Helpful Hints How to Cultivate Your Own Personal Yoga Practice

Debunking a Few Common Misconceptions About Yoga

Before beginning on our yoga journey, perhaps it's worthwhile to debunk a few commonly held myths about yoga:

■ Yoga is not a religion. Yoga is a time-venerated system of practices to help you achieve optimal physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. For those men who are interested in simply improving their physical health, the physical postures of yoga can be of tremendous benefit. For those men seeking deeper self-knowledge, yoga has other tools to aid them.

■ Yoga is for "real" men. Not only do real men do yoga, but some extremely fit men find the physical demands of some approaches to yoga just as—and sometimes even more—challenging than their traditional fitness activities. Other men appreciate the relaxation and sense of inner peace that yoga can impart. And all men can benefit from yoga.

■ You don't have to be in perfect shape to do yoga. Yoga is not about having the "perfect" body. Yoga is a way to help you achieve the healthiest body and mind you can possibly have. The sooner you begin your practice of yoga, the sooner and the longer you'll be able to reap its many benefits.

How to Choose a Yoga Practice

While many people associate yoga with physical exercise, yoga is more than just a system of stretches and postures. In its largest sense, yoga is a way of life—a comprehensive system of thought that can provide valuable insight into how best to live your life, including not only care of the physical, but also the emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects of your being. This system has evolved over millennia to offer advice and counsel on such varied topics as diet, exercise, breath, meditation, career, right thinking, right work, and much more. Consequently, various branches of yoga have developed that place varying degrees of emphasis on each of these aspects. Throughout this book, you will find detailed information that will enable you to pick and choose what seems most appropriate to your own current needs and desires.

How to Choose a Yoga Teacher

Central to the traditional practice of yoga is the teacher, sometimes known as a guru (literally "dispeller of darkness" in Sanskrit). Yoga has largely been preserved and transmitted through an oral tradition. The teacher plays an important role in communicating the wisdom of the yoga tradition, and also serves as an experienced coach to guide the student on the path of yoga. While it is not necessary to have a teacher to study yoga, practicing yoga with a teacher can be an invaluable experience. This does not mean that you have to become a disciple of a touted guru. Simply taking a class at the local health club, community center, or adult education facility can provide you with helpful instruction in the basics of yoga, as well as offer a supportive environment created by like-minded individuals as you begin or continue to explore the world of yoga.

There are many factors to consider in selecting a teacher. The following tips can help you get started in finding the teacher or class that's right for you:

■ Yoga is both an art and a discipline. As in any healing art, extent of formal training, years of experience, and natural gifts are all important criteria in selecting a teacher.

■ Find out what style of yoga the teacher practices. Some styles of yoga are gentle and easy, while others can be physically demanding. Match the style of the teacher and the type of yoga he or she teaches to your own style and needs.

■ Check the teacher and/or sponsoring organization's background. Unlike some other healthcare fields, there is no legal requirement for yoga teachers to be certified or otherwise credentialed. Many teachers seek certification from nationally recognized organizations, while many others do not. Backgrounds vary widely: Find out as much as you can about the specific training of any prospective teacher.

■ Ask for personal recommendations from friends, healthcare providers, fitness specialists, and other individuals whose judgment you value. Personal recommendation can be the best way of finding a good teacher. However, try to pinpoint what the individual providing the referral likes about the teacher: What your friend values may be different from what you value.

■ Check for professional affiliations. Many yoga teachers join professional associations, which maintain minimum standards of training and experience, and require members to adhere to a code of ethical conduct.

■ If possible, observe a class in advance or attend a single class before committing to a longer series. Note the attitude and behavior of the teacher. Is he or she professional? Respectful? Someone with whom you feel you could work well?

■ Look for notices in your local health food store, metaphysical bookstore, or alternative healing center. You can also find advertisements and listings of yoga teachers in magazines such as Yoga Journal, Yoga International, and other nationally or locally syndicated publications catering to healthy living. Be aware that these are often paid advertisements and do not necessarily represent the best teachers, or the one who may be right for you.

■ Be aware of any teacher who promises specific results, in particular, dramatic health cures. A teacher's role is to guide you in the instruction of yoga, not serve as a medical practitioner.

■ Any fees the teacher charges should be within the prevailing range for your geographic area and the background of the teacher. Expect to pay up to around

$20 for a 60- to 90-minute group class, and around $30 to $100 per hour for private instruction.

How to Make the Most of Your Yoga Practice

While yoga can encompass many practices, most people incorporate the exercise of physical postures into their yoga program. The following hints will help you make the most out of practicing these postures:

■ Try not to eat at least an hour before and after your session. Digestion diverts circulation to the internal organs and can draw energy and attention away from your yoga practice. A full stomach might also make certain postures that put pressure on the abdominal area uncomfortable.

■ Wear loose-fitting, comfortable clothing. If possible, wear clothing made of all-natural products, as they allow the greatest circulation of energy. Remove contact lenses and any jewelry for optimum comfort. It is preferable to do some poses, such as certain balancing postures, with bare feet to increase surefootedness and sense of balance.

■ Be as relaxed and comfortable as possible. If practicing on your own, try to find a space where you will not be interrupted. Turn off the phone or activate your answering machine. Dim the lights. Play relaxing music if you like. Burn some scented incense, light an aromatic candle, or diffuse some pleasing essential oils if that appeals to you.

■ Make sure that the area where you will be practicing is warm. Keep a blanket or large towel nearby with which to cover yourself should you become cold during your practice or when lying in any relaxation poses.

■ Be aware of your body. Pay particular attention to your breath. Synchronizing your breath with your movements can make your practice even more powerful and effective.

■ Pay attention to any signals of pain your body might send you during your practice. Pain is the body's way of warning of potential danger and injury. If you should experience any pain or discomfort during your practice, discontinue the posture in which you feel the pain, and rest.

■ If you wish to use any props during your practice, assemble them ahead of time and place them nearby. Props that you might find helpful include non-skid, sticky mats (to aid your balance); wood or foam blocks; straps; belts; and other accessories that might help you achieve a position more easily and with greater stability and comfort. (See Chapter 17 for information on where to acquire such props.)

■ Be as regular as possible in practice. Try to find the most convenient time for you to do your practice, and do it regularly at the same time. Some people find early morning the best time to do yoga, while others prefer to do yoga at lunchtime as a midday break, or in the evening for relaxation after a day of work or before going to sleep.

■ Try to perform a yoga session that incorporates a variety of postures that provide flow and balance. Tips on different types of postures and how they can be sequenced into a yoga session are presented in "A Complete Yoga Practice Session for Men."

■ Most important, enjoy! Practitioners of yoga from its earliest days to modern times have attested to this ancient art's ability to refresh, rejuvenate, and restore.

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