FOR LIFE HANDBOOK
ALEXA SIMPSON, M.P.H., M.F.A., C.C.H.T.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF YOGA
WHAT IS HATHA YOGA?
WHAT IS PRANAYAMA?
ELEMENTS OF A CLASS
DEVELOPING A PRACTICE AT HOME
WHY DO YOGA?
No matter what
your level of practice or your age, you will benefit from the yoga
poses and breathing exercises that you learn in class. According
to Dr. James Spira at Duke University Department of Medicine &
Psychiatry, yoga has been found to help reduce stress reactions,
stabilize mood, increase focus and concentration, and improve physical
health. It is never too late to begin. I know one man who for two
years suffered constant back pain, requiring heavy medication and
traction. Eventually risky back surgery was proposed. However, in
the meantime he had begun daily yoga practice. His pain disappeared
and the surgery was not needed. He continued doing yoga every day
and two years later was able to dance at his 85th birthday party!
I have heard many such stories from people who have cured themselves
of a wide range of ailments through yoga. Arthritis, asthma, the
after-effects of injuries, chronic back and neck problems, respiratory
and digestive problems; these are just a few ailments that have
resolved naturally through regular practice of yoga.
More important, yoga is a thorough system for maintaining health
and slowing down the aging process. Your yoga practice will help
you develop greater flexibility and balance, tone and strengthen
muscles, boost your immune system, increase physical energy and
mental focus, improve digestion, and soothe the nervous system.
The poses and breathing exercises also give e a massage to internal
organs and glands. consistent practice at home as well as in class
will bring the maximum benefit, and help you reduce the damaging
effects of stress that have become so common in our "modern"
A BRIEF HISTORY
Yoga is an ancient system of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual
development that evolved at least three or four thousand years ago
in India. Our earliest written record of the complete system of
yoga, including Hatha Yoga (the physical postures) and Pranayama
(the breathing exercises), is contained in the Yoga Sutras, a two-thousand
year-old text by Patanjali.
WHAT IS HATHA
Yoga literally means 'to yoke', and signifies the union of body
and mind so that they move as one. In order for the poses to bring
about the integration for which they were designed it is very important
to be fully engaged in the poses through focused awareness and guided
breath. Hatha means 'sun, moon' and implies the balance or merging
of masculine and feminine, strong and yielding, action and stillness.
There are hundreds of yoga postures or poses, and they all have
names. Many refer to animals or objects which the poses resemble:
for example, cobra, boat, tree, and plow. The poses can be divided
into back bends, forward bends, and twists. In addition, a pose
may be described as reclining, seated, raised, standing or inverted.
A few of the poses are specifically designed to develop balance.
Many of the poses have variations with differing degrees of difficulty.
WHAT IS PRANAYAMA?
Pranayama is the name for the breathing exercises that are one of
the eight aspects or 'limbs' of yoga. The literal meaning of Pranayama
is control or discipline of the prana. Prana, which could be loosely
translated as vital energy or life force, is believed to be intimately
linked to the breath. Breath is seen as the external manifestation
of prana. The breathing exercises quiet the mind, bring about a
sense of inner calm and balance and increase energy. They also expand
lung capacity, supercharge the blood with oxygen, help clean toxins
out of your body, improve digestion as the abdominal organs are
massaged by movement of the diaphragm, soothe and strengthen the
nervous system, and lead to a general improvement of health. Pranayama
are especially helpful for people who suffer from asthma and other
Traditionally it is recommended that the practice of Pranayama be
preceded by a period of rest of at least a few minutes in the Relaxation
Pose (Savasana). The breathing exercises may be practiced in any
simple seated posture as long as the spine is erect and you can
rest your hands on your knees. The meditative postures are best:
Accomplished Pose (Siddhasana), Lotus Pose (Padmasana), and Favorable
Pose (Swastikasana). However, you may also use Pelvic Pose (Vajrasana)
or simply sit on a chair with your feet on the floor and back straight.
One of the exercises, the Hissing Breath (Ujjayi Pranayama), may
be practiced even while standing or walking.
