Sweat drips into my eyes as I hold eagle pose. We’re not far from shavasana now, and Paul, my yoga instructor, suggests that we sit deeper into our eagles, raise our elbows and squeeze our shoulder blades together. It takes every ounce of energy not to fall out of it as I “zip up” my back, as Paul calls it, to extend the sides of my body. After a few more strenuous poses, my fellow yogis and I find ourselves peacefully lying on our backs in that shavasana, also known as corpse pose, with cold lavender towels draped across our eyes—the sweet reward after a rigorous 75-minute vinyasa flow.
To some, that story probably sounds like complete gibberish. I once thought the same way. In fact, I didn’t discover the power of yoga until about two years ago. Since then, it has completely changed my life. Not only does it strengthen and tone the body, but it also does the same to your mind. Yoga has placed me in a safe and healthy community amongst others who are passionate about their practice.
Some may be intimidated by yoga simply because it can seem like a cultish practice where everyone is super flexible and only eats vegetables and stands on their heads all day. But it’s not like that at all (well, at least in most cases). It is super easy to become involved in the practice if one has the time. And the benefits are spectacular.
But where did it all begin? As far as we know, it could’ve been 10,000 years ago. However, we have more information about yoga that was performed about 5,000 years ago in Northern India. The Upanishads, or yogic scriptures, were created around this time that detailed the practice and how to obtain enlightenment through mainly wisdom and sacrificing one’s ego. In the classical stage of yoga, one that more resembles yoga today, the yogi Patanjali created a more organized form of the practice, which he divided into steps, an “eight-limbed path” towards enlightenment.
The post-classical phase was centered on the physical body as the way to achieve enlightenment (instead of the mind and self-sacrifice and whatnot). The mind was still very important in this type of yoga, but it was the connection between the mind and the physical body that reigned supreme. Flash forward to the 20th century, when the yogis travelled west to teach us all their yogi ways. In this sort of practice, called Hatha Yoga, which is a specific set of sequences and exercises that align the body from the outside in and the inside out (think the connection between skin, muscle and bone). Hatha is all about balance (“ha” referring to the sun or heat and “tha” referring to the moon or coolness) and reminds us that the goal of the practice is to achieve such balance within our mental and physical body.
The absolute most important part of yoga is breath. But there’s a name for everything in yoga, so of course it’s not referred to as mere “breathing.” Rather, you’ll hear your instructor say something like, “Time to fire up that ujjayi breath.” Fire up my what? Ujjayi. It’s the way we breathe in yoga, in through the nose and out through the nose, but when you breathe out, constrict your throat muscles a little bit so that you sound like Darth Vader. This breath does serve a purpose—it actually heats your body up and acts as a cleansing mechanism as you power through series of flows, or exercises, that can be taxing on your body.
There is so much to say about yoga, countless poses practices ranging from gentle yoga to meditation to acrobatic yoga. I prefer hot yoga, which consists of a 60 to 75 minute class in a room that’s about 90 degrees, the perfect way to get a nice, dripping sweat. Coming out of class, I feel like I’m glowing, but maybe not in the cutest way, with hair plastered to my face and sweat stains in unfortunate places.
However, during class, we practice vinyasa flows and their variations. Vinyasa is just a term to describe a sequence that’s repeated multiple times throughout the practice, but with some different poses each time. What I like best about this type of practice is that for each posture or exercise, there is an equal and opposite posture or exercise. For example, downward facing dog immediately follows upward facing dog. The entire hour-long vinyasa is a balance in itself, with the first half consisting of standing positions and the second half in positions on the ground and ending in an inversion (shoulder stand, head stand, something that gets your feet up and head down).
All in all, yoga is, to me, a mystical experience that combines the body and spirit. I leave class each day feeling lighter on my feet, stronger in my core, and cleansed in my mind. The “om” chant that often opens and closes each session used to puzzle me. What was the purpose of chanting one note all together? It has deep meaning that mirrors the entire practice of yoga.
“Om is the mysterious cosmic energy that is the substratum of all the things and all the beings of the entire universe. It is an eternal song of the Divine It is continuously resounding in silence on the background of everything that exists.” – Amit Ray, author of Om Chanting and Meditation
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