Finding Your Niche Five Basic Approaches to Yoga

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Since Yoga came to the Western hemisphere from its Indian homeland in the late 19th century, it has undergone various adaptations. Today, Yoga is practiced in five major ways:

✓ As a method for physical fitness and health maintenance

✓ As body-oriented therapy

✓ As a comprehensive lifestyle

✓ As a spiritual discipline

The first three approaches are often grouped into the category of Postural Yoga, which is contrasted with Traditional Yoga (the final two bullets). As its name suggests, Postural Yoga focuses (sometimes exclusively) on Yoga postures. Traditional Yoga seeks to adhere to the traditional teachings as taught anciently in India. We take a look at the five basic approaches in the upcoming sections.

Yoga as fitness training

The first approach, Yoga as fitness training, is the most popular way that Westerners practice Yoga. It's also the most radical revamping of Traditional Yoga. More precisely, it's a modification of traditional Hatha Yoga. Yoga as fitness training is concerned primarily with the physical body's flexibility, resilience, and strength. Fitness is how most newcomers to Yoga encounter this great tradition. Fitness training is certainly a useful gateway into Yoga, but later on, some people discover that Hatha Yoga is a profound spiritual tradition. From the earliest times, Yoga masters have emphasized the need for a healthy body. But they've also always pointed beyond the body to the mind and other vital aspects of the being.

Yoga as a sport

Yoga as a sport is an especially prominent approach in some Latin American countries. Its practitioners, many of whom are excellent athletes, master hundreds of extremely difficult Yoga postures to perfection and demonstrate their skills and beautiful physiques in international competitions. But this new sport, which also can be regarded as an art form, has drawn much criticism from the ranks of more traditional Yoga practitioners who feel that competition has no place in Yoga. Yet this athletic orientation has done much to put Yoga on the map in some parts of the world, and we see nothing wrong with good-natured Yoga "competitions" as long as participants hold self-centered competitiveness in check.

The increasingly popular fad of Acro-Yoga, which specializes in acrobatic moves done in combination with a partner, also falls into the Yoga-as-a-sport category. Only the fittest and most flexible are able to practice this modern variation of Yoga without risk of injury. However, purists find fault with the lack of spiritual and ethical intention behind this style of Hatha Yoga.

Yoga as therapy

The third approach, Yoga as therapy, applies yogic techniques to restore health or full physical and mental function. In recent years, some Western Yoga teachers have begun to use yogic practices for therapeutic purpose. Although the idea behind Yoga therapy is very old, its name is fairly new. In fact, Yoga therapy is a whole new professional discipline, calling for far greater training and skill on the part of the teacher than is the case with ordinary Yoga. Commonly, Yoga is intended for those who don't suffer from disabilities or ailments requiring remedial action and special attention. Yoga therapy, on the other hand, addresses these special needs. For example, Yoga therapy may be able to help you find relief from many common ailments. Chapter 22 of this book shows you some basic yogic techniques for improving common lower and upper back problems.

Yoga as a lifestyle

Yoga as a lifestyle enters the proper domain of Traditional Yoga. Yoga once or twice a week for an hour or so is certainly better than no Yoga at all. And Yoga can be enormously beneficial even when practiced only as fitness training or as so-called Postural Yoga. But you unlock the real potency of Yoga when you adopt it as a lifestyle — living Yoga and practicing it every day whether through physical exercises or meditation. Above all, you apply the wisdom of Yoga to everyday life and live lucidly, with awareness. Yoga has much to say about what and how you should eat, how you should sleep, how you should work, how you should relate to others, and so on. It offers a total system of conscious and skillful living.

22 Part l: 0ff t0 a Good Start with Yoga

In modern times, a Yoga lifestyle includes caring for the ailing environment, an idea especially captured in Green Yoga. (Check out the sidebar "Healing the planet through Green Yoga" in this chapter for more information.) Don't think you have to be a yogic superstar to practice lifestyle Yoga. You can begin today. Just make a few simple adjustments in your daily schedule and keep your goals vividly in front of you. Whenever you're ready, make further positive changes one step at a time. See Chapter 20 for more on working Yoga into your whole day.

Yoga as a spiritual discipline

Lifestyle Yoga (see the preceding section) is concerned with healthy, wholesome, functional, and benevolent living. Yoga as a spiritual discipline, the fifth and final approach, is concerned with all that plus the traditional ideal of enlightenment — that is, discovering your spiritual nature. This approach is often equated with Traditional Yoga. (We discuss the journey to enlightenment in Chapter 21.)

The word spiritual has been abused a lot lately, so we need to explain how we use it here. Spiritual relates to spirit — your ultimate nature. In Yoga, it's called the atman (pronounced aht-mahn) or purusha (poo-roo-shah).

According to nondualistic (based in one reality) Yoga philosophy, the spirit is one and the same in all beings and things. It's formless, immortal, superconscious, and unimaginably blissful. It's transcendental because it exists beyond the limited body and mind. You discover the spirit fully in the moment of your enlightenment.

What most approaches to Yoga have in common

Most traditional or tradition-oriented approaches to Yoga share two fundamental practices, the cultivation of awareness and relaxation:

✓ Awareness is the peculiarly human ability to pay close attention to something, to be consciously present, and to be mindful. Yoga is attention training. To see what we mean, try this exercise: Pay attention to your right hand for the next 60 seconds. That is, feel your right hand and do nothing else. Chances are, your mind is drifting off after only a few seconds. Yoga asks you to rein in your attention whenever it strays.

✓ Relaxation is the conscious release of unnecessary and therefore unwholesome tension in the body.

Both awareness and relaxation go hand in hand in Yoga. Without bringing awareness and relaxation to Yoga, the exercises are merely exercises — not yogic exercises.

Conscious breathing is often added to awareness and relaxation as a third foundational practice. Normally, breathing happens automatically. In Yoga, you bring awareness to this act, which then makes it into a powerful tool for training your body and your mind. We say much more about these aspects of Yoga in Chapter 5.

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