Whenever I am trying to come up with something to write about that may be of some interest to you beautiful people, my first resource is my own clients. What do they ask me about? What do they want to know? And do I know anything at all about this subject? Well in my past life (like 12 years ago) I was working in fitness as a personal trainer. I had a degree in Kinesiology and a CanFit Pro certification. I was obsessed with learning about all things fitness. But alas, I was young and although I would not have admitted it back then, fitness to me meant tight abs and a perky butt. Now, those things are awesome to have but does that make you fit? My definition of fitness has changed immensely and I include aspects such as energy levels, stress levels, core strength, posture, flexibility, balance etc. Basically, to be physically fit, your body should be functioning as optimally as possible. Of course I always knew this BUT the most important things to a 20 something are not how much sleep do I get each night and how are my bowel movements (TMI?). What I was focused on with myself and my clients was- how do I make my body look the part (whether or not it could play the part was secondary).
This brings me to today’s topic- yoga. I have clients asking me for advice about fitness quite often and I regularly talk to them about yoga. This has reminded me about how little many people know about this ancient practice and how people have one idea and one idea only about what yoga is and what it does for your physical (and mental and spiritual) well being. I am not claiming to be an expert but here is what I do know about the history of yoga.
Yoga is actually quite difficult to fully trace because of the methods used to document- apparently palm leaves do not hold up for thousands of years. What we can trace dates the origins of yoga back to at least 5000 years and some researchers say it actually dates back as far as 10,000 years. The first teachings of yoga which we now call the pre-classical yoga, were developed in Northern India and mentioned in sacred texts. It was sort of a mish mash of ideas, techniques, and beliefs that did not have much organization. The first organized and systematic yoga practice was set out by Patanjali who is sometimes referred to as the father of yoga since his Sutras still influence modern yoga. He created an eight limbed path containing steps and stages toward enlightenment which is referred to as classical yoga. A few centuries later post-classical yoga made its appearance. Yoga masters created a system to rejuvenate the body and prolong life. They embraced the physical body as a means to achieve enlightenment. This physical-spiritual connection and body-centered practice led to the creation of what we primarily think of yoga in the West- Hatha Yoga. The modern period began in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. It was a slow, slow, SLOW trickle into the Western World. It finally became more mainstream when a yoga studio opened in Hollywood in 1947. Hatha Yoga now has many different schools or styles all emphasizing the many different aspects of the practice.
Why did I give you the quick and dirty history of yoga? I wanted to outline how although yoga started as a religious practice, albeit not only based on one belief system, it morphed into a spiritual practice toward enlightenment, and then transformed further into a physical practice connecting body and mind, and eventually became one of the only forms of physical activity that focuses on every aspect of the person. I am not saying yoga is for everyone. But I honestly believe that with all of the different styles of yoga that have emerged using the basic concepts of Hatha Yoga, there is likely a style of yoga that could appeal to most people. If my definition of physical fitness encompasses all aspects of health, my workouts should as well. I have clients who think of yoga as all relaxing, calm, gentle stretching- which by the way, I think more people could benefit from that anyway; and other clients who believe yoga to be all breath work and chanting, which again I think many people could benefit from. But there is so much more to yoga.
Many of the physical ailments I see with my clients are due to factors such as stress, anxiety, muscle tension due to lack of movement and physical activity, muscle tension due to habitual and repetitive postures from various occupations, injury due to either overuse or an overstretch of a muscle that wasn’t in the best shape to begin with, or general sluggishness due to poor lifestyle habits. These are the EXACT problems that yoga can offer a solution for. Feeling stressed and anxious? Well you absolutely must take time to slow down, breathe, and actually start listening to your body and feeling what it is doing in the world versus continuing to be inside of your mind, which is foggy at best, and ignoring what your body is telling you. Sore muscles? Stiff joints? Feeling like your body makes an unappealing symphony of sounds every time you stand up or kneel down? You need movement! You need to get your body moving in all planes. You need to allow some fluid to move through your joints and remind your spine that it actually does move in different directions. I can go on all day.
Yoga allows people to both strengthen and stretch, to feel their body in space, and recognize imbalances and limitations. It allows people to focus on breathing and allowing the breath to do what it’s meant to do and travel to all parts of your body rather than a quick transfer of gases. It promotes a connection between mind and body which allows people to feel more clear headed and ultimately feel better physically without the mental fog. It helps people to recognize when their body is not feeling its best because it truly gives you a better understanding of your own physical self. I cannot think of any better exercise than one that teaches you about your body the way yoga does.
There are many different types of yoga and the only way to know what is going to suit your needs is to venture out and try some classes. I wasn’t sold on yoga when I first started practicing 12 years ago. It took me some time to find the right style, and right instructors to show me all of the good that could come from practicing regularly. There are studios that allow new comers to get a monthly pass at a super low rate or even city passes to try out different studios. If you really want to try out an exercise that you will see definite benefits from, try some yoga classes. I myself became a huge fan of Yin Yoga- a slower paced, VERY challenging, deep stretch. This may not be what you’re looking for. Maybe you prefer a flow to get some fluid movement and your heart rate up. Whichever you decide, the benefits will be the proof that if you want to be fully physically fit, yoga should make its way into your exercise routine.
Amanda Cooke, RMT