The United Nations General Assembly unanimously declared 21 June - the longest day of the year - to be International Yoga Day, or just Yoga Day as it is known. Originating from such an esteemed body and being celebrated now since 2015, many people across the world recognise the positive impact of yoga on their lives. Originating in India, it embodies unity of mind and body, thought and action, man and nature. Two yogis who can testify to the power of its wellbeing share what it brought to their lives and give you a number of starting positions for you to try.
Yoga is an ancient practice of philosophy, science, lifestyle and physical movements which originated in India, in the Himalayas. It was originally taught and passed down from teacher to student verbally, until it was later written down in the ancient Sanskrit language, in around 400 BC, by the esteemed sage, Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutras.
Yoga is often known as 'Asana', which are the poses or movements which make up a yoga session as you will be taught in a yoga class. However, this is only one of the eight limbs of the yoga practice, the other most well-known being Pranayama, or breathing techniques.
While I don't recall the first time I practised yoga, what I do know is that it’s been part of my life now for going on 25 years. Yoga - and meditation - has been the perfect antidote for my busy mind. It has helped me to switch off when I need it most, to take a pause and appreciate the present moment.
I initially started practicing yoga as exercise, an alternative to the gym. However, writing about it now, I find the first things that come to mind are the benefits it’s had on my mental wellbeing. Peace of mind, clarity of thought and less stress, to name but a few.
Off to the spiritual home of Yoga
Don’t get me wrong the physical transformation has been just as good, and nothing beats that lovely stretched out and soothed feeling in your body after a great yoga class. For me that’s been a side benefit of my yoga practice and I agree with Patanjali, who said: “Yoga is the practice of quieting the mind.”
My love of yoga inevitably took me to India. A three-week long trip to an ashram in Kerala that was everything I dreamed it would be and more. It was mystical, enchanting, emotional and ultimately life changing, all at once.
My journey to the ashram saw me fly to Thiruvananthapuram. Thankfully this tongue twister of a city is more conveniently known as Trivandrum, the capital and largest city of the southern Indian state of Kerala. The area is a major tourist centre, with the well-known beaches of Kovalam and Varkala nearby and, of course, you can cruise the Keralan backwaters on the famous houseboats.
A visit to Kanyakumari on the southern tip of India is a must. It’s the meeting point of three oceans - the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean - and a place of religious significance, where Swami Vivekananda, the saint and philosopher, meditated atop a rock which is now named in his honour. Sunrise and sunset are truly magical times at this special place.
My time in Kerala was spent at the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram, a tropical paradise by the edge of the Neyyar Dam Lake. Set among the foothills of Kerala’s Western Ghats, the ashram is surrounded by forest, coconut trees, lush greenery, colourful flowers and gently trickling water fountains at every turn. I couldn’t have chosen a more perfect location for my yoga immersion.
Set amidst this beauty, day-to-day life at the ashram was filled with meditation, yoga sessions and teachings. I lost all sense of time, and learned to rely on the sounding of a gong that echoed around the ashram to signify the start and end of the various daily activities.
The early morning gong at around 5am saw my fellow yogis and I silently make our way to the open-air hall for morning Satsang or group meditation and chanting. Night turned into day during this hour or so and my senses came alive as the air got warmer, the birds started singing, insects could be heard humming, and the scents of the tropical flowers were carried on the warm air as the flowers opened up to the morning sun.
Sound idyllic? It was. Even now, years later, I can close my eyes and take myself back there in an instant, recalling every moment.
One morning we ventured outside of the ashram and walked into the darkness following a single torchlight. Our intention was to sit and meditate, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. As the sun started to rise and my senses awakened, this time I opened my eyes to find we were seated on the edge of a lake. The peaks of the Western Ghats were perfectly mirrored in its stillness. It was a wondrous moment I will never forget - I don’t think I’ve ever felt so peaceful as I did right then. Totally in awe of the gentle and soothing nature around me, I felt such a small part of the Universe, and yet so connected to everything.
With meditation over, the next gong signified it was time for a cup of tea before the first of two daily yoga sessions. My favourite place to practice was on a rooftop overlooking the lush, untouched greenery that seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see. Savasana at the end of class was always welcome and with the cooling breeze it was so easy to relax surrounded by such beauty. Kerala is, quite righty, known as ‘God’s Own Country’.
Three hours of yoga a day left my body feeling supple and stretched beyond anything I’d ever experienced. I swear I grew a few inches taller from the countless sun salutations I practiced - reaching my fingertips just that bit further each day into the expansive bright blue Indian skies.
