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  • Chloe Jay

Beyond downward dog: what is yoga?

Updated: Mar 16, 2023

It isn’t all balancing on your head and chanting - well, sometimes it is, but sometimes it’s also sitting in quiet, in a comfortable seated position observing your thoughts and breath. Other times it’s the way you approach the world and treat others.


Downward facing dog is arguably one of the most recognised yoga poses - the signature asana - but yoga goes far beyond the physical practice. This article will explore the essence of yoga, helping you understand what yoga might look like for you.


What is the meaning of yoga?


Originating from Northern India, yoga can be traced back some 5,000 years. An important philosophy and practice in religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, yoga was first mentioned in the Vedas, ancient Indian scriptures written in Sanskrit.


It was the likes of the Yoga Sutras, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita that later helped the ancient and modern yogi alike better understand the globally-popular practice.


In Sanskrit, yoga means ‘to yoke’ or ‘to unite’. The essence of yoga is to join together the mind, body and soul. From a wider lens, it also includes the union of people, community and collective love.


Contrary to what some believe, particularly in the West, yoga is more than just the physical practice (or asana). This may be one of the most common misconceptions when it comes to yoga.


Yoga, in fact, comprises eight parts, or limbs. According to the Father of yoga, Patanjali, who wrote the Yoga Sutras, the eight limbs include:


  1. Yamas - The laws of life that tell us how to treat the external world

  2. Niyamas - The rules of living that suggest how to behave internally

  3. Asana - Physical postures

  4. Pranayama - Breathwork or breathing exercises

  5. Pratyahara - Withdrawal of senses

  6. Dharana - Steadiness of the mind

  7. Dhyana - Meditation

  8. Samadhi - The settled state


Yoga is more than just the physical asana practice or the ‘yoga class’ we attend. For many, it’s a way of life.


My Guru once told me that yoga was essentially a user manual for life. I thought that was beautiful and is something that’ll always stick with me.

Yoga is for everyone!


As a yoga teacher, all too often I have people tell me that they “wouldn’t be good at yoga” or that they’re “not flexible enough for yoga”.


In reality, flexibility has nothing to do with yoga, nor can you be “good” or “bad” at yoga.


Yoga should be viewed as a journey rather than a destination. Once you have dipped your toe into yoga, you realise there’s plenty to focus on, and as long as intention is in the right place you cannot be ‘bad at yoga’.


And from an asana point of view, yoga isn't about one’s physical abilities; how flexible you are or how long you can hold an arm balance. Perhaps yoga has been hijacked by the idea that you must be able to touch your toes or be a pro at backbends in order to ‘do yoga properly’. But yoga, at its core, does not discriminate.


Try different classes, research different teachers - they will all have different aims, ability levels, styles, vibes and students.


Why do people practise yoga?


Yogis practice for a number of reasons, you might resonate with just one, some or all:

  • Mental wellbeing: Yoga provides us with the space to slow down, to spend time in the present. The mental benefits are abundant. Certain studies have suggested that the practice relieves stress and anxiety and even boosts serotonin levels in the brain.

  • Physical benefits: Yoga promotes fitness. It helps us stay fit and healthy and can increase mobility, flexibility, strength and balance.

  • Spiritual reasons: Yoga helps many students feel more in touch with themselves and if it’s something you believe in, a higher power.

  • Community: The values of yoga mean that wherever in the world you are, you won’t struggle to find a caring and like-minded community.

What are the different types of yoga?


And which will suit you best?


Hatha yoga

The traditional one


Hatha is said to be the ‘original yoga’, tracing back to the 1st century BCE. Translating to ‘force’, Hatha aims to cultivate energy through its breathing techniques and 84 asana series (which can be practised in any order). Classes will include a selection of these asanas.


Vinyasa flow yoga

The flowy one


Perhaps the most recognised form of asana class in the West is Vinyasa. Vinyasa is an approach to yoga whereby postures are sewn together using your breath. Vinyasa classes can be dynamic and energetic at times. The vinyasa system is often applied to the Hatha or Ashtanga series.


Ashtanga yoga

The regimented one


Ashtanga or ‘eight limbs’ is the style of yoga that our friend, Patanjali refers to in his Yoga Sutras. This style of asana is particularly structured and must be practised in a certain order.


Overall, Ashtanga has six series, the most practised is the primary series. Each posture is practised in a meticulous order with the whole series taking around 60-90 minutes to complete in class.


Expect to see ‘Ashtanga Mysore’ classes offered whereby the class is not led, rather students come and go as they please whilst a teacher supports them. In this type of class students will each be at different points in the series.


Rocket yoga

The regimented but playful one


Rocket yoga derives from Ashtanga, borrowing its asana and throwing them into any order with a level of playfulness. Classes are led, fast-paced and will usually include being upside down at times.


Power yoga

The energetic one


Power yoga is similar to Rocket in that it’s fast-paced, strong and dynamic but doesn’t necessarily focus on just the Ashtanga series. Expect the heart rate to increase during power yoga where inversions, arm balance and back bending are accustomed.


Yin yoga

The relaxing one


Originating from China and Taiwan and a derivative of Daoist Yoga, Yin targets your muscles, deep tissue and fascia. Yin can be considered a form of Chinese medicine and consists of holding poses for long periods of time, it’s therefore a slow-paced class which can prove particularly relaxing.


Iyengar yoga

The precise one


Developed by Iyengar, a popular yoga teacher and academic, this style of yoga focuses heavily on precision, alignment and detail. A descendant of traditional Hatha-style yoga, Iyengar can be practised in any order but expect postures to be held longer than those in a Vinyasa class for example, in order to master your form.


Hot yoga

The sweaty one


Hot yoga is practised in a very specific environment; the temperature must be 40-degree celsius and asanas followed must stem from hot yoga’s series of 26 postures. Hot yoga aims to help loosen muscles, therefore increasing flexibility and the range of poses we can enter.


Kundalini yoga

They breathy one


Kundalini yoga heavily concentrates on cultivating energy known as Shakti and unlocking certain energy centres, or chakras. Kundalini includes asana but focuses on breathing, chanting, singing and meditation too.


Final thoughts


There is no cooker cutter approach or proper way to practise yoga. Not one yogi’s practice will look the same as another’s.


The thing that practitioners will have in common is intention; yoga’s aim is to unite not just people but our minds, bodies and souls. With this in mind, there is a wide range of yoga classes available to suit a variety of needs.


Your practice might currently include looking introspectively, it might be sitting quietly and focusing on the breath or maybe you’re in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward facing dog). Wherever you are in your yoga journey, remember there is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’, there just is.


Love and light,


Chloe


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