. Yoga works because the practices were designed to release stress and calm the mind.” Jivana Heyman
Within the framework of yoga are a series of paths or branches, one being Haṭha Yoga (Sanskrit meaning ‘force’) and alludes to a system of physical practices and techniques. Most of what we see and know in modern yoga takes the form of mindful, breath-aligned postures taken whilst standing and sitting, balancing and back-bending, twisting, reclining and inverting the body. Postures are presented and pieced together to form mindful sequences in order to cultivate a certain quality or feeling whilst reinforcing stamina and strength, helpful movement patterns, letting go of unhelpful ones and undoing tensions so that we are able to relax and meditate for longer periods of time.
Teachers across all disciplines of yoga will offer something different based on their personal experiences and explorations of the tradition. Whilst many postures and sequences will have their place in a general class such as a warrior pose, salute to the sun or a cobra (to name just a few of many) their delivery could be different every time depending on the many themes teachers may draw upon.
In ancient times, the goal of yoga was to be able to sit and meditate with absolute focus on one thing for a long, undisturbed period of time. A healthy body and a one-pointed mind provides a gateway to the deeper self, an opening or truth of self, unclouded and unaffected. In the digital age we now find ourselves in, it is even more important for us to find these moments of focus and stillness, though they may not hold us for as long as the ancients were able to, the techniques are still just as useful in finding ways to lift the cloud, or confusion of the mind.
“The practice of yoga is the practice of meditation – or inner listening – in the poses and meditations, as well as all day long. It is a practice of awakening joy, allowing you to feel good about yourself and to experience happiness.”
― Erich Schiffmann; Moving into Stillness
Today yoga continues to take on the physical forms with many of the subtle aspects of yoga have been lost or separated in some way from its roots. Haṭha is one path and has been adapted and remodelled to take on many different visual and felt experiences to the point where now there are so many styles and trends of yoga available for us to explore. Another path that you may be familiar with is meditation (Rāja Yoga) which is usually included within mainstream yoga or separated to be a practice on its own (mindfulness is also a form of meditation). To touch on the other paths and perhaps where some of the biggest differences lie we turn towards the yogas of devotion (Bhakti), action (karma) and Jnana (knowledge). When we piece everything together the practice becomes all encompassing, holistic.
- Deep breathing and breath-aligned practices cultivate inner and outer steadiness
- Practice self-knowledge, know what you are starting with, what you may like to change
- Be judgement free; observe what you notice
- Be devotional; find beauty and love in all you do
- Be caring with your actions as you go; yoga should be non-harming
- Inquire…do I need more or less?
- Unite; liberate yourself…from tensions that are physical and emotional, connect to your inner peace or truth
Yoga is an embodied practice; from the inside out, finding ways of connecting more deeply to ourselves. The physical postures are just one part of the bigger picture. Through slower tuning in, non-competitive, self-inquiry, care, joy and discernment a space for change or possibility arises, which gradually, with continued practice ripples into and touches the way we live.
“Yoga is a way of life. It changes you and therefore changes the way you relate to other people and influence your environment. As the sun delicately opens flowers, unfolding them a little by little, so with slow and careful training, yoga exercises will open the body. When the body is open, the heart is open.”
Vanda Scaravelli, Awakening the Spine
3. Do I need to be flexible?
This question is asked so often and it’s no surprise! Much of what we see in the media shows a commercialised version of yoga including mostly white, slim women touching their noses to their knees, or bending backwards into a full wheel. This is merely the surface of what modern yoga through its global marketing campaigns and so it is only fair that we’re likely to feel inferior or unable to partake in such a practice. It is unrealistic, intimidating and non-inclusive.
The reality is Yoga should be accessible for all, regardless of sex, age, size, race or background!
It doesn’t matter whether you can’t touch your toes, or sit in a cross-legged position. It is okay for us to turn up stiff, grumpy and a little off balance. As we go through the practice we can work through these tensions and imbalances so that we feel a little freer and more spacious in ourselves. We can re-learn lost movement that has been caught up in areas of unnecessary tension for years by mindfully strengthening and softening in places that can support release and allow us to let go. We don’t want to completely let go and dive deep into anything; a forward fold should be taken with great care, checking in with our joints as we move into and out of various shapes and forms that are presented to us, so as not to over strain or stretch in ways that will cause pain or discomfort.
