So What`s Special About Yoga
You can`t get away from it. Every magazine features articles
on yoga. It seems that any celebrity, of any medium, has to be in there swearing for its efficacy in keeping them on the road. Singers, swingers, footballers,
designers, the good the great and the trendy are all on the bandwagon. So what`s
so special about it. The crazy thing is that yoga is as simple as it comes, as
old as the hills, and something that we all do to some extent even when we don`t know it.
In our body conscious age it`s the perfect service system for body, mind and soul.
And for naturists there is the added attraction that the yogis of India made it OK to do it naked.
The interesting thing about yoga is that it comes in many different guises, and all of them have the same
final aim, but I`ll come back to that later.
People have some wierd ideas about yoga, and some have no idea at all.
For some, yogis are in cahoots with the devil and all things evil. Worried
vicars, priests and dogmatic Christian sects across the Western world, ban elderly ladies in leotards from their church halls
on a Monday night, thinking they are about to dabble in the black occult arts. Kids
at festivals are seen rolling in mud baths, and then sitting cross legged with a stoned expression on their faces chanting
catchy mantras. Pictures of emaciated naked yogis smeared with ashes and lying
on beds of nails or branches of thorns, can be frightening to some, and the height of sexual thrill to others, but they ain`t
`normal`. That`s the thrill seekers I`m talking about. Geri Halliwell was seen wearing a T-shirt bearing the words, `Yoga kills`.
I haven`t yet met anybody who can vouch for that; at least not with direct experience.
Most people would say the opposite.
Yoga was always regarded as a bit freaky; certainly not mainstream.
That added to its attraction for some. With the influx of a new generation
of trendy yogis, some of the attitude that linked yoga with brown rice and sandals is declining, although Sting does seem
to want to keep a foot in each camp. Perhaps he figures that saying he loves
the planet and wants to protect it, helps to balance the number of Concorde trips he made. Was there room on a Concorde to
stand on your head? In a way however it will be rather sad if yoga gets too mainstream. Being part of a small, almost secret minority has always had a certain attraction. For centuries the teachings were only handed down from guru to disciple by word of
mouth, to avoid them being misused by the ignorant. The fact that it so often
involved being naked only seemed to add to the mystery.
When I started getting interested in yoga, way back in the 1950s, yoga was soooo wierd that I never told
anyone about it. I used to cycle up into the Peak District to my secret clearing
in a wood, strip off and do my naked yoga just how I wanted to. At least now
you can admit to buying a video, even if you never use it.
And there are plenty of videos, and books, and web sites, and teachers, and groups. So if you are completely new to yoga and don`t know where to start, it can be a bit like letting a Martian
into a sweet shop for the first time. It helps to know the diffrence between
toffee and chocolate. Which brings me back to what I was saying about there being
many different styles of yoga. First of all you need to have a think about what
you want to get out of this `yoga thing`.
Yoga can be seen just as a series of physical exercises, a bit like slow motion Keep Fit, gentle and stretching,
or it can be the ultimate physical challenge taking you to the very limits of your ever expanding ability. Yoga can be relaxing - good for stress reduction, and/or stimulating and energising. It can seem to be purely a physical form of exercise, or a mental discipline, or a spiritual experience. Yoga is fine for young kids, the elderly, and those in between. Homes for the elderly often have gentle exercise for their residents which bears more resemblance to yoga
than aerobics or Callanetics.
A lot of people think of it as only being for the girls. However,
at the weights gym, I increasingly frequently see a muscley guy having a quick stretch, in a so-called `warm up, before heaving
phenomenal weights around. I like to think maybe they caught the idea from me,
or maybe they are just aware body builders, and that eventually they will slow down and give those tight muscles a real chance
to stretch and grow some more..
As a male yoga teacher, I have spent years convincing men that yoga is also great for them. After all 90% of yogis in its native India are male, including the fierce warrior sects of yogis who noone
would want to cross swords with (literally). In Britain I would hazard a guess that the numbers are just about the other way
round, if not even fewer men than 10%. Interestingly however yoga style exercises
are being used more and more in training schedules for professional sportsmen and women.
Yoga is also a good alternative for men who aren`t team players, or particularly competetive, for men who are sensitive
to their body in a more intuitive way, and shrink from the macho masculinity of typical male pursuits. In yoga you work at your own level, and take all the benefits. .
`Bodylife` was originally devised by Budd Thompson, an American dancer/choreographer, for men who were
strong and athletic as dancers, but who were out of touch with their bodies. Men are often reticent to be seen trying to do
things that are strange, or where they think they might fail in a mixed class. With
other men, or on a one to one basis, they can build up their confidence before strutting their stuff on the communal floor,
or just carry on practising alone. Gay and bisexual mens` yoga groups are particularly
successful in bringing together men who can then express themselves physically, emotionally and even spiritually without feeling threatened.
