Updated: Sep 25, 2020
Make a profound difference to your well-being by inviting Yoga into your life. You will not regret it!
If you can control the rising of the mind into ripples, you will experience Yoga
Before beginning this challenge I had formed many erroneous – some offensive – opinions about Yoga. Yoga is for strange folk – yuppie types – clad in neon-coloured Lycra who get their kicks from striking pretentious poses whilst making exaggerated breathing sounds. Yoga is soft and is a pseudo form of exercise for the fragile, for the weak! It’s also easy and therefore not worth my time. I would soon come to realise, as I struggled pathetically to suspend myself in the Crow position, how wrong I was.
This 30DC has completely changed my understanding and has enabled me to see the immense depths of this discipline. My hope is that it will do the same for you. Please read on.
A brief History of Yoga
I knew Yoga was old but exactly how old I knew not. To my surprise it was purportedly conceived over five thousand years ago; though of course not as the complete system we see today. Patanjali, who is considered the “Father of Yoga”, ‘systematised it and compiled the already existing ideas and practices’ into a teachable discipline (Vonne 2012). Since then faithful followers, or practitioners, have transmitted the knowledge, skills and techniques from one generation to the next. Over that extensive expanse of time Yoga has grown and deepened like a river into which many streams flow.
A common misconception is that Yoga is merely a fancy name for flexibility training. ‘When Yoga is mentioned,’ says Swami Satchidananda (1978), a world renowned Yoga master, ‘most people immediately think of some physical practices for stretching and stress reduction. This is one aspect of the Yogic science, but actually only a very small part and relatively recent in development.’ We should instead, then, think of Yoga not as a series of pretentious poses but as a heterogeneous system of self-development that is comprised of separate and in some cases wholly different disciplines or ‘paths’. These paths intertwine, diverge and converge ultimately completing the synthesis of Yoga. They include Karma Yoga, Jana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and Raja Yoga. The personality type of the practitioner will naturally incline to one of the paths ‘but a one-sided development is not recommended, as it can lead to imbalance[s]’ says the Sivananda Yoga Centre in London (1996). ‘The whole person – heart, intellect and hand – should be developed simultaneously, so a synthesis of the four main paths is recommended.’
With that in mind we will now take a brief stroll down each of the four separate paths and familiarise ourselves with their idiosyncratic personalities. Our walk will conclude with an overview of the journeys travelled. Maybe then with the power of retrospection at our disposal we can fashion together a fusion that incorporates favourable elements from the four paths thus enabling us to enjoy an ‘integrated system of education for the body, mind, and inner spirit’.
Karma Yoga, as defined by the Sivananda Yoga Centre, ‘is selfless service, the path by which the mind is most quickly purified and its limits transcended.’ The Karma Yogi pursues a path devoted to others, performing kind deeds and committing acts of compassion. But before the Karma Yogi can strive toward this lofty ideal he first seeks to eliminate egoistical desires and material attachments. For in Karma Yoga it is recognised that there is a causal link between action and its inevitable result. The human condition, then, is an echo of all past actions – if those past actions were good then the echo of our life will be a sweet harmony, if bad a demonic howl. The Karma Yogi, therefore, serves ‘humanity without expecting reward. . . . This enables him to tune to the one underlying divine essence that dwells within all human beings’ (Sivananda Yoga Centre 1996).
Jnana (which translates to wisdom or knowledge) is the branch of Yoga devoted to the development of the mind. As Satchidananda says, the Yogic science is about ‘understanding’ and gaining ‘complete mastery over the mind.’ Consequently, the ‘actual meaning of Yoga is the science of the mind.’ When researching Jnana Yoga nearly all sources began by asserting that it is the most difficult of the four paths. Why is that I wondered? Well, according to Yoga Basics (2018), an internet based organisation that provides source materials and teaching, ‘In Jnana yoga, the mind is used to inquire into its own nature and to transcend the mind’s identification with its thoughts and ego. The fundamental goal of Jnana yoga is to become liberated from the illusionary world of maya (thoughts and perceptions) and to achieve union of the inner Self (Atman) with the oneness of all life (Brahman).’
