Essential Yoga : Remember that yoga is all about what feels right to you. Give yourself permission not to stretch as far as what is shown in the illustration. If necessary, hold a pose for a shorter amount of time than what is recommended. Conversely, you may wish to extend a pose if you feel strong enough. Tune into what works for you—your body and mind—at this moment in time.

Meditations

Chapter 4 focuses on meditation (dhyana), a process of quieting the mind and focusing on the present moment. This chapter recommends ways to introduce a regular meditation practice into your life. If you already meditate regularly, we hope the new meditations will add variety to your usual routine.

Choose from among 10 meditations designed to relax the body, calm the emotions, and still the mind. Meditation has been proven to reduce blood pressure, respiration, and heart rate; promote peace and serenity; and bring you into the present. Your entire being will feel calm, relaxed, and refreshed. Have you ever noticed that when you open a book about yoga, you often end up just reading about yoga instead of doing yoga? Many yoga books offer important and interesting information about the history of yoga, the philosophy of yoga, dietary regimes—basically everything you might have ever wanted to know about yoga. But when it comes to actually practicing yoga regularly, all that information tends to be less than useful.

This is where Essential Yoga comes in. It focuses on doing yoga. Designed specifically to get you up (or down!) on the mat, this reference guide is packed with over 100 poses and warm-ups as well as the basic information you need to do them. Detailed illustrations accompany concise, bulleted instructions, along with descriptions of the many physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits you will reap from a regular yoga practice. The simple instructions are accessible and easy to read, and you won’t find lots of extraneous information. All this makes it easier for you to get down to business with a yoga routine.

Essential Yoga focuses solely on hatha yoga, known as “the yoga of activity.” Hatha yoga is one of the most well-known and useful forms of yoga; it is the basis of many other styles of yoga such as Iyengar, Kripalu, Kundalini, Ashtanga, and Bikram, to name just a few. Hatha yoga originally developed as a way for ancient yogis (dedicated yoga practitioners) to prepare body and mind for the stillness, strength, and control required for a meditation practice. However, anyone can practice yoga, a system of personal growth and development achieved through postures, breathing, and concentration. A regular yoga practice promotes and helps maintain physical health, flexibility, and youthfulness as well as mental and emotional well-being.

Literally translated, the word yoga means “yoke” or “unite” and represents the union of mind and body. The Sanskrit word hatha means “union of the opposites”: ha means “sun,” while tha means “moon.” It can also be translated as “determined effort,” which is helpful not only when we’re holding a pose but

whenever determination and perseverance are required in other areas of our lives. Note that these and many other terms used in this book are in Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language that forms the basis of yogic literature.

A typical hatha yoga practice combines physical poses (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayamas), and meditations (dhyanas) as the pathways to balancing body, mind, and spirit. Essential Yoga takes these three key elements—postures, breathing, and meditation—and brings them together into a simple and complete reference guide for yoga practitioners and enthusiasts. The book is perfect for those who are new to yoga and want to learn more, for those who haven’t done yoga in a while and need a refresher, and for seasoned practitioners who might want a review.

Essential Yoga is divided into 7 chapters: “Breathing Exercises,” “Warm- Ups,” “Yoga Poses,” “Meditations,” “Flowing Routines,” “Yoga Sessions,” and “Recommended Sequences.” You may wish to start with a breathing exercise or two, choose a few warm-up exercises and as many yoga poses as you want, then wind down with a relaxing meditation and end by chanting the sound of Om. Or you can flip to the last chapter and follow any of the recommended sequences that fit your schedule, interest, and energy level.

Breathing Exercises

Chapter 1 features 12 breathing exercises, or pranayamas, designed to help decrease tension, increase energy, improve concentration, and promote physical and mental health. You may be familiar with the term prana, a Sanskrit word that translates as “life force energy,” what is known in Chinese as chi. Prana “rides the wave of the breath”; it is distilled from the air that we breathe. Pranayama, then, is a means of controlling and extending the breath to regulate your physical and/or emotional state. Through yogic breathing, we can learn how to observe and become mindful of our breathing patterns.

Because breathing is so automatic, we rarely pay attention to it. Unfortunately, most of us have developed poor breathing habits over the years, only using a small percentage of our 5-quart lung capacity, leading to loss of energy, respiratory problems, mental confusion, and increased tension. If you really pay attention, chances are you’ll find your inhalations and exhalations are shallow and that you tend to breathe high up in your chest.

