This great sporting nation, Australia, once had a pub on every corner. These days there’s a Yoga Shala around every corner and it’s serving up a new spirit.
Yoga explores every aspect of living. Mental gymnastics. Physical gymnastics. Spiritual mountaintops and great oceans of understanding. You can achieve total tone and fitness, reach a point of calm and exhilaration, tie yourself in knots and undo a whole lot of knots along the way to the mighty enlightenment. And yoga’s no longer relegated to the loincloth and a bed of nails. You can start out in your lycra, your tights, your cheesecloth or your footie shorts. You just need to start and it’ll take you up.
So where to begin? And where does it end? And does that matter? And what’s yoga doing in a sports mag in the first place? What’s the competition?
In the beginning … there’s a beginning!
There is great diversity in the myriad of yoga schools available today – physical exercise, meditation, flexibility, torture, healing, discipline, study or play. How daunting! But in amongst this throng are your style and your teacher for your beginning. Whatever takes you up, will take you there. But, but, but … since most of us are still grappling with the everyday physicality of living, the best place to start is with your body. Then through that great porthole you can open up to all the other dimensions of yoga.
Hatha is the yoga of the body. There are several streams of yoga out there, all with their ancient lineage of credibility, but Hatha is the practice that spawned most of those twisting, turning, torturing yoga schools that are so popular in the western world today. Ha means ‘sun’ in Sanskrit and tha is ‘moon’. Opposite ‘forces’ to be used and reckoned with in the drive towards fully understanding yoga means ‘union’ or ‘oneness’ – union with our bodies, our lives and the universe.
Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya is the great Indian guru of Hatha yoga, who was hugely influential in the 20th century. He lived 100 years and inspired a number of yoga teachers in his school, who went on to practice and teach Hatha yoga throughout the world, with their own unique approaches.
BKS Iyengar taught an unending range of body entanglements to take you beyond rubber and to concentrate the mind on strict anatomical placement and breath control.
Pattabhi Jois developed the gymnastic Ashtanga yoga (Mysore school), which pushes you to the brink with a primary series of flowing postures and further on again to the mythical 5th and 6th series.
Master Masahiro Oki combined Hatha yoga with Japanese martial arts and his spiritual studies across Asia, often using play or work with partners and teams to build the enthusiasm and healing that pushes the boundaries of everyday containment. Look for Ki or Japanese yoga.
You choose. You start. You commit!
From these great teachers, you can find a range of schools that each offer their interpretation of Hatha yoga. You choose. You start. And you commit … to three classes within a week, at the end of those three classes you’ll know whether you have a good enough teacher to take you places, or not. If not, don’t reject yoga, seek out a new teacher and your life will continue to expand and improve.
The ‘big picture’ in yoga is ‘oneness’. There are eight ‘limbs’ of yoga training * that prepare the yogi for that ultimate goal of Raja (royal) yoga, enlightenment (samadhi). Yoga practice weaves its way through the whole of your life, from beginning to end. But the big beginning for Hatha is the physical preparation, which is through postures (asanas) and controlled breathing (pranayama).
Asana is the ‘physical exercise scene’. Asana is Sanskrit for ‘sitting posture’, but over the millennia it has expanded to an almost unimaginable range of postures and movements that explore every last corner of your body. Asana practice opens and disturbs, stretches and strengthens the full spectrum of your functioning self to finally settle you to a stillness that is no longer interrupted by pain, emotional excesses or mental distraction. And along the way, through the striving and the agony, you experience the exuberance of blooming good health.
Pranayama adds the ‘breath of life’ to asana. Prana (breath) yama (control) is like an athlete’s respiration, aiming at greater efficiency and optimal absorption of oxygen – rhythmic, extended, held – ready for the moment of exertion. Much more than just oxygen or air, prana is life itself. Pranayama coordinates the postures, focusing attention, bringing a calm, cleansed preparedness.
Then you can finally adopt a ‘sitting posture’ – calmly, comfortably, perfectly aligned in Lotus position (padmasana) or kneeling in Thunderbolt (vajrasana) – to support long, luscious sessions of meditation (dhyana).
“And so,” says Socrates, “is yoga a sport?”
Well, technically, no! For a sport, sport, you need at least two opponents and competition. In the grand scheme of yoga, there are no teams and no competition, not even any real goals. Yoga offers a way through the tangle of life and the big design is to lose the ego and join the personal self to the greater self. Yoga means ‘union’ and that’s the big integration – ‘oneness’ with the universe. The whole shebang transcends all those everyday distortions and disturbances of the material world – the ego, the ‘other’, emotions, pain, sickness, even life and death. So if you’re up for finding your ‘oneness’, where’s the opposition gone and where’s the competition?
Well, this is just the beginning. And, as a competitive animal, you strive with yourself (and that person on the mat next to you) to achieve the perfect pose, control the breath of life and find the stillness. There’s the competition and the goal. Even the schools of yoga are guilty of judging their competition, each believing they are the best school, the truest and the only way through to the great mystical solution, the big goal. Yes, sport! The game is on for yogis. Start up! Commit! And watch the goalposts move into the infinite.
* An Overview of the Eight Limbs of Yoga
1. The Yamas are rules of moral code and include ahimsa (non-violence or non-harming), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), bramacharya (sexual restraint), and aparigraha (non-possessiveness).
2. The Niyamas are rules of personal behavior including saucha (purity), santosha (contentment), tapas(discipline or austerity), svadhyaya (spiritual studies), and Ishvara Pranidhana (constant devotion to God).
3. Asana refers to yoga postures but in Patanjali’s initial practice, it referred to mastering the body to sit still for meditation. The practice of yoga asanas came about eight centuries later, which helped disciples ready their bodies for meditation.
4. Pranayama are yoga breathing techniques designed to control prana or vital life force.
5. Pratyahara means withdrawal of the senses.
6. Dharana refers to concentration.
7. Dhyana is the practice of meditation.
8. Samadhi is merging with the divine.