Why do yoga?
Yoga benefits the practitioner on a physical, mental and "pranic" or life-energy level. Physically, asanas help increase and maintain mobility of the spine, toning the nervous system. The gentle movements bring flexibility to the other muscles of the body, as well as massaging the glands and internal organs. With a varied practice, circulation is improved, ensuring a rich supply of nutrients and oxygen to all the body's cells.
Mental benefits arise because awareness and concentration in the postures free the mind from disturbances and promote steadiness of mind, which can help to develop self-awareness.
Pranic benefits arise because the postures work on the body's energetic system. This can take time and regular practice, but the benefits accumulate and last.
Spiritually, the yogic method provides guidelines for our evolution from self-awareness to awareness of the world around, and finally unity with the universe. Astanga yoga* means "eightfold path", beginning with behaviour and resulting in a steady mind:
Yama (abstension) - truth, non-violence, control of sexual energy, non-stealing, non-covetousness.
Niyama (observance) - austerity, purity, contentment, study, surrender of the ego.
Asana - steady poses.
Pranayama - control of vital energy through the breath.
Pratyahara - withdrawal of the senses.
Dharana - concentration of the mind.
Dhyana - meditation.
Samadhi - the super-conscious state.
It's a journey, not a race. Developing a bit of awareness of our thought patterns helps us towards contentment, and to begin to reach beyond our daily concerns to a higher level of concern and awareness - for others, for our world, for the future.
*not to be confused with the popular use of the term "astanga yoga" which refers to the strong style of vinyasana yoga practice developed by P. Jois.
The Business of Yoga
Yoga is a phenomen. The growth of this industry in the West started to gain momentum in the 1950s when Hollywood stars began to practice. In the 1970s it became associated with the "new age" movement, and its popularity grew within the holistic-health realm until it grew into its own industry by the mid-1980s
What made yoga so popular?
For many involved in the industry in the earlier days - 1980s and 90s - it was an extension of a dedicated practice. As business boomed, franchises were born and yoga became accessorised. Yoga mats were followed by a plethora of props; yoga pants were followed by entire high-end clothing ranges; yoga accessories for smell-nice, sound-nice, feel-nice studios and home practices flourished.
The proliferation of yoga in the West has made it widely acceptable, available, affordable and varied. It has filled the tourism trend for activity holidays as well as uber-luxury holidays. It has filled the spiritual gap for an increasingly religiously disenchanted, overpopulated, extremist/terrorised world.
It has taken on a gloss, a gymnastic quality. It has been overwhelmingly attended by young (25-45), female (over 80%), educated, well paid tranche of the population. It has lost its traditional look and feel and been reivented over and over (hot/power and restorative/therapeutic yoga styles are two ends of the spectrum).
It has made billionaires of a clever few, and a living for a whole swathe of people.
Original research of the Irish market undertaken in 2013-2014 indicates that people associate yoga with relaxation and flexibility above all, and seek out yoga for stress management as well as fitness. As the ranks of teachers grows exponentially (a single studio may accredit over 20 new teachers per year) yoga seems on the path for continued growth With a gentle approach and the practice of looking inward, yoga is a practice that can start as young as age 8 and continue through life.
Preparing for yoga
Yoga is best practiced on an empty stomach. Eat a light meal 2-3 hours before practice, or practice in the morning before breakfast.
Dress in layers. Wear non-restrictive clothing. Have a mat or towel on which to practice.
Asanas are best practiced in bare feet. Leave shoes outside the practice room.
Maintain a peaceful frame of mind before practice, that is, when you enter the practice room, move quietly, speak softly, prepare mentally.