Shallow breathing doesn’t properly oxygenate the system, allowing toxins to build up. No wonder we often feel tired and sluggish by the end of the day. Full, deep breathing—also known as diaphragmatic breathing—floods the system with oxygen, nourishes the blood cells, and removes harmful toxins. The result is enhanced skin tone, better posture, fewer respiratory problems, higher levels of energy, improved concentration, and a feeling of overall well-being and health.

Our breath also controls our emotions. As we breathe, so we live. When we are angry or stressed, we breathe rapidly or may even hold our breath, which increases our tension level. Our muscles become tight and our pulse increases, which in turn shortens the breath, which increases tension, which shortens the breath . . . and on it goes. The next time you are tense, try to breathe deeply. With each slow, even breath, feel the tension begin to dissipate as your muscles relax. It is nearly impossible to remain in a state of heightened tension if your breath follows a long, rhythmic pattern.

The breathing exercises in chapter 1 will help promote this even, healthful breathing. Some exercises—like Complete Breath or Sufi Mother’s Breath—can be done throughout the day: while you’re waiting in line, working at your computer, or sitting in rush-hour traffic (breathe, breathe!). Don’t wait to get onto the yoga mat to breathe correctly. Incorporate deep breathing into your daily routine and reap the benefits of increased metabolism, improved complexion, healthier lungs, a stronger immune system, better concentration, and reduced levels of stress.

Warm-Ups

Chapter 2 features 27 warm-ups, so important to any exercise regime. These warm-ups are designed to loosen your muscles and joints and to prepare your mind for the upcoming yoga session, helping you benefit more fully from your routine. Think of it as setting the mood.

Each page of this chapter features an illustration of the warm-up along with clear instructions and a list of benefits, including which parts of the body are targeted. Plan to do at least a few warm-ups before you start doing poses. Begin with your neck and shoulders, the places where we so often store tension. Move along the body and do a few warm-ups to awaken those hard-to-reach muscles along the sides of the torso. To engage the lower body, incorporate some leg stretches, especially to get those tight hamstrings and the muscles along the inner thighs loosened up. And, oh, that aching back! The twists, knee hugs, and stretches will align your spine and get your whole body ready for the upcoming poses. For ease of use, the warm-ups are alphabetized and categorized by type: standing, kneeling, sitting, supine (on your back), and prone (on your stomach).

Yoga Poses

 Chapter 3, the longest chapter in the book, features 78 essential hatha yoga poses, or asanas, many of which have been used for centuries to promote relaxation, strength, flexibility, and overall health and well-being. Asana is a Sanskrit word that means “posture comfortably held.” The chapter begins with tips on how to have a safe, effective yoga practice, followed by pages of beautifully illustrated poses with clear explanations, detailed instructions, and a summary of the physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits you will reap from doing these poses. As in the previous chapter, the poses are alphabetized and categorized by type. When appropriate, we’ve suggested counterpoises that stretch, flex, and/or bend the body in opposite directions. For example, Child pose (page 110), which curves the spine in a concave shape, is a great counterpoise to the Bow (page 113), which bends the spine in the opposite direction.

Whenever possible we have included the Sanskrit name of the pose to emphasize the connection to yoga’s ancient roots. Since asana is the Sanskrit word for pose, many of the poses end in asana, such as Tad asana (Mountain pose) or Navasota (Boat pose). The point is not to end up a Sanskrit scholar, but it may come in handy during a yoga class to know that the instructor means Hero pose when he or she says Verrazano.

Whether you are doing yoga at home or in a class, it is not a competition either with others or with yourself. What is important is your willingness to focus within and attend to what is happening from one moment to the next. Yoga requires a very different energy from furtively checking to see who can hold the pose the longest, wishing you were more limber, or forcing yourself to stretch beyond your limit. The key is to do each pose slowly, paying attention to how you get in and out of it, how you hold it, how your body feels, and being aware of your breath. Aim for holding a pose in “effortless effort,” where you feel the stretch, bend, or twist but are not straining or in pain. When you do yoga, your breath can be your greatest ally. The in-breath, parka, is energizing; the out- breath, rechaka, is calming and balancing. With each inhalation, feel prana, or life force energy, infuse your body with vitality; with each exhalation, try to release a bit further into the pose. Direct the breath into an area of tightness and see if that prompts your mind to relax and your muscles to There’s only one catch: you have to do it. Many of us resist meditating because of the mistaken belief that we should be able to get on the mat, assume the position, and close our eyes and . . . presto, start meditating. Unfortunately, what really happens is we get on the mat, assume the position, close our eyes . . . and start thinking about what’s for dinner or that meeting tomorrow morning or those long-forgotten lyrics to some old ’50s tune. It’s easy to get discouraged and say, “I tried meditating, but I couldn’t do it.”

