As a seasoned teacher I come across some of the same questions time and again. Below are some of those questions followed by my answers and suggestions.
I hope you will find these answers helpful in your practice!
Do I need to be flexible in order to practice yoga?
Because yoga is neither a body culture and nor a competitive sport, there is no need for any special physical traits to practice yoga. All it takes is desire, patience and perseverance. It does not matter if you can reach your toes in a forward bend position, or whether you can fold your legs into a lotus position. The effects of yoga are not necessarily proportional to how the pose appears externally. It is quite possible that an inflexible person will gain greater benefits from yoga than a very flexible person. Everyone should reach the level of extension appropriate for them and settle there. That place is where things happen, where learning to let go and be with the sensations of the body and the breath occurs.
Yoga is not about flexibility; it is the practice of concentration, listening, attention and awareness. Flexibility, when comes, is only a by-product.
Does yoga improve cardio-pulmonary capabilities, or does this require a more strenuous exercise?
This is one of the main misunderstandings that I come across often. Our culture is fixated on the concept of ‘cardio-respiratory workouts’ and worships strenuous physical activity. True, exercise is a beneficial thing, but aren’t we going overboard?
The first question we need to ask ourselves is – what is the purpose of exercising?
If the purpose of the exercising is to make it through 100 meters as fast as possible, or to succeed in running a Marathon, then no doubt, we have to endure high cardio-respiratory rates and therefore train for this specific purpose. But does this necessarily lead to health and long-term balance?
Yoga seeks harmonious balance and health of both the body and mind.
B.K.S. Iyengar refers to this issue in his book, The Tree of Yoga:
“It is very difficult for me to explain to Westerners the difference between simulative exercise and irritative exercise. Take jogging for example. Medical science says it stimulates the heart. But the difference should be made between irritation and stimulation. The heartbeat increases, but that does not mean that the heart is stimulated. Stimulating means energizing or invigorating, but exercise can also be irritative or exhausting. In jogging, making the heart beat very fast is irritating the heart.
In yoga we do back-bends, which are harder than jogging, but that does not irritate the heart, because we don’t get out of breath and our heartbeat is maintained in a rhythmic pattern throughout. So when we teach asanas, we have to find what is actually invigorating and what is not invigorating. After invigorating exercise there is absolutely no fatigue. Feeling nice after hard work means that the work was invigorating, but feeling exhaustion after ten or fifteen minutes is a sure sign that you are doing irritative exercise.” (From The art of prudence)
Effort in yoga is practiced in a controlled manner so as not to over-stimulate the body. Even in the most complex yoga poses, breathing continues to flow softly through the nostrils without any excessive panting or rising of the heartbeat. Essential organ systems are energized and kept healthy, without any excessive activation. It is known that athletes who develop very large heart muscles have various heart problems upon retirement from sports. This cannot happen with yoga. Yoga is a balanced, moderate activity (there is also no such thing as retiring from Yoga – Iyengar used to practice until he was almost 96).
Naturally, in order to develop the heart and lungs we need to perform advanced standing poses and backbends, but anyone who perseveres and practices for several years will be able to perform these poses and knows from experience what it really means to raise your heart rate in a moderate controlled manner. When doing backbends the heartbeat goes up, but doesn’t get too high and superficial, it remains deep and the breath penetrates the body and does not become flat and shallow.
From personal experience, I can testify that in the past I used to do athletic activities such as swimming and running long distances. However, today I do not feel the need to do this more; Yoga is certainly enough to keep my body in good shape and health and provide me with lightness. Even at my age (post 60 …) I do not feel a significant decrease in my physical fitness.
Can anyone practice yoga?
Yoga is a spiritual path; it is a quest for discovering the true essence of our life upon this earth. That is something we all need, and so yoga is open for everyone!
Yoga holds that despite the differences in cultures and mentality among people, basically, we are all alike. We all have a heart, a pair of lungs, a liver and a brain. We all have an awareness that fluctuates and can be distracted; we all have stipulations, limiting habits, prejudices and a distorted vision of reality.
