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  • Yoga: a brief introduction
  • Practice of Yoga
  • Yoga, the breath and awareness


Yoga: a brief introduction

By Barbara Marshall, MA, FOYTR


What is yoga?

For us in the West there's a sense of mystery about yoga. Is it a religion, a way to enlightenment, a cure for illness or the ability to perform amazing physical acts of contortion?

Yoga comes from the Sanskrit word “yuj” meaning to yoke or join. According to prominent Canadian yoga teacher, Esther Myers:

“…Through the practice of yoga, we yoke or harness ourselves to a discipline or a way of life that leads us to harmony and balance. In the process, we integrate all aspects of our being – physical, emotional and spiritual – and discover our connections to the earth, the universe and each other…”[1]


Yoga, then, can be a way of living and growing. Through the discipline of developing awareness, we realize deeper connections between our body, mind and spirit, and ultimately to all that is. Yoga is a spiritual pursuit, emphasizing self- understanding and transformation.

 The origins of yoga

Yoga developed in India and its origins are rooted in Indian philosophy and religions, although it is not a religion.

The asanas, or poses of yoga, are the oldest form of physical exercise known. Archaeologists have discovered objects showing people in yoga poses or postures, dating from almost 5,000 years ago.

The origin of yoga is a desire to end suffering. Yoga and its sister science, Ayurvedic medicine, grew out of the Indian branch of philosophy, called “Samkhya”, literally “to know the truth”. This philosophy is based on the view that fundamentally there is pure consciousness.

In yoga we realize that we are not isolated or suffering. We are all connected to our common origin and that is pure consciousness. Yoga provides the tools that allow us to connect to this universal consciousness.

The role of awareness

I believe that the key to yoga is the act of “growing” our awareness or consciousness. Once we become more aware of what we’re thinking, feeling or doing, then we can change.

This awareness opens the gates to transformation and evolution. We become aware of the unconscious responses in our minds and blockages in our bodies, caused by stuffing emotional responses, etc. We can choose how to act with our greater self-knowledge and understanding.

The paths of yoga

There are many ways or paths of yoga, including knowledge, devotion, service and technique or tantra.

Pantanjali’s 8-Limbs of Yoga

Patanjali is the foremost author on yoga. About 2,000 years ago he wrote down the teachings of yoga that had been passed orally from teacher to student over the previous centuries.

In his book, the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali outlines the 8-limbs of Yoga. The goal of yoga is a meditative state in which the meditator reaches full awareness and integration with the object of meditation. The 8- limbs are:

1.      Yamas- principles of social conduct that make us aware of our attitudes to the world around us. Yamas include: non-violence or non-harming; truthfulness or not lying; right use of energy; non-stealing or non-coveting; and non-possessiveness or non-attachment.

2.      Niyamas- principles of personal behaviour that make us aware of our attitudes towards ourselves. Niyamas include the practices of cleanliness, contentment, purification, self-study and surrender to a higher power.

3.      Asana – the practice of physical exercise develops awareness and control of our bodies. Patanjali advised that asana should have the dual qualities of alertness and relaxation. The practice of asana prepares the body for seated meditation.

4.      Pranayama – is the practice of breath awareness and control. It makes us aware of the unconscious patterns of breathing and teaches us ways to control and expand energy. One can meditate on the breath.

5.      Pratyahara – the practice of managing the senses. We bring our awareness inward to control the senses as a preparation for meditation.

6.      Dharana -  the ability to focus our awareness, again a preparation for meditation.

7.      Dhyana meditation, a state of in which one can sustain awareness and attention inward without distraction.

8.      Samadhi – integrating our awareness with the object, merging the mind with the object of attention. In samadhi we experience profound bliss and happiness. We are released from suffering and transformed transcending space and time to touch the infinite.

In Samyana which includes the previous three limbs, one can gain comprehensive knowledge of anything in the universe.

Tantra, the yoga of technique

Higher tantric techniques include mantra, devotion and visualization. Tantra provides the description of the chakras or energy centres, as well as the energy of Kundalini, a serpent-like energy that is coiled at the base of the spine.

 One part of tantra has practices for those not yet advanced to the higher stages of yoga and provides an introduction to yoga through indulgence in meat, sex and fish.

Hatha Yoga

 “Hatha Yoga” is one of many styles tantra paths, and is most commonly practiced in the West. “Hatha” is derived from two Sanskrit words: Ha – sun, and Tha- moon. It balances opposites, such as warming and cooling.

Hatha Yoga focuses on the practice of the yoga poses or postures. Classically it included meditation and mantra, the repetition of sounds for healing and yogic purposes. The best asana teachers can be found in the West today. In India the main yogic path is devotion.

[1] Esther Myers, Yoga and You, page 9.



Practice of Yoga

By Barbara Marshall, MA, FOYTR


Yoga Asana (postures)

Yoga is a practice, sometimes referred to as a science, of developing awareness for the purpose of self-transformation.

Hatha <HAH-tha> Yoga emphasizes the physical aspects of yoga and includes asana, breathing practices and meditation. Asana <AH-sah-na> (yoga postures) consciously bring the mind and body together.

 There are literally hundreds of asanas, involving postures such as twists, forward, back and side bends in various positions, including standing, seated, lying down and even upside down!

Yoga poses are a form of ismetric exercise, exercise that is held still, often under conditions of substantial resistance. The poses are frequently combined in sequences. The best known sequence is the Sun Salutation.

The benefits of yoga asana practice

Stephen Cope, a US yoga teacher, says that …yoga is probably the world’s most perfect form of exercise. It cultivates cardio-vascular health, and musculoskeletal strength and flexibility, without the painful and damaging side effects of high impact aerobics. It tunes up every organ system- respiratory, digestive, reproductive, endocrine, lymphatic and nervous. It cultivates the body’s capacity to relax and dramatically reduces the negative impacts of stress…”[1]

Yoga can be adapted for the young and old and can be done by just about anyone. The benefits of yoga practice are immediate. For example, researchers at Jefferson Medical College found that levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, dropped significantly following just one class of yoga. This is good news for body builders, because cortisol inhibits testosterone’s muscle-building action.[2]

The practice of yoga can prove beneficial in the treatment of many chronic physical ailments. Structural body problems can also be improved with regular practice.

Yoga is a key part of the program used by Dr. Dean Ornish in reversing heart disease.[3] Conditions that yoga can improve, reverse or eliminate include:

·        Stress

·        Diabetes

·        Asthma

·        Constipation

·        Hypertension

·        Fatigue

·        Back pain

·        Insomnia

·        Neck pain

·        Heart disease

·        Arthritis

·        Scoliosis.[4]

Yoga can be a powerful tool in emotional healing, using the body to alter the mind. Changing habitual posture can change how we feel. For example, standing tall, instead of slouching, makes us feel better. William Reich, a Freudian psychoanalyst, termed postures of habitual tension as “character armor”. He found that the tense muscles of character armor have to be released first, before we can access the underlying problems.[5]

Yoga and sport

John Douillard is a former professional athlete, who practices Ayurvedic and chiropractic sports medicine. In his books, The 3-Season Diet and Body, Mind and Sport, he has developed a revolutionary method of training, using yoga, that can be applied to any sport.

His method removes stress and cultivates the body/mind. It includes yoga’s full, slow nasal breathing;  Sun Salutations at the beginning and end of each training session; and, performance levels at just 50% of the Optimal Training Rate (220, less age in years, plus resting heart rate, divided by 2). Douillard has enhanced performance of thousands of athletes, including tennis star Billie Jean King.


Stress is the body’s adaptation response to a stressor, such as change or a demand that is real or perceived.

Our body’s sympathetic system, part of the autonomic nervous system, responds to stress through the “fight or flight” response. Blood pressure rises, muscles tense, breathing rate increases to supply more oxygen and various stress hormones, such as adrenalin are released from the endocrine system.

As a temporary emergency state, the stress response serves the body well. However, when the stress reaction becomes prolonged, it can lead to a variety of problems, including backache, insomnia, headache, stiffness, fatigue, anxiety, indigestion and serious illness.

The parasympathetic system, on the other hand, recognizes when the danger is over and normalizes the body. 

Yoga and stress

Yoga offers a comprehensive mind/body approach to stress.

Awareness is a key first step. With its emphasis on awareness and self-study, yoga teaches us to recognize when we are stressed, identify whether the stress is real or perceived and entertain options to manage stress.

Breath awareness is a key aspect of yoga. Through the practice of yoga we become aware that shallow chest breathing can prolong the "fight or flight" response.

Alternatively, the full yogic breath that utilizes both diaphragmatic and chest breathing can normalize the body and mind through the parasympathetic or relaxation response. Pranayama or yoga breathing practices provide many tools to control the breath and work with emotions.

Yoga asana or poses allow us to become aware of muscular tension from stress. We can release tension through the poses and relaxation. We can learn to be able to relax in the midst of strenuous yoga poses, an ability that we can take into our daily lives.

Yoga asana can bring up fears, such the fear of being upside down in handstand. In our yoga practice we can develop tools to work through these fears. Then we can apply these same tools for handling fear in our daily lives.

The yoga practice of meditation provides a means of regularly calming body and mind. Finally, the philosophy of yoga offers an opportunity to identify and change our core values to “contentment”, “non-attachment” and “non harming” that can lead to a more balanced way of life.

The anatomy of relaxation

The classic relaxation pose in Hatha Yoga is Savasana or the Corpse Pose, lying on the back.

Relaxation has several steps that involve the muscular and nervous systems, and the mind. [6] Muscles are relaxed or activated by the motor neurons of the somatic nervous system. A regular yoga practice of stretching, contracting and relaxing deeper muscles gets the motor neurons used to obeying the conscious will to become silent on command.

 We start Savasana by finding a comfortable position lying down, using pillows for support, if needed. Relaxation begins with awareness. Once we’re aware that we’re comfortable, we stop all thought or desire of moving. This step of “non-moving” diminishes the nerve impulses to the muscles, initiating relaxation in the muscular system that starts at peripheral muscles and then moves into the deeper muscles in the core of the body.

Breathing quiets and slows down. Abdominal breathing is most relaxing in this pose as chest muscles relax and almost freeze with inertia, quieting the sympathetic nervous system.

The mind focuses and stills with directions, such as watching the breath or focusing on various parts of the body. If you fall asleep, you loose awareness and control as the motor neurons of the nervous system automatically fire up.

Suggestions for the yoga practice

Here are some suggestions to guide the yoga practice:

·        Focus your attention on where and how your body is grounded or connected to the earth, the foundation of the pose.

·        Notice your breath and use it to deepen the pose. Think of the breath moving as a wave through the body.

·        Notice the tissues and joints affected by the pose, relax what is not being worked.

·        Consider your alignment and find a position that allows the body to lengthen in the pose with support and comfort.

·        Avoid pain totally and when you receive a message of pain, change the pose or don’t do it.

·        Practice regularly, even if it’s just for few minutes to start.

·        Choose a knowledgeable teacher, but honour your own feelings and decisions of what you feel comfortable doing.

·        Be patient.

·        Advanced yoga is not how you look, but developing your awareness of what, how and where you feel.

[1] Stephen Cope, Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, Introduction.

[2] Joe Weider’s Muscle and Fitness, Nov., 2003, p. 180.

[3] Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease: The only system scientifically proven to reverse heart disease without drugs or surgery.

[4] Dr. David Frawley and Sandra Summerfield Kozak, Yoga for your Type: An Ayurvedic approach to your asana practice, p. 30.

[5] Swami Rama, Rudolph Ballentine, MD, Swami Ajaya PhD, Psychotherapy, the evolution of consciousness, p. 4.

[6] H. David Coulter, Anatomy of Hatha Yoga, pages 541-566.




Yoga, the breath and awareness

By Barbara Marshall, MA, FOYTR

How we breathe

Breathing is something most of us take for granted. That’s unfortunate. Most of us use less than 25% of our breathing capacity. The bad breathing habits we develop as children stay with us as adults, possibly leading to an array of health and emotional problems.

Becoming aware of how we breathe can be life-altering. Simply by becoming aware and changing our breathing habits, we can experience an increased sense of confidence, improved mental and motor skills, a sense of calmness, increased short-term memory and decreased anxiety.

When we breathe well, we can transform our lives, becoming more  healthy with improved cardiovascular, digestive, immune, nervous and elimination systems. We have more energy.

Breathing can be among the best tools for our society’s most common complaints of anxiety, depression, lower back problems, insomnia, constipation, as well as chronic and acute pain.

The breath is a primary fuel for the body. The brain starves in 4 minutes without oxygen. Breathing affects every aspect of living. We take about 20,000 breaths per day, about one hundred million breaths in a lifetime. Even a small change in breathing can lead to dramatic changes overall.

The body removes about 70% of toxins through the breath. When we are not breathing well, we force the kidneys and other organs of elimination to take on this job. Since the skin is involved in elimination, one of the benefits of improved breathing is improved skin!

Yoga: transformation through awareness

A definition of yoga that I’ve developed is self-transformation through awareness”. A key focus of yoga is the breath or prana, meaning “universal life force” or “energy and consciousness”.

