What is Yoga?

The word yoga, from the Sanskrit word "yuj", means to yoke or bind and is often interpreted as "union" or a method of discipline. A male who practices yoga is called a yogi whereas a female practitioner is called a yogini.

The Indian sage Patanjali is believed to have collated the practice of yoga into the Yoga Sutra an estimated 2,000 years ago. The Sutra is a collection of 195 statements that serve as a philosophical guidebook for most of the yoga that is practiced today. It also outlines eight limbs of yoga: the yamas (restraints), niyamas (observances), asana (postures), pranayama (breathing), pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), dharana (concentration), dhyani (meditation), and samadhi (absorption). As we explore these eight limbs, we begin by refining our behavior in the outer world, and then we focus inwardly until we reach samadhi (liberation, enlightenment).

In today’s era, most people practicing yoga are engaged in the third and fourth limbs, the asana and pranayama, which are programs of physical postures linked with the breath. These are designed to purify the body and provide the physical strength and stamina required for long periods of meditation.

Is Yoga a Religion?

Yoga is not a religion. It is not necessary to surrender your own religious beliefs to practice yoga. Yoga is a philosophy that began in India an estimated 5,000 years ago. The father of classical ashtanga yoga, the eight-limbed path, (not Sri K. Pattabhi Jois' Ashtanga yoga) is said to be Patanjali, who wrote the Yoga Sutra. These scriptures provide a framework for spiritual growth and mastery over the physical and mental body. Yoga sometimes interweaves other philosophies such as Hinduism or Buddhism, but it is not necessary to study those paths in order to practice or study yoga.

What do I Need to Start Practicing Yoga?

All you really need to begin practicing yoga is your body, your mind, and a bit of curiosity. It is also helpful to have a pair of yoga leggings, or shorts, and a t-shirt that's not too baggy. No special footgear is required because you will be barefoot. If you tend to sweat, have a small towel near your mat to use as you heat up. As your practice develops, you might want to buy your own yoga mat, but most studios will provide mats and have other props available for your use. If you are developing a home practice, purchase a good mat, sturdy blocks, and a long strap made of fabric to help your practice grow.

How Often Should I Practice Yoga to See Results?

Yoga is truly amazing. Even if you only practice for one hour a week, you will experience the benefits of the practice. If you can practice more often, you will certainly experience more benefits. I suggest starting with two or three times a week, for an hour each time. If you can only do 20 minutes per session, that's fine too. Don't let time constraints or unrealistic goals be an obstacle; do what you can and don't worry about it. You will likely find that after a while your desire to practice expands naturally and you will find yourself doing more and more.

What do OM and Namaste' Mean?

Om is a mantra, or vibration, that is traditionally chanted at the beginning and end of yoga sessions. There are two schools of thought on this: 1) It is said to be the sound of the universe when there are no sounds or 2) it is the sound that is heard when all sounds occur at the same time.

Somehow the ancient yogis knew what scientists today are telling us—that the entire universe is moving. Nothing is ever solid or still. Everything that exists pulsates, creating a rhythmic vibration that the ancient yogis acknowledged with the sound of Om. We may not always be aware of this sound in our daily lives, but we can hear it in the rustling of the autumn leaves, the waves on the shore, and the inside of a seashell.

Chanting Om allows us to recognize our experience as a reflection of how the whole universe moves: the setting sun, the rising moon, the ebb and flow of the tides, the beating of our hearts. As we chant Om, it takes us for a ride on this universal movement, through our breath, our awareness, and our physical energy, and we begin to sense a bigger connection that is both uplifting and soothing.

Nama means bow, as means I, and te means you. Therefore, namaste literally means "bow me you" or "I bow to you." I like to think of it as the light, love, and goodness in me recognizes the same light, love, and goodness in you.

The gesture for this is placing both palms together in front of your chest and slightly bowing your head towards your fingertips. This saying or gesture can be towards the instructor, other yogis, or just in acknowledgment to the practice of yoga.

Can I Eat or Drink Before I Practice Yoga?

During the yoga practice you will twist from side to side, turn upside down, bend forward, and backward. If you have not fully digested your last meal, it will make itself known to you in uncomfortable ways. If you digest your food quickly and are afraid you might get hungry or feel weak during yoga class, experiment with a light snack such as fruit, a few nuts, or juice about 45 minutes to an hour before class.

Can I Practice Yoga While I Am Injured or Pregnant?

Yoga is a great way to rehabilitate if you are injured, but always seek advice from your medical doctor as some yoga motions or positions could be more harmful than beneficial while you are healing. By using props and a variety of poses, there are many ways to modify for injuries and other conditions.

If you are pregnant and have previously practiced yoga, then you can continue with your practice. Seek advice from your instructor and doctor regarding positions to  avoid during each trimester (as the fetus develops).

If you have not previously practiced yoga before pregnancy, I do not suggest starting with these videos. Instead, first check with your medical doctor and if cleared, then begin in person with a certified prenatal yoga instructor who can help you understand the movements and how they affect not only you, but your baby growing inside your body.