Yoga - The original practice of mindfulness has always been "on trend"

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Yoga - The original practice of mindfulness has always been "on trend"

Wherever you turn at the moment, you can't escape the buzzword "mindfulness". It leaps off magazine front page headlines and dominates wellbeing features. This is a very positive and welcome development and an inevitable natural response to the relentless pace of modern life. However the reality is that far from being a passing trend, the human desire and need for mindfulness has always existed. Indeed, it has been fulfilled for millennia by the original structured form of mindfulness practice - Hatha Yoga. What Is Yoga? Yoga is an ancient science, art, philosophy and physical practice which aims to unite the body, mind and spirit. In the 2,500 year-old classic text Yoga-Sutra, Pantanjali defined Yoga as “chitta-vritti-nirohdah”, or the “cessation of the turnings of the mind” – in other words, the stilling of the mind and achieving absolute focus regardless of any distractions. Modern day yoga is the term used to describe yoga from the 18th century onwards, when  Indian philosophes and beliefs spread to the Western World following the invasion of India by the British Empire.  However, the classical schools of Yoga teaching meditation and self-study were not very compatible with busy Western lifestyles. So a form of Yoga which emphasised physical effort, known as Hatha Yoga or “forced” Yoga, became more popular in the West.  Hatha Yoga became synonymous with yoga generally in the West, even though in reality it represents  just a small subset of yoga practices.  Physical yoga poses, known as asana, were originally intended merely as a means to the ultimate end of achieving “Samadhi”, a state of bliss achieved via meditation. Modern day practice of Hatha yoga has evolved over the last few centuries from its origins as a branch of Tantric yoga. It emphasises the aspects of Yoga which are more acceptable to Western mindsets and busy modern lifestyles. In particular it focuses on physical asana practice. However, it also includes elements of pranayama (breathing techniques), guided  relaxation and sometimes meditation.  These complementary elements satisfy our growing desire for a form of relaxation and mindfulness to relieve the stress of excessively busy modern lifestyles. Pranayama literally translates from its two component Sanskrit words, life-force (“prana”) and restrain or control (“yama”).  Commonly defined as “breath control”, it is a collection of techniques designed to intentionally alter the breath to produce specific results. Such techniques involve specific combinations and styles of the three components of pranayama – purak (inhalation), rechak (exhalation) and kumbhak (retaining or holding) the breath. Pranayama has a broad multitude of physical, mental and spiritual benefits. The practice of deep abdominal and full yogic breathing enhances the oxygenation of the blood compared to normal shallow breathing. This fuels the muscles more effectively and improves concentration. Mentally, the slowing of the breath boosts the parasympathetic nervous system which helps to lower blood pressure, reduce stress and anxiety with a whole host of associated health benefits. Concentration on the breath calms our thoughts and can even help to unite the subconscious and subconscious mind. Our Yoga classes also feature “mudra” which translates as “gesture” or “attitude”. In the widest sense, mudras are body positions which are thought to have an influence on the energy of the body and mood.  The most recognised mudras are hand gestures and are an extremely simply yet powerful way of focusing concentration thereby aiding relaxation and slowing of the breath. An example of a simple mudra that we use in our Yoga classes in Swindon is Chin Mudra, a symbolic gesture of unification. The thumb is used to represent the divine and the index finger represents the ego.  In chin mudra, the thumb and index finger are joined at the tips to make a circle, with the thumb over the index finger. This symbolises both the union of the conscious and subconscious minds and also the surrender of the ego to the divine. It is a deceptively simple mudra which can powerfully focus one’s intention as one begins a yoga practice. The practice of asanas have many benefits which are physical, mental and spiritual. Physically, asana improve muscle strength and flexibility, endurance, proprioception and balance. Mentally, the performance of asanas provide a focus for our concentration, calming the mind and relieving stress. Spiritually, the ability to comfortably maintain meditative postures is a stepping stone to higher forms of yoga practice such as Dharana, Dhyana and ultimately achieving Samadhi. The first chapter of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika describes how asanas are integral to Hatha Yoga practice: “Being the first accessory of Hatha Yoga, asana is described first. It should be practiced for gaining steady posture, health and lightness of body.”  (Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Svatmarama, CH 1, vs. 19)  As with any form of physical exercise class, a yoga class should incorporate suitable dynamic warm-up, main section and cool-down phases. This has been proven scientifically to be the safest class structure which reduces the risk of injury. For example, it is therefore appropriate to incorporate Surya Namaskar at the beginning of the class as it provides an excellent full-body multi-joint dynamic warm-up. Main phase asanas which focus on strength will tend to shorten the length of the main muscle groups involved. It is therefore important to balance such asanas with those which focus more on flexibility, in order to ensure flexibility is maintained or improved overall.  This will also reduce the risk of injury. A combination of postures of varying intensities is also beneficial mentally for the participants and enables a smoother transition into other sections of the class such as pranayama and meditation. Counterpose asanas are very important to provide balance to yoga practice. The use of counterpose ensures that opposing muscle groups stay balanced in terms of both their flexibility and strength. This is crucial for the prevention of injury. They also provide mental and spiritual balance. So if you feel the need for an oasis of mindfullness in your hectic everyday life, look no further than Hatha Yoga and prepare to restore some harmony to your mind and body. Whether you are joining a Yoga class or practicing at home, we can all benefit from this ancient but increasingly popular practice!  

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