A 'YOGA FOR LIFE' CLASS
consist of varying combinations of the following:
- Eye movement
exercises (Nethra Vyamamam) and warm-up stretches
- The Sun Salutation
(Surya Namaskar) This is a set of six to eight poses that are
repeated and linked together in a series, each pose flowing into
the next. It is recommended that a yoga session begin with a few
rounds of Sun Salutation to loosen and warm up the body (see inside
- A selection
of individual poses: back bends, forward bends, twists, balancing
poses and inversions
- A guided,
deep relaxation process
- A series
of breathing exercises (Pranayama)
PRACTICE AT HOME
In order to derive the most benefit from yoga it is important to
develop at least a simple practice at home. If you can do just twenty
minutes a day you will notice the difference. You will experience
increased flexibility, improved mental focus and greater emotional
steadiness. In this amount of time you could do a couple of rounds
of sun salutation and a twisting pose, practice your shoulder stand,
and do a few minutes of breathing. Choose a quiet time and place
to do your practice. Soft music may be conducive, but do not try
to watch TV or listen to the radio.
postures are not done with strain. Be gentle with your body. If
you push it, your body (and your mind) will rebel. Maximum flexibility
in the long run will result if you relax:
- Before each
- As you are
coming into the pose,
- During the
- As you are
coming out of the pose!
your breath to relax. Take deep, slow breaths. As you inhale imagine
breathing into the area you are stretching. Exhale and release,
imagining the breath removing tension and toxins from that area.
Let go and allow gravity to assist you instead of willfully pushing
yourself. Do not hold your breath unless instructed to do so.
WEAR LOOSE CLOTHING*:
It is important that your clothing be loose around the waist so
that your diaphragm can move freely. Tights and a T-shirt or leotard
are best. 'Sweats' are also fine.
HAVE AN EMPTY
STOMACH: Don't eat for at least two hours before you begin. You
need to be able to move your diaphragm, compress your abdomen, and
do inverted poses without discomfort.
USE A THICK
BLANKET: Especially in the beginning, you will find it helpful to
use a folded or rolled-up blanket for support in certain poses until
you develop more strength and flexibility. You may also want to
cover yourself with a blanket during deep relaxation. Blankets are
provided in class.
USE A 'STICKY
MAT'*: You may practice many yoga poses comfortably on a carpeted
or wood floor; however it is important to do standing poses, twists
and some other poses on a non-slip surface. If you are tensing muscles
and exerting effort to keep your feet or hands from slipping, you
cannot fully relax into the pose and focus all your energy and attention
in the areas you are stretching. A sticky mat provides the best
surface for practicing yoga. (You may purchase a 'sticky mat' at
Yoga For Life for $24 + tax)
A PILLOW OR YOGA BOLSTER*: In class you will learn how to develop
better extension and openness in the back, abdomen and chest by
lying across a pillow or yoga bolster. Practicing this at home will
prepare you for the back bends and forward bends we will do in class.
LEVEL OF PRACTICE: You can choose the level of stretch that is comfortable
for you. An easier variation should be practiced until it can be
done with ease before moving up to a more difficult variation. Some
poses help your body prepare for more demanding ones. Only attempt
those poses for which you have done the appropriate preparation.
Come out of each pose when you need to, without waiting for my signal.
PRACTICE DURING MENSTRUATION: It is best to avoid all inverted poses
and those that increase body heat. Either refrain from yoga practice
altogether during the first three days or do only cooling postures.
(Ask instructor for suggestions.)
MEDICAL PRECAUTIONS: If you have any medical condition for which
you are (or should be) under the care of a physician or chiropractor,
it is advisable to consult with her or him before beginning yoga
or any program of physical exercise. The instructions and recommendations
offered in this class are in no way intended as a substitute for
ASK FOR ASSISTANCE:
Please catch my attention during class if you are in doubt about
a pose. For more in-depth help, I am available after class or you
may set up a private yoga session.
After a class, drink water during the day to wash out toxins that
have been released.
I recommend purified water because studies have shown the chlorine
in tap water to be harmful.
ENJOY! I hope
you continue to practice and enjoy Yoga . . . For Life . . . and
reap its many benefits.
* Sticky Mats,
straps and sand bags can be purchased at Yoga For Life. Yoga bolsters
and blocks may be special ordered.