Yoga Basics

David Rush


This totally did not happen

[Donkey]  Can I ask you something?

[Shrektananada]  Of course, Donkey.

[Donkey]  I keep seeing the people in white robes, and yellow robes, and funny hats, and funny names like “Balabanana”, and they call it “yoga”, but I don’t even know what that is, even if it makes for pretty pictures on Instagram...

What is “yoga”?

[Shrektananada]  Well the sage Patanjali said it best: “yogas citta vritti nirodha.” - Yoga is when the restless mind becomes still.

[Donkey]  Are you sure it’s not a great new fitness and weight loss program? That it also fixes stress, and cures back pain, and heart disease, and all kinds of stuff?

[Shrektananada] has layers. Like an onion, although maybe you shouldn’t eat so many...

[Donkey]  You mean it’s all stinky and makes you cry? Because I’ve been in those Hot Yoga rooms, and woo-hee! I mean they need a shower!

[Shrektananada]  No, it’s got layers. Yoga works on a lot of different levels: the body, the breath, emotions, the mind...

[Donkey]  You know, I heard this guy with a funny hat say that yoga was like a cucumber. What do you think? Is it like a cucumber?

[Shrektananada]  That’s from a mantra, which are part of yoga too. But that’s just another layer. Like an onion. Yoga has layers...

[Donkey]  Oh layers. You mean like a parfait? Everybody likes parfait! I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like parfait! IS that what yoga’s like?

[Shrektananada]  You may have a point, Donkey. But I was trying to tell you about the layers...

[Donkey]  You got a tissue? ’Cause I am making a mess...just mention the word parfait and I start slobbering...

But even so...

With many apologies to Dreamworks, we’ll leave those two to see if we can get a little more directly to the most basic things you need to know when starting a yoga practice. In fairness, Shrektananda and Donkey did cover a lot of it in their brief chat.

As Shrektananda hinted above, yoga is an experience, and there are a lot of different ways to have that experience. In fact, there are a lot of things that happen when the restless mind becomes still, so many that Patanjali wrote about it in what we, today, might call a really long blog post named The Yoga Sutra. Unfortunately, The Yoga Sutra doesn’t say very much about how to have the experience of yoga. So in the west we look to a tradition that was communicated in the late 19th and early 20th century. Tha tradition uses physical exercises as a vehicle for exploring the big experience that is yoga.

And it really works. Through the little laboratory of asana, people encounter an awful lot of the experiences of life: stillness, agitation, elation, grief, patience, anger, power, fear...all the while knowing that they are in a safe space and can stop whenever they want. So you can see how yoga is much, much, more than just a set of exercises.

But that’s where it starts. Well actually, by the tradition, it starts with ethics and self-discipline. The physical exercises of asana are the third of the eight limbs of yoga practice. However, it turns out that the first three all blend together into a really tasty mix, especially when you develop a consistent home practice.

In fairness, that’s probably a way down the road if you’re just starting to practice yoga. What’s going to happen on day one? What do you need to know just to get in the room? Well, nothing really, although it will help if you tell the teacher that you are very new to asana practice. One of the great teachers, Pattbhi Jois said yoga was “99 percent practice and 1 percent theory” because the emphasis is on what the student discovers for their own self. Here are a few tips that will help you get the most out of your practice right from the start:

Embrace confusion
Everybody is confused on the first time in a yoga class. Sometimes it takes more than a few classes to finally understand all the lingo, especially when you first learn to feel parts of your body that you usually take for granted. There’s also a certain amount of shorthand used in a class and most teachers will try to use language that is easier for a beginner to understand if you let them know
It’s all about attitude
In the Bhagavad Gita, the point is made that, in life, we are entitled to the quality of our effort, but not to the outcome of our effort. Some things will be easy, and some things will be hard, and it almost certainly won’t be like you expect it to be. Be patient and gentle with yourself and trust that your experience will change over the long haul.
All teachers are different
Even when they have trained in exactly the same way! Some teachers even teach differently to different classes, so it can take a few tries before you find a teacher that teaches in a way that connects with your desire to learn.

And a few more practical suggestions

Show up on time
This actually means about 10 minutes early. This will give you time to get changed and settled in the room. It might even help you get a little space between the rest of your day and your practice time
Drink lots of water
Not so much during class, but more before (especially for hot yoga) and after. Having a drink during class is occasionally necessary, but it also diverts the body from the physical practice to the digestive process. This is true for any kind of physical exercise, though.
Give your stomach time to work before practice
This is just good advice for any physical exercise. It applies a bit more for yoga because the mind is very strongly influenced by the stomach, and it is good to have the digestive process quiescent

And last, always remember that the yoga practice is your practice. This is what makes it such a wonderful tool. Whatever you bring with you into the room can become part of it. Every day does not require the strongest/stretchiest/biggest version, and learning to navigate the differences is one of the lessons. If you need to burn off stress, you practice differently from when you need to find a quiet place. A sensitive teacher tries to adjust the practice to fit the whole room, but only you can adjust the practice to suit you, as your are, then and there. Since one way to understand “yogas citta vritti nirodha” is to be simply present to the current moment, it is your personal experience which is the point of all your work.

This document was translated from LATEX by HEVEA.