What is Yoga?
Excerpted and edited from Chapter Three of our book, Yoga for the Special Child® by Sonia Sumar.
Yoga is a scientific system of physical and mental practices that originated in India more than three thousand years ago. Its purpose is to help each one of us achieve our highest potential and to experience enduring health and happiness.
The branch of Yoga that forms the main focus of our teaching work with both adults and children is called Hatha Yoga. Hatha Yoga begins by working with the body on a structural level, helping to align the vertebrae, increase flexibility, and strengthen muscles and connective tissue. At the same time, internal organs are toned and rejuvenated; the epidermal, digestive, lymphatic, cardiovascular, and pulmonary systems are purified of toxins and waste matter; the nervous and endocrine systems are balanced and toned; and brain cells are nourished and stimulated. The end result is increased mental clarity, emotional stability, and a greater sense of overall well-being.
At Mehadevi Yoga, we often remind our students not to strain or force themselves. Yoga is not a contest or a "quick fix." Like the proverbial story of the tortoise and the hare, Yoga favors quiet, consistent application over theatrical displays and superficial accomplishments. It does not require that we transform ourselves overnight into something beyond our capacity. Yoga begins by accepting our limitations, whatever they may be, and working with this self-acceptance as a base. In our daily practice, we gradually learn to transcend our limitations, one by one, and in this way, real and lasting progress is possible.
A Five-Limbed Tree of Yoga
For the children we work with, Yoga can be divided into 5 basic areas of practice:
- asanas, or body postures
- pranayama, or breathing exercises
- cleansing practices
- music and sound therapy
- deep relaxation.
Asana literally means "posture" or "pose." According to an ancient and authoritative text, an asana is "a particular posture of the body, which is both steady and comfortable." We prefer to call these postures "psycho-physical," since they form the basis of Yoga's mind-body integration work. More than a hundred classical poses, with as many variations, can be subdivided into two categories: active and passive. Active poses tone specific muscle and nerve groups, benefit organs and endocrine glands, and activate brain cells. The passive poses are employed primarily in meditation, relaxation, and pranayama practices. The complete set of Yoga asanas covers the entire human anatomy, quite literally from the top of the head to the tips of the toes. Regular practice helps to correct postural and systemic irregularities, and to maintain the entire physiology in peak condition.
The greatest benefit from practicing asanas comes when we learn how to relax in a given pose. Contrary to what most of us have been taught, real relaxation results from a state of deep concentration, in which the mind is totally focused on a single object. During the practice of asanas, the object of concentration is the body. The student focuses his mind on the incoming and outgoing breaths, the steady flexion and extension of different muscle groups, or other bodily sensations. Ideally this inward focus should be maintained throughout the entire Yoga class.
Pranayama is the science of proper breathing. Breath is the main source of nourishment for all the cells of the body. We can live without food for weeks, without water for days, but without oxygen for only a few minutes. The average person uses only about one-seventh of his total lung capacity. By learning how to increase this capacity with deep abdominal breathing, plus specific pranayama practices, we can increase the flow of vital energy to various organs in our bodies, build our immunity to disease, and overcome many physical ailments.
The way we breathe also has a profound effect on the nervous system. Our brain cells use three times more oxygen than other body cells. By regulating the breath and increasing oxygenation to brain cells, we help to strengthen and revitalize both the voluntary and autonomic nervous systems. When practiced consistently, pranayama also has a powerful stabilizing effect on the mind and emotions.
At the beginning of each Yoga class, we employ several pranayama practices in order to prepare students for the asanas that follow. Pranayama and asanas work hand-in-hand to balance and integrate different physiological functions and to help dissolve emotional blocks and negative habit patterns that can obstruct the flow of vital energy within the body.
Purification (cleansing) practices include: a pranayama practice for eliminating excess phlegm and mucus from the respiratory system; an eye exercise; and a special technique for isolating and rolling the abdominal muscles. When properly performed, this last technique gives a powerful self-massage to the organs of the abdomen, resulting in improved digestion and relief from constipation.
Music and sound therapy use rhythm and melody, combined with hand movements and sound combinations, to develop concentration, breath coordination, communication and motor skills, as well as appreciation for the essentials of tone and harmony. In addition, studies have shown that the repetition of certain sound patterns can produce a calming and healing effect on the nervous system and psyche. The concept of sound therapy is as ancient and natural as the chirping of birds, the pitter-patter of a summer rainfall, or the internal rhythms of our own heartbeat and respiration. By combining sound therapy techniques with traditional Yoga practices, such as chanting and intonation, it is possible to create an ideal learning environment for all levels of Yoga practitioners.
Deep Relaxation is traditionally the conclusion and culmination of every Yoga session. During 10 - 20 minutes of complete silence and immobility, deep relaxation allows the body to absorb all the benefits of the previous asanas, pranayama, and cleansing practices.
When working with infants and toddlers, soft music is combined with massage of the feet and nape of the neck to help induce relaxation. For children and adults, deep relaxation begins as they lie down on their backs with palms up and legs spread one to two feet apart. Using soft background music and muted lighting, the instructor gently guides students through the relaxation process, encouraging the release of physical tension and mental stress by bringing the attention to various parts of the body. Visualization and meditation techniques are used in this part of the practice, as students direct their minds to points of tension and areas of blockage in their bodies. This is followed by a short period of unstructured relaxation, including meditation on the in- and out-flow of the breath, and the practice of pure awareness, undisturbed by distractions from the physical body.
In life, it is necessary to learn how to relax after a period of activity. People spend approximately one third of their time in sleep, trying to recoup the energy and vitality they expended during the day. Unfortunately, many never achieve this objective because they haven't learned the essentials of relaxation. Relaxation practices in Yoga are different than sleeping, but their benefits are similar, and the principles of deep relaxation can be applied with equal effectiveness to our sleeping hours as well as our waking ones.
When properly done, deep relaxation can become a powerful meditation practice that helps to anchor and stabilize the mind's awareness in a pool of deep tranquility and peace.