Most people first experience yoga at an adult or community education class, or in a gym. In most cases the classes are just called `Yoga`. That`s a
bit like describing everything you eat as just `food`. If you are interested, enquire a bit further. If the teacher,
or the organiser can`t go into any more specific detail as to just what type of yoga
is on offer, be cautious. It may be that they have just done a weekend
course which they think qualifies them to do everything including brain surgery. However
if you are lucky it may just be that one or more of the following terms is used.
`Hatha yoga`. In purist circles this term has a specific
meaning, but in general it is the style of yoga most commonly found in the west. Typical
classes will involve warmups, held postures to stretch and tone specific parts of the body, breathing exercises, and a longish
relaxation at the end.
`Raja yoga` is sometimes encountered. Where it is, it suggests
that the teaching will also include talks on the philosophy of yoga, and a greater emphasis on meditation.
`Pranayama yoga` emphasises the importance of energy control through breathing techniques.
`Mantra yoga` involves chanting sacred songs, often in Sanskrit, the ancient language of India.
`Tantra` yoga is well known as the yoga of sex. Well it is,
but it is a whole lot more as well. Tantra is the yoga of ritual and symbolism. Tantra teachers are few and far between. It
is best learned on a private basis or in small workshops.
`Astanga Vinyasa Yoga` is more popularly known as `Power Yoga` or `Dynamic Yoga`. This is the style that has been sweeping America and the western world for a few years now. It is very physical, very sweaty, very challenging, very just about everything. There is almost no mention of relaxation, little chance to lie down and chill out during the session, and
almost never a mention of God. This is the stuff of Madonna and Sting. It`s great when you know what you are doing, and have reached a reasonable level of fitness. I was asked to teach it at a private gym whose members were mostly in the 25 - 40 age range. In the end I had to give up and revert to a more gentle style. Members
would arrive for one or two weeks and then fade away exhausted. They couldn`t
get used to the basic yoga principle of working WITH your body, not trying to flog it into submission. A set sequence of postures is followed. The exercises are
designed to build up metabolic rate so that the sweat flows freely. At the end
of a session you should feel that all the dross has been washed out of your body, and yet after a short rest you feel full
of energy. Men like it, when they can cope, because it is so physical.
`Iyengar Yoga` isn`t really a separate sort of yoga, but
is a style popularised worldwide by the man - Iyengar - himself. The postures
or exercises are more or less the same as those used in Power Yoga, but here each posture is taken separately. Iyengar yoga incorporates the use of blocks and belts to help students achieve and hold positions. Experience of this style is a good introduction to Power Yoga. (www.iyi.org.uk/)
A modern American teacher, Bikram Choudhury, is a California based teacher who for years has taught the great and infamous. Recently he has started to market his name and style around the world.
Like Power and Iyengar yoga, his approach is physically demanding. He
insists on studios being very hot so that students work with the sweat flowing
freely. This isn`t the place for body smothering clothes.
Other systems of yoga are often named after their founding leader, who may or may not be still alive. Sivananda, (www.sivananda.org), Vivekananada, and The BIhar school, (www.mandalayoga.freeserve.co.uk/),
are now international organisations. Yoga teachers often develop their own style. These schools tend to stress the importance of a wider approach to yoga. For them the mind is as important as the body. Learning how
to concentrate, and meditate, and indeed the whole approach to living, including diet and morals, are included in their teaching. In Great Britain, The British Wheel of Yoga, (www.bwy.org.uk), has
been recognised by The Sports Council as the governing body for yoga. They have
a renowned teacher training system, but do not limit their teachers to one particular style of teaching.
Sometimes organisations go beyond the traditional concept of yoga as we know it, and become more involved in yoga as
a form of therapy. The LIfe Foundation offering Dru Yoga, (www.druyoga.com), works very gently to harmonise body , mind and
soul. Viniyoga (www.viniyoga.co.uk/) was particularly used on a one to one basis
for therapy. The Yoga for Health Foundation in England, (www.yogaforhealthfoundation.co.uk/), has pioneered work in this field, dealing with patients suffering various conditions. The Yoga Biomedical Trust in London also deals with patients
at a medical therapeutic level. Some alternative health organiations like the Bristol Clinic, often use yoga in their treatment
And then there are the videos. As with books it is good if
you can see a run-through before you buy. Borrow them from a library or friend,
then when you find one you like, buy a copy. Personally I don`t like them. I feel that after a couple of runs through I have seen enough. If you try to use them as a guide for your own practice it means either being in front of the TV where
you can keep pressing the stop button, or making notes and then going off to somewhere quiet.
In that case you may as well have a clear book with inspiring photographs, clear text, and pointers about what mistakes
In the end the great thing about yoga is that it needs little equipment, no special clothing, no expensive
club fees, and can be done almost anywhere. Just find a place where you won`t
be disturbed, that is clean, take off your clothes, open the book, and make a start.
Give it a week or two, and you won`t understand why you didn`t make a start years ago.
`Aum shanti` - the yoga blessing of love and peace.
Derek Osborn, Yoga teacher in Shropshire.
Originally published in H and E magazine March 2002. Edited