Yoga in a Nutshell: Yoga poses and what they're for

In a nutshell:

  • A typical yoga class focuses on poses

  • The poses are called ‘asanas’ but you don’t need to look fancy to be ‘doing yoga’

  • The poses are only one of eight stages (or limbs) of yoga

  • Yoga is the science of self realisation - you are one with the universe

  • It takes a lot of effort to get through the eight limbs to the end goal and become enlightened

  • We might not ever get there but we can enjoy the journey and experience lots of the benefits

Yoga’s posing in Lycra and doing some breathing right?

Well, for some, posing in tight pants is what yoga is but… it’s not really about that.

You’ll have seen images of yoga poses. Lots of pictures show thin white girls doing circus act poses in front of a sunset in Costa Rica. They are beautiful to look at but try not to let that put you off. It’s not really what yoga is about. (Although I’m not going to turn down a trip to Goa if anyone’s offering?)

Anybody can do yoga; old, young, any shape or size, any ability. You don’t have to be a contortionist to say ‘I’m practising yoga’. It’s not what the pose looks like it’s what you’re feeling. Are you breathing? Are you aware of your body? Are you concentrating on doing the pose and nothing else? Then you are doing yoga. A pose should work for your body not the other way round and you don’t need to look like an Olympic gymnast to be a yogi.

Poses, or in yoga speak, ‘asanas’ [arr-ser-ners], are the physical practice of yoga. Usually this is where students start - they join a yoga class and do yoga poses.

So, what’s the difference between yoga and Pilates or gymnastics or any other sport? Each of these disciplines has its own goal. But yoga is very different from an exercise class.

The word ‘Yoga’ translates from Sanskrit as ‘union’. The essence of yoga is to still the mind; once the mind is quiet, the spirit, mind and body can become one. In the ancient yoga scripts yoga is described as “a deliverance from contact with pain and sorrow”. It is the science of self realisation.

The body cannot be separated from the mind. The mind doesn’t end and the spirit begins. They cannot be divided. By practising the asanas it brings a state of equilibrium to the body, mind and spirit. It is the control of the mind that makes yoga different from other exercises or sport. The poses are just one part of the whole of  the science of yoga.

The physical practice is one of eight steps, or limbs, of yoga. Some yoga gurus (teachers) recommend starting with the poses limb and then the rest will follow.

The idea of the physical practice (the poses) is to strengthen the body so it is capable of enduring the other steps (working their way up to the eighth step of meditation and finally the state of bliss or enlightenment called ‘Samadhi’). For most people going to a yoga class is enough to get the benefits they want: a stronger and more flexible body and a calmer mind.

“Asanas have been evolved over the centuries so as to exercise every muscle, nerve and gland in the body. They secure a fine physique, which is strong and elastic without being muscle-bound and they keep the body free from disease. They reduce fatigue and soothe the nerves. But their real importance lies in the way they train and discipline the mind.”
— B K S Iyengar, “Light on Yoga”

Iyengar was a very well respected yoga master (both in the West and India) and practised his own style of yoga. He was a stickler for correct alignment and getting all the limbs in the right place. Some of his top tips for your practice are:

  • Practice on an empty stomach

  • Choose a clean, airy place free from insects and noise

  • Breathing should be done through the nostrils only

  • At the end always lie down in savasana to recover

B K S Iyengar practising yoga asanas.

The end goal of yoga is enlightenment (samadhi) or self realisation. This is when the mind and object of meditation are joined as one. You are not separate from the universe, you are as one. This is the highest spiritual state you can reach. True enlightenment is a constant state of peace, clarity and connection (to the universe, to everything; there is no distinction).

You might think, “I haven’t got time for that. I’ve got tea to cook!”. But, you might have moments when you experience enlightenment, even if it’s for a fraction of a second. For example, at the very top of a breath in. That little pause where everything stands still. And then it’s gone again. The practice of yoga is to get better at experiencing this moment for longer and longer periods of time. You may not ever reach true enlightenment but the journey will still help you to gain a stillness; a strength and control over your body and mind.

Further reading: 

If you want to you, there’s so much more to delve into.

A great article (easy to read) about the benefits of yoga for the body, for stress, balancing emotions, you name it: 

Netflix ‘On Yoga. An Architecture of Peace’. 

This is a wonderful film on Netflix. It’s about a famous American photographer, Michael O’Neill, who took some of the most well known portraits of Hollywood actors. He suffered an injury to his camera-button-pressing hand and found yoga as a way to cope with the physical and mental trauma he felt afterwards. It’s a cinematic feast for the eyes; it has a wonderful soundtrack (which I often play in class) and reveals what yoga is all about.

“The quality of your breath is the quality of your life.”

Ruth JaneComment