Prana is not simply “air”. It is the energy and awareness that everything in the universe shares. In the language of contemporary physics prana is like the “field”, “…from which everything emerges and to which it returns…”[1]

Breath awareness and control, called pranayama, is a fundamental part of the 8-limbs of yoga as set out 2,000 years ago by Patanjali, the foremost author of yoga.

Breathing: starting in the nose

Yoga sees the nostrils as a key part of the energy system of the body. The nostrils are the ends of energy channels that begin at the base of the spine and loop through the chakras or major energy centres. The left nostril, named ida is related to cooler, feminine, moon energy. The pingalla or right nostril is connected to warming, sun, male energy.

Breathing through the nose is vital The tiny hairs in the nostrils cleanse impurities from the air. The mucus membranes heat up and moisturize the incoming breath. The nasal passages have turbinates that act as a kind of turbine, helping to drive the incoming air down deeper into the lungs.

Nitric oxide and the nose

One of the most exciting recent scientific discoveries about breathing through the nose is the role of nitric oxide. In 1998 the Nobel Prize for medicine was awarded to researchers on nitric oxide. Nitric oxide (NO) is better known as the toxic gas produced from automobile exhaust that is destroying our ozone layer.

However, in small quantities nitric oxide is a gas that acts as a neurotransmitter, immunoregulator and vasodilator. Nitric oxide, is a key ingredient in the drug, Viagra used for impotence. Here are just a few of the health benefits of nitric oxide:

Ø     Regulates blood pressure

Ø     Boosts immune system

Ø     Kills cancer cells and microorganisms (bacteria, viruses)

Ø     Increases blood to the cells

Ø     Aids muscular control, balance and coordination

American and Japanese researchers have found that nitric oxide is actually produced in the nasal passages and also absorbed there. As exercise intensity increases, so does the amount of nitric oxide with nasal breathing. There was no corresponding increase with mouth breathing.[2]

A study of 153 heart attack patients found that 75% were chronic mouth breathers.[3] This is not surprising, given the benefits to the cardio vascular system of nasal breathing.

Yoga breathing techniques validated

Among the practices of pranayama in yoga is a technique of humming, called the Bee Breath.

In a study reported in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine (2002; 166: 144-145), researchers at the Karolinska Hospital in Stockholm, Sweden found that nitric oxide levels in the nasal passageways were 15 times higher during humming than during normal, quiet exhalations.

Nitric oxide (NO) helps to dilate the capillary beds and increase blood flow. Humming had the effect of dramatically increasing the gas exchange from the sinuses to the nasal passageways.

How we’re designed to  breathe

To fully utilize our design for breathing the abdominal muscles needs to be fully relaxed to allow the diaphragm to expand down into the abdomen on the inhalation.

The contraction of the diaphragm draws air down into the lungs. On the exhalation, the diaphragm is aided by the contraction of  powerful abdominal muscles. The abdominal and intercostal muscles between the ribs are considered the primary muscles associated with breathing.

Our breathing system is designed to draw breath down into the lower lungs. The lower lungs have about five times the capacity of the smaller upper lobes of the lung.

In addition blood circulation to the top of the lungs is less than 0.1 litre per minute, well below the circulation to the mid and lower lungs. The flow of blood to the middle of the lungs is about 0.6 litres per minute and at the bottom of the lungs this increases to over 1 litre per minute.

The purpose of breathing is to draw in air and allow for an exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood. It is vital, then,  that we breathe fully, especially utilizing the mid and lower sections of the lungs.

Common “restrictive” breathing habits

We learn our breathing habits by copying those around us. It is interesting that the word for family in Hawai is “ohana”, literally “people who breathe together”.

In The Breathing Book, Donna Farhi, a yoga teacher, lists some of the chronic breathing habits that limit the full use of the breath. In all of these, the diaphragm is restricted in some way, resulting in both physical and emotional tension.

In “reverse breathing people suck the belly in during inhalation and out on exhalation. This is completely the opposite movement of the design and can result from tight belts and restrictive clothing.

Symptoms of reverse breathing can be chronic tension in the upper body, indigestion and clumsiness. Becoming aware of the habit is the first step to changing back to nature’s original design.

“Chest or paradoxical breathing” may have begun with anxiety, a startle that forces the breath into the upper chest and freezes the abdomen. Chest breathers tend to move the shoulders up and down with the breath.

Women may chest breathe to portray an image of an ideal body. Men frequently use it from habitual stress. Many of us become chest breathers when we use our computers. Researchers have found that most people brace their upper bodies, chest breathe and increase the rate of respiration as soon as the fingers touch the keyboard.[4]

Chest breathers rely on the secondary muscles of respiration, including trapezius, scalenes, and pectoralis minor. This can result in chronic tension in the upper back, shoulders and neck. Chest breathers often experience anxiety.

To change: recognize how you are breathing, relax upper back and shoulders, and allow the belly to swell with the breath.

Collapsed breathingis somewhat like chest breathing. However, instead of the shoulders moving up with the inhalation, the body movement is down, the back hunches, the shoulders hunch, the abdomen sags and the exhalation is often a sigh.

Hyperventilation is often seen in chest breathers. Instead of a resting breathing rate of about 13 breaths per minute, breathing rate is increased to the range of 22 breaths per minute. Carbon dioxide levels fall below normal, causing arteries to constrict, and increased calcium levels with associated muscle tension, overactive nerves, irritability, etc.

Other patterns include “throat holding” (closing the muscles in the throat) “breath grabbing” and “frozen breathing”.

Observing the breath

How do you become aware of the breath? There are many aspects of the breath that can you can observe.

One of the easiest is the rate of breath. Notice how many breaths per minute that you take when you’re resting, walking, or engaged in vigorous exercise. Breathing above 15 breaths per minute is considered a stress signal.

Richard Miller, a US yoga teacher, suggests a target breath rate for a beginning yoga student should be a 6 second inhalation and a 9 second exhalation. While doing yoga poses or asana, he suggests a breathing rate of 8 breaths per minute.[5]

John Douillard is a former US professional athlete, who practices Ayurvedic and chiropractic sports medicine. The key to athletic training is awareness and use of the breath adapted from yoga. A short shallow breath sends a message to the body of stress.

He suggests counting the number of steps while walking. Ideally, you should be able to take 21 steps for one cycle of complete inhalation and exhalation while you walk.[6]

When considering your breath, examine the length of the inhalation, compared with the exhalation. Which do you prefer? Where do you feel the breath in the body? What is the quality of the breath… laboured or easy? What is the texture or feel of the breath…smooth or uneven? These will give you clues to understand your current breathing and guides to help change.

You can use observation of the breath to move through emotions, instead of ignoring them. Become aware of the emotion – fear, sadness or anger..and then breathe fully and watch what happens.

The breath and the heart

The diaphragm and heart are intimately connected. The heart lies on top of the central portion of the diaphragm and is connected by fascia to the diaphragm.

Each breath with the diaphragm provides a gentle massage of the heart. In addition, the inferior vena cava which brings blood back up from the lower parts of the body passes through the centre core of the diaphragm. It is suspected that the contraction and expansion of the diaphragm may have a role in pumping blood back to the heart and in this sense the diaphragm may also operate as a kind of second heart.[7]

On the inhalation the heart speeds up and there is increased blood pressure. The exhalation causes a slight slowing down and reduction of blood pressure.

In the Minneapolis study of heart attack patients, 100% were chest breathers. Dr. Dixhoorn of Holland taught heart attack patients how to use a full diaphragmatic breath. Compared with a control group that experienced heart attacks, the full breathers experienced none over the next two years. [8]

Yoga pranayama emphasize a longer slower exhalation that encourages the relaxation response, reduction of blood pressure, etc.

The breath and the spine

The diaphragm is connected to the ribs, as well as the upper lumbar spine. Each movement of the breath in the diaphragm can move the spine. This intimate relation of the breath and spine can be explored in all the yoga poses, leading to greater awareness, relaxation, and energy.

[1]  Anne Green, Thorsons Principles of Ayurveda, page 16.

[2] John Douillard, Body, Mind and Sport, pages 163-4.

[3] Mukunda Stiles, Structural Yoga Therapy; adapting to the individual, page 60

[4] Donna Farhi, The Breathing Book; Good health and vitality through essential breathwork, page 77

[5] Richard Miller, PhD, audiocassette, the Phsycholphysiology of Respiration

[6] John Douillard, The 3-Season Diet; Solving the mysteries of food cravings, weight loss and exercise, page 201

[7] Donna Farhi, as above,  page 59

[8] Gay Hendriks, PhD, Conscious Breathing; Breathwork for health, stress release and personal mastery, pages 16-17.