What is yoga?
This is a difficult question to answer becasue whatever answer I give someone, somewhere will shout out "no it isn't". But, it is a question that has to be answered, but to hadge my bets a little, herer are two:
Yoga sort of means 'getting it together', but I don't know if anyone other than ageing hippies use that expression any more. It also 'sort of means' how things turn out for us once we are together. This seems OK, becasue it fits with what Desikachar (famous yogi, son of very, very famous yogi) says in his book Religiousness in Yoga'. "If there is something we can't do today and we find a way by which it become possible, that movement is yoga."
Yoga is a series of physical and mental techniques designed to help us make changes in any and every aspect of our lives. How it makes the changes and what the changes are depends upon what each of us, as yoga students, wants. It also depends on what changes our yoga teacher believes are important.
What is yoga for?
The short answer is - anything. Lot's of people will disagree with this, and they'll tell you what it's really for - but if you add up all the things that different teachers and wise-folks tell you, in the end it pretty much comes down to this - yoga really is just about for anything.
But, the reasons that most people give for starting to do yoga are to do with their body or their mind. People want to be fitter, fix their bad-back or their gammy knee; people are stressed out or just plain distressed. Often folks have been told that yoga might help them. With that in mind, let's say that at the beginning yoga is for body and mind. I'd also venture to say that in extreme cases, either physical or mental, yoga should be undertaken in conjunction with appropriate medical support. In fact I'd go further and say that often we need to broaden our outlook and include a variety of activities as forming part and parcel of an expanded yoga approach.
Yoga for body
When it comes to fitness, there are people who say that yoga doesn't really help to make you fit. Yet there are plenty of yoga classes where the work is strenuous and will definitley challenge strong, able-bodied people. On the other hand, after illness, or with some physical limitation, there are people for whom strenuous or difficult work would only make matters worse. And yes, there are plenty of yoga classes where the work is presented in a supportive way and made as gentle as need be. Just about every possibility inbetween is covered too. You may have to look a little, but you will find a yoga class where the 'body work' suits your needs. In fact I can rememebr, back when I lived in Northampton a centre for yoga at Ickwell Bury that dealt almost exclusively with MS. Googling that now, I see that it's part of the 'Yoga for Health foundation'.
Yoga for mind
I believe, although it is only a belief, that any physical activity will benefit not just the body but also the mind. I'm sure there will be exceptions and it does have to be the right kind of activity undertaken in the right way. In yoga, as well as physical activity, there is mental work too. There are specific techniques for relaxation and for concentration. There are techniques which help to stregthen our will-power. There is guidance too, for how to approach life so as to achieve peace-of-mind and inner tranquility.
Yoga for body and mind in combination
When we are 'doing' yoga; when we are practising it's components, it's often the case that the two things will be combined. This is becasue in real-life in our 'real body' the tow are intertwined and interdependant anyway. It's very hard to work on one without involving the other to some degree.
Also, when we do combine the two, a third element emerges and that is yoga for the breath. The breath supports both body and mind and by working at yoga in a way that combines mind body and breath often brings better results more quickly
Is it for everyone?
Suppose you get a book for Christmas. It’s a book that tells you how make an endless number of really useful things from coke cans, sticky tape and matchsticks. Since this doesn’t interest you at all, the book is obviously useless. You’re about to throw it away when, hefting it, you realise it’s just about the right size to stick under the leg of your desk – curing that wobble it’s had for ever. Now in place, suddenly the book is really useful.
Well, it’s pretty much the same with yoga. If you look at it, turn it over and look at it from a different angle usually you can find something useful in it; something that makes it worth doing.
In fact, because each of us needs or wants different things to change in our life the better answer to the question, “what is yoga,” is that yoga is the way we achieve whatever it is we want. So for many people, yoga is about meditation and spiritual development; for others it’s about achieving the ultimate in physical well-being. In specific cases it can be about finding out why we always have lower-back pain or why we have trouble sleeping.
But that said, there are some folks that just aren't interested. They'd rather do Pilates or Zumba. It's not a problem! It's the way of the world.
What Kind of yoga would suit me?
There are a lot of yoga schools. Within each school there are numerous subdivisions. This is a good thing, because there is no one school, or style within a school that could possibly be right for everyone.
So, what you do is try different classes, or look at different web-sites and see if you like the sound or feel of a particular teacher’s way of looking at things.
You might have to try a couple of different classes, but you will find something that suits and gives you what you want.
What kind of yoga do you teach?
The type of yoga that I have learnt about, continue to study and teach is called viniyoga, which means, more-or-less, a thoughtful yoga.
It's sometimes called Classical yoga, but it’s also known as Raja or Patanjali yoga. Raja means ‘king’ so, classical yoga is seen as the king of yogas; Patanjali is the name of the man who reputedly gathered together the most important yoga practices and then assembled them into one document.
The yoga school that we are interested in might well be called the Krishnamacharya school. Krishnamacharya was a very famous yogin who taught several of the best known (to the West) yoga teachers. In this sense he is the ultimate teacher’s teacher. His alumni include his son, Desikachar, Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois. He also taught, on occasion, two of the men who have most influenced my own view of yoga; Paul Harvey and Peter Hersnack. This isn’t an exhaustive list my any means; Krishnamacharya’s influence has spread far and wide around the planet.
As Paul Harvey often points out, we aren’t exclusively concerned with classical yoga. We are also interested in Hatha Yoga for the rigour and additional intensity it can bring to our personal posture and meditative practices when needed.
The way that this works out is that teachers within this tradition have a number of approaches which they can use in different situations and for different people. It’s flexible. No two students are entirely alike; no two classes are going to be exactly the same.
The emphasis of my own teaching, with groups, is on posture and breath. These are the obviously useful parts of yoga which everyone can identify with. Yet, if done in the right way, all the other elements of yoga can be built in and students then have an opportunity to come to me on a 1-2-1 basis to look more deeply into what might be right for them.
There is a lot more to it than this and you can read about that, whenever you like in the following sections.