Archaeological evidence suggests yoga has been around for more than 10,000 years. The Vedas, the most sacred books in Hindu literature were written around that time and included the first systemic writing on yoga - the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali. His work is often referred to as the Eight-Fold Path and the principals therein are still closely followed today.
(Iyengar, Light on Yoga, 1966, p. 3)
Yoga is suitable for most people and most fitness levels and can be modified to suit individual specific needs, however, please refer to Precautions before commencing. A balanced yoga program includes the postures (asanas), yoga breathing exercises (pranayama), meditation (dhyana), and deep relaxation (yoga nidra), mudras and bandhas.
Yoga and meditation are gentle and safe ways for women to prepare for pregnancy, and to practice throughout pregnancy and in preparation for birth, to maintain physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. Importantly, practicing yoga and meditation during this brief and very unique time is a wonderful way for women to honour and nourish themselves, and to be with their baby inutero before the birth. Theresa has specialized in pregnancy care since 1984 with three books published on yoga and meditation for pregnancy - Conscious Birthing, and including meditation CD's and a yoga exercise DVD.
The yoga postures asanas help maintain a sense of physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. They tone, strengthen and stretch the body while releasing tightness, tension or stiffness in the muscles. Regular practice encourages flexibility and suppleness to develop, as stretch and strength are balanced on both sides of the body. Practising the yoga postures with complete body, breath and mind awareness means you are practicing with mindful awareness and thereby in meditation within the postures (Chopra, 2004).
Your breath is a constant companion and awareness of the breath holds you profoundly in the present moment, calm, steady and still. It encourages you to simply be, to be alone and at peace with yourself (Chopra, 2004). Pranayama relaxes and replenishes the physical body, calms and balances the emotions and is nourishment for the mind. The yoga breathing practices provide the opportunity to bring your attention to yourself and maintain that awareness, to notice your thoughts, the nature of your thoughts and the atmosphere they create in your mind. Practicing pranayama before meditation is an ideal preparation as it establishes the right atmosphere in the mind for meditation to naturally evolve.
The nature of your breath is a guide to your state of mind - if you are relaxed the breath will be unwavering and steady, if you are feeling restless or anxious it is likely to be shallow and uneven. Knowledge of the yoga breathing practices will benefit you during life's challenges by helping you to remain calm and focused (Chopra, 2004). It is important to note pranayama is not only deep breathing but consists of a specific group of traditional yoga breathing techniques.
Meditation can be likened to contemplation, prayer, and inner reflection, it is the art of being still. Until you make the effort to really take notice of what is going on in your mind, you are generally unaware it is filled with a continuous stream of thoughts that seem to come from nowhere, often with no relevance to the here and now, and all happening unconsciously. On average you will think over 100,000 thoughts every day! So it is not surprising meditation is often difficult when first attempted. Discipline, motivation and practice are required to make some peace with all this mental activity, to come a little closer to taming the wanderings of your mind even slightly.
Meditation has become a valuable and effective way to manage stress and reduce its harmful effects. Physically it has positive influences on lowering cortisol levels, reducing blood pressure and adjusting immune responses, while psychologically it reduces rumination of maladaptive thoughts and feelings, improves memory and concentration, and enhances positive emotional responses during heightened stress (Kabat-Zinn, 1990). These findings are significant with recent knowledge indicating the close connection between the way the mind and body interact, in health and otherwise (Williams et al, 2007).
All aspects of yoga are valuable for promoting health and wellness, and when these quieter aspects of yoga are used in conjunction with other therapies, many physical and emotional problems can be better managed and greatly improved over time.
The gift of learning to meditate is the greatest gift you can give yourself in this life. For it is only through meditation that you can undertake the journey to discover your true nature, and so find the stability and confidence you will need to live and die, well.
Sogyal Rinpoche, Meditation, 1994
The practice of deep relaxation is integral to all yoga programs and is an excellent way to relax your body, calm your mind and replenish lost energies. Yoga nidra means ‘dynamic sleep’ (Satyananda, 1966). During yoga nidra, the physical body experiences complete relaxation and stillness as if sleeping, while the mind remains in a calm alertness.
This deep state is much more profound than normal resting, and lies somewhere between being awake and being asleep, somewhere between your conscious and your unconscious mind. During deep relaxation your senses are gradually withdrawn from the world around you, and you become less attached to the usual chatter of your mind. It is here, in this space deep within your own being, that your most peaceful feelings will be discovered and from where meditation can naturally evolve.
Yoga is meant to be gentle, safe and nourishing and before you begin yoga classes it is a good idea to discuss your intentions with your doctor, psychologist, or midwife if you are pregnant, to ensure it will be suitable for you and to give you a feeling of confidence. Yoga is not meant to cause pain while doing the postures or afterwards, where every movement is to be enjoyed and relaxed into so that you feel its benefits. You might notice a little tightness in your muscles when you first start, especially if you have not been doing some other form of stretching exercises, and even if you are very fit, its important to take care when you begin yoga.
If you are pregnant and have had a miscarriage in the past, if you have a history of threatened miscarriages, or have any concerns about your pregnancy, do not begin the physical exercises until after the fourth month of pregnancy. The breathing exercises, meditation and relaxation practices can be commenced as soon as possible after conception.
If you have a disability, or a health condition, always consult a your doctor or health professional so that the practices can be modified to suit your needs. If you have a mental health concerns always consult your health professional before commencing meditation / mindfulness classes.
Discontinue a posture if you feel faint, light-headed, dizzy or nauseous, and if you are tired spend time doing the yoga breathing, meditations or deep relaxation instead of the exercises as these will quickly help restore your energies. If you have high or low blood pressure avoid all head-down postures and follow the modifications recommended. Even if your blood pressure is normal, always return to the standing position very slowly, for example taking two breaths to return to the standing position. If you have varicose veins or swollen feet avoid all postures where you are sitting on your feet, and follow the modifications recommended for squatting ie; squatting on a stool rather than attempting a full squat.
If you have lower back problems you will find the postures are an excellent way to ease your discomfort and often compliment other therapies, however, always inform your teacher and don't continue with a posture if pain or discomfort are felt. If you are having physiotherapy or other treatment, always ask your therapist’s advice as to what you can and cannot do, and pass this information on your yoga teacher.