I am a dedicated student of yoga. I can't imagine my life without it. Physically, it has kept my 45-year-old body lean, strong, supple and healthy. It's increased my focus and concentration.
But what it has done for my awareness is the jewel. Yoga has taught me to feel my reality rather than think about it. It's allowed me to be in a natural state of wonder, open to the moment, receptive to what is. I have become more alive and aware in the present, living intentionally from moment to moment. In this awareness, new inspiration, new insights, new learning and new energies have moved in.
In 1973, at the age of 18, I was a desperate seeker. Having flown from a noisy, disconnected nest, I was in search of Peace, Love and Woodstock.
After a year of Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests, Grateful Dead road trips and backpacking through the Yucatan, I landed on the doorstep of a household that would ultimately propel me into the journey that I am still traveling today.
This was no ordinary suburban household. This was an ashram — a Sanskrit word for "school of yoga," Kundalini yoga in this case — with 18 transplanted yogis from a large ashram headquartered in Bloomington, Ind. They were a mixed group of singles and couples, diverse in their backgrounds and talents, united in their focus of self-development through yoga. After attending one week of classes, the wide-eyed and spiritually hungry flower child that I was moved in.
The next four years in the Sri Rudrananda Ashram were some of the most colorful threads of my life's tapestry. Twice daily, seven days a week, were classes, coupled with expectations of daily personal practice.
The ashram was a nucleus of creative energy: We owned and operated a successful four-star restaurant (Mecklenburg Gardens), as well as a construction company and design firm. There were plenty of challenges, too, as we tried to integrate an ancient Eastern practice into modern society and re-define our own boundaries. It wasn't until I left this second family and again was out on my own that I really began to understand and apply the principles of yoga.
Literally translated, yoga means "union." Yoga might be called the bridge between man's individual soul and universal consciousness. The aim is to re-integrate body, mind and spirit in a psycho-physical disciplined practice that encompasses all three.
Yoga is not a philosophy — though its practice might lead you to a way of life that's philosophical — nor is it a religion. It is not confined to any special creed or dogma, and there is nothing in its principles that is antagonistic to any religious belief. Yoga, by strengthening and disciplining body and mind, helps to develop powers that already exist naturally within us.
Hatha yoga, and its various styles, is the type of yoga typically practiced in the America. There are more yoga practitioners here than in India, its birthplace, and consequently more innovations than the classical, precise methodology that most Indians tend to conform to. The difference in styles are usually about emphasis, such as focusing on strict alignment, coordination of breath and movement, or the flow from one posture to another. Some of the more popular styles are Iyengar, Anusara, Ashtanga, Bikram, Integral, Kripalu, Sivananda and Viniyoga.
What is a class like? You might be envisioning saffron-robed yogis standing on their heads for 30 minutes while chanting in an ancient language, or Madonna-bes in Versace unitards with their legs behind their head. Not quite. Many factors result in a good class including the teacher, the other students and the environment. Here are some important criteria:
Introductory Level: The ideal way to become acquainted with a yoga center is through its introductory or "basics" session. To learn the fundamentals, a good session will provide the foundation for yoga practice: Asanas (poses), Pranayama (breathing) and Dhyana (meditation) exercises. You should feel welcomed, have opportunity to ask questions and be allowed to progress at your own pace.
Supportive Teachers: Good teachers provide individual attention and a sense of joy about yoga.
Atmosphere: Look for a softly lit, well maintained space.
Variety of Styles and Levels: It seems like every fitness center advertises yoga classes today. Some of these amount to little more than stretch sessions with an "OM" or two thrown in. A good yoga center should offer a blend of pose-oriented (such as Iyengar style) and movement-oriented (such as Ashtanga style) classes, with emphasis on proper alignment at several levels for beginners through advanced students. Instruction should offer proper breathing technique and some of the whys of yoga. Teachers should be able to help the novice or master adapt poses to their own limits and capabilities.
Class Availability: A good yoga center has manageable class sizes (ideal is 8-25 students) by providing a full schedule of daily classes. This doesn't mean you won't find a wonderful class at your local church or rec center. Many great yoga teachers teach wherever there's a need. Regardless of the location, ask questions or sample a class before you sign up for a session.
Hatha yoga is "meditation in action." Paradoxically, it begins with learning to be still, to open yourself to inner and outer environments.
It's noticing the sensations and feelings in your body. It's being watchful of the thoughts passing through your mind. It's being aware of how you move your body. It's being keenly sensitive to all you perceive. It requires discipline and practice.
Awareness is an art. Living in a manner that's mindful, present-centered and moment-to-moment puts you in touch with the heart of life.
Perhaps Nadine Stair, an 85-year-old from Kentucky, said it best: "Oh, I've had my moments, and if I had to do it over again, I'd have more of them. In fact, I'd try to have nothing else. Just moments, one after another, instead of living so many years ahead of each day." ©