A few months ago, I stumbled across a local museum website announcement for a new offering of a free 50-minute weekly yoga class. To circumvent the sedentary aspect of being a writer, I thought that’s perfect. I can totally try that out.
With no expectations beyond a little stretch here-and-there, I arrived on the first day of class as I usually do before I attend a new event…five minutes before start time without having done much research. I had no idea what type of yoga would be taught, the best clothing to wear, or if I would need any gear. It seemed like a great opportunity to try something new and again, it was free, so I just showed up.
With a cheerful and pleasant disposition, the instructor, Jennifer Winther, brought energy to start of the class that made it personable and highly welcoming. She stated we would begin on the mat. The last time I sat down on my faded yoga mat was 16 years ago at a pre-natal yoga class before the birth of my daughter. That class was pretty easy.
Why would this one be any different?
20 minutes into the class, after remaining in Plank pose for a full three seconds and convincing myself Downward-Facing Dog would absolutely be the end of me, I felt like I was near death.
Sweat ran down my forehead so profusely I could barely see the instructor when she demonstrated what I was supposed to do. Six times I had to grab a corner of my t-shirt to wipe the sweat (and sting) from my eyes. I couldn’t tell how everyone else felt, but my legs felt limp, like they no longer wanted to support my weight. A public collapse seemed imminent.
“Reach as far as you can…open your chest…heart up, straighten your right leg…” she said. I tried to reach but my arms no longer wanted to reach for anything!
Finally, 45 minutes later, near the end of class, I lie on my mat flat on my back and tried to suppress my laborious breathing and nausea as thoughts raced through my mind.
Never again! WHO is this class for?! I had no idea the left side of my body was so weak. What the hell was I thinking? Damn, I’m out of shape! Did anybody see my tank top roll up?? THANK GOODNESS IT’S OVER!
Everything ached after class and continued to ache days later. However, despite soreness and complete ambivalence, something in me knew the first class wouldn’t be my last.
As a human being alive in the world, of course, I was familiar with the general concept of yoga and passingly heard of the benefits. However, as a novice, I lacked real understanding of the deeply rooted changes this ancient practice of challenging postures, breathing and meditative techniques would yield in my life.
Several weeks into the class, yoga had introduced me to muscles I didn’t know existed. Joint stiffness and pain in my left hip began to decrease and I felt physically and mentally stronger, calmer and more grounded in my body.
However, beyond what I noticed on a topical level, it was clear something else was happening. I felt as if a multi-layered healing and release was occurring as a result of the consistent practice and I began to wonder the following:
What really happens to you and your body during yoga?
So, I reached out to my instructor.
Jennifer Winther, Ph.D., E-RYT 500, is a writer, meditator, and Los Angeles based certified yoga instructor who leads teacher training, retreats, workshops and classes.
Here is our conversation on how yoga is way more than asanas.
BJB: What is the main purpose of yoga?
JW: I have to preface my response according to who I am. If I’m anything, I’m anti-orthodox.
I lead teacher training and teach people about what yoga is, but I always approach it as “if someone is going to tell you this is the only thing that yoga is or this is the only way to do authentic yoga,” run as far as you can in the opposite direction.
Yoga is a lifelong practice of awareness; a practice of self-study and a journey that can be treated as the path to enlightenment.
“The birth of yoga originally comes from the Vedas (ancient Hindu scriptures), which dates back between 4,000 to 5,000 years. Vedic knowledge was passed down from teacher to student through perfect memorization in the way of verses and poems. But it wasn’t until the second century B.C. that a sage named Patanjali outlined what is known today as the Eight Limbs of Yoga.”
JW: Patanjali may have been one person, but perhaps not. He is recognized as the author of the Yoga Sutras, a classical yoga text on theory and philosophy.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga is part of the Yoga Sutras, and asana (physical postures) is only one of the Eight Limbs. Traditionally, the First and Second Limbs of self-study and lifestyle change are finished before starting a rigorous physical practice. You clean yourself, the mind and body, from the inside out and get yourself ready to do yoga asana which then gets the heart, the mind and the body ready to sit — to meditate with the end goal being enlightenment (the Eighth Limb).
Here’s a brief overview of each of the Eight Limbs:
The Yamas are rules of moral code and include ahimsa (non-violence or non-harming), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (conserving lifeforce), and aparigraha (non-possessiveness).
The Niyamas are rules of personal behavior including saucha (purity), santosha (contentment), tapas (discipline or austerity), svadhyaya (spiritual studies), and Ishvara Pranidhana (constant devotion to God).
Asana refers to yoga postures but in Patanjali’s initial practice, it referred to mastering the body to sit still for meditation.
Pranayama are yoga breathing techniques designed to control prana or vital life force.
Pratyahara means a withdrawal of the senses.
Dharana refers to concentration and cultivating inner perceptual awareness.
Dhyana is the practice of meditation.
Samadhi is merging with the Divine.
BJB: What is the definition of the word ‘yoga’?
JW: The definition of the word ‘yoga’ is ‘to yoke’ — to bring together the mind, body, the world and Source.
At the essence there is a Divine element, illusions of the world and a practice that helps you bring the two closer together; whether it’s in a straight line or all at once. Different schools of yoga would say the lifelong practice is a constant shift of back-and-forth and bringing awareness to your Divine Self; not moving toward your Divine Self, but bringing awareness of your Divine Self into the world. A dualistic world view is one where the Divine Self is separate, and practice is then goal oriented toward enlightenment. A non-dualistic view is where the Divine and mundane are part of a whole and the goal is to inhabit, be aware of, manifest, both, here in our earthly life.
The way yoga is taught now, in most teacher training and classes, is primarily asana, with some meditation, but not as much philosophy. We practice only a couple of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs here in class.
Many teachers have found the value of the teachings in their own life and try to teach it in a classroom, but there’s only so much you can do in an hour. I think the way yoga is practiced now fits well in the west because we’re goal oriented. This approach is slightly problematic, but I think it can work if you’re moving towards going within to bring awareness of (non-religious) divinity into your life.
BJB: How did yoga come into your life?
JW: I practiced martial arts for over ten years. I was this close to becoming a Black Belt. I enjoyed it a great deal and then I got pregnant. I trained up until the week before my son was born and even after he was born. However, as a senior student you’re expected to assist, teach and be a bigger part of the community. As a new mother, I only had one or two hours per week to train and I really needed them to be just for me, not assisting or helping others.
After some time, I wanted activity, but I couldn’t go back to sparring while breastfeeding.
For years a friend had said, “Come to a yoga class.” I had no interest whatsoever.
Then, I attended a Mommy & Me class.
I took my infant son to class and was introduced to yoga. The teacher was lovely. It was a beautiful class and sometime later I started to want a class by myself. My interest in yoga continued to build until we moved and a yoga studio was within walking distance to my house. I could do what I needed to do for my family and then walk to my yoga class.
It was a game changer and soon I was there five days per week.
BJB: What style of yoga do you teach?
JW: A few.
I mostly teach a Vinyasa Flow Yoga, an American hybrid version of what comes from Ashtanga Yoga, but also a mix of Hatha, Iyengar, Vinyasa, and Power Yoga (empowerment from the inside to balance things out through a progressive sequence of poses). I also teach Yin Yoga, which is mostly seated postures focusing on joints, mayo facial release, stress release, and stretching. I’ve been practicing yoga for 15 years and teaching for six.
BJB: What happens to the joints, organs and internal bodily functions when you practice yoga?
One of the reasons I’m so in love with yoga is that it’s a full-body practice.
Motion is lotion.
If you’re bringing awareness into how you’re moving your body and Vinyasa, how you are placing your body, a door is opening to the inner body for internal balance and recalibration.
Physicality is the first layer of bringing things back “on line” so your body can internally communicate with itself. Because your physical body is part of the wholeness of your emotional, mental and spiritual body, if you think in layers, it’s all working together and focusing on breath and awareness to funnel energy into one place to get all parts working together on the inside.
No matter how you configure your body, it has a purpose.
Once you move the body around to get circulation going in a very specific way, the yoga postures work in a very specific way.
The question is: how can your yoga practice get you into the deep layers beyond just a flow?
A regular practice provides the space where all these things can happen for an hour a day. The vehicle is the pose and the breath. If you can get to the deeper places, it’s a remarkably powerful practice.