Essentially, one thing unites us all – and that is human suffering; we were all born without being asked to, we grow up, will grow old and eventually die; we all cling to life with all our might, but know that life is very frail; we accumulate property and hang on to material things, but know that one day we will have to leave them all behind; we all live, but life and death remain a mystery to us. These concepts have nothing to do with race, religion, class, caste, nation or gender – we are all subject to the same laws, rich and poor, black and white, women and men. We are all sons and daughters of nature and relative to nature we are all infants who share the same needs: we all want to avoid suffering, to feel confident, receive attention, love and be loved. We are all suffering, but looking for happiness!
Since we all share the same human core, we can all utilize a practice that will help us overcome difficulties and alleviate our sufferings. Therefore, yoga can benefit everyone, regardless of traits, age or inclination. All it takes is just the will to persevere and continue to practice as well as to work diligently!
Is it possible to start practicing yoga at any age?
Yes! Iyengar taught the queen of Belgium to stand on her head when she was 80 years old! Yoga can be practiced at all ages.
Of course, posture practicing should vary with age. Young people need to practice energetically and dynamically, while older people should practice moderately and use props for support. One of Iyengar’s genius inventions is the use of various training aids (props), such as chairs, bolsters, belts, accessories and specialty wooden props. Using props allows one to practice difficult postures effortlessly and stay in the posture safely and correctly. Older people who have never practiced yoga can practice some of the postures using props and they can greatly benefit from yoga and stay healthy well into old age.
Iyengar’s practice changed considerably over the years; in his older age he used to stay in postures for a long time (about 20-40 minutes in a posture) and used a great deal of props. In his book The Tree of Yoga, he writes that:
“See that in your daily practice there is a progression and a transformation. If I were to do yoga today just as I did it when I began in 1934, then my practice would be like a healthy tree which does not give any fruit, or a healthy woman which cannot bear children. I am not doing that type of yoga. I want my action to bear fruit. The true fruit of yoga is not a material achievement or performance.” (From The leaves)
“You may be fifty, or sixty years old, and ask yourself whether it is too late in life to take up yoga practice. One part of the mind says, ‘I want to go ahead’, and another part of the mind is hesitating. What is that part of the mind which is hesitating? Perhaps it is fear. But what produces that fear?”
Why is an old man fond of sex? Why does his age not come to his mind at all? If he sees a young girl, his mind will be wandering, even though he may have no physical capacity. What is the state of his mind? He would like to possess her; would he not? But ask him to do a little yoga or something to maintain his health: ‘ Oh, I am very old’ he says! So the mind is the maker and the mind is the destroyer. On one side the mind is making you and on another side it is destroying you. You must tell the destructive side of the mind to keep quiet – then you will learn.” (From Old age)
How long should my daily practice last?
This is a subjective question. Quality is no less important than quantity. It’s better to practice consistently than occasionally. A daily practice of fifteen minutes a day is better than two hours once a week.
Every person should find time for practice in one’s life and according to one’s restrictions and needs. B.K.S Iyengar used to practice for 8-10 hours daily as a young man. A part of my daily life and as a person who teaches yoga professionally I practice about 3 hours daily (an average of 18 hours weekly). However, understandably most people are too busy to be able to devote that much time for practice. There is also no need for people who are not professional yoga teachers to practice so much.
Iyengar used to say that the most difficult asana is to spread the yoga mattress… and indeed the hardest part is to begin the practice and to persist in it. Therefore, a determined decision to practice on a daily basis – even if only for 15 minutes daily – is key to success. With progress every person will learn the time required for themselves.
Does yoga contradict other exercise methods?
No. Yoga does not contradict any other exercise methods. You can combine yoga with more intensive athletic or gym exercises, or in parallel with other methods that focus on developing attention and awareness, such as the Feldenkrais Method, Pilates and martial arts. In fact, many professional dancers and actors practice yoga.
What time of day should I practice?