“Drunken monkey mind” is the wonderfully descriptive term for what happens when we try to meditate and our mind careens wildly from one thought to another, dragging our emotions and physical reactions along with it. Meditation is a way to slow and eventually still your monkey mind. But it takes practice and a willingness to suspend judgment and preconceived notions about meditation. Sitting in meditation does not mean flicking your thoughts off like a light switch. Our minds wander because that’s what minds do.

Meditation allows us to take control and begin to rein in those thoughts. When you notice your mind wandering, instead of willing it (in vain) to stop, focus on your breath or a word or phrase from the meditation that you can use as a mantra

—a repetitive statement to help you focus. As you inhale, try saying silently, “Breathing in”; as you exhale, say, “Breathing out.” Repeat those simple statements as you focus on your breath; eventually the distractions that typically challenge your meditation practice will occur less frequently. And when they do occur, it will become easier to release them. Like clouds on a breezy day, let the thoughts drift by. Don’t try to push them away or cling to them.

Flowing Routines

Chapter 5 features what is known as “linked” yoga poses, or vinyasas, done as a dynamic series with one pose following another. These 6 different routines allow you to move through your yoga practice in a rhythmic, flowing pattern. You can

do a series slowly, or you may choose to pick up the pace, increasing your heart rate and providing yourself with a more intense workout. Some people find it helpful to incorporate a yoga series into their regular practice, because once the sequence is committed to memory, it is easier to establish a routine. We’ve included several different series from which to choose, depending on your time, stamina, and interest. Some of the routines also feature modifications for days when time and/or energy are in short supply.

Yoga Sessions and Recommended Sequences

Chapters 6 and 7 offer several complete yoga sessions and over 48 mini- sequences from which to choose. The 10 yoga sessions range from shorter sessions (20 to 30 minutes) to longer sessions (up to an hour and a half), depending on how much time and energy you have. Select one of the mini- sequences designed for practitioners of specific activities (such as dancing or bicycling) or one that focuses on a particular ailment or issue (such as back pain, allergies, or improving flexibility). All of them include thumbnail sketches of each posture along with references to the pages on which the pose instructions appear if further instruction is necessary.

General Recommendations

To assist with your practice of yoga—whether at home or in a class—we offer some general guidelines:

