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What Is Yoga?
The word yoga comes from the ancient language of Sanskrit and means to join or unite. The goal of yoga training is not just to improve physical well-being, but to unite the mind, body and spirit, creating balance and harmony in all areas of an individual’s life.
While the roots of yoga can be traced back at least five thousand years, it continues to evolve as modern research leads to more discoveries about the human body and its relationship with the mind. With each new generation of yoga teachers, permutations of the original blueprint emerge. The best of these still maintain as the original integrity and purpose of yoga as a means to a more profound life experience. Rather than becoming relics of an arcane renunciate lifestyle, the techniques those early yogis pioneered are perhaps even more relevant today. For many people, the ancient practice of yoga is proving to be the perfect antidote to these stressful modern times.
In India the term "yoga" actually refers to a wide range of philosophies and practices. Two examples of these are, Jnana Yoga (the path of wisdom or knowledge), and Karma Yoga (selfless service). Most yoga taught in the West is actually a contemporary form of Hatha Yoga, which is a general term for the physical postures, or exercises of yoga. Ha-tha literally means sun and moon, which suggests the return to physical, mental and spiritual balance that comes with regular practice.
There are numerous "styles," or schools of Hatha Yoga. These range from the very gentle, to the most physically challenging. Some schools teach in a more traditional manner incorporating practices such as meditation and breathing exercises, while others take a "modern" approach incorporating a blend of Eastern and Western influences. It is perhaps unfortunate that many of these now ubiquitous “yoga” classes are little more than yoga flavored workouts with the original meaning and purpose of yoga practice long forgotten.
The physical side of yoga does, however, offer many proven benefits, and this is reason enough for its use in this context. For example, many of the techniques used by modern physical therapists are yoga inspired, and numerous professional sports teams and athletes have incorporated yoga influenced stretching into their training and warm-up routines.
It is often assumed that yoga practice must be strenuous to be effective, but many yoga practitioners benefit greatly from a gentle, but consistent practice. When properly taught, people of all ages and abilities can practice Hatha Yoga. Postures can often be adapted to allow practice while sitting in a chair, or even in bed. Those who do enjoy a greater physical challenge have the option of moving on to more challenging sequences and postures after building a solid foundation in the basics, but all are encourage to find a level of practice where they feel safe and supported.
The Yoga Sutras specifically state that one should be steady (sthira), but also comfortable and relaxed (sukham) to receive the maximum benefit from hatha yoga practice. In fact, excessive strain and effort diminishes progress and increases the chance of injury by causing the body to tighten or resist attempts to go deeper. Proper breath work will open the body for safe progress, and should be at the foundation of a well-designed practice. According to ancient Tantric Hatha Yoga belief, the breath links the mind and body, and our mental and physical state is always perfectly reflected in the quality of the breath. These early yogis discovered that, by learning to observe and work with the breath, they could begin to use it as a tool, first as a barometer to gauge the individual's state of being, then as a refuge from the rigors of daily life, and finally as gateway to a deeper understanding of our true identity.
Regardless of the style, your training will only be as good as your teacher's ability to take you where you want to go. A good teacher will teach you not only the fundamentals of breathing, posture and alignment, but guide you to develop your own inner awareness. You will be encouraged to find "your yoga," that is, a practice suited not only to your own physical ability, but to the state of your entire being. By this means, yoga can lead you to a greater awareness of life in the present moment.
Yoga classes taught by Steve Wolf are paced according to the level of students in each class, and modifications are often introduced to allow those of various abilities to participate. Poses may be taught individually, or practiced in flowing sequences known as vinyasa. Most of Steve's classes feature a combination of both. All classes begin with a centering meditation, and end with a guided deep relaxation.
Learn more about Yoga by visiting the following web sites:
An interesting article on Yoga & Aikido in Yoga Journal Magazine
A Washington Post Article about an unlikely yogi.