Traditionally, it is ideal to practice at sunrise or sunset. Most people find the early morning hours good for practice. It is a time when the body and mind are still fresh and quiet. Many external disturbances do not exist during the early morning – the air is clean and the environment quiet.
I think each one has to find a time that is convenient for him or her. Personally I am a “morning bird” so I like to practice early in the morning, but there are people who are not “morning people” and tend to be more awake and alert in the evening. It’s important is to find a fixed time slot for practice and strive to maintain it. Of course, don’t practice after meals, so the ideal time would be before breakfast or before dinner.
How long should I wait to practice after a meal?
After a full meal you should wait at least four hours before practicing. You can drink a warm drink half an hour before practice. There are two main reasons why you shouldn’t practice in close proximity to a meal. First, after a meal the stomach and intestines are full and heavy and movement is restricted. Practicing on a full stomach may cause uncomfortable feelings such as choking or heartburn. Just as importantly, practicing after a meal robs the body of the necessary energy needed for the digestive process. Not all of us are aware of the fact that digestion is a process that requires a great deal of energy. If we do exercise during digestion, the body draws energy resources to the physical activity at the expense of digestion and this impairs the quality of food digestion and absorption.
However, there are some restorative Iyengar poses that can be done immediately after eating, and are even beneficial for digestion after a heavy meal. Poses like Supta Baddha Konasana or Supta Virasana with bolster support, are poses that do not disturb digestion and, as a matter of fact, create space in the abdomen, thus facilitating the digestive process.
Is yoga practice addictive?
Yoga is not addiction. An addiction is a weakness, it is something we’re forced into because of an intense emotional need, it’s an attachment that creates emotional dependence. Addiction consists of the following type of chain reaction:
‘I want something… I need it… I need it right now… If I don’t get it right now I don’t know what’s going to happen to me…’
Addiction is defined as habitual activity that’s harmful to either one’s health, social functioning, one’s earning power or financial mode of operating, or all of the above. When it lasts for a long period of time it creates dependence and causes tremendous suffering to the addicted person and his close circle.
These attributes do no exist in yoga. On the contrary, Yoga is a practice that requires effort and self-discipline. It isn’t easy to practice yoga. The practice does not offer excitements and attractions and it requires a lot of work, patience and concentration. Weak people who are inclined to addiction might find it difficult to persist in yoga practice (although yoga can provide means to empowerment that assists in eliminating addiction*).
Yoga practice aims to raise attention and awareness; yoga is self-exploration and when we reflect deeply into ourselves we can uncover the reasons for the addiction, we are aware of hardships, needs and deprivations and we are able to handle them with awareness.
Addiction stems from a desire to fill emptiness or a significant deprivation, yoga on the other hand creates fullness and an emotional balance and that is why it operates as opposed to a desire for addiction.
Yoga identifies the sources of our misery, two of which are attachments and aversions**. Addiction is nothing more than an extreme form of attachment. Yoga practice provides us with deep internal satisfaction and therefore releases us of the desire to hold onto external things and depend on them.
It’s true, it’s possible to get addicted to physical exercise, however yoga is not an ordinary physical exercise. Yoga is working on the mind through the means of the body; it is an internal voyage to true self-discovery; it is liberation from conditioning and harmful habits, that’s why yoga is the opposite of addiction.
* In this context watch the movie: Addiction, Recovery & Yoga : http://www.adyo.org/
** The other three are ignorance or illusion, sense of self or identification with the ego and fear, attachment to life.
What equipment do I need to practice Iyengar yoga?
Iyengar yoga studios are usually equipped with at least the basic equipment: mattresses, blankets, blocks, belts, chairs and bolsters. In addition most studios have ropes anchored to the ceiling and / or wall and specialty equipment such as arches, benches at different heights, and so on. However, to begin practicing, you do not need more than a mattress and possibly a belt or two.
If you want to learn Sarvangasana you must have the ability to create an elevated surface of about 5 centimeters. It is usually done by stacking 5-6 folded blankets but can also be done with the four foam blocks and two blankets, or with an appropriate sized flat (but not soft)pillow.
The basic equipment required for more advanced practitioners is: a mattress, two belts, 5-6 blankets, two blocks and a bolster. This equipment is much less expensive than the gear necessary for sports such as cycling or the gym and its value is priceless. Later on it is recommended to obtain a yoga chair – any additional props you can obtain will surely enhance your practice.
Is yoga a form of exercise?
Prashant Iyengar commented on this issue while addressing the question of ‘What is the difference between physical activity and mental activity?’ This is not a simple question: any activity we engage in involves activation of the body and the mind together. Even when we listen to a lecture or work on the computer we use the body as we are seated in some position; on the other hand, when we exercise we use mental abilities. So what is the difference?
Prashant’s answer is: “Anything done for the body is physical and whatever is done for the mind is mental.” In other words, the intention and the involvement are important – they determine the purpose of the activity.
When people exercise or play sports, their goal is to improve their fitness, strengthen the body, increase flexibility, and improve endurance, heart-lung capability, and so on. These are all physical objectives, so the activity is physical. There is nothing wrong with that, but that is the purpose of the activity.
However, yoga uses the body as a tool to work on the mind. Yoga is the practice of concentration and awareness aimed at obtaining joy and mental peace and balance.
Yoga is a path of transformation, it changes our character and personality; its ultimate goal is liberation from the suffering human existence is saturated in. Yoga is a vision that unites us all: the inner soul within us. This vision leads us towards traits such as balance, tolerance, patience, consideration, sensitivity, and clarity of vision, joy, generosity, love and compassion.
These are lofty spiritual goals and they are the real goals of yoga. Health and the physical benefits we gain from practice are, as Iyengar writes in The Tree of Yoga, are only byproducts.
In my opinion yoga is the ideal form of exercise because it activates the body optimally. In addition to the skeletal and muscular activation that creates strength and flexibility, yoga also activates the internal organs and systems. The circulation, digestion, respiration, and secretion of hormones system are energized and stimulated and their health is maintained. Yoga is a balanced method that can be practiced throughout the year and at any age, to keep the body healthy and vital and to slow down the aging process.
So yoga should not be seen as a form of exercise, it is much more than that!
Are breathing techniques taught in yoga classes?
Yes, the fourth limb of yoga, Pranayama, is, along with asana, a major component of the Iyengar method. However, beginner classes do not put much emphasis on pranayama. Guidelines provided by Geeta Iyengar in: Yoga In Action – a Preliminary Course, are: “Do not hold the breath while doing any of the asanas. Breathe normally. Always inhale or exhale through the nose… Concentrate more on the performance of the correct posture rather than the breath. The particulars of breathing become known only when one is properly established in the asanas. If the asana is correct, the breath moves properly”.
These guidelines represent Iyengar’s approach to the issue: pranayama practice is advanced and teaching pranayama to beginners will not yield good results. Beginners should not hold their breath, but rather continue breathing through the nostrils (even in the face of pressure or strain in the pose).
This approach to pranayama is based on Patanjali’s writings. In his Yoga sutras, Patanjali describes Ashtanga’s Eight Limbs of Yoga. He does not explicitly specify the order in which one progresses in practice, with the exception of the fourth limb – pranayama, for which he says one can arrive at only after they are strongly rooted in their asana practice. This principle is easy to understand, because the asanas prepare both the body and the mind for pranayama. Pranayama requires the ability to sit upright with broad open chest overtime, without creating excessive tension. It also requires the ability to closely monitor the movement of the breath, which is a much more subtle than the movements done in asana practice. Therefore it requires a higher level of concentration. Moreover, effective pranayama practice requires free movement in the chest. The asanas create space in the chest and releases tension, allowing the ribs to move freely and smoothly – without this there is not much point in trying to practice pranayama.
For this reason, one must be patient and work on asanas first. However, Iyengar did develop several types of pranayama exercise that can be performed lying down with the back supported by blankets or a bolster. This kind of practice can be introduced to beginner students, provided that they have already developed a minimal degree of concentration and patience and can recline relaxed and follow their breath.
Are meditation techniques taught at Iyengar classes?
No. Iyengar’s approach is that “The mastery of asanas and pranayama helps the practitioner to detach the mind from the control of the body, and this leads automatically toward concentration and meditation.” (From The Tree of Yoga)
In other words, he believed that meditation is not a technique that can be taught, but rather it should follow naturally from the practice of asana and pranayama. In The Tree of Yoga he writes: “Meditation is not something that can be expressed in words. It must be directly experienced in one’s life. Nor can meditation be taught. If someone says he is teaching meditation, you can immediately know that he is not a yogi at all.” (From Meditation and yoga)
He further explains that: “You may practice meditation and develop awareness when you are sitting quietly in a park, and it comes quite easily. But when you are busy working, your life gets dominated by thought and it is hard to have total awareness. When you practice asana, pranayama and pratyahara, you learn to be totally aware – you develop awareness in your whole body while you are engaged in action. Then you can become totally aware in all the circumstances.” (From The nature of meditation)
But we mustn’t get confused – meditation is an important and central yoga limb. While Iyengar was indeed not in favor of formally teaching meditation, many of his writings discusses meditation; for him settling into an asana was a deep meditation. All those who were fortunate to visit his center (RIMYI) in Pune (India) and see Iyengar’s practice, know the guy used to enter into a posture and stay in it for a very long time, in what appears to be a deep meditation. For example, he used to practice Sirsasana (headstand) for more than half an hour (at the age of 90+!), or advanced back-bends that you and I have a hard time holding for even a minute– in which he stayed effortlessly for 30 minutes or more!
In The Tree of Yoga he wrote about meditation:
“When oil is poured from one vessel into another, it maintains a constant, steady and even flow. Likewise, the flow of attention and awareness remains stable and constant. This steady awareness is dhyana (meditation). Dhyana is the way of discovering the greater self. It is the art of self-study, observation, reflection and sight of the infinite hidden within. It begins with the observation of physical process, then involves watchfulness of the mental state, then blends the intelligence of the head with that of the heart to delve deep in profound contemplation. By this profound contemplation, the consciousness merges with the object of meditation. This conjunction of subject and object makes the complex consciousness simple and spiritually illuminated.” (From Meditation and yoga)
How do I deal with pain while in posture?
This question is an interesting one because yoga postures introduce us to discomfort and pain and we need to know how to deal with those sensations.
Pain is a general, overarching term, and like many other terms it covers a major spectrum of unpleasant sensations in different shades and intensities. Pain invites us to do some introspection. Iyengar has two sayings related to pain:
- “The philosophy of pain is to conquer it”
- “Pain comes to guide you. Pain is your Guru!”
Behind these sayings unfolds a vast philosophy. They suggest that pain is a part of yoga and that yoga is not concerned with only avoiding pain, although yoga is about non-violence (Ahimsa – it is one of the most important principles of yoga). Therefore, pain itself is not necessarily negative, but pain that causes injury is negative. So the following statement can be added:
- “Yoga is not about avoiding pain, but about preventing injury”
This, of course, raises the question: how can we discern between the kind of pain that hurts and the kind of pain that doesn’t?
When pain appears in a pose we tend to panic and want to get out of the pose. Instead, yoga invites us to stay and observe further into what we sense. There are many kinds of feelings and sensations that are defined as pain: there is the ‘good pain’ that emerges from a healthy stretch of the muscles, there is pressure related discomfort stemming from a stay in an unfamiliar pose, there is a “stabbing” sensation, a sharp pain and a dull pain; There is a kind of pain that disappears as soon as you come out of the pose and a pain that stays for days after practice. There is also the kind of pain that you don’t feel while in the pose, but arrives once you emerge out of the pose.
Instead of running away from the pain, we have the opportunity to look into its essence and discern exactly what is it that we feel.
