Yoga today has the reputation of most people that it is a form of exercise. This is because, in the earliest days of its migration into the west, it was promoted as part of the “body beautiful” and “fitness craze.” Also, the bodily postures and contortions of skinny little Indians were seen as the most photogenic and outrageous aspects of yoga. Hence, only the flexible ever took it up! Sadly, there is still a lot of this attitude about. Many people often say “I could never do yoga, I’m too fat,” or “I’m too stiff.” They are missing the point, but also, many exponents of yoga are misrepresenting the point. There is often an attractive student with a fine body holding an advanced yoga asana shown on the cover of yoga books and magazines.
So what is the point? There is some disagreement amongst practitioners as to where the yoga asanas fit into the greater yoga system. Some say the word “asana” means steady and comfortable pose, which would, therefore, seem to exclude movements or exercises. Some say asanas are any form of spontaneous body gesture including flowing exercises. Some say asana means “to sit” and that the full classical lotus is the only true asana meant in the yogic scriptures. Some say that the asanas are the main part of the Hatha Yoga branch of yoga. Others say that asanas are part of Ashtanga Yoga, Raja Yoga or Kriya Yoga. But this is not important for the beginner. What is important, is the attitude towards them and the execution of them on a day to day basis.
There are many forces at work when practicing yoga asanas. They obviously work on the physical systems of the body such as muscular-skeletal, nervous system, cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive, reproductive and others. But also they have psycho-emotional effects which can be experienced IF you’ve got your mind on the job and IF you are open to that level of change. Yoga asanas may be exercises, BUT they are not JUST exercises.
Start at the beginning. Do not just pick up any old book and do what you see, or what you might like to achieve, or whatever you read that might be good for your particular ailment or condition. Like medicines, many yoga asanas can be very potent and can have strong side effects if performed incorrectly. Conversely, they can also have absolutely no benefits at all if performed incorrectly. So for both safety and effectiveness, the golden rule applies – when in doubt, find a good teacher and learn the basics.
Remember asanas are not just exercised for the “beautiful body.” Anyone can start, and everyone can succeed. There are two elements to the yoga asanas – mind and body. No matter what level of physical ability you may have, the quality of mind is always important. For example, should you be in a very advanced and difficult pose, looking around the room to observe others admiring you- then you are not doing yoga. You are posing as if in the gymnasium. That is where you should go. Alternatively, you may be old and infirm (or even young and infirm), and you are sitting there, relaxing gently into your elementary posture with full awareness, and concentration, oblivious to the outside sounds and activities. In that case, you are doing yoga. Yoga is an internal state of consciousness, not an outward showing. It is one of the most poorly taught lessons of yoga the world over.
Practice to your capacity regularly. Little and often is the motto for good and safe progress in yoga asanas.
Don’t be competitive. Never compare yourself with anybody else. Always keep your eyes closed (unless watching a demonstration).
Always do a balanced set in each day. Don’t just do the ones you are good at, nor don’t just do the ones you are bad at. If you had a tense right arm, would you just do stretches for that side only? No. You should do an equal amount for each side and then an equal amount for both sides together. This is the method of balance and equilibrium which yoga espouses. So, for the spinal column, the abdomen, the neck, the legs, for all areas, in fact, each area must be individually balanced regarding both strength and flexibility, and then ALL areas together must be integrated for all-over balance.
Precede asanas with a brief relaxation to prepare mind and body for your session. And afterward, follow asanas with a brief relaxation to allow the body to stabilize from the session. Asanas are best followed by pranayama, then meditation.
There are many other finer points which you will pick up as you practice and when you take up instruction by a competent teacher. When searching for a good teacher don’t be impressed by their body or the prowess of the other students. Ask about how, as a beginner, you will be instructed. Always inform a teacher about ALL your ailments, old and present so that they can work with you from an informed perspective. Most damage to yoga students in conjunction with asanas is the fault of ignorance and over-zealousness on the part of the student. Sometimes teachers are incompetent too, so keep a watch out for both your own and their shortcomings.