The ashram was formerly an ayurvedic sanctuary of healing offering ayurvedic massages which, two weeks in, my aching and tired body was so grateful for. The Abhyanga massage promised benefits for my mind, body, skin and immune system. It involved copious amounts of oil and I was laid bare on a big wooden table - not for those who like to maintain any modesty! To this day though, I have to say they are the best massages I’ve ever had - strong, deep and so invigorating.
Time seemed to stand still during my stay, as I lived and breathed yoga and meditation each day, from pre-dawn until lights out at 10pm. It was finally time to leave the embrace of this nirvana though, and as the gong sounded for my final Satsang at the ashram, I reflected on what an amazing experience I’d had. My body and mind felt cleansed, I was healthy and full of vitality. India didn’t disappoint and will always be part of my soul.
Reach your own nirvana
Interested in trying out some yoga for yourself? Here Balanced by Aquila yoga teacher, Laura Hodgson, introduces you to some examples of Asana and Pranayama in a Vinyasa Yoga practice. These yoga practices are said to have many mental and physical benefits for the body and mind.
Vinyasa Yoga is a fun, energetic and dynamic form of yoga which synchronises breath with movement.
Pranayama is breath control or breathing exercises, which are traditionally practiced at the beginning and the end of a yoga practice, as well as during meditation.
Asanas are the physical poses or postures adopted during a yoga class. Asana also means seat or connection to the earth, which these positions are designed to do - to make you feel at one with nature's elements.
Below are just a few of the key asanas in a Vinyasa practice which you might like to try at home or to familiarise yourself with before trying out a yoga class on International Yoga Day.
Easy Cross Leg - Sukhasana
Take a cross-legged seating position, but do not force your legs to cross fully if that is not comfortable for you. Take at least 10 deep breaths or sit for longer if you can. Establishing connection with your breath in this pose is crucial to aid the easeful flow in a Vinyasa Yoga practice. You can close your eyes while holding this position, or find a spot beyond the tip of your nose to focus on - this gaze is called your Drishti. While the pose is termed easy, it gets easier and more beneficial in terms of relaxing mind and body as you progress further in a yoga practice. You can make your seat more comfortable by sitting on a block, firm cushion or blanket.
Warrior I - Virabhadrasana I
This is a strong and foundational pose of the yoga practice. Your stance is long, with a bent front knee. Inhale your arms upwards towards the ceiling and hold with your arms energised upwards. Your back foot should be in full contact with the ground, with your toes pointing to about 10 o’clock on the left foot, which should be placed at the back of the mat. When your right foot takes its turn at the back of the mat, your toes should be pointing to about 2 o’clock. Your body core should be stretched as you gaze forward.
A more modern yoga asana, this pose can be taken from Warrior I. Interlace your hands behind your back and remain steady in the feet. With control, slowly lift your chest on an inhale of breath and extend it forward to the inside of your thigh of your front leg, exhale slowly as you bow. The hands remain interlaced. This asana will challenge you to maintain your breath, balance and strength in the standing leg.
Warrior II - Virabhadrasana II
Your feet are the same distance as for Warrior I, but the back foot is turned further out. Arms are extended towards the front and back of the mat, and your upper body sits central to the pelvic bowl between your legs. Your front leg is bent strongly, and your knee should not be falling inwards.
Sun Warrior or Reverse Warrior - Parsva Virabhadrasana II
This is a lovely side stretch and transition from Warrior II. Again, stay strong in the stance you had in Warrior II. On an inhale breath, flip the front arm so the palm faces towards the sky, then use that hand to ‘paint the ceiling’ as you reach back beyond your head. Your gaze can follow your front arm or turn to your back foot (choose the option that feels best for your neck here). The knee will want to straighten automatically but remember to keep that front leg bent! Hold for a few breath cycles before using a gentle inhale to return to Warrior II.
After spending some time in Savasana (the corpse pose - like a starfish shape on your back) we close our practice seated in the Easy Cross Leg position with our hands resting in prayer at heart centre or Anjali Mudra. Reciting Namaste, an offering meaning ‘I bow to the divinity within you from the divinity within me’, or as often recited in a modern Vinyasa class, ‘the light within me sees, and honours the light within you’ is a lovely way to complete your practice.
Though yoga is known to be a gentle form of exercise that does not jar the joints and is not as vigorous as other forms of exercise, it is still a form of exercise and can be surprisingly strenuous. We would advise that you consult your doctor and/or physiotherapist if you are unsure if yoga is right for you, or if you have any current illness or injury. Yoga should never cause body pain, or any other form of real discomfort. At its core, yoga is about learning to listen to your body, and to treat it with compassion and care.
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