Yoga is a mind–body practice that incorporates strengthening poses, balances, stretches, breathing techniques and meditation. It supports your mental, physical, emotional and spiritual well-being so you can live a healthier and happier life.
The Sanskrit word ‘yoga’ translates as ‘unity’. This represents unity both within yourself (of mind, body and breath) and also between you and the rest of the world – a sense of connection and community instead of isolation and fear.
One thing that differentiates yoga from other forms of movement and exercise is that it is a practice – a practice in breathing, moving and staying present. Instead of seeing yoga as a workout you have to do, as something you must achieve, or as yet another thing you need to add to your to-do list, treating it as a practice is a helpful reminder that you can start where you are, with the time you have, and allow your yoga journey to evolve naturally.
Treating it this way also helps you to see how yoga is something you can practise for the rest of your life. It doesn’t matter how old you are, what your fitness level is or if you are feeling stronger or weaker than yesterday. The important thing is that you show up, embrace yoga as a practice to explore instead of a goal to master and you begin moving, breathing and meditating as often as you can so you can feel the benefits both on and off the mat.
The History and Philosophy of Yoga
People have been practising yoga for over 5,000 years as a way to rejuvenate the body and prolong life. From what we know, yoga originated in northern India and has been refined over the years to create the huge variety of poses and styles we have today.
Originally, yoga was developed as a way to reach ‘enlightenment’ and it provided an eight-limbed path of physical and mental tools and techniques for doing so:
1 Ethical standards to follow in day-to-day life known as ‘yamas’. These include compassion, truthfulness and non-attachment.
2 Healthy habits known as ‘niyamas’. These include self-discipline, self-respect and self-study.
3 Poses and stretches known as ‘asanas’ designed to keep the body healthy and develop discipline and focus.
4 Breathing techniques known as ‘pranayama’ to revitalise the body and help you recognise the connection between breath, body, mind and emotions.
5 A practice known as ‘pratyahara’, which involves shifting your focus away from the outside world so you can take a more objective look at any habits you have that might be harmful to your health.
6 Concentration practices known as ‘dharana’ to help slow down your mind and improve your attention by focusing on a specific object like a sound or image.
7 Meditation known as ‘dhyana’, where the mental chattering in your mind stops, reducing stress and creating a sense of stillness.
8 The experience of enlightenment known as ‘samadhi’. Although the term may sound intimidating, it can be interpreted as living with peace and purpose (both associated with living a longer, healthier life).
Poses, Breathing and Meditation
Although traditionally yoga includes the eight ‘limbs’ (see here), these days ‘yoga’ generally refers only to poses, breathing techniques and meditation. These three aspects are what I mean whenever I refer to ‘yoga’ and also tend to be the focus of scientific research on yoga.
The physical poses are what most people think of when it comes to yoga – sitting cross-legged in lotus pose is easily recognisable! Some poses focus more on building strength, some on increasing flexibility and others on finding stillness and release.
The poses are a fundamental part of Stay Young with Yoga because they provide an accessible and effective way for the body to do what it is designed to do – move! – as often as possible and in as many different ways as possible.
There are several traditional yoga poses that form the basis of most yoga practices today, often complemented with totally new poses, modified variations of traditional postures to make them more challenging or more accessible, modern mobility exercises and science-backed stretching techniques that have been developed as our understanding of the human body grows. The result is that you have a huge range of poses to explore no matter what your age, fitness level or lifestyle.
Most people pay very little attention to their breath. This means that many people are not breathing optimally. Try this:
1Place your right hand on your belly and your left hand on your chest.
2Take a couple of long, deep breaths.
Which hand rises first? Most people find it’s their left hand (the one on their chest). Instead of taking big, deep, diaphragmatic breaths and allowing our belly to expand like we did naturally as kids (just watch a baby breathe!), most of us are shallow, chest-breathers.
This is because of several factors, including environmental stressors, withholding emotions and cultural expectations to always have a flat stomach. But shallow breathing can have repercussions on our health. It tends to keep our body in a state of stress, as well as causing poor posture (which can lead to back pain), sluggish digestion and increased anxiety.
Yogic breathing techniques help you to become more mindful of the way you breathe. They train you to use your lungs and diaphragm optimally. Many people find that once they begin breathing properly, their stress levels go down, posture and back pain improves, core and pelvic floor muscles strengthen and they feel more energised in day-to-day life.
