Beginners guide to Yoga

Yoga is an ancient practice, developed in India, and is thought to have it’s roots in a civilization called the Harappan. Yoga has been recorded in texts called “Vedas” dating back 4 to 5 thousand years ago. It has roots in Hinduism and Brahmanism, however it’s practices can be used to enhance any spiritual belief or it can be used as a purely physical practice to enhance physical and mental health and wellbeing.
Yoga has many different forms of practice and is traditionally a way of life and not just the physical postures that we associate it with in the West. The practice of yoga is dedicated to creating union between body, mind and spirit. In fact, the Sanskrit word yoga has the literal meaning of “yoke”, from a root yuj meaning to join or to unite. Its objective is to assist the practitioner in using the breath and body to foster an awareness of ourselves as individual beings intimately connected to the whole of creation.
In approximately 200 AD Patanjali wrote down the guide to living a yogic lifestyle in a text called The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. This sacred text describes the inner workings of the mind and sets out an 8 point guide for controlling the restlessness of the mind enabling us to enjoy a meaningful and peaceful life and, ultimately, attain enlightenment.
The eight-fold path of Yoga begins with the preliminary practices of yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, and pratyahara which build the foundation of spiritual life and deal with the health and control of the physical and emotional body. The last three practices of dharana, dhyana and Samadhi, which are not possible to achieve without the previous practices, deal with reconditioning and training of the mind and working towards attaining enlightenment.

1.       Yama

Yama refers to social behaviour and moral principles, how we treat others and the world around us. There are five yamas:
  • Ahimsa – Nonviolence & compassion for all living things. The word ahimsa means to not injure or behave cruelly to any creature or any person. However, Ahimsa is more than just lack of violence; it means kindness, friendliness, and showing consideration to other people and things. It also refers to our duties and responsibilities; Ahimsa implies that in every situation we should adopt a compassionate attitude and do no harm.
  • Satya – Commitment to being truthful and honest. Satya means to speak the truth, however it is not always desirable to speak the truth because it could cause harm to someone unnecessarily. We also have to consider Ahimsa in what we say and how we say it. If speaking the truth has negative consequences for another, then it may be better to say nothing. Satya should never come into conflict ahimsa. This principle is based on the understanding that honest communication and action form the foundations of healthy relationships, communities and governments, and that lying, dishonesty, exaggerations, and mistruths harm others and ultimately ourselves.
  • Asteya – Not stealing . Steya means to steal; asteya means to take nothing that does not belong to us. Non-stealing includes not only taking what belongs to another without permission, but also using something for a different purpose to what was intended, or beyond the boundaries it was offered by its owner.  The practice of asteya refers to not taking anything that has not been freely given. This includes having consideration for how we seek another’s time or attention; when we demand time or attention that is not freely given it is, in effect, stealing.
  • Brahmacharya – Sense control. Brahmacharya indicates that we should form relationships that foster our understanding of spiritual truth. The person who practices brahmacharya avoids meaningless, harmful or abusive sexual encounters and uses their sexual energy to regenerate the connection to the spiritual self.
  • Aparigraha – Controlling the desire to acquire and hoard wealth. Aparigraha suggests we take only what is necessary, and we do not to take advantage of a situation or behave greedily. Do you really need more shoes, another car, or to be the centre of the conversation when you see your friends? Aparigraha also encourages releasing our attachments to things and an understanding that change is the only certainty in life.

2.       Niyama

Niyama refers to self-discipline and responsibility, how we treat ourselves. There are five niyamas:
  • Shauca – Purity and cleanliness. Purity refers to keeping yourself, your clothing, and your surroundings clean. Eating fresh and healthy food. Shauce also refers to the cleansing of the mind of its negative and disturbing emotions like hatred, passion, anger, lust, greed, delusion and pride.
  • Santosha – Contentment and gratitude. Santosha refers to the cultivation of contentment and tranquility by finding happiness with what you have and who you are, rather than focusing on what you don’t have or what you would rather be. To be at peace and content with our lifestyle even while experiencing life’s challenges and difficulties becomes a process of personal and spiritual growth.
  • Tapas – Austerity and self-control. Tapas refers to showing discipline of body, speech, and mind. The purpose of developing self-discipline is to control and overcome the short term distractions and desires, in order to stay focused and direct the mind and body for spiritual growth and purpose.
  • Svadhyaya – Self-reflection and study.  This refers to the study of sacred texts, which are whatever books are relevant to your spiritual practice and inspire and guide you on your spiritual path. It also refers to any activity that cultivates self-reflection and to intentionally develop self-awareness in all our activities and practices, to respect and accept our limitations and to recognise our less positive traits with a view to compassionately and patiently working to grow beyond them.
  • Ishvara-Pranidhana – Celebration of the Spiritual. The final Niyama refers to the recognition that the spiritual or Divine suffuses everything and through our awareness of this we can embrace our role as part of the Divine energy.

3.       Asana

The postures of yoga are used to prepare the body for meditation. In the West we often consider the practice of asana or postures as an exercise regimen or a way to stay fit, however, in order to sit for any period of time in meditation, it requires a supple and healthy body. If you are free of physical distractions it is easier to control the mind and internalise the senses for the advanced practices of meditation.

4.       Pranayama

Prana refers to the life force or energy that exists everywhere and flows through each of us and is generally best understood through the breath. Pranayama is the control and extension of breath and prana within the body. The practices of pranayama purify the body and removes distractions from the mind making it easier to concentrate and meditate.

5.       Pratyahara

Pratyahara refers to the withdrawal of the senses from conscious awareness. Pratyahara can occur during meditation, pranayama, or when performing yoga asana; any time when you are focusing your attention inward.  

6.       Dharana

Dharana means concentration or one-pointedness of mind and is often practiced with a focus such as a candle flame. In dharana, concentration is effortless; you know the mind is concentrating when there is no sense of time passing.

7.       Dhyana

Concentration without an object is called dhyana, this leads to the state of meditation. The practice of meditation is not unconsciousness or lack of awareness, but rather is a state of heightened awareness and a feeling of connection with the universe. The calm achieved in meditation spreads to all aspects of your life.

8.       Samadhi

The ultimate goal of yoga is Samadhi or absolute bliss. This is superconsciousness, in which you and the Divine become one. Those who have achieved samadhi have attained enlightenment.
There are many different styles and approaches to yoga and although all of the styles are based on the same physical postures each has a particular emphasis; this can be baffling to a beginner to yoga, however it does mean that people of all personalities and abilities should be able to find a style that suits them.
Types of Yoga:
Hatha – Yoga postures, breathing, cleansing practices and relaxation
Raja – Meditation
Bhakti – Devotion
Karma – Selfless service
Jnana – Study
Japa – Mantra
Major styles of yoga:
Traditional Styles developed by Indian Gurus
Hatha – slow-paced and gentle and provide a good introduction to the basic yoga poses, pranayama and meditation.
Integral – gentle, accessible and non competitive style of practice incorporating physical, spiritual, intellectual and interpersonal relationships.
Iyengar – strong focus on alignment and balance in the postures, often with use of props with postures held for longer durations.
Ashtanga – vigorous, athletic and flowing style of practice
Kundalini – one of the more spiritual types of yoga with an emphasis on breathing, meditation, mudras, kriyas and chanting
Sivananda – Slow and gentle practice with a focus on 12 key postures.
Viniyoga – adaptable and usually gentle practice which includes postures, chanting, breathing and meditation
Kripalu – Gentle and individualised practice with an emphasis on meditation and spiritual transformation
Contemporary styles developed in the West
Bikram – vigorous yoga postures in a heated room between 95-100 degrees.
Anusara – light-hearted, flowing style practice with the use of props.
Forrest – strong physical and emotional practice with an emphasis on healing and transformation
Jivamukti – vigorous flowing practice with themes on philosophy and chanting at each class
Restorative – very relaxing practice with the use of props to open the body through passive stretching with postures held for up to 20 minutes at a time
Yin – postures are held for extended periods of time to stretch the connective tissues like tendons and ligaments.
Alex has been practising yoga & meditation for over 15 years and started teaching 5 years ago. She has recently launched Stress Management for a Modern World, an online mindfulness based stress management course. Alex is from the Isle of Wight, UK, and moved in 2010 to live in Ogliastra, Sardinia for a simpler and quieter life. You can find out more at her websites at: