Margeaux’s Note: Client requested a comprehensive, beginner-friendly ebook written in a professional but readable tone. Final e-book totaled 14,000 words and included over three dozen pose descriptions and tutorials.
The purpose of this book is to give yoga practitioners the knowledge necessary to create their own personalized, safe, and impactful yoga practice. It will cover how to safely execute yoga poses commonly encountered today, as well as other elements to incorporate into practice (including meditation, themes, breath work, and more).
After reading this book, you will be empowered to….
• Begin or deepen your own home yoga practice
• Attend studio classes with a greater sense of confidence
• Gain a truer sense of ‘embodiment’, or feeling comfortable and in tune with your own physical body
• Cultivate the mental benefits of yoga, including reduced anxiety and a clearer, calmer thought life
These are some of the wonderful benefits available to anyone who begins a yoga practice, but there are many more. This book focuses on finding your own yoga journey, providing the tools and information necessary to discover these benefits for yourself. It does not focus on the philosophy or history of yoga, but it will provide some information for students who find that they’re interested in learning more about those topics.
What is Yoga?
Yoga is an ancient art and science focused on unifying the mind and body in order to find freedom and enlightenment. The word “yoga” itself means to “yoke or unify”, referring to the practice’s ability to conjoin physical and mental experience.
Yoga is more than a form of physical exercise – it is a set of holistic mind-body tools offering a wide variety of benefits to students. A regular yoga practice can impact every system in the body. From improved digestion to greater ability to cope with anxiety, from deeper sleep to more noticeable muscle tone, from a daily sense of peace and calm to a deeper understanding of the self, yoga can improve nearly every aspect of life.
Benefits of Yoga
Yoga offers a wide array of benefits that vary according to the unique makeup of each person. The beauty of yoga lies in its holistic ability to meet each person where they are at and offer them the particular and personalized “medicine” that they need.
How can yoga benefit you?
• Improves posture and builds muscle strength
• Improves flexibility
• Improves blood and lymph circulation
• Creates a more balanced and healthy lifestyle
• Helps you sleep better
• Improves your ability to focus
• Reduces tension and stress
• Gives you peace of mind
• Gives you confidence and inner strength
The History of Yoga
At 5,000 years old, yoga is older than written thought. It is rooted in the rich Vedic tradition of India, from which Hinduism and Ayurveda (yoga’s sister science, focused on health and diet) also sprung.
Modern yogic thought is largely influenced by a set of texts published in 400 CE called The Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali (much like the Christian Bible, the sutras most likely had multiple anonymous authors).
The Sutras explain that yoga is composed of eight limbs, or areas of focus. These limbs cover civic duty, personal morality, physical yoga poses, breathing techniques, and meditation. This book focuses on the two limbs of yoga that have exploded in popularity in the twenty-first century: asana and pranayama, or poses and breath work.
Yoga has gone through many incarnations over the centuries. In the ancient world, when people’s lifestyles were far more physical, yoga was largely composed of sitting and meditating. With the rise of technology and the increase of sedentary lifestyles, yoga has evolved into a practice that meets the need for physical activity.
Krishnamacharya, a 20th century Indian yoga teacher, healer, and scholar, is often credited as the “Father of Modern Yoga”. Three of his students, T. K. V. Desikachar, B. K. S. Iyengar, and K. Pattabhi Jois, founded three of the most popular Western styles of yoga practiced today (more on that in a moment). Most classes that students attend today are strongly influenced by one of these four teachers.
Types of Yoga
As there is no set curriculum of yoga poses written down in ancient texts, yogis have created numerous styles of physical practice. These practices continue to evolve as understanding of science and anatomy improves. These are the major styles of yoga popular today. Each focuses on different goals and offers its own unique benefits.
Ashtanga. Created by K. Pattabhi Jois, Ashtanga yoga is an intense physical practice consisting of a set group of progressively difficult poses practiced in the same order in each class. These poses are grouped together in a first, second, and third series (the first is often referred to as the Primary Series). Classes, generally held early in the morning, are taught “Mysore style”, an open class format in which each student practices at their own pace.
Bikram. Like Ashtanga yoga, Bikram yoga follows the same format each class. Students practice 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises in a room heated to approximately 100º F, with 40% humidity. The poses focus on spine and joint health. Bikram Choudhury, an Indian yoga teacher, created this style. His wild success is marred by a series of personal scandals that have received wide media notoriety.
Hatha. Hatha yoga simply means any yoga that is chiefly concerned with physical poses. However, when a class is called a “Hatha” class in a yoga studio’s class description, it typically refers to a slower-paced, beginner-friendly class focused on simple postures and careful alignment.
Iyengar. Iyengar yoga was (unsurprisingly) founded by B. K. S. Iyengar. It is a precise, alignment-focused practice in which students utilize a variety of props – including blocks, straps, chairs, and bolsters – to find customized incarnations of each pose that perfectly suit varying body types.
Jivamukti. Jivamukti yoga is a holistic, intensely spiritual practice that originated in New York City’s East Village in the 1980s. It places emphasis on social justice, chanting, meditation, and self-study.
Power Yoga. Power yoga is essentially the American version of Ashtanga yoga. It’s a cardiovascular workout focused on active flowing postures paired with strong, steady breath. The content of each class varies from teacher to teacher, but most classes include sun salutations, standing warrior poses, and more advanced asanas like arm balances and inversions.
Restorative Yoga. Restorative yoga is “feel good” yoga. Students sit or lie down for most of class, finding healing, relaxing postures that are often fully supported by blocks, blankets, and bolsters.
Vinyasa. Vinyasa is a broad term for an active, flowing yoga practice in which movement is matched with breath. Vinyasa classes vary greatly from teacher to teacher. This is the most popular style of Western yoga taught today.
Yin. Many people think Yin yoga and Restorative yoga are the same thing, but this isn’t true. While Yin is often performed in a seated or supine position like Restorative yoga, the poses are more physically challenging and they’re held for longer periods of time. Yin is designed to bring greater blood flow and health to the fascia, or the body’s muscle casings.
Kundalini. Kundalini yoga is chiefly concerned with the awakening and control of energy centers in the body. Its practitioners often wear white.
How to Use This Book
The next section of the book will cover the basics of the foundational practices of yoga – meditation, pranayama, mudras, and asana. Don’t worry if those words sound like gibberish right now. Once you’ve read this section, you’ll will be ready to tackle the meat of the book (namely, the specific asana instruction). Take your time to absorb the information here and note anything that piques your interest.
Your Yoga Practice
As this book illustrates, a well-rounded yoga practice involves more than just yoga poses. Through the combination of the five elements of yoga pictured above, students create a practice with far-reaching benefits for the mind and spirit.
• Meditation helps to create space and balance in the mind.
• Asanas (poses) build strength and activate energy flow – or prana – in the body.
• Mudras, or ‘yoga for the hands’, fine-tune the prana in the body.
• Bandhas contain and direct prana and stimulate deep internal muscles.
• Pranayama (breathing) is the vital foundation of all the other components.
What is Meditation?
Meditation is the practice of observing one’s thoughts without passing judgement. It is yoga for the mind. Through meditation, students rest their minds and cultivate an ability to observe the activity of the brain without judgement. Students learn to pause before reacting, to develop greater self-awareness, and to withstand difficulties and frustrations with more ease.
It is as simple as sitting, breathing, and returning the thoughts to a focus point when one notices them drift. There isn’t any “wrong” or “right” meditation – it’s simply a practice of centering one’s thoughts and learning to direct them intentionally. Some days will be easy, and some days will be hard.
Benefits of Meditation
Meditation reduces chronic stress, pain, and anxiety, improves concentration and focus, and increases activity in areas of the brain related to altruism. It boosts self-confidence and improves one’s sense of patience and presence.
Types of Meditation
There is an ideal kind of meditation for each student. Here are some of the most popular meditation styles found today:
Mindfulness meditation. In this style of meditation, the practitioner simply notes everything going on around them without fixating on any one particular phenomenon. They become a relaxed observer of their environment.
Focused meditation. For focused meditation, practitioners select something specific to focus on – a flickering candle, a view in nature, thoughts (or a photo) of a loved one, a special object, a meaningful visualization – anything that inspires.
Mantra meditation. In the practice of yoga, a mantra is a meaningful phrase that is repeated over and over like a chant. In mantra meditation, the practitioner focuses the attention on a specific mantra.
Breath meditation. In breath meditation, the fluctuations and experience of the breath becomes the focus.
Introduction to Asana
The most important thing to remember in reading about asanas (and in practicing yoga in general) is that each yoga student is their own best yoga teacher. Students know their own bodies better than anyone else, and the body possesses deep wisdom.
The information presented here is designed to guide students in a journey of self-exploration, physically and mentally. However, to yoke the body and mind, as is the purpose of yoga, students must first tune in to their bodies and minds and trust them on a fundamental level. Take ownership of yoga and trust the process!
Notes on the Asana Portion of This Book
The rest of this book provides a detailed guide on how to perform yoga asanas. The entry for each pose will cover:
- The English and Sanskrit name of each pose
- Instructional images of each pose
- Thorough description of each pose, including its purpose
- Cues on how to set up for the pose, get into the pose, and breathe in the pose
- Alignment adjustments to improve the congruency of each pose
- Notes on which muscles to activate in the given pose
- Precautions pertaining to who shouldn’t practice the pose due to injury or other contraindications like pregnancy
- Motivating tips and quotes
- Modifications so that anyone can perform a particular pose.
- Variations of the pose to deepen and broaden one’s practice
To enjoy a safe, personalized, and beneficial asana practice, keep the following points in mind:
- To find increased balance and equanimity in a pose, choose a specific, stationary place to look – a spot on the ground, the place where the floor meets the wall ahead of the mat, or one’s own reflection. In Sanskrit, this is called finding a “drishti”.
- Pay special attention to the ‘Foundation’ section of each asana description. A careful and aligned foundation eliminates a host of issues in asana poses and helps to maintain structural integrity in the body.
- The core is of prime importance in yoga postures. In every yoga pose, draw the navel gently back towards the spine and slightly up. Lengthen the tailbone towards the ground and energetically draw the rib cage and hip bones towards each other.
- In every pose, listen to and honor one’s body. The body is possessed of deep wisdom and intuition and it is constantly sending detailed feedback to the mind. Tune into this feedback and adjust anything about a pose that feels uncomfortable or “off”. Prioritize safety before advancement in every yoga pose and begin any practice by using modifications and props. This is the sign of a wise and knowledgeable yoga practitioner – not crazy poses or insane flexibility!
- Yoga poses look and feel different in every body. Human bodies are wildly varied and this impacts most yoga poses in many ways. Some poses, like splits, might not even be accessible to some bodies due to skeletal limitations. Make space for the uniqueness of one’s body and let go of comparison.