Yoga is a practice intended to develop equanimity, that is, the ability to maintain internal mental homeostasis in the face of external turmoil. Therefore, staying with the discomfort is an important practice of yoga: what happens to us when we feel discomfort in a pose? What is our reaction? What if, contrary to our inclination, we could remain with the inconvenience and observed it?
These are important questions because in life we often encounter discomfort, difficulty, and pain, and these are not always removable. The question is, can we maintain our inner peace and stability and act correctly and wisely in such situations? This is the practice of developing tolerance and resilience.
However, of course, we do not want to injure ourselves (and the practice of yoga postures has plenty of opportunities to do that). Practice related injuries could result from two reasons: lack of sensitivity and ambition.
Perhaps we want to practice a certain pose, but our desire to be in the pose is in our head while our body is not yet ready, in which case we must show care and consideration for our body, listen to its real ability and not force it to do what the mind whims. This is the practice of ahimsa (non-violence), which is one of the central principles of yoga.
As a result, it is very important to diagnose the type of pain. One of the important criteria is whether the pain persists when coming out of the pose. Such a pain is usually not a good pain, i.e. – a pain that may cause harm. However, if the pain disappears immediately after emerging out of the pose, it is usually harmless. When the pain is not of the ‘good’ kind, it might be indicative of an unbalanced or wrong pose. There is also a pain which appears only after practice, sometimes not until the next day, or several days later. During the practice we did not feel any problem, but still, we hurt something. Such a pain is indicative of a lack of sensitivity.
Pain can be our spiritual teacher which inspires us to learn. The conquest of pain, therefore, requires patience, accurate observation, tolerance and discretion. All these qualities are very important. A true practice of yoga is one in which we do not injure ourselves, and yet, do not run away from pain.
What is the importance of practicing advanced poses?
There are several yoga methods (such as the Shivananda method, for example) that do not emphasize asana progression and are satisfied with a small number of selected asanas. Many of us probably think that we can settle on 50 to 80 key asanas, because there is always enough work with basic postures. But Iyengar’s practice includes advanced poses (though it is aimed only for practitioners who master the basic postures, their accuracy and alignment). Why is it so important to practice advanced poses?
Iyengar refers to this issue in his book Light on Yoga while describing the effects of the pose Urdhva Kukkutasana:
“The spine is stretched fully and the effect of Paschimottanasana is gained in a very short time. The arms and the abdominal organs will grow strong.
All these intricate and difficult positions bring results quicker than the simple ones. When the body becomes more pliable, the simple poses will have little or no effect. The wise therefore discard them and practice the intricate poses, just as a scholar will not repeat the alphabet daily. But, just as dancers daily practice some basic steps and do not discard them, so also pupils of yoga should continue daily to perform Sirsasana and Sarvangasana with their cycles. “
Why is it important to know the names of the poses in Sanskrit?
Geeta Iyengar writes the following in her booklet Yoga in Action – A Preliminary course:
“Often pupils do not remember the asanas or their names. While learning the asanas, apart from putting the body into the correct position, one needs to know the name and form of the asana to be in order to be in the correct posture. This aids one in the linking of the movement, action and inner adjustments, not only in that particular asana, but also with the next asana. Knowing the name and form of the asana before entering into the asana yields a preparation not only at the physical level but also at the mental level.”
When you learn a new language, it is necessary to learn terms used in the language, as they allow for better communications. It is impossible to translate all these terms, because the translation is often awkward; it also won’t serve us well when we go abroad to study yoga.
In addition, the Sanskrit names of poses have great symbolic significances. The names relate to animals, birds, reptiles, heroes and saints of the Indian mythology and much more. They describe the energy and feel of the pose. The yogi can experience what it is like to be a frog, an eagle, a dog, a snake, etc., all in one lifetime! He does not need to wait to transform into all these forms, because he can experience the energy of the sacred animal or saint through the asana practice.
Therefore, even if the names of the poses seem at first quite strange and alien, you should make an effort to learn them.