What is yoga?

What is yoga?
Yoga means to yoke, to unite. Yoga’s roots can be traced back to over 5000 years. Yoga is not a religion, it is a system to harmonise body, mind and spirit. Moving physically into postures is the most commonly known form of yoga. It is suitable for people of all ages, and you do not have to be super fit and flexible to practice. Postures can be modified to suit your ability.
What to expect in class
Classes may be 60 to 90 mins long with physical postures (asanas) followed by breathing exercises (pranayama) and relaxation, so you should leave feeling refreshed and re-energised. Classes may involve sun salutations, and other postures involving side-bending, forward-bending, back-bending, hip-opening, balances, inversions and twists. These will be standing, sitting or lying down.
What to wear/bring to class
But normally it is best to wear comfortable clothing that allows you to move. Don’t worry about following the latest fashion trends! You might also wish to bring extra layers and a blanket to keep warm when relaxing. You do not need to bring any special equipment (check with the class teacher), but you may want to bring your own mat.
Yoga’s benefits
Yoga has many physical and mental benefits. You may experience some of these immediately, whilst others may develop over time.  Benefits include:

    • Helping you relax
    • Reducing stress
    • Strengthens the body
    • Flexibility increased
    • Posture improved
    • Range of motion increased
    • Improved balance
    • Increased energy levels

Above all, yoga is non-competitive. Therefore, relax and enjoy your journey.


Yoga’s growing evidence base

There have been numerous claims made for the benefits of yoga both in ancient texts and in modern times. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, for example talks about some pranayama practices as being able to “destroy disease” and particular asana’s being able to “cure” disease. In current times, websites abound with talk of the physical and mental effects of a regular yoga practice, and trials more acceptable in modern Western healthcare have been publicised studying yoga as an intervention in areas such as back pain and hypertension.

As both a yoga teacher and a pharmacist, I have a keen interest in the evidence surrounding interventions used in healthcare. I was curious to see just how much work on yoga has been published in biomedical journals over recent decades. Therefore, I carried out a search using PubMed on the Internet. PubMed is a search engine which is free to use with no registration required. It mainly searches Medline, which is a database on life sciences and biomedical topics that is maintained by the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Medline contains over 21 million references to journal articles in life sciences. It contains citations from over 5,600 worldwide journals in about 40 languages.

In Medline, records are indexed with medical subject headings known as MeSH descriptors. MeSH descriptors are arranged hierarchical structures, referred to as “trees”. At the most general level of the tree are very broad headings, with more specific headings at narrower levels. There are 27,149 descriptors in 2014 MeSH. I decided to see if “yoga” was listed as a Mesh descriptor.  I was surprised to find that it was indeed a MESH descriptor and interestingly the following definition from Webster’s dictionary is given: “A major orthodox system of Hindu philosophy based on Sankhya (metaphysical dualism) but differing from it in being theistic and characterized by the teaching of raja-yoga as a practical method of liberating the self. It includes a system of exercises for attaining bodily or mental control and well-being with liberation of the self and union with the universal spirit. (From Webster, 3d ed)”

Searching on “Yoga” as a Medical Subject Heading (MeSH) alone in PubMed retrieved 1603 articles.  Looking at the number of publications per year reveals the following spread. It perfectly illustrates how the interest in studying yoga has increased over the years. There was even one article published in 1948 that I was interested in looking at, but unfortunately it was in an “undetermined language” and with no abstract available!

New Picture

The MeSH descriptor “yoga” appears in two broad categories “Analytical, Diagnostic and Therapeutic Techniques and Equipment Category” and also the “Humanities Category”, with the tree structures as follows. One relating to therapy and one relating to religious philosophies, perhaps representing the the breadth that yoga can span as a system, the therapeutic application of yoga as well as the philosophy.

Analytical, Diagnostic and Therapeutic Techniques and Equipment Category
–Complementary Therapies
—Spiritual Therapies

Humanities Category
–Religious Philosophies

According to the NLM website (http://www.nlm.nih.gov/mesh/intro_trees.html), “The indexing should not be regarded as representing an authoritative subject classification system but rather as arrangements of descriptors for the guidance and convenience of persons who are assigning subject headings to documents or are searching for literature. The trees are not an exhaustive classification of the subject matter but contain only those terms that have been selected for inclusion in this thesaurus. Their structure frequently represents a compromise among the views and needs of particular disciplines and users, in the absence of any single universally accepted arrangement”.  However, the appearance of yoga under a broader heading of religion is interesting considering the controversy that occasionally occurs around yoga and whether it is a religion. 

I hadn’t  quite appreciated just how much published literature about yoga exists in scientific and biomedical journals until I carried out this exercise. However, as Pattabhi Jois once said “99% practice, 1% theory”!



Ahmisa in the village hall

Tonight I was teaching my normal peaceful yoga class in our newly refurbished local village hall. Suddenly, about 20 mins before the end, some extremely loud thumping music started playing, emanating from somewhere within the building. It was so loud the floor was vibrating and we could hardly hear each other speak. Off I went to investigate. I discovered a class had just started in the main room, people were clutching  hoops and moving to the loud music following shouts from an instructor. This was a new class, not on the timetable, or held previously. Relaxation was futile although I did have the students take savasana for a few minutes before doing some pranayama and then finishing a bit earlier. I assured the class I would take it up with the organising committee and either one of our classes would have to move. Anyway, I was getting quite cross and then one of my students brilliantly reminded me of my theme for the class – ahimsa (non-violence). What a perfect way to test it – as it applies mentally as well as physically. We all laughed and finished the class on a high 🙂

My yoga teacher training

I attended my first yoga class when I moved to a new city 9 years ago and I immediately knew I had found something special that I would keep as a part of my life. After three years of attending class I felt the urge to explore yoga in greater depth, so I decided to enrol on the BWY Foundation Course.   The course was run over one day per month for 10 months in Poole, Dorset. The teacher, Wendy Haring, was very experienced with a great wealth of knowledge, and the other students were very friendly. Each month there was a different focus to the class and it was wonderful to explore different asanas in depth and to learn about the origins and philosophy of yoga.  We worked in groups with fellow students and designed our own home practice sequences. This was interesting and fun, and helped put theory into practice.

My experience of the foundation course inspired me to enrol on the BWY teacher training diploma course because I wanted to share the benefits of yoga with others through teaching.  I was lucky to be able to continue with the same teacher for the diploma course, and a majority of the foundation course students also enrolled.  The course was run on a Saturday or Sunday per month for three years. This was a large commitment of time and it was a busy course, so I sometimes found it difficult to fit this round a full-time job. I often had to give up evenings and weekends to work on assignments and prepare teaching practices. The course tutor was always for advice and encouragement when needed.

The course started with learning about anatomy and physiology, and the kinesiology of yoga postures (asanas). The purpose and preparation of asana, precautions and prohibitions, and how to adapt asana for vulnerable areas of the body were also covered.  The course was structured such that after the first year, students would have enough knowledge to be able to teach as a student teacher whilst completing the course. We learnt about yogic texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, The Bhagavad Gita, The Yogasutras of Patanjali and The Upanishads.  We learnt about Vedanta philosophy, mantra, pranayama, mudra, bandha and different approaches to meditation. Written assignments on all of these topics had to be completed!

Practical elements such as teaching methods, lesson planning and setting up a yoga class were covered in the course. One interesting assignment involved observing a lesson by an experienced teacher in any subject other than yoga. It’s amazing how many of the same techniques can be employed can be utilised.

A variety of practical assessments were employed in the course. We were required to teach fellow students breathing, pranayama, kriya, mudra, bandha, relaxation, meditation and physical practices. Personally, we had to keep a daily pranayama practice diary for three months. It was interesting to track our development through the techniques employed, and how the practice related to our physical and emotional state. To develop our ability to speak in public, our presentation skills to fellow students on yogic texts, physiology and anatomy (or nutrition), were also assessed.  Even more nerve-racking than teaching or presenting to fellow students, were three teaching practices we had to organise ourselves, and which were assessed by external teachers rather than our diploma course tutor. We had to have a minimum number of students and we roped in friends, family and sometimes strangers to help us achieve the required number!  In addition to all these assessments, we also had to organise our own classes and record teaching hours. This truly gave us an opportunity to employ what we were learning on a practical level.

Having written the above, I am reminded of just how comprehensive the course was and how many aspects and elements I not only learnt about in theory, but experienced in practice. And although it was time-intensive, tiring and frustrating at times, it was thoroughly engaging and rewarding and I would highly recommend it. But the learning does not end at the end of the course, yoga is such a vast system, the learning is for a lifetime.

The BWYT Teacher Training Diploma Course is now a 500 hour national occupational standard, and can take between two and four years to complete. To be accepted onto a BWY Teaching Diploma course students will have practised yoga for over two years and will often have completed the BWY Foundation Course. There is also a new course which results in the BWYT Certificate in Teaching Yoga which takes two years.Teacher training courses are run throughout the country by the BWY and its accredited organisations. – See more at: http://www.bwy.org.uk/bwyt-teacher-training-course/#sthash.hwVlpU6C.dpuf.