I’ve learned from experience that it’s possible to take hundreds of yoga classes and still not know yoga’s fundamental principles and bases. It’s not that I didn’t listen to my teachers; the information was simply not disclosed. When I went through my teacher training eight years after my very first yoga class I was in for quite a shock. For eight years I had been practicing in ways that were more harmful than helpful, and I actually had no idea what yoga really was.
I’ve since learned of yoga’s potent powers, which can be attained if we practice correctly and understand the target we’re after. When we dedicate so many hours to yoga every week, shouldn’t we be making the absolute most of it? Whether you’re a beginner or have an established practice, here are the principles no student should miss:
Practice yoga on an empty stomach. This means waiting four hours after a heavy meal and at least one hour after a light meal (such as fruit). Our digestive system needs a lot of energy to function properly. It follows that redirecting that energy to yoga postures can disrupt digestion. Don’t drink anything a half hour before or after your practice. It’s also best not to sip water throughout class (although styles like hot and Bikram yoga that cause a lot of sweating may advise otherwise).
The best time to do yoga is in the morning before breakfast. This makes it easy to practice on an empty stomach. We’re inevitably more stiff when we first wake up than at the end of a day’s activity, but stiffness subsides with practice. We’re unlikely to overstretch in the morning, preventing injuries. The second best time to practice is around sunset, when yoga can relieve fatigue from a hard day’s work.
In the two hours before and around sunrise, named brahmamuhurta in Sanskrit, the atmosphere is pure and quiet. The mind is empty of thoughts, making these morning hours especially conducive to yoga and meditation. We feel alert and fresh, and more determined to take on challenging asanas (yoga postures).
Each yoga posture has a purpose and benefits. Flexibility is a well-known benefit of yoga and it’s mostly employed to keep the spine strong and supple (yogis say that you’re only as young as your spine). Asanas that focus on the spine are also meant to improve circulation and nourish the nervous system. All asanas likewise target the internal processes- improving the nervous, endocrine, cardiovascular, lymphatic, digestive, respiratory, urinary and reproductive systems. Organs and glands are stimulated and toned so that they properly function. There is a reason for each posture and a well-rounded sequence will work on the entire internal body.
We can get so much more out of yoga than just exercise; it’s actually a spiritual practice. Hatha yoga is a phenomenal form of exercise as it works on the entire body. But its powers go far beyond the physical. There’s a reason you feel gooey and serene when you finish a yoga class- you are uniting the body, mind, and soul. Yoga is a science with a spiritual aim, meant to bring us to a higher state of awareness. It lays out disciplines and codes of conduct to help us grow. If you only do yoga asanas for a workout and aren’t interested in its spiritual affects, your practice will still have a positive influence on the body. But it’s important to know that a greater yogic philosophy exists should you choose to learn it in order to make the most of your practice.
Practicing with awareness is imperative. This includes being conscious of the sensations throughout the body, the posture itself, the synchronization of breath with movement, and noticing any thoughts or feelings that may arise. In the beginning it may feel like asanas are only concerned with the physical because they focus on movement of the body, but when practiced with awareness they influence and harmonize all levels of being- physical, mental, emotional, psychic, pranic (life force) and spiritual. It’s tempting to let the mind wander to all manner of affairs when you’re practicing, but being mindful and observant is essential to receive yoga’s maximum benefits.
It would be a shame to miss out on yoga’s greatest effects. Knowing how and why to practice make all the difference in taking yoga from a workout to a means of being our best selves, inside and out.
Swami Satyananda Saraswati. Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha. Bihar, India: Yoga Publications Trust, 2008. Print.