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The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit word yuj meaning to yoke or unite. This implies uniting all aspects of a person (body, mind and soul) to achieve a happy, balanced life. There are several paths of yoga. These paths led to the development of eleven different schools of yoga. One of the most recently developed schools is Iyengar yoga, developed by B.K.S. Iyengar. This type of yoga emphasizes the structural alignment of the physical body through postures (asanas) and breathing exercises (pranayamas). There are over 200 postures and 14 different types of breathing exercises ranging from the basic to advanced. By practicing the exercises, the body, mind and spirit are united and this relieves the stresses of modern-day life.
While meditation certainly has its place in Jewish life (See Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide), the meditation practiced in yoga is often regarded as problematic. Popular yoga meditation classes teach a person how to settle into a mental state of relaxation, go into trance, and visualize something. B.K.S. Iyengar feels that this is not true meditation. According to his view, a true meditative state involves no mental activity. Since this is simply beyond the reach of the average person, meditation is not taught in Iyengar yoga. Instead, this yoga teaches a person how to cultivate a relaxed and tranquil state of mind through performing the postures and breathing exercises. Consequently, when the Kolbergs crafted a kosher version of yoga, they didn’t have to worry about cutting out meditation exercises. In order to make Iyengar yoga kosher, the Kolbergs took out the prayers that many yoga routines begin with; made sure not to refer to postures by their traditional names since many of these names are related to idols; and removed every other grey area that could be questionable. “But you’ll still hear Sanskrit in our classes,” says Rachel. “Since our students are Israeli, American, and French, instructions like ‘Hands up’ are given in Sanskrit to save us calling out in three different languages!”
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The Advantages of Yoga
Like all exercise, yoga improves your strength, flexibility, stamina and balance. However, yoga doesn’t simply promote fitness. Yoga exercises involve the physical body, the breath, the mind and the intelligence, thus affecting the mind, emotions and intellect. For example, before a public speech, a person feels nervous. His shoulders tense and his breathing quickens. His mental state is, in fact, subconsciously reflected in his body and breath. Yoga postures and breathing exercises reflect the same principle. The physical body and the breath are consciously altered to subconsciously regulate the emotions and the mind. Certain postures performed in a specific manner bring about mental relaxation, quietness and serenity. Going back to our man with stage fright, by carrying out some yoga exercises, he will be able to relax his muscles, his breathing and consequently, his state of mind. Yoga also improves general health because it works on the inner organs, circulation and joint action to improve their function. In addition, by encouraging an awareness of the physical body, the mind is sharpened and concentration is improved. One of the greatest violinists of the twentieth century, Yehudi Menuhin, acknowledged B.K.S Iyengar not only as his best yoga teacher, but also his best violin teacher. With yoga, you can say goodbye to the imbalances wrought by modern life: headaches, stiff necks, lower backache, insomnia and digestive disorders.
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Iyengar differs from the other styles of yoga in three ways: technique, sequence and timing. Technique refers to the precision of the body alignment and the performance of pranayama. Sequence means postures and breathing exercises are practiced in specific sequence. Timing defines the time spent in each exercise.
Iyengar yoga often makes use of props, such as belts, blocks, and blankets, as aids in performing asanas. The props help students to perform the asanas correctly and minimize the risk of injury or strain. Since the props also offer support, elderly, injured, or ill students who cannot put in the full muscular effort required, can reap the benefits of many asanas. Standing poses are emphasized in Iyengar yoga because these build strong legs, improve circulation, coordination and balance and increase vitality in general.