  • Wait at least an hour after eating before you practice. If you’re really hungry, it’s okay to have a light snack (a half a cup of yogurt or an energy bar), but don’t overdo it. You won’t feel as comfortable or move as well with a full stomach.
  • Drink enough water to ensure you are well hydrated, but as with eating, drinking too much will make you feel uncomfortable and have a negative effect on your yoga session.
  • Wear loose, comfortable clothing made of fibers that breathe and allow you to bend and stretch with ease. You may want to dress in layers and remove outer garments (such as sweatshirts and socks) during the session and add back layers during relaxation when the body cools down.
  • Many people like to use a mat when they do yoga. There are many types from Which to choose—“sticky” mats that keep your feet from slipping and fuller mats that provide more of a cushion. You can also use a towel if you are practicing on a carpeted surface. In poses where your legs are widely separated, take off your socks and use a sticky mat so that your feet don’t slip.
  • Some yoga regimes require props such as bands, bolsters, blocks, and so on, but in general, you don’t need a lot of special equipment, particularly if you’re just getting started. Neckties, belts, and towels work as well as bands; a thick phonebook can take the place of a block; and a folded blanket can double as a bolster.
  • As mentioned earlier, start your practice with a few warm-ups. It really helps to prepare your body and mind for the upcoming session.
  • Some poses will instruct you to hold your hands in front of your chest at the heart center, palms together, in what is known as Namasté. Namasté is a Sanskrit greeting indicating reverence and honor and loosely translated means “I honor the divine in you” or “I greet the light in you.” This salutation brings forth feelings of respect, acceptance, and openness.
  • As a general rule, inhale when your body expands (lifts up) and exhale when your body contracts (moves down, bends, or twists). When moving into a backbend, for example, inhale; conversely, when going into a forward bend, exhale. If you get confused, breathe in whatever pattern feels comfortable for you. Don’t hold your breath; the most important thing is to breathe. Don’t get stuck on whether you’re breathing “right” for a particular movement or pose. Unless directed otherwise, breathing is done through the nose.
  • Follow the instructions and illustrations in the book but remember that the illustrations show the ideal, which may not be realistic for beginners, those with physical infirmities, or those who have not exercised in a long time. Some of us are naturally more flexible, while others are stronger. Do what feels right for you and your build. Remember that even simple poses can be deceptively effective and beneficial. Slow, steady progress is a safe and attainable goal.
  • Relax into each pose. Don’t strain or force, and definitely don’t bounce! Stretch slowly and evenly. If you feel yourself “efforting” and your breath is rapid, you feel dizzy, or a pose simply hurts—stop. Come out of the pose and rest for a minute. Try the pose again if that feels right to you. Or skip it and try it again another time. Listen to your inner guidance.
  • Don’t stretch or bend to the point of pain or hold a pose to the point of weakness. If your muscles shake or if your breathing becomes rapid and uneven, back off of the pose or stop for a few moments and try it again (but only if you feel like it). If you feel any pain or dizziness, stop. Yoga should not cause discomfort.
  • For poses that work alternate sides of the body, you will be instructed to work the right side first, which affects the ascending colon, then your left side, which affects the descending colon. This follows the workings of the digestive system.
  • Make any adjustments you need to be comfortable. When lying on your back (supine), if you feel any back strain or your lower back arches, bend your knees or place a folded blanket under them. If your neck is uncomfortable, place a small pillow under your head so your chin is not poking above your forehead. When seated on the floor, lean against a wall if it is difficult to keep your back straight. You may wish to sit on a mat or firm cushion with your hips elevated above your knees, a more comfortable position for the lower back. Sit in a chair if it is easier and feels better. Make sure your spine is extended (lengthened); place your feet on a cushion to ensure that your knees and hips are level or that your knees are slightly higher than your hips.
  • Balancing poses may be challenging at first. Try to focus on a spot on the floor a few feet in front of you. You will gain strength from keeping a soft, steady gaze. If you need assistance, hold onto the back of a chair or rest your palm against a wall. Your balance will improve with time. Breathe deeply and don’t give up.
  • Some poses include modifications to make the postures less or more challenging, depending on individual strength, flexibility, and energy. If a standing position is difficult, there is no need to skip a beneficial pose such as Mountain. Opt for Seated Mountain (page 92) and enjoy the same benefits.
  • Advanced poses are also suggested for those who wish to perform a more strenuous version of a pose. Full Shoulderstand (page 131), for instance, is offered as an alternative to Half Shoulderstand (page 130); likewise, Proud Warrior (page 65) may be used as an advanced alternative to the Triangle (page
  • It is important to rest between poses. Some of the more energetic poses—such as Camel or Chair—flood your body with energy. Don’t rush into the next pose; stop for a moment and enjoy the exhilarating energy coursing through your body. Other poses are designed to calm and relax—such as Child pose and Thunderbolt. Again, stop and from your center of peace and tranquility, feel tension ebb.
  • Whether you are doing a breathing exercise, holding a pose, or meditating, concentrate on full, deep breaths. Doing so helps quiet the mind, balance the energies, and bring you into the present moment.
  • Be sure to include time to relax in Shavasana, the Corpse, after you have completed the poses. This ancient pose allows your body and mind to fully absorb the benefits of your yoga session.
  • Please note that not every exercise included in Essential Yoga is suitable or advisable for everyone. Before the instructions to each pose, we’ve noted contraindications (for example, people with hypertension or eye problems should not have the head lower than the heart). Please follow any cautions that may apply to you and always use common sense.
  • Finally, be open to your practice, be gentle with yourself, and breathe deeply. Enjoy the many blessings that yoga welcomes into your life. Namasté.

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