When I first tried yoga, I was surprised to discover the variety of styles out there. My biggest takeaway was actually the breathing and relaxation exercises, instead of the physical poses – and having experienced first hand its benefits for my mind and body, I wanted to know and share about yoga.
This week, ISTS talks to Carol Cheong, a yoga instructor and founder of Ompulence, her own yoga and pilates online studio. She shares all about the essence of yoga and how you can start yoga to relieve mental and physical stress.
(Read to the end to join her free beginner class on meditation and yoga!)
Tell us a bit about yourself!
I have been a choreographer, dance and pilates instructor for 22 years.
I started to focus on practising yoga and pilates after a stressful period in my work and personal life – and slowing down really helped me develop a more balanced lifestyle. Having taught Hatha Yoga for 10 years, I can definitely say that it has transformed my life.
There are many articles out there written about yoga, but I want to share how to choose the style of yoga for you, and how classical yoga can help improve your health through breathing and meditation.
What is Hatha/Sivananda Yoga about?
Ha means Sun and Tha means Moon. Yoga means “to yoke or to bind”, and Hatha Yoga literally translates to “union through the discipline of force” – by focusing on the mastery of the body, it is a way to attain a calm and meditative mind.
The origins of yoga come from people practising yoga postures and breathing exercises to prepare the body to sit – to meditate being in the present moment. By doing this, we can clear our busy minds, and relieve ourselves of any physical, mental or emotional stress.
Sivananda Yoga is the classical method of yoga practice to help us experience a state of peace and harmony in the body, mind and spirit. Many of my students find that Sivananda Yoga offers a good balance of mindful movements and relaxation.
Classical yoga like Sivananda Yoga follows the 8 limbs of yoga from the scriptures (pictured below), while modern yoga emphasises more on the physical postures. Classical yoga practice is also handed down by a long lineage of teachers rather than developed by the creativity of one individual.
What is the benefit of practising yoga?
The practice of classical yoga, similar to Qi Gong or Tai Chi, is a mind-body practice. When practised appropriately and consistently, it can increase our vital energy, and we will feel more energetic and calm at the same time.
Yoga is a way of life. A more complete practice will include the 5 points of yoga: proper breathing, proper relaxation, proper exercise, proper diet (vegetarian), positive thinking and meditation. Following these points will help you improve both your mental and physical health.
For new students of yoga, it is important to know that yoga postures, known as asanas, focus heavily on the health of the spine. According to yogi Swami Vishnu, the spine is the centre of the nervous system and key to the entire body’s health. With proper exercise, having flexibility and strength in the spine supports our lungs and improves circulation in the body.
Who would you recommend to try out yoga?
The biggest misconceptions of yoga are that it is a religion, or that it is only suitable for flexible people.
I believe yoga is for everyone. I am sure you have seen articles or videos of people 80 years and older who continue to practise yoga. It is most important that we choose the appropriate school of yoga style and levels, to avoid injuries and enhance our health.
How should we find the right yoga style for us?
If you are quite active in sports or generally someone who moves and talks quite fast, you should practise a yoga style like yin yoga that is more relaxing and slower in pace. Remember that yoga is not gymnastic or a cardio workout. This being said, you will get stronger and more flexible over time as you practise consistently.
Vice versa, if you do not like to exercise and you tend to do things quite slowly, you can practise a more dynamic yoga style like ashtanga yoga that can help you feel more energetic.
Sivananda Yoga is also a good option for many people who want to relax their mind and body, as the sequence of the asanas focuses mainly on 12 basic postures. The simple sequence offers mental space for you to practise moving meditation without worrying too much about next postures. It is further simplified for beginners, and more importantly, there is a short rest in between postures to allow you to return to your breath and body.
What is proper breathing and why is it important?
Learning to breathe and relax properly will help you (who may be stressed) to relax and feel some level of peace almost immediately.
When we are mentally stressed, our bodies tighten up quite easily. Therefore, people feel neck or backaches – stretching or massages can only help them release tension temporarily. However, proper breathing can help them relax mentally, which will help them release tension in the body.
The bridge between mind and body is the breath. When our minds are busy or excited, our breaths are shallow and erratic. We have to breathe more mindfully, with the awareness of each inhalation and exhalation. This awareness draws our senses to the body inwards, preventing us from being constantly distracted by external matters and being overwhelmed by too many thoughts.
Yoga breathing and postures also helps us to prolong our inhalations and exhalations. This triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest and digest part of our nervous system – which can greatly reduce our stress level, bringing more balance in our body and mind.
When I am feeling stressed, I like to lie down on my back to practise abdominal breathing. With one hand on my belly to feel the movement and the other on my chest to remind me not to do chest breathing. This diaphragmatic breathing helps me to enhance my parasympathetic system.
Anyone who has tried meditation before can probably understand how difficult it is. Do you have any advice on how we can meditate better?
My advice is to keep your practice really short initially. We need to develop mindfulness before going into meditation. For example, mindful breathing, mindful walking, etc.
For example, you can just take 3 – 5 cycles of long inhalation and exhalations. Be aware of these deep breaths. Try to practise 3 times a day of 1 min – 3 mins each time.
For beginners, it is recommended to take slow walks in nature to practice mindfulness. We can be mindful of each step that we take and be aware of the surroundings at that moment, like the smell of flowers or the sound of the wind.
Lastly, do not feel irritated when your mind is all over the place when you sit down for meditation. According to a senior meditation teacher, it is more important that you are aware that you have drifted off to other thoughts and just simply bring your attention back to your breath. This may happen many times in a short span of 10 mins, it is pretty normal for new practitioners.
Thank you for sharing your knowledge about yoga, Carol. I hope this helps some of our readers understand the yoga practise more deeply, and dispel some of the misinformation surrounding it – and maybe try it out themselves!
To celebrate International Yoga Day, Carol will be hosting a CLASSICAL YOGA & MEDITATION WORKSHOP on 20th June (Sunday, 10am – 12pm). It will be very beginner-friendly, and totally free of charge! Sign up for the online class now on her website.
If you want to learn more about the points of yoga and how you can pick it up, check out Carol’s youtube channel as well!
Written by Kow Zi Shan
Photos by Carol Cheong
Illustrations by Lee Ai Cing