Building Blocks of Yoga

When most people think of yoga, what comes to mind is mats in neat rows in a classroom, downward facing dog, and deep rhythmic breathing. Those are all elements of a modern western practice in hatha yoga. The vast majority of yogis in the U.S. practice some form of hatha yoga, but there are many other forms and styles. There is Bikram yoga, sometimes called hot yoga. It consists of a series of 26 postures and two breathing exercises done in a room heated to 95 -108 degrees. There is ashtanga yoga, often referred to as power yoga due to its emphasis on physical strength and endurance. And there is my personal favorite, kundalini yoga. Kundalini is the yoga of awareness, focused on using the physical body to promote psychological change and increase intuition. There are many more, but those are probably the most common alternatives to hatha yoga in this country. They have much in common, but each has a feel and focus all its own.

Regardless of style, the physical component of any yoga practice is made up of some combination of four basic elements.

  • Asana – Asanas are the physical movements of yoga. Postures have a Sanskrit name that will end with “asana”. The proper term for downward facing dog, for example, is adho mukha shvanasana. Most postures also have a commonly used English name. This accommodates those who may be intimidated by Sanskrit, and also allows students to focus on the practice rather than the terminology. There is a caveat, however. The Sanskrit terms are absolute. They refer to the same posture regardless of the style of yoga being practiced. The English language terms are not so precise. Adho mukha shvanasana is downward facing dog in hatha yoga, but the same posture is called triangle pose in kundalini. To further complicate matters, there exists a triangle pose in hatha (trikonasana), but it is called side angle in kundalini. Most astute instructors will use the Sanskrit and English terms interchangeably in class. That reinforces the connection between the two and makes it less likely that a student will be confused by terminology. It’s really worth the effort to learn the Sanskrit terms.
  • Prana – Prana means breath, but it can also refer to the elemental life energy known as “qi” in martial arts. Slow, deep breathing is the norm for most yoga postures. Postures are not generally done in isolation outside of a beginner class. Multiple asanas are strung together in a smooth, rhythmic flow (vinyasa), and are tied to specific pattern of breathing. There are also exercises focused solely on breath called pranayama. These are often done at the beginning or conclusion of a yoga session, and are a common component of meditation practice.
  • Mudra – The classic yoga posture is someone seated cross-legged, hands resting with palms facing upward on the knees, thumb and forefinger lightly touching. Such hand movements are known as mudras, with that particular one being guyan mudra. The nerve endings in the hands, particularly the fingertips, are directly connected to both organs within the body and centers within the brain. Mudras are used to direct the elemental life energy during yoga or meditation. There are literally hundreds of different mudras, some of them quite complex. Kundalini yoga makes extensive use of them, probably more so than most hatha practices.
  • Bandha – Bandha are locks, a particular alignment of some area of the body accompanied by a stiffening of the surrounding musculature. Bandhas are an essential component of many pranayama practices. There are three commonly used bandhas. Mula bandha is the contraction of the perineum, sex organ, and navel to an interior point in the body central to all three. Uddiyana bandha is the contraction of the abdomen into the rib cage. Jalandhara bandha involves tucking the chin in slightly to align the vertebrae at the back of the neck with the spine. Bandhas can be used alone or in combination with one another. My morning kundalini practice concludes with a breath meditation incorporating all three of the bandhas mentioned.

Yoga can be intimidating to newcomers. Just getting the asana alignment correct is a challenge at first. Add to that the need to deal with Sanskrit terminology and mantras, and now the realization that there is more to the pose than just the posture. It’s easy to see why many are attracted to yoga, yet fail to make the leap from interest to practice. Like any pursuit, no one starts off as an expert. Yoga is not a competition, and those who practice it tend to be very non-judgemental. Consistency is important. More benefit will be derived from a daily practice of even twenty minutes than from just a one hour class once a week. Ideally, the two should be combined. Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.

“Learning is finding out what you already know. Doing is demonstrating that you know it. Teaching is reminding others that they know just as well as you. You are all learners, doers, teachers.” ~ Richard Bach, “Illusions”

“If you know only one kriya, then share that. Be humble, teach it. Every student is a teacher.” ~ Yogi Bhajan

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