Yoga is a Sanskrit word which means union. Its literal translation is “to yoke.”
The aim of yoga is to remove the fluctuations of the mind. This means that our practice aims to move us towards stilling the mind until it rests in a state of tranquillity, equanimity and peace.
Asana are the postures that make up the physical side of a yoga practice.
Drishti or yogic gaze
When we control and direct our gaze, we are using the yogic technique called drishti. A fixed gaze can help enormously in balancing poses like Tree pose (Vrksasana) as by gazing at an unmoving point you can become stable and balanced. Also, when you restrict your visual focus to one point it’s easier to keep your attention on the moment. This technique is great for developing concentration.
Prana is a Sanskrit word that translates as “vital life force.” Prana rides on the breath, so when we breathe in, we take in prana. When we expand the breath and improve the quality of it, we are expanding and improving the quality of this vital life force within and around us. This is what yoga breathing techniques, or pranayama, are designed to do (see below).
Simply translated means ‘breath control.’
Harnessing the power of the breath enables us to move mindfully during a yoga practice as well as calm the mind, develop greater mental resilience and sleep well.
Full yogic or 3-part breath
This breath expands the belly then ribcage then chest fully. It is great in times of stress or when your breath feels constricted. It’s also a good way to prepare the body for a physical yoga practice.
Ujjayi or victorious breath
This breath sounds like the ebb and flow of an ocean or a bit like Darth Vader. It is a warming breath practiced by gently constricting the back of the throat. Imagine sipping the breath in and out through a straw. This breath helps with relaxation and focus.
Sama Vritti or same breath
This breathing technique focuses on making the inhalation the same length as the exhalation. A mental count as you inhale and exhale is helpful to make sure you can keep the evenness going. This breath promotes balance and equilibrium.
Nadi Shodhana or alternate nostril breathing
The breath is practised using a mudra (see below). You take your right hand into a ‘hang loose’ gesture with the index finger and middle fingers bent towards the palm and the thumb, ring finger and little finger extended (I prefer to use just my thumb and my little finger but this is not traditional!)
The thumb closes the right nostril and the ring/little finger(s) close the left nostril. To complete one round of nadi shodhana, close the right nostril and inhale through the left. Close the left nostril and exhale through the right. Inhale through the right nostril. Close the right nostril and exhale through the left nostril. Continue this pattern for several more rounds of breath.
This breath helps concentration, balances the hemispheres of the brain and creates mental clarity.
A cooling breath practiced by curling the tongue (or gently parting the lips if you don’t have the tongue curling gene!) so as you inhale you feel cool air entering the body. Can reduce agitation, anger and anxiety, as well as reduce excess heat in the body.
Mudra means “seal.” Yoga mudras are symbolic gestures often practised with the hands and fingers. Some examples:
Anjali mudra (hands in prayer)
Anjali means “offering.” This mudra is also known as a salutation seal as in India it is often used as a greeting. It is practised by drawing the palms together at the heart. Anjali mudra connects the right and left hemispheres of the brain and is used as a posture of composure, of returning to one’s centre.
Gyan or Chin mudra
This mudra is often used while meditating. The tips of the thumb and index fingers are brought together to form a circle and the backs of the hands rest on the knees with the palms facing upwards in a gesture of receptiveness. This mudra enhances focus and memory.
Kali mudra (think Charlie’s Angels)
Kali = goddess of fearlessness and empowerment. This mudra cultivates courage and builds inner strength.
OM is a single syllable mantra and is considered to be the mantra from which all others derive. The sound OM vibrates at same frequency as everything in nature.
OM consists of the letters: A, U, M.
The first syllable is A, pronounced as a prolonged “awe” (back of throat)
The second syllable is U, pronounced as a prolonged “oo” (roof of mouth)
The third syllable is M, pronounced as a prolonged “mmmm” (lips closed, front teeth touch).
As with so much in yoga, the intention of chanting OM is to bring more awareness inside…to open up to possibilities, let go of mental obstacles and bring more balance.
Savasana translates to ‘corpse pose’ in English. To practice the pose, lie down on your back, taking the legs a comfortable distance apart and relax the arms alongside the body with the palms facing up.
I often refer to this pose as ‘the lovely lying down bit at the end’ as there is a certain luxury in taking the time to completely rest and relax. However, the aim of Savasana is to relax fully whilst staying conscious and aware. This is not easy, which is why this pose is often referred to as the most difficult of all asanas.
Namaste means “The light in me bows to the light in you.” It is a gesture using Anjali mudra (see above) where you bow the head and draw the hands to the heart to respectfully acknowledge and honour each other. Usually, it is practised at the end of a yoga class because the mind is less active and the energy in the room is more peaceful.