So, if we follow the path of Jnana Yoga, though it may be an arduous journey through the hostile jungle of the human mind, we might hope to find a clearing where ‘the veil of illusion’ lifts and we experience a sense of enlightenment or inner contentment.
Bhakti Yoga is the path one follows in search of the divine. Practitioners, through the Bhakti discipline, aim to channel emotional energy toward positive life pursuits. In the Yogic science certain negative emotions – such as anger, hatred and jealousy – are thought to impede and obstruct the flow of prana (life energy) through the body. The concept of prana features strongly not only in Yoga but also in Hinduism and Buddhism. It is believed that prana, our essential life force, can be, through wrong living, polluted, diluted and ultimate prevented from nourishing our corporeal and spiritual existence. But ‘when you have removed the obvious obstructions to the circulation of prana out of your kosha (bodily sheaths) will the prana [flow],’ says Robert Svoboda, scholar and author. It is only then that, ‘you can collect and refine it and get it down deep into your marrow,’ and from there positive energy will permeate your very being.
Raja Yoga ‘prescribes a psychological approach, based on a practical system of concentration and control of the mind’ (Sivananda Yoga Centre 1996). The path of Raja Yoga aims to tap the aquifer of ‘latent potential’ that lies under the surface of the conscious mind. Through strict meditation practice the practitioner pursues mastery over the mind – which may explain why Raja Yogi consider themselves ‘heroes of mind training’ – with the ultimate aim of bringing about spiritual and mental development.
Because Sri Swami Satchananda (1978) sums up the science of Raja Yoga best, I have quoted him at length. He tells us that
‘It is an integral approach. It does not simply advocate meditation but takes into consideration the entire life of the person. Its philosophy is scientific. It welcomes and, in fact, demands experimental verification by the student. Its ultimate aim is to bring about a thorough metamorphosis of the individual who practices it sincerely. Its goal is nothing less than the total transformation of a seemingly limited physical, mental and emotional person into a fully illumined, thoroughly harmonised and perfected being – from an individual with likes and dislikes, pains and pleasures, successes and failures, to a sage of permanent peace, joy and selfless dedication to the entire creation.’
Satchananda puts it so sweetly, so passionately, he makes you want to completely immerse yourself in the deep waters of Raja Yoga.
After reading through the brief delineations of the four paths, it may come as a surprise to the uninitiated that the Yogic science is nearly entirely centred on the mind – I must admit, it did to me. But that is Yoga, the endeavour of harmonising our psychological processes with the enigma of experiential reality and achieving mastery and restraint over the rising modulations of the mind. As impoverished an echo as that sentence is of the opening epigraph, we would do well to remember that if we neglect the four paths our journey into Yoga will be an impoverished one.
All this talk of enlightenment and psychological/spiritual emancipation may be a bit off-putting for some. After all, what does this mean to anyone who just wants to get involved in Yoga, not necessarily with the intention of ‘transcending the petty limitations’ of the phenomenological experience but for more practical, utilitarian purposes – such as improved body control, flexibility and strength? What if for now all you want are some physical practices for stretching?
Well, as a starting point you can happily ignore all of the above and simply practice one hour of basic Yoga movements for thirty days. This, if you are disciplined and stick to it, will certainly enhance your flexibility and develop body control. Then maybe when you have experienced the wonderful benefits of what Yoga can provide for your body, your curiosity might be piqued and you may decide to take a stroll down the four paths. But for now let’s have a look at this challenge.
You are to perform one hour of Yoga every day for 30 days.
You can split the hour into 3 X 20 minute sessions, 2 X 30 minute sessions or 1 X 1 hour session.
Before commencing this challenge I had, for about two months, been practicing Yoga. Though I wasn’t really taking it seriously and most of the practice sessions involved static floor stretches with the occasional isometric hold arbitrarily thrown in to the illogical routine that I had cobbled together from a few YouTube videos. Unsurprisingly I didn’t really reap any fruit from my sporadic, half-hearted toiling – just a slight enhancement in general flexibility (and nearly a broken neck when I foolishly tried to impress my other-half by attempting one of the most difficult postures in Yoga). It was during one of these sessions that I decided to embark on a structured, progressive programme. And from this the challenge was born.
