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Creation Flows
for life is the movement of Being
Immerse yourself in stillness
and become consciously one with the flow
Conscious Union is Yoga.

Erich Schiffman

Yoga 101
a beginnersí guide

Greater clarity, physical refinement, and a path to enlightenment...Youíve heard about it, youíve thought about it, and youíve listened to all the amazing possibilities that yoga can offer. Amidst the enthusiastic hype, there is often confusion. Just how does exercise relate to spirituality? What does stretching have to do with meditation? How can anyone do yoga with a total lack of flexibility?

The word yoga originates with the Sanskrit term "yog" meaning to yoke or to connect. Whether practicing bhakti yoga (devotion), karma yoga (service), jnana yoga (study), or hatha yoga (physical practice), the essence is a connection of the lesser self to the Greater Self. In other words, through practice we break through personal limits of physical performance as well as limits of intangible perception. After all the stories of gurus, mysticism, and eternal youth have invited you, just where do you find the yoga class that best serves your needs?

The first step is to clarify your own intentions. For example, are you seeking a challenging workout with a cleansing sweat? Perhaps, youíre looking for a tool that helps you to calm down, center your thoughts, and stop the nagging, internal chatter? Maybe you need to consciously access the mind/ body relationship as a way to refine performance and deepen personal understanding? Are you looking for a therapeutic ritual that corrects problematic, skeletal alignment? Each of these objectives can be found through yoga practice, however, each requires a different approach to the practice.

In this culture we tend to embrace yoga as exercise. Hatha yoga is a combination of conscious breathing (pranayama) and physical postures (asana). There are several approaches to hatha practice, and itís good to understand some basic options before you take a class. Please keep in mind that these descriptions are very general and donít delve into the philosophies of each style.

A static practice involves a patient, sustained retention of postures. A passive, static practice involves little work with strength, and emphasizes muscular opening and release. Youíll expect to find this prioritized in classes labeled yin yoga or gentle yoga. A dynamic, static practice actively engages the body as strength, balance, and flexibility are integrated into a solid, sustained focus. Examples of dynamic, static practice are Iyengar and Bikram.

Vinyasa yoga is a moving practice. Postures shift and flow with the changes of breath direction. Sun salutations tend to punctuate the transition from one asana to the next. There is an aerobic experience to vinyasa. In addition to the word vinyasa, ashtanga and Mysore describe a moving practice.

There are classes that can integrate some flow as well as sustained focus. Expect a combination of both when you encounter the terms Power Yoga or Baptiste. There are classes which intentionally heat a room, often over 100 degrees! Most consistently "Bikram Hot Yoga" and Baptiste will be taught in heated studios. If you see the words Integral or Anusara, expect to find spiritual instruction with your postures. Kundalini will feature a rapid "breath of fire" which differs from other hatha practices.

Beyond the style of yoga that you choose to explore, youíll need a teacher that you trust. You should expect to feel safe, motivated and nurtured by anyone teaching yoga. Those words imply different personalities to different students. Some people need a fierce coach who watches every alignment. Others need to know that they are emotionally supported in their inner exploration while concentrating.

Remember that youíll be working at your limits of movement, balance and strength. Evaluate your student/ teacher relationship by your experience through the practice. Seek direction from someone you wonít resist or resent. Consider the possibility that a good teacher may be able to bridge your interest into a style that doesnít immediately attract you. Youíll know youíre receiving worthy instruction when you feel inspired to work in class and when you also feel open and receptive throughout the next day.

Most importantly, know that you are experimenting. The menu of hatha styles is vast, and itís good to sample from the buffet to determine your preferences.

After you find a style and a teacher, youíll want a few items that add function and grace to your yoga practice. A personal yoga mat is an essential and intimate tool for practice. Using a communal mat is a common practice in classes, but the supple and porous material is a natural breeding ground for bacteria and fungus. If youíre planning to commit to a regular practice, treat yourself to your best mat choice. Commercial mats offer a wide range in weight, thickness, length and price. I recommend beginning with an inexpensive, lightweight product that offers good traction. A lightweight mat may be placed over a communal mat if desired. Once you develop your practice, youíll understand your mat requirements. Youíll also be more familiar with the options available for purchase.

Studios tend to have accessories including blocks, straps and blankets. These are often available for purchase in sporting stores, at studio boutiques, and through internet distributors. After youíve grown accustomed to using certain props in class, youíll enjoy having them at home for personal practice. Avoid buying tools that you havenít learned to use properly.

There is a frequent dilemma involving sweaty hands that slide on the mat. Some students find that a small towel is a wonderful aid to slippery hands. To avoid losing traction, I suggest investing in a snug fitting pair of weight lifting gloves. They arenít really necessary for an entire practice, but once your hands get wet, they are valuable safety assets.

Generally speaking, people like to practice using videos and books for instruction. This can be helpful or harmful depending upon each situation. Once youíve found a teacher that you enjoy working with, ask that teacher for recommendations regarding tools for home practice. The instructional products that serve you best are oneís that offer continuity to home and class participation.

Your teacher will recognize your development as you practice between classes. Using videos exclusively for self instruction is dangerous for beginners. There are infinite ways to strain the body and misinterpret directions. Alignment corrections, postural adaptations, and subtle adjustments are important for conscious development and are entirely missing in self study.

As a teacher I find that students of all ages panic when postures create awkward sensations. Respect the quality of awkward discomfort as being quite separate from pain signals. Yoga does not offer benefit through danger. Awkward discomfort, however, is often part of the experience. Yogaís ability to facilitate healing, comfort, and contentment works at the honest limits of mind, body, and feeling. Patient release is similar to a physical meditation. Sensations which challenge invite exploration without violation. This requires each individual to recognize limitations and to transmute them through awareness and willing presence.

Impressive postures advertising yoga classes and products are extraordinary in their beauty and uncommon form. They are intended to motivate rather than intimidate.

Remember that yoga is a practice, an experience of conscious process. Enter this adventure with beginnersí mind, an open approach to body/ mind development. As your practice evolves, physical possibilities will expand, concentration will refine, and reward will perpetuate.

by Toni Zuper
Alternative Healing
Center City, Philadelphia

published in Town & Country -- Summer 2007 issue