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The practice of yoga is thousands of years old and focuses on sharpening the mind, body and spirit.
courtesy Dana Lissack

The evolution of yoga

Striking a balance between safety and meditation

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Western society has a mixed understanding of the ancient practice of yoga. Different branches, practices, schools and misappropriations have developed over time. 'Yoga', the Sanskrit word for 'union,' is an eight-sided concept bringing together ethical standards, spiritual observances, postures, breath control and meditation.

Yoga was founded by Patañjali, author and compiler of the Yoga Sutras. As one of the six schools of orthodox Hindu philosophy, classical yoga is also known as Raja Yoga. While yoga has other practical meanings like method, application or performance, in the spiritual sense, Patañjali has redefined the term to represent a practical system in which to restrain and modify the mind.

Over time, yoga has been adapted to appeal to a wider audience and has been organized into different schools of thought and practice. Each school is different, as is each teacher. Some schools allow yoga to be modified to an individual's physical limitations. Other schools like Bikram are much more orthodox and strict, allowing for only 26 specific poses with few modifications.

In 2008, the Yoga Journal released a study claiming that yoga was a $5.7 billion dollar industry in America.

The study found that "6.9 per cent of U.S. adults, or 15.8 million people, practice yoga. Of current non-practitioners, nearly 8 per cent, or 18.3 million Americans, say they are very or extremely interested in yoga, triple the number from the 2004 study. And 4.1 per cent of non-practitioners, or about 9.4 million people, say they will definitely try yoga within the next year."

Amy Thiessen has been practicing yoga for 10 years, and teaching for six. She has intense training in many forms of yoga and has eight years of training in biomechanics and critical alignment.

Thiessen has taught at several studios in Calgary, including the Tri-Yoga Calgary and the Bodhi Tree. She is an advocate of yoga for everyone, young and old.

"Ideally, you learn about yourself. If you practice from ego you will be injured from ego," she explained. "Physically, I think it is great. When asana is practiced really mindfully and intellectually, when it is taught in a way that is conducive to all body types and when people are willing to listen to their bodies and challenge in a good way, I think it is fantastic. It is great for your muscles, great for your cardiovascular, it is great for your circulation. It is just overall good for you."

Because of recent critics, and a recent article in the New York Times titled "How yoga can wreck your body," Thiessen has created a teacher development course at Tri-Yoga in Calgary to teach instructors how to create multi-level classes that create a foundation for beginners while keeping advanced practitioners engaged and challenged.

"What is happening to yoga is that it is evolving," said Thiessen. "In Anusara [a type of yoga], they have brought in a lot of biomechanics, which is really great. You see yoga therapy, you see a lot of these things where they are taking the more medical side and the kinesiology side. I think that is fantastic, especially when yoga practice is an approach where everybody is as unique as every faith. So you practice for your body and you teach people to practice for their body, as opposed to 'you need to get into this routine, you need to do this series.'"

Recent criticism of yoga has brought attention to injuries suffered during yoga sessions by novices as well as advanced students. Despite the criticism suggesting that yoga is not for everyone, there is a significant amount of research arguing for the contrary. The list of suggested benefits from yoga includes improvements in mental health, chronic pain, cancer and even irritable bowl syndrome. The real issue seems to be the methodology taught by the teacher and practiced by the student.

Genevieve Levesque began practicing Bikram 10 years ago, and has since spread her practice to Ashtanga, Hatha and Kundalini. She began practicing because of her father's influence to help her heal sports injuries, and said she has never been healthier or stronger because of it. She teaches in Calgary at various studios, including Yoga Passage, Yoga Passion and Tri-Yoga Calgary.

"People have been thrown into this yoga trend. They want to get fit, they want to get lean and so they are falling into it and they are missing the whole thing. It is all about awareness. It is about bringing yourself into the moment. So if you actually practice the full eight limbs of yoga, you would never injure yourself because you are so aware of your body," said Levesque.

Levesque said that some classes move very quickly, and like any strenuous activity, the risk for injury is present.

"You can't say yoga is bad because then you would have to say that every single athletic movement is bad. You can injure yourself on the soccer field, you can injure yourself in a fitness facility, in a fitness class, and yoga in some form has become a fitness class. There are still so many benefits. The benefits completely outweigh what is not good for you in that room."

Some studios are maintaining traditional yoga culture, while others are turning up the heat, creating an aerobics type environment to appeal to fitness fanatics. The real issue is that beginners are jumping into classes beyond their experience levels leaving them vulnerable to injury.

Those teaching yoga do their best to help with personal practice based on their schooling and experience levels, but the responsibility should not be theirs alone. Common remarks by yoga teachers are "leave your ego at the door" and "this is your individual practice, no one else's."

Yoga is an individual practice because each human has a different body and mind, so each practitioner should not be expected to complete all the poses.

The yoga world is not perfect. Each school has different requirements for certification and each studio has different acceptable levels of experience for teachers. Young teachers each have something to contribute to a class, but older gurus might be the best solution if you are worried about injury. Both Levesque and Thiessen agree that if you want to practice yoga, you need to be smart and conscious about it, like anyone should be for a new practice.

"As an instructor, I am put in a position where some of my classes have 30 or 40 people in them. You can't go around and adjust and correct every single person in the class. You just can't," said Levesque.

While a yoga instructor can teach you moves, yogis need to take responsibility for their own practice.

"I will often suggest to a new student, especially one that is nervous, to take a private class with a really good teacher," said Thiessen. "Not that you have to do it privately consistently, but somebody who you can go to who is going to give you accurate ways of moving your body in a safe way. Then when you go to a class you can implement the things you've learned."

"It is going to be your own personal journey finding the right path on the mat, and I think yoga is for everyone. I don't care who you are, how much weight you have to lose or what type of injuries you have -- you will find something that is appropriate," said Levesque.

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