What is Yoga?

St.Francis Prep. Physical Education 788

Tai Chi/Yoga

What is Yoga?

Yoga is concerned with the health and beauty of the organism as a unified whole. Weight control, slimming, firming, relief of tension and stiffness, improvement in general health, emergence of hidden beauty, emotional stability and a positive menial outlook are all the benefits of participating in Yoga.

Many centuries ago, in the area of the world now known as "India", men of great intellectual and spiritual stature perceived in a very direct way that human beings are "disjointed". That is, the body, emotions, mind and spirit pull in their own directions as each in turn, demands the fulfillment of its own needs and desires. This causes a continual separation and prevents the individual from functioning as an integrated whole wherein his full potential is realized. To make possible an integration of the body, mind, and spirit, to unify the diverse aspects of the organism and end the "split", these wise men (gurus) of ancient times evolved and perfected, over the centuries, a system of self-development known as Yoga (a Sanskrit word meaning "union" or "joining together").

There are several major types of Yoga each employing different techniques but all designed to achieve the same unifying objective. The two major types of Yoga that concern us are Haja (meditation) and Hatha (physical) Yoga, with the emphasis on the latter. The objectives of Hatha Yoga are twofold; (1) to cultivate the natural beauty of the body and attain a high state of health; (2) to awaken a great power that lies dormant in the organism and utilize it for developing one's own unique, individual potential; that is, to achieve self-realization.

From the above you can understand that Yoga is not simply another system of exercising. The word "exercise" is used as a convenience. More precisely,Hatha Yoga is composed of a series of postures or poses (asanas in Sanskrit). As you perform the asanas you must be aware that they have been carefully designed to promote health and beauty as well as stimulate energies that will be of extreme importance in the days to come. Hence, the necessity for poise, balance and concentration at all times during practice.

Inherent in most systems of calisthenics is the need to execute many quick repetitions of the exercises, huff and puff, perspire and experience general discomfort and fatigue. Often it is only at the point of complete exhaustion that many women feel they benefited from their "workout". But meaningful exercise, which I define in terms of methodical body manipulation, need contain none of the above. Indeed, the Yoga session is designed to be a highly pleasurable experience in which, as you now know, the exact opposites are true. That is, the movements are performed in relaxing, slow motion with very few repetitions, no strain should ever be felt and the practice sessions leave you feeling elevated and revitalized, not drained.

Contrasting the two concepts further, we find that in most systems of calisthenics it is not particularly important what the mind is thinking or where it wanders as long as the body is executing the required movements. As a matter of fact, in many calisthenics classes, music is played as a type of distraction; the mind is encouraged to disengage itself from the boredom and discomfort that the body is experiencing. But again, the exact opposite is true of Yoga and it is this point that we now wish to impress strongly on the student. Throughout the Yoga practice session we attempt to fix the consciousness fully on all movements of the exercises and not allow it to wander. We become totally involved in what we are doing. You must feel what is happening in your organism, especially during the holding periods; learn to feel the stretching, become the stretch and do not run away from it; feel the stimulation; feel the release of energy within you; feel the relaxation. If you perceive that your attention is wandering, bring it back, gently but firmly to what you are doing. Before beginning each day's exercises remind yourself of this procedure. The practice of deep concentration on the movements (excluding all interfering thoughts) results in a pronounced increase in the effectiveness of the exercises.

"A person who only half breathes, half lives". This Yogic proverb attempts to impress upon us that the way in which we breathe directly affects our physical and mental well being and determines to a great extent the length and quality of our lives. The body can go for many weeks without food and for days without water or sleep but life will expire in a matter of minutes without air. Thus, the primary source of our sustenance is derived from an element in 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. Life-force is present in all forms of nourishment, but obviously, it is most accessible and most constant in the air.

Most people have the habit of shallow breathing, using only the upper part of the lungs. Complete Breath, learned today, is to utilize the lungs in their entirety and extract the most life-force possible. A secondary objective of the Complete Breath is to help make breathing slow and rhythmic whenever possible. The Yogi contends that people who are breathing in a rapid and erratic fashion develop nervous bodies and minds and shorten their lives. You will experience a very immediate, positive effect on your emotions and mind from Yogic breathing. When the breath is slow and rhythmic, anxieties and tensions lessen or dissolve completely and control of the mind for purposes of concentration is greatly increased. That is why we indicate frequent practice of the Complete Breath and why we now advise you to take a few Complete Breaths whenever possible during the day. If you do not lift the shoulders you will not draw attention to yourself and consequently you can breathe fully and deeply anywhere and at anytime when you need to revitalize your body and clear your mind. Remember that Life is in the breath.

Tension is tightness or a squeezing that occurs in the organism mentally, emotionally and physically. If you observe yourself carefully when you next experience a "tense" condition you will become aware that there is a "tightness" occurring at the point of discomfort. We "squeeze" ourselves mentally and indicate a headache; when we get "up tight" emotionally we feel uneasy; we can "contract" ourselves physically and the result is a multitude of aches and pains. Try this experiment: whenever you can remember to do so, "freeze" yourself in any working positions, as you would stop a motion picture. Then take stock of the way in which you are performing physically. Run quickly over your body with your mind, beginning with your feet and working upward. Note all of the muscles being held tensed needlessly, muscles that are making no direct contribution to what you are doing at the moment. You may be astonished at the great amount of energy being wasted in this manner. If you agree that squeezing, tightening and contracting are indeed realities and responsible for tension, then the relief of the condition would result from decontracting or, in other words, letting go and relaxing.

The procedure for "letting go" is as follows: as you observe the tensed muscles it is necessary to issue a calm (not angry or stern) order to these muscles to "relax". You actually tell them to do so. By repeating this self-observation process frequently and issuing the "relax order" you will be able to change the pattern and habits of the tensed muscles so that they de