My first yoga class was at a gym I was working at in New York City, because I had no flexibility. Touching my toes was a serious problem and I wanted to change that. I made a commitment to take at least one class a week and started off with Gentle Yoga classes. Little by little my flexibility began to improve. After a few months, a friend convinced me to try a more rigourous Vinyasa class. Here I found a style that satisfied the athlete in me, yet continuing to make me much more limber. Eventually, it hit me that I felt happier on days I went to class. My interest in yoga went beyond the physical changes to the mental side.
After a few years, taking classes wasn’t enough for me, so I sought out teacher training programs and settled on Sonic Yoga. During my certification process I learned about the history, philosophy and anatomy of yoga. I could be found in a class up to six days a week. Towards the end of the process, I could place my hands under my feet and have straight legs. A vast improvement from when I began when my hands were just past my knees! My posture improved greatly as well. My tight shoulders from swimming had begun to open up. After completing my program, I returned to an instructor I hadn’t seen in a while. He thought I had been weight training a lot based on how toned my body had become. It was all from yoga, as that’s all I had time to do. I began running again for fun and discovered my endurance had improved greatly.
I still have light years to go before I can obtain the range of motion of our head yoga instructor, Pixie, but that is why it is considered a practice. You have to keep it up to see improvements and changes. Right now I’m okay with not being able to do some of the show off yoga poses. That is not what my yoga practice means to me. Yoga for me is about taking the time for myself to inhabit my body and my mind. It has the added benefit of keeping me mobile and mentally present so I can bring all of myself to the guests of The Ranch.
My experience of the benefits of yoga is just one story of the many who practice. We all come to class and the mat with different motives. Some of us are attracted by the physical work out. Some are looking for the peace of mind. The big connection is that we all are there sharing the space, going through the process together. The beauty of yoga in the United States is the diversity. There are many different schools of thought, types of yoga and a wide variety of instructors. Each one focuses on a different aspect and we can find the one that resonates with us.
Yoga means union, but this definition is a simple word for a complex idea. The true definition is very broad and each of us will have a different take on it. None are incorrect. I personally like Megan McDonough’s statement, “Yoga is to be experienced, not defined.” This align’s with our Program Director Marc’s principle on Knowing versus Knowing About. We can read about yoga, but it’s not until we really practice yoga that we understand it.
What we consider yoga in the United States is actually just one of eight limbs of the entire yoga practice. If you go to a yoga class you are typically solely practicing Hatha or asanas, the body postures. The asanas are important to increase the connection between your mind and body, as well as prepare your body to be open to sit and meditate for long periods of time. In the grand scheme of the entire yoga practice, it is a tiny portion. For the average American, like myself, this is our introduction. It satisfies our desire to be physical and get a workout, something most of us need.
Yet, during your yoga class, your instructor might expose you to some of the other limbs: yama, niyama, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. Yama is the ethical disciplines or universal morality that encourage us to be compassionate, honest, generous, peaceful and humble in our life. Niyama is self observation and personal observances. It is our self control of our mind, our body and our studies. Pranayama is the control of the prana (life force) and breathing exercises. Pranayama is often introduced in yoga classes. It might be a breathing technique at the beginning of class or the encouragement to have a ujjayi breath throughout the class. Pratyahara is sense withdrawal. If you think of laying in Savasana, Corpse Pose, at the end of a yoga class and hearing the noise of the next class coming in, pratyahara is when you are so focused on your own space, that it’s as if the noise isn’t there. Dharana is deep concentration and the ability to steady the mind. Dhyana is meditation and our heightened awareness of our place in the universe. Samadhi is a state of joy and peace, union with the divine. It is the state of enlightenment, the ultimate goal of yoga. Hence, it is difficult to achieve and practice. But everything we do for all of the other limbs will help us find samadhi.
At The Ranch you may end up practicing more of the limbs than you think you would throughout the day. We do have one to two yoga classes a day for an asana practice. As we teach a vinyasa class, which incorporates the breath, there is pranayama included. Our acupuncturist teaches a meditation class that includes breathwork, for more pranayama, dharana and dhyana. You may also find dharana on the trail when you have to pay attention to where you place your feet. Being with a group, requires yama. As you talk to someone struggling up the hill to distract them or not drink all of the almond milk. Just being kind to yourself by coming to The Ranch involves practicing niyama. Then whenever you check in with yourself about how you are feeling at that moment, you are practicing it again. You may find pratyahara when you realize that you aren’t feeling hunger or your aching feet and are able to continue on.
Yoga is a truly way of life. We all practice aspects just by being amazing people. Each of us has our own path to follow to find our samadhi. Yet, we are all human and will stumble along the way. Our practice may have lulls, but we will learn from those experiences. They will help improve our practice.
My question for you is, how do you practice yoga?
For Further Reading:
Light on Yoga by BKS Iyengar
The Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali