5 Things You Should Learn in Yoga Class (But Probably Aren’t).

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It’s possible to take hundreds of yoga classes and still be ignorant to yoga’s fundamental theory and principles. Here are 5 things you should learn in yoga class that you probably aren’t.

I took classes several times a week for years, always paying attention to my teachers, but some seriously important information about yoga was simply never discussed.

When I went through my teacher training eight years after my very first yoga class, I was shocked to realize that I actually had no idea what yoga really was about: not only had I been practicing in ways that were more harmful than helpful for eight whole years, but I felt like I had missed out on experiencing something deeper.

I’ve since learned of yoga’s potent powers, which can be attained if we practice correctly and understand the target we’re after. When we dedicate so many hours to yoga every week, shouldn’t we be making the absolute most of it? 

Whether you’re a beginner or have an established practice, here are the principles no student should miss:  

1.  Practice yoga on an empty stomach. 

Firstly, this means waiting four hours after a heavy meal and at least one hour after a light meal (such as fruit). Our digestive systems need a lot of energy to function properly. It follows that redirecting that energy to yoga postures can disrupt digestion. And since digestion is the cornerstone of health, practicing yoga on a full stomach could negate the health benefits you’re after.

Secondly, don’t drink anything a half hour before or after your practice. It’s also not a good idea to sip water throughout a class (although styles like hot and bikram yoga that induce sweating may advise otherwise).

2.  The best time to do yoga is in the morning before breakfast. 

This is when your stomach is inevitably empty—as it should be when doing yoga. It’s also a way to prevent injury. Our bodies are naturally more stiff when we first wake up than at the end of a day’s activity making it unlikely to overstretch. Morning joint and muscle stiffness will begin to subside as you develop your practice.

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The two hours leading up to sunrise, named brahmamuhurta in Sanskrit, are especially conducive to yoga and meditation. This is when the atmosphere is pure and quiet. The mind is relatively empty of thoughts, alert and fresh.  You may feel more determined to take on challenging asanas (yoga postures) in the morning than you do at the end of a long day. 

The second best time to practice is around sunset, when yoga can relieve fatigue from a hard day’s work. It’s a wonderful way to relax and unwind. However, an evening practice will limit you as some yoga postures and breathing exercises are too invigorating and stimulating to do before sleep.

Though morning and evening are best, yoga can be practiced at any time of day as long as you adhere to the guidelines on eating and drinking. It may not be realistic for you to wake up at five AM to do yoga. You will benefit no matter when you choose to practice, so find a time that works for you and be consistent, practicing around the same time every day. Yoga will naturally become part of your daily routine as regularity creates discipline. 

3.  Each yoga posture has a purpose and benefits.

Even those who have never practiced yoga know that it makes the body flexible. However, this is only one of its many physical effects. Yoga’s benefits go far beyond flexibility, reaching the deepest layers of the body. 

See also: Each Yoga Pose Has It’s Benefits: Top 25 Favorite Poses

Every asana, or yoga posture, has a physical purpose. Each one targets some area of the internal body; stimulating organs and glands so that they properly function, strengthening muscles, or improving joint mobility. They bear effect on all body systems: nervous, endocrine, cardiovascular, lymphatic, digestive, respiratory, urinary and reproductive.

Many asanas target the spine in some way. After all, yogis say that you’re only as young as your spine is healthy. Most yoga postures make the spine strong, supple, and flexible; all the while improving circulation and nourishing the nervous system. 

A well-rounded yoga sequence will have positive effects on the entire internal body.  

Yoga might strike an uninformed student as an obscure game of twisting and convoluting the body, but once you know the vast physical benefits of the poses, you’ll probably be more enthused to continue your practice.  

4.  We can get so much more out of yoga than just exercise—it’s actually a spiritual practice. 

Yoga is undeniably a phenomenal form of exercise.  It improves the functioning of all body systems without putting unnecessary stress on the body. It’s powerful effects are not limited to the physical, however; nor is its ultimate goal restricted to the body alone. Yoga is a science with a spiritual aim, meant to bring us to a higher state of awareness.

Yoga is considered a sadhana, or spiritual practice. It’s not simply exercise but a deep, vast science that traditionally incorporates many practices to raise consciousness and awareness. Traditional yoga includes poses and postures as well as ethical codes for living, meditation, breath control, ritual, mantra and pure diet.  

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It teaches us how to harmonize our bodies with mind and soul. Yoga is concerned with the inner self, a higher consciousness, and the goal of self realization or enlightenment.  Yoga’s ultimate aim is to guide us to true happiness and everlasting bliss. 

If you only do yoga for a workout and aren’t interested in it’s spiritual effects, your practice will still have a positive influence on your health.  But it’s important to know that a greater yogic philosophy exists should you choose to learn it in order to make the most of your practice.

5.  Practicing with awareness is imperative. 

This includes being conscious of the sensations throughout the body, the posture itself, the synchronization of breath with movement, and noticing any thoughts or feelings that may arise. In the beginning it may feel like asanas are only concerned with the physical because they focus on movement of the body, but when done with awareness they influence and harmonize all levels of being- physical, mental, emotional, psychic, pranic (life force) and spiritual. It’s tempting to let the mind wander to all manner of affairs when you’re practicing, but being mindful and observant is essential to receive yoga’s maximum benefits.

It would be a shame to miss out on yoga’s greatest effects. Knowing how and why to practice make all the difference in taking yoga from a workout to a means of being our best selves, inside and out.

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Reference:

Swami Satyananda Saraswati.  Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha.  Bihar, India:  Yoga Publications Trust, 2008.  Print.

Mindful bonus with Yoga’s Richard Freeman:

Relephant Reads: 

Things Your Yoga Teacher is Dying to Tell You (but Probably Won’t) 

A Yogini’s Biggest Mistake(s)

5 Things to Ask Yourself Before Signing Up for Yoga Teacher Training

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Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: PexelsWiki Commmons

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Mark LaPorta Jan 22, 2019 6:01am

some of these are important.

    Mark LaPorta Jan 22, 2019 6:10am

    With all due respect, I found some of the response/comments more insightful than the original post.

    I always to back to asking
    What did Patanjali say about this — time, place, water, etc. — and do the writers realize that yogi physiopathology and philosophy do NOT match up with the material view that our cultural science promulgates?

    straight from their source in India — interesting phrasing.

    It is a safe and broadly applicable axiom that when acquiring a psychospiritual practice “for a reason,” one gets the most effect after relinquishing the “reason,” which is always following ego.

    Funny how the more word written to elaborate a spiritual process, the more it misleads.

    It was recently pointed out that when a complex system is codified, it loses nuance.

magnuslamagne Jan 7, 2019 3:34am

Trying to think thoughtful thoughts
Yet my mind is restless
Trying to walk an eight-fold path
Yet my feet won’t move
Trying to mind the air that breathe
Yet my lungs are weary
Trying to see truth in life
I reach for the BIBLE and learn about the ways of JESUS

anonymous Mar 31, 2016 1:03am

There are a lot of words in Vedic-Yogic tradition which get lost/distorted/diluted in translation to English; maybe because of cultural differences and the effect it has on language.

Words like Maya, Sadhana are almost always wrongly translated to mean ‘illusion’, or ‘spiritual practice’.

Sadhana, though is essentially a spiritual practice but the literal meaning of sadhana is ‘to align’, it can be described as act of aligning. A sadhu is a person who has dedicated his life to aligning his being with the universal/super consciousness. Yoga means union.

Some traditions in yoga maintain that yoga is not just an excercise, as pointed here beautifully but also a way of life: yoga is forever and throughout; yoga is in union, with so many dimensions of experience through the manifest reality, EVERY MOMENT! You are/can be in state of yoga while taking a walk, while waiting through a traffic jam, while having a meeting, while working. Yoga is not an excercise, it is a state and practice at all levels and states, practice of yoga of breath, practice of ypga pf postures, practice of yoga in sex, practice of yoga in relationships, practice of yoga in work and in life makes one a ‘yogi’,meaning ‘one who has dedicated his life to, and/or is in the state of union’.

Doing asanas without awareness of each moment and of our ever changing multi dimensional experiential filed, not just physically, but mentally, emotionally and energetically with the help of breath and movement and postures is a Waste, there is no ‘union’ happening then, it is then reduced to just some and sadly, only a physical activity.

In our popular modern culture today, (the mostly americanised ‘global’ culture we all are being fed), we tend to segregate things into neat categories, and feel good about it. Eg., Physical problems/symptoms, are different and separate from mental/emotional problems and symptoms, that spiritual practice and economic practice, are different, that mind and body are separate things! Categorisation is fine to just study a subject in depth, but it seems that such demarcations start seeping into our psyche and we start ‘believing’ that spiritual practice and daily living are separate, that,for example, a headache or a skin infection or even a serious disease like cancer has nothing to do with what we ‘ingest and/or nourish’ everyday; not just food, but beliefs, emotions, thought projections and our deep level emotional wounds/sorrows etc.

All these beliefs start reflecting when we consider yoga as just another commodity available in the market of various ‘excercises’. With no disrespect to all the other forms of exercise, confining yoga to a ‘thing you do FOR …..(add your own reason: spiritual practice, weight loss, exotic tradition adventure, or to fit in, or to feel good about yourself etc.)’ is the biggest trap! We can’t apply the sense of ‘what is this gonna do for ME’ to yoga.

Yoga is not a dress, or a vacation.

Yoga is certainly not just ‘postures’.

Yoga is a way of life, an every moment work. Work for union. Union with our shadow selves, union with our deep rooted stuck patterns of perception and beliefs, union with the infinity and beauty of life, union with all that is manifest and that which is not, and union with awareness of being, forever..Till we are being GIVEN this breath to witness the world in all its wonder and horror and beauty.

    Mark LaPorta Jan 25, 2019 6:25am

    There are a lot of words in Vedic-Yogic tradition which get lost/distorted/diluted in translation to English; maybe because of cultural differences and the effect it has on language. YES

    it had to do with the explorers in the 17C, mistaking MAYA for ILLUSION and SHIVA , the Lord of Yoga, for DESTROYER, because of the difference in world view between Europe — born, live, die — and Industan — rebirth.

    Maya is CONSTRUCT, and SHIVA is DECONSTRUCTOR.

    So an article like this will always have skew dimensions.

anonymous Jan 13, 2015 7:45pm

Yes, drinking water can dampen your fire. Of course, the caveat is for nursing moms/pregnant women– please continue to drink water! My daughter is 2.5 and still nursing. I am beyond Mommy/Baby yoga classes and am back to my vinyasa. I need water to keep from getting dizzy due to how much water the body needs to make milk. And, as for not eating, I tell my prenatal students that if a little snack of nuts or fruit keeps them from getting dizzy or feeling sick, to go ahead. Ahimsa to the baby if he/she needs something to keep blood sugars in check!

    anonymous May 16, 2015 9:48am

    Well said, we don't want any ahimsa to the baby! Pregnant mothers require their own set of guidelines. Thanks for touching on this here.

anonymous Dec 29, 2014 12:29pm

I think the best time to practice for me is after noon early evening I think most people are most flexible and limber at that time . As a 30 year physical therapist , yoga therapist and Personal trainer all bodies are different.

    anonymous May 16, 2015 9:50am

    Hi Debbie,
    I agree, most people are more limber in the afternoon after they've been active the whole day. But one of the main benefits of practicing first thing in the morning is to remove stiffness after a whole night of not moving! Plus, it's hard to overstretch in the morning. We may not be able to get into as deep of a back or forward bend, but I believe that can be safer for the body.

anonymous Oct 13, 2014 11:36am

I think #1 differs for everyone, depending on metabolism etc. I find that I get dizzy when practice 1st thing in the morning on a totally empty stomach, no matter how much water I drink the night before. For me, a little fruit 30 minutes prior to class makes the world of a difference. If I eat 1 hour before class, there is more of a chance that I will get light headed, ESPECIALLY in a hot/warm yoga class. I think this is something people need to figure out for themselves, what works best for them. Every stomach digests differently. I tell my students to pay attention to how they feel if they have a full stomach (cause you know some of them do…lol) and compare it with other practices when you have eaten less or nothing at all. I cannot tell my students what works for me, and expect their bodies/mind to behave the same way.

anonymous Sep 25, 2014 6:51pm

Hey there. So I was just wondering, I practice hot yoga and am 100 lbs and have a very fast metabolism and it seems that if I don’t eat before yoga (meaning 2 or so hours before- never right before) I don’t have enough energy to exert in a 75 min hot power flow. Should I really not be eating 2 hours before a class ?

    anonymous Sep 28, 2014 7:17am

    Hi Patricia,

    While I can not say for sure without knowing more about you, it could be that hot power flow yoga is too rigorous for you, given your small frame and fast metabolism. In my opinion, that style of yoga is better for someone who's trying to lose weight. If you don't have the energy to make it through the class you might want to try out a less intense style of yoga, like hatha or yin yoga.

    You shouldn't have a heavy meal 2 hours before a class, but a something light would be alright an hour before.

anonymous Aug 3, 2014 2:52pm

Ironically and sadly, one aspect that is often overlooked is the importance of the breath. Once you start using the breath correctly and fully, getting the spiritual connection is pretty much guaranteed. After doing yoga for 38 years, I am shocked to find classes that don't even mention the breath, and others that just glaze over it.

anonymous Aug 3, 2014 1:40pm

Good article.
Three other crucial points I’ve learned in 43 years of practice…

1. Take it easy. Avoid straining. Asanas are not exercises, but poses. You get the benefits effortlessly.
Always stretch less than your maximum. Have your awareness easily on the stretch.

2. The source book that Julie mentioned is excellent. But you’ll want to stay with the shoulder stand and avoid the head stand which can cause real head and brain damage. Also avoid the Bandhas except for the simple stomach lift.

3. Learn to meditate, not from a book, or tape, or video, but from a certified teacher. If you want guaranteed benefits, start at the top with TM. It's the most proven technique in the world.

vhttp://www.TM.org http://www.DoctorsOnTM.org http://www.TruthAboutTM.org http://www.PermanentPeace.org/

anonymous Jul 31, 2014 11:02pm

a good book on the subject. Yoga of the Heart, by Alice Christensen

anonymous Jul 31, 2014 9:52am

Could you elaborate on why it is not generally ok to sip water unless it's 30 min before or after your practice? Just curious as I do midday yoga while I'm working and due to the nature of my occupation I am 90% working in a cleanroom as a chemist during work hours. I am rarely hydrated enough to make it through class without sipping quite a bit of water.

    anonymous Jul 31, 2014 1:06pm

    Hi Tina,
    Water can cool or douse the subtle energies and inner fire (the agni) that yoga aims to ignite, hence it's not recommended to drink during class. Drinking water in class is also a mental distraction, and doesn't help us to learn to focus or to find stillness.
    It's traditionally recommended not to drink anything a half hour before class so that the stomach stays empty, and I believe that if you drink a ton of cold water right after class, you again might douse that internal fire. Sipping if you're thirsty after class, though, is a good idea. Thirst is a natural urge that should be heeded. Ideally we should stay hydrated throughout the day so that we don't feel the need to drink during yoga class. That being said, if you're thirsty, your body probably needs water! Just do it mindfully, and hold the ice cubes.

anonymous Jul 31, 2014 3:16am

"When I went through my teacher training eight years after my very first yoga class, I was shocked to realize that I actually had no idea what yoga really was about: not only had I been practicing in ways that were more harmful than helpful for eight whole years, but I felt like I had missed out on experiencing something deeper."

Hi Julie

For me this bit was way more iteresting than your 5 points. What were you doing for 8 years that you didn't touch something spiritual? How did you stick with asana for 8 years if it was just stretching without an emotional / spiritual element? Did you never read yoga books or go to workshops, have a reiki treatment, a random kundalini experience or even learn to meditate?

I'm not finger pointing here, I'm interested in your story.

    anonymous Jul 31, 2014 10:56am

    Hi Richard,
    Thanks for your interest. And you ask very interesting questions!
    I started off practicing yoga as a physical activity and (almost) immediately felt what an impact it had on my mindset. And to be honest, I liked the way it made my body look and feel. Although this was all motivation to continue, I had bouts of intensive practice for months, interspersed with months of no yoga when I was broke or traveling or sometimes just lazy. My practice was off and on for the first five years or so. At some point I got seriously into yoga and took up a daily practice. Although none of the teachers I learned from at the time incorporated spirituality into their classes (not even om-chanting), I knew there was something happening to me when I practiced, something deep– but at the time, I didn't understand what that was– I suppose I am just coming into my spirituality. No, I did not have any random kundalini experiences, or have a reiki treatment, or meditate, and no, I did not even read any yoga books for the first many years! I did attend workshops, but they focused on opening hips and learning inversions and other physical aims. I was not on the spiritual bandwagon and neither were any of my friends, and I'm not even sure about the yoga teachers whom I was learning from. I was coming into all this on my own. It was this self discovery that led me to take a yoga teacher training course in India, and to start reading yoga books and learning from spiritual teachers in India, and to really understand yoga's spiritual aspect. It was like being reminded of something I already knew but had forgotten, perhaps from lives ago.
    I'm so grateful for all of those latter teachers that opened my eyes to something very deep. They've played a huge role on my spiritual path, and made me appreciate the role of the guru.
    I hope that answers your questions.

      anonymous Aug 1, 2014 3:06am

      Hi Julie
      Thanks for your reply. You've made me think about my own practice and see that I was already on a path before I ever did asana practice. Thanks for sticking with your practice and sharing it.
      Richard

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Julie Bernier

Julie Bernier teaches women the art of self-care so that they feel their healthiest and happiest in their own unique bodies. This holistic approach to individualized wellness is rooted in the ancient Indian knowledge of ayurveda: a complete medical science and way of life which explains that our wellbeing blossoms when we align ourselves with nature. Julie is a registered ayurvedic practitioner with the National Ayurvedic Medical Association, a Certified Massage Therapist, and a classical hatha yoga teacher. She studied each of these modalities in the US and straight from their source in India. Connect with Julie at trueayurveda.com and check out her upcoming events in LA: ayurvedic cooking basics and ayurvedic skin care.