What it is & What it isn’t!

By Raymond Onyango.

One of the things I dislike the most about cooperate cocktail functions is the way people often talk to you, without any real interest in getting to know anything outside of your job title and how you can help them advance their own careers. But every now and then I find my self at such functions, and when the conversation at the table turns, as it inevitably does, to work and job titles; it is always interesting to observe how people react when I introduce myself as a Yoga Teacher.

What often follows is a brief interlude of silence as everyone around the table tries to gauge whether I am joking or not, and then the customary deluge of questions of all kinds, some of them unbelievably hilarious! Once a lady sitting next to me, rolled her eyes back into their sockets, adopted a mocking meditation posture and sought to know if I could access higher spiritual dimensions. On another occasion a gentleman on the other side of the table started to narrate a story about a Yogi he had seen on television floating in the air and walking on fire. It would seem that quite a few people are resolutely convinced that yoga is actually a religion of some kind.

I have been a Yoga teacher for some years now, and so I am fairly accustomed to these lines of questioning. Despite the fact that Yoga is now, by some estimates, a 6 billion dollar industry worldwide; there are still a huge majority of people particularly here in Kenya, where yoga is just beginning to take root, who still do not understand what Yoga really is and what it is not.

Getting Down To Basics

As a yoga instructor one of the things I have made a point of doing is working hard to demystify the practice of Yoga in order to make it more accessible to ordinary Kenyans, mostly by cutting thought the commercial and new age twaddle and getting down to the fundamentals of what this practice really means to me and why I believe it is perhaps the most effective forms of exercise out there.

Perhaps the biggest myth about yoga and one that I would like to dispel is that you have to be super flexible in order to do yoga. One of the first things I emphasize in all the classes I teach is that yoga is a non-competitive form of movement. The emphasis is not at all on how much you can contort your body into weird poses; much more weight is placed on the process of communicating with your body and allowing it to relax in order to go deeper into the individual poses and access their numerous health benefits.

This leads me to point number two. Yoga as it is practiced in many classes worldwide is built on the recognition of two basis principles, breath and heat.

Breath

The breath has a deep connection to the body, one that we recognize instinctively as human beings. Often when one receives shocking news, such as the loss of a loved one, their first reaction will be to hold their breath. Men will often talk of a woman so beautiful, she literally takes your breath away and of course we have all heaved a deep sigh of relief at some point in our lives after overcoming a particularly steep challenge.

Yoga, an over five thousand year old practice is built on the simple recognition that by manipulating the breath, we can influence the nervous system to reach much deeper levels of relaxation. That is the premise behind many of the breathing exercises that one encounters in yoga practice. From my own experience, the breathing is what makes the difference between practicing Yoga and just merely stretching. As you learn to breath deeper and more freely, the musculature of the body also opens up and awareness and freedom of movement come back into previously tight areas such as your lower back, hips and shoulders and you progress in your levels of flexibility without much struggle.

 Heat

One of the first things you are likely to do in a yoga class is to warm up, though a series of postures known as the Sun Salutations. Compared with the effectiveness of the Sun Salutation, everything else you can think about as warm up falls far short.  In the sun salutation, you bend forward, you reach backwards, you twist sideways and you challenge both your balance and coordination, while gently building heat in the body and working up a sweat.

You only need to walk down to Gikomba Market or Dargoretti Corner in Nairobi and watch the Metal artisans at work in order to understand how heat influences flexibility. Before they embark on shaping the metal they will heat it to make it more malleable, and then they can shape it, without breaking it. The human body works in much the same way, by getting the sweating taps running with a few series of Sun Salutations we open up the myofasial sheath that gives shape to our muscles and this is what allows seasoned Yogis to effortlessly flow into such mind blowing physical postures. The secret lies in heat not magic!

 Is Yoga A Religion?

Absolutely not! There is plenty of Mantra chanting in most Yoga classes and that can often be a turnoff for those people who have established religious beliefs. This need not be so, much of the chanting in yoga is done in an age old language known as Sanskrit, A precursor to many modern day languages and the language in which the original Yoga Sutra’s or Founding Texts are codified. The mantras are not strange magical invocations, but rather codified pieces of yoga philosophy communicated in much the same way we learned to recite our multiplication tables in elementary school. The practice of yoga does not require you to renounce your religion or take up a new belief system, it merely encourages you to examine your life a little more deeply and expand your sense of awareness

 Is yoga easy?

Yoga can be as easy or as hard as you wish it to be. Over the years an increasingly wide variety of yoga styles have evolved to cater for the different tastes of yoga practitioners worldwide. You could for instance attend a traditional Hatha Yoga class, which focuses heavily on body alignment and breathing or you can get into an Ashtanga or Vinyasa Class which, though its flowing sequences and rapid movement will likely be one of the hardest physical challenges you have ever faced in your life. The key to a successful yoga practice lies in finding a class that allows you to safely practice at a comfortable level while providing you with a degree of challenge to spur your growth.

 Yoga Teachers In Kenya

Yoga is fast growing in Kenya and in many urban centers you can now find a yoga teacher. Among the people who are doing an incredible job of promoting Yoga to individuals from all income groups in Kenya include Ms. Paige Elenson through her Non Profit Organization, Africa Yoga Project. The Africa Yoga project works with kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, empowering them with the skills to become yoga teachers and earn a living for themselves while spreading the Yoga message of love and compassion. It is truly inspiring to witness what they have done to make Yoga more mainstream in Kenya and I wish them all the best in their continued efforts, Visit them at  http://www.africayogaproject.org.

Aerobics Kenya have a wide selection of yoga DVD’s and would be a great place to start looking for Yoga videos, if you don’t have access to a yoga teacher. visit them http://www.facebook.com/AerobicsKenya

You can also find a listing on Yoga teachers on this website (look under Exercise Information), though the list is by no means exhaustive.

In conclusion perhaps I should say that the beauty of yoga lies in the fact that it works. Over the years I have seen individuals come to class stiff or injured and then slowly over time, they are able to stretch out and overcome numerous physical limitations…in this practice the progress happens slowly, never overnight. But if you stay consistent, even mountains will shift. One day something releases in your body, old knotted muscles untangle and life flows though your body in a body in a brand new way. But you couldn’t possibly experience this unless you take the first step a start practicing!

Have a relaxed week will you!

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