Yoga is not for us to judge, it is for us to feel and to find positive ways of moving that can help us overcome obstacles and feel more joyful in ourselves.
For some, these obstacles may arise in the form of tight hamstrings or stiff shoulders, for others they may come through having worked too far into joints through other forms of exercise (or even yoga) and there is also space for people who are there to overcome deeper lying issues such as anxiety or depression. There are many applications within the practice that can be adapted and applied to individual needs, so that each person has served themselves through well-guided instruction and a good dose of self-care. I often say to people, it’s easier to arrive stiff and have something to work with than to arrive with joints that have been over-used and try to build a support around them. Once we stretch too far into ligaments, it is difficult for us to go back and re-build.
Sheila Baker, a teacher whom I love to practice with, offers the words ‘support’ and ‘direction’. If you are looking at relieving tension in your body, find support first; from the ground beneath you, from the joints and muscles within you and deeper still from your breath. Then explore your direction; move from that support, know you have that support in place so that you are able to feel more at ease and freer in areas where you would like more direction.
Imagine a kite in the sky. The kite is connected to a long piece of rope or string and it is anchored either to the ground or to the person flying it. If you let go of this support or anchor, the kite will have no direction.
And so, I welcome you to come and practice yoga just as you are, including your tight hamstrings and stiff shoulders so that you can learn new ways to feel a little freer and more at ease in yourself. Then when you go to sit at your desk, in your car or on your sofa, you will notice how much more comfortable you can be in yourself, and in your life.
Yoga for Beginners; a free class
Feeling ready to try? On the 8th February I’ll be teaching a free online class for complete beginners which I would love you to come along and try. Following on from this class I am teaching a 4 week introductory Yoga course which will take you through a weekly step-by-step approach of breath-awareness, mindful movements designed to bring about greater stability and mobility for the body and mind along with time for relaxation and meditation. This will be a great foundation to then step into any of my ongoing weekly classes.
Date: 8th February
What to expect:
In this session I will introduce and explore posture, breathing and stillness in ways that can support and direct us positively. There will be time for us to centre, move mindfully and cultivate inner and outer stability and ease before finding time to settle ourselves into stillness and relaxation. I will introduce ways to access the breath through breath awareness techniques before introducing ideas and methods for which the breath can support our movements and our pauses. Yoga is a transformative practice and can allow space for positive shifts to arise, I will draw upon these shifts as we go. Offering you a starting, middle and end that enables a space for self-connection and awareness.
Depending on what it is you hope to gain from this class you will have the time and space to cultivate improved physical and emotional well-being.
Who is this for?
This is for anyone who may be new to yoga, working with me as a practitioner or feel as though they have lost touch with the practice and would like a gentle reminder as to the uplifting and transformative qualities of this great tradition.
What you need to get started;
You don’t need any special equipment to participate, a large towel is a good replacement for a yoga mat if you would prefer not to invest in one at this stage. Find space to practice undisturbed and in ways so that you wont come into contact with walls, objects or precious ornaments! It is useful to wear comfortable clothing and to have props to hand such as cushions, blankets or a chair. You will need to have access to Zoom in order to participate. Ensure you spend a few minutes completing this health form before you arrive so that I know what may be going on for you and so that I can offer adaptions within the practice to ensure it is inclusive and accommodating of your needs. In a group class, avoid comparing yourself to others, focus on yourself and your breath and this will provide you with all the feedback you need.
To book your place head to my website where you will see this event along with the follow up introductory course information too. I am also offering readers an exclusive discount code for the introductory course, make sure you use the code YOGA2021 to receive your discount.
If you’d like to read a little further into how to prepare for home practice take a look at this blog post ‘Tips for practising yoga at home‘. If you have any other questions about yoga or anything else you would like to discuss in advance of the class or course please feel free to email me directly. I’d love to hear from you.
I really hope some of you are able to join me! Thank you!
Sign up to my mailing list to be the first to hear about my articles, class schedule, online videos and courses. I don’t email too often, roughly once a month, to keep our community connected.
“Yoga is a mind, body and spiritual practice that invites deeper breath and presence through movement aligned with breath. It is a powerful practice and its potential for liberation is immense.”
Susanna Barkataki; Embrace Yoga’s Roots