Below is a brief sketch of how I approached this challenge.
I broke the hour into two thirty minute sessions as this structure worked best for me personally. This is what I did: I completed a slower, controlled session at 5:30am – which is a terrific way to start the day (I left the house happy and energised with a spring in my step and a smile across my face). The morning session consisted primarily of the movement aptly called Sun Salutation. I won’t attempt a written explanation of this movement as it is quite extensive (just punch the name into you-know-whoodle and all will be revealed). However, what I serendipitously discovered was that the Sun Salutation acts as a brilliant central bough exercise to your session from which a plethora of off-shoots can grow. For example, as I progressed through the movement – which starts in a standing position and takes you all the way down into Cobra then back up into standing – I included a mixture of controlled squats, press-ups and stretches. By the end of the challenge I had included so many off-shoots that ten Sun Salutations (five each side) took over twenty minutes.
In the evening, at 8:30pm on the dot, I tended to work through a more intense routine. In my opinion it is not wise to attempt to learn Yoga from a book – it needs to be seen in action. That’s not to say it can’t be done, but because some of the postures and movements are intricate, and because it is a very fluid form of exercise, it is best to learn from a tutorial video – of which there are millions on the web. One instructor I found to be most helpful, because her teaching and coaching style is particularly lucid, was Cat Meffan. If you type her name into YouTube you will gain instant access to an extensive catalogue of Yoga tutorial videos which accommodate the beginner, the advanced practitioner and everyone in between.
Once a basic routine was in place – a thirty minute morning session (at 5:30am) and a thirty minute evening session (at 8:30pm) – I faithfully and without fail completed one hour of Yoga every day for thirty days. Implementing a rigid regime is extremely important and I strongly advise that you do this prior to undertaking the challenge. Without set timings and a designated space to practice your chances of success will diminish. If you take the ‘I’ll fit a session in as and when’ approach, it is likely that ‘things’ throughout the day will mount up and you’ll either find yourself too tired, lacking in motivation or without sufficient time.
A strict regime, though it can seem a bit militant, certainly keeps you on track: regardless of what I was doing, when 8:25pm rolled round, I rolled out the mat and proceeded to complete my evening Yoga session.
For the first week my body painfully adjusted to some of the more complex movements and positions. The Sun Salutation, for example, requires the practitioner, from the high plank, to step one foot level with the hands whilst the other remains in the out-stretched position. Initially I couldn’t even manage to get my foot within ten inches of my hands. But every day, little by little, I made progress and after the third week I could step beyond my hands. Another position that I noticeably progressed on, one that is notoriously challenging (it requires great upper body strength, mental focus and balance), was the Crow. To perform this pose one must suspend their entire body weight above the ground supported only by the arms (see opposite). My first few attempts resulted in me toppling forward and face-planting the floor, which was somewhat discouraging. With practice and persistence I was soon able to support my weight. By week four I could comfortably hold the posture for over thirty seconds at a time.
By the end of week two I was in my stride. My busy lifestyle comfortably accommodated an extra hour’s activity and I began noticing the many positive ways that Yoga can impact on the mind and body. Across any given week I perform around 8 to 10 hours of exercise. One sin that I continue to commit is the sin of not thoroughly stretching-off after each training session. According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), ten minutes of stretching every day can reduce your chances of developing an exercise related injury by upwards of 50%. I’ve know this for years and I regularly preach it to my students and clients, yet I fail to apply this very important information.
Thanks to this challenge I was engaging in more flexibility training than I had done for years. And the benefits began pouring in. The Range of Movement (ROM) around my joints significantly increased – I enjoyed a greater running stride length and a longer rowing stroke – and the muscle and joint pain that tends to follow me around dissolved away. I also believe that all the stretching and body control movements that I was performing increased my recovery rate after exercise. This is by no means implausible. Stretching has been shown to improve one’s recovery by increasing blood flow into the muscles, flooding them with nutrients, which also, by encouraging the removal of metabolic waste, reduces the severity of the dreaded DOMS (delayed onset of muscle soreness).
