When starting a yoga practice, the focus is initially about your body. The physical aspect of yoga is the appealing nature that attracts people to step onto the yoga mat. If you’re looking to gain more flexibility in your hamstrings, relieve tension in your tight back, or even gain some upper body strength or lose a few pounds, then yoga is an ideal practice for you. In a yoga class, you’ll be guided by the instructor through a series of postures. They are intended to tap into various areas of the body that need release, strength or energy. That is all you really need to know when you begin yoga for the first time. But with a continued practice, yoga takes you beyond the physical body. Yoga is also associated with creating a deeper connection with yourself, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Yoga is about living a whole and healthy life. In order to do that, one must remove the obstacles that hinder the opportunities for enlightened living. These obstacles often come in the form of physical ailments like injury and discomfort. Even serious health problems like chronic pain and disease. Emotional obstacles also block the pathway to healthy living: fatigue, stress, and depression limit the potential of the individual. The many components of yoga are designed to help relieve and manage some of these hinderances. The journey begins with the breath.
Regardless of the style of yoga you may practice, breathing is the foundation. Whether you’re taking part in a Mindfulness Meditation class, a Hot Yoga session, or a Bhakti Yoga devotional celebration, focusing first on the breath is key to the yoga practice. Breathing is an automatic physiological response that allows the practitioner to bring focus to the body. When one brings her attention to the breathing effort, it begins the yogic journey toward a deeper connection to self.
In yoga, the breathing practice is called Pranayama. This is an ancient Sanskrit word (Sanskrit being the language attributed to the yoga practice) that has two parts. The first part, “prana,” means “life force.” The second part, “Yama,” means “breath control” or the action given to the breath. For example, in some yoga practices the practitioner is asked to take slow deep breaths. This has the intention of bringing calm and ease to the mind. Another breathing exercise may encourage a faster paced breath to bring more life and energy to the practitioner. Because breathing is such a physical action, it is a great first step toward understanding your body, mind, and spirit.
The Life Force
The primary part of the Pranayama practice is “Prana.” As you breathe, you are generating and circulating this life energy through your entire system. It is what helps you gain clarity and peace of mind while you practice yoga. The breath also acts as an agent to unblock parts of the body that are experiencing the distracting pain or discomfort.
A good analogy to help understand the function of breath and Prana is to imagine a garden hose. When the water is running and there are no kinks in the garden hose, the water flows naturally without hinderances. However, when there is a knot in the hose, the water will not flow. Only a small trickle of water comes out the end due to the blocked passage. This is similar with Prana, breath, and the yoga postures you practice. Moving into yoga poses helps to release those internal binds. Breath contributes to that release so that Prana can flow as intended.
The Vinyasa Flow
There is a style of yoga called Vinyasa Yoga. One definition of this type of yoga is “yoga flow.” The yogi will be guided through a sequence of poses that flow together, much like a choreographed dance routine. Physically, it provides a fluidity and agility that contributes to flexibility, grace, and more. But Vinyasa doesn’t just mean “to flow;” it can be considered a philosophy, too, that provides a deeper understanding of the yoga practice. Much like the historical nature of yoga, starting over 3,000 years ago, the term vinyasa relates to the ancient teachings of this philosophy. The concept pertains to the notion that the life path is a series of steps; it is not a random act of circumstances. Instead, it is a sacred devotion to enriching the mind and body with truth and knowledge, but that progression takes patience, diligence, and dedication.
Vinyasa is also a Sanskrit term. When broken down, the first part, “Vi,” means “variation.” The second part, “Nyasa,” means “within prescribed parameters.” This means that your movements through life are not random. They have meaning, purpose, and direction. This can be practiced on the yoga mat with the intentional series of yoga poses as well as off the mat in your deliberately lived actions.
A classic way to move in this vinyasa style is often at the beginning of a yoga class. To set your intention, connect to your breath, and begin a warm up of the physical body, the yogi may practice the Sun Salutation. There are many variations of this yoga sequence, but generally consists of eight yoga poses that flow together in a natural progression. The transition from pose to pose is facilitated by your breath: the inhalation and the exhalation. They all work in unison to bring mindfulness and connection to your physical body as well as your emotional and spiritual body. It encourages the generation and flow of Prana to reach your intended goals.
Physically the Sun Salutation brings awareness to your entire body as a way to warm up for the continuation of your vinyasa practice. Emotionally it can set your mind at ease. It leads you away from the distractions of the outside world so you can pay close attention to what is happening internally. If you’re feeling stressed, for example, you may use your practice to feel more relaxed. If you’re feeling confused, perhaps the practice can provide clarity. Spiritually, the Sun Salutation, as well as the rest of your yoga practice, opens your consciousness to the connection to self, others, all things, and the Divine.
Another wonderful feature about yoga is that you do not have to fully understand the depth of the history, philosophy, and practice. As one prominent yoga figure, Pattabhi Jois, once said, yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory. His meaning suggests that it is more important to just practice; get on your mat and flow with your breath. The comprehension of yoga comes later. It is the engagement and dedication to the vinyasa yoga flow that leads you to a better understanding of yoga. Simply roll out your mat, move with your breath, and feel the Pranic life force circulating through your body to generate physical healing, mental clarity, and spiritual connection. This is the flow of yoga.