There are various traditional breathing techniques that yoga practitioners have used for over 5,000 years, as well as more modern breathing exercises that have been created by respiratory specialists.
Around just 8 per cent of adults in the Western world meditate. Even when people are aware of the huge health benefits of yoga (see here–here), they still don’t get around to actually meditating. Why? From my experience it comes down to two reasons:
‘I don’t have time to meditate.’
Day-to-day pressures mean that many of us feel that getting through our to-do list is more important than taking time out to meditate. However, by making time for meditation – and so by reducing stress, calming the mind and improving your inner well-being – you’ll find that you can improve the quality and efficiency of your work and you have more energy to do the things you really want – and need – to do.
‘I don’t know how to meditate.’
Some people have never practised meditation while others may have explored it a couple of times and concluded, ‘I’m not good at it’ or ‘My mind is too busy.’ However, once
you understand what meditation is and how to do it, you will begin to see there is no such thing as being good or bad at meditation. Feeling that your mind is too busy is exactly why meditation will benefit you!
I like to think of meditation as a form of mental training. By meditating, you are training your mind in being present, in staying focused, in remaining calm, in letting go of unhealthy habits, and in being kinder and more compassionate to yourself and other people in your life.
Meditation is not about emptying your mind of all thoughts (that’s impossible). It’s about being present enough to notice your thoughts and instead of getting lost in them, detaching yourself from them so you can live more peacefully and mindfully.
For example, I’m sure we’ve all wandered into the kitchen to get something but by the time we’ve got there we’ve forgotten what it was we went there to get. That’s because we got lost in thought! Take a look at here for a reminder of how yoga and meditation improve your memory and help your brain stay young.
Am I too old to start yoga?
No. It is never too late to start practising yoga. Even if you’ve reached retirement age without ever practising yoga or doing much physical activity at all, you will still feel the benefits. You can find routines for beginners in Part 5 of the book.
What makes yoga different from stretching?
Some yoga poses are great stretches, but yoga gives you more than that. The poses themselves help to strengthen your body as well as stretch it and there are many other aspects to yoga – including breathing and meditation – that provide a more holistic approach to health than simply stretching. See here for the eight limbs of yoga.
Do you have to be flexible to practise yoga?
‘I want to start yoga but I’m not flexible enough.’ This is the most common reason I hear for why people don’t practise yoga. However, there is no pre-requisite for flexibility. You don’t practise yoga because you are already flexible, you practise yoga to help you become flexible. Likewise, you don’t practise yoga because you are already strong and stress-free, you practise to become those things.
Do you have to be religious to practise yoga?
Unlike religion, yoga doesn’t involve worshipping anything or anyone. You can practise it purely for the physical and psychological benefits and, if you want to delve deeper, you can begin exploring how the poses, breathing techniques and meditations awaken a greater sense of peace and purpose in your life (often known as spirituality).
Do you need to be slim to practise yoga?
Yoga is for everybody – every age, every shape, every size. Photos of young, slim yogis in advanced poses may seem of-putting, but just because those practitioners are doing handstands doesn’t mean you have to! You don’t need to look a certain way to practise yoga. There are so many styles out there to explore and you can adapt each pose to work for your body.
Do you have to be vegan to practise yoga?
You can practise yoga regardless of what you eat! In fact, you’ll probably find that as you practise yoga, you’ll become more aware of your body and the foods that make you feel great. By feeling more connection with your body, you can make sure you’re nourishing it properly and that you don’t over- or under-eat.
Do you need to go to a studio to practise yoga?
Going to yoga classes is a great way to get guidance from a teacher and feel part of a yoga community, but it’s not accessible to everyone and some people find it quite intimidating if they’ve never done yoga before. Practising at home is a great alternative because you can fit it in at a time that works for you and choose the poses that feel good for your body.
Is yoga easy or hard?
Yoga can be both easy and challenging depending on what you want from it. If you want a tough workout, yoga can definitely give you that through its strengthening poses and dynamic flows. And if you want to unwind after a long day, you can get that from yoga too. Most people feel best if they have a bit of both – poses that challenge them a little and poses they can relax into.