Another pleasant and much welcomed positive was improved posture and body control – but not in the way you might initially think. I’ve mentioned in the write-up of a previous 30DC my Thai Boxing predilection. Amongst many other attributes, the science of eight limbs, as it is traditionally know, requires from the practitioner excellent balance and positional composure. It is of paramount importance that when the combatant delivers a kick to their opponent they are able to rapidly return back to the classic Thai Boxing posture. From this position the fighter is able to immediately follow up with another strike or block a counter attack. When throwing kicks at the heavy bag or my sparring partner I could feel my body through every stage of the movement and on landing the strike I found that I could quickly retrieve my leg back to the original position.
Never in a million years would I have guessed that Yoga – a ‘pseudo form of exercise for the fragile' – could possibly improve my Thai Boxing performance.
The final benefit I will briefly talk about is the noticeable reduction in stress I experienced. Of course, the dear reader must remember that the benefits I experienced were purely subjectively perceived. Consequently, because they are not supported on the solid foundation of scientific empiricism, they are entirely worthless to anyone other than . . . me. However, whilst composing this write-up, I by chance happened upon a study featured in a New Scientist report on The Scientific Guide to an Even Better You. After ‘recruiting people who were experiencing high levels of stress’ participants were required to attend eight weeks of Yoga and meditation classes. Though they were only expected to complete 20 minutes of practice, ‘by the end, brain scans showed the volunteers’ amygdala – brain regions that process fear and anxiety – had shrunk, and participants reported feeling less stressed’ (New Scientist 2017).
So though my perceived reduction in stress dwelt in the shadowy realms of subjectivism, there exists some solid substantiating studies that demonstratively support my anecdotal experience. What the above study fails to illuminate is how quickly the participants felt a reduction in stress; was it in the first week or at the end of the eighth? I can confidently say that I enjoyed a noticeable reduction in stress after the first week. By week four I was as calm and collected as I imagine the Buddha to have been, meditating under that bodhi tree.
The Range of Movement (ROM) around all four of my ball and socket joints improved dramatically. If I wasn’t such a slap dash practitioner I might have performed a few measurements to determine precisely by how much the ROM developed over the course of the thirty days. But I didn’t. There are various ways in which we can measure the ROM around a joint. If you fancy doing this consult the book Stretching, by Christopher M. Norris, for the specific testing methods.
I experienced greater body control and in a surprisingly short space of time. How was this evidenced? One of my very great passions (as previously mentioned) is practicing the beautiful art of Muay Thai boxing. It is my contention that Thai boxing is a martial form of ballet and, truly, when two competent practitioners are competing against one another, there is no more poetic use of the human body. After a couple of weeks of Yoga the control of my kicks was markedly better, so too was my balance and flexibility.
I could not only move more freely, more effortlessly, but also with a reduction in pain. Analogous to rust on a mechanical moving part, tight muscles impede movement around the joint. Think how difficult it is to turn a key in a rusted lock, or push the peddles of a bike when the crankshaft is encrusted in rust. What a difference it makes to drip a few drops of oil onto the oxidised steel and watch it dissolve, emancipating the mechanical parts enabling them to function as their design presupposes. Yoga was the oil that dispersed the rust around my shoulders and hips.
I enjoyed augmented proprioception. Proprio-what? Proprioception, as defined by the Encyclopaedia Britannica (online, 2018), is ‘the perception by an animal of stimuli relating to its own position, posture, equilibrium, or internal condition,’ which basically means, without the obfuscating waffle, better mind-body connection. Though it does stand to reason that, if you are going to spend an hour each day performing controlled movements, you will develop a deeper awareness of the physiological processes of your body. Bit of a no-brainer really.
This Concludes the Challenge: 30 Days of Yoga
Encyclopaedia Britannica (2018). Encyclopaedia Britannica [online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/science/proprioception [Accessed 14 June. 2018].
New Scientist (2017): The Scientific Guide to an Even Better You. London, England.
Satchidananda S. S (1978): The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. USA. Integral Yoga Publications.
Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre (1996): Yoga Mind and Body. Great Britain. DK Books.