Frequently Asked Questions
Answered by Jane Wiesner
BA (Hons), Dip Health (Yoga), Adv Dip Yoga Teaching, Grad Cert Yoga Therapy (underway), President of the Australian Association of Yoga Therapists, PhD (underway)
- I'm experiencing some problems with my meditation. Can meditation make a person feel anxious?
- What can I hope to gain from yoga practice?
- Do I need to be a vegetarian to practice yoga?
- Do I need to be flexible in order to practice yoga?
- Is yoga good for relaxation?
- What is the main difference between yoga and other forms of exercise?
- Do I need a mat?
- What is the difference between all the various types of yoga?
- Does Yoga have to be a spiritual practice or can it just be a practical tool for being fit?
- When should I practice Yoga?
- What does the term non-grasping or non-attachment mean with respect to Yoga?
- You often get the feeling that yoga is about self-sacrifice, are yogis selfless?
- My child has trouble sleeping. What should I do? Can yoga help?
Pictured: yoga poses (asanas) from Bill Grainger's free yoga font
1. I'm experiencing some problems with my meditation. Can meditation make a person feel anxious?
Meditation can be a problem if the individual is not feeling OK emotionally and they are not properly guided. With all of the pressure of life today meditation can fall into a negative pattern without you realising it and instead of letting you escape from the pressures of life it may compound them.
I suggest that if meditation creates a feeling of anxiety, then you really need to address the anxiety by seeking the help of a counsellor who can help you to get to the bottom of these feelings. Also, contact your nearest Buddhist temple or Ashram - they usually hold guided meditation classes for free and I strongly recommend that if you are feeling anxious then you should only practice meditation when supervised by an experienced practitioner.
With meditation it is very easy to think you are meditating when in fact you are just concentrating—this may not be the case with you but it's important that you get to the bottom of the anxiety you are feeling.
Getting a CD for relaxation might also help because it makes it much easier to relax without distractions. Without the right balance between tension and release its easy to get into the habit of unconsciously holding on to the tension in the body and this only serves to increase anxiety.
2. What can I hope to gain from yoga practice?
This is a difficult question to answer, as there are so many benefits it's hard to name a few. The physical side of yoga practice (asanas/postures) massages the bodies organs, strengthens and tones the body and re-oxygenates the blood. It helps with flexibility, strength, awareness, balance and general wellbeing—both physical and emotional wellbeing.
The more subtle aspects of practice such as sadhanas (meditation, chanting, Yoga Nidra [guided relaxation] etc.) and pranayama (breathing techniques) help with concentration, focus, relaxation, feelings of self-worth as well as things like lung capacity and expelling toxins from the body.
Yoga has the capacity to help a person feel good about living, free of fear and joyous—happy, just to be in the moment. Yoga helps to relieve tension in the body and produces feelings of relaxation and ease, as opposed to dis-ease.
The philosophical aspects of yoga help to guide and inspire—giving wise and insightful advice on how to live free from pain and fear—encouraging peace for the individual and the world. I thoroughly recommend yoga as a great tool for providing coping mechanims and strategies that help the individual to see with clarity and wisdom—non-judgement and peace.
3. Do I need to be a vegetarian to practice yoga?
No. In fact the Buddha, whose philosophies were influenced greatly by yoga, was not a vegetation. It is more important that the quality of ahimsa (non-violence) is adhered to with respect to others and the treatment of animals in day-to-day life. Some people interpret this to mean not eating meat. But this must be a personal decision - it is not something we should impose on each other (this would not be in the spirit of ahimsa). The yogis say that the decision not to eat meat often happens spontaneously out of an increased awareness of the practitioner.
4. Do I need to be flexible in order to practice yoga?
No. A good yoga teacher or yoga therapist will help you to use the practices that best suit your body.
Pictured: yoga poses (asanas) from Bill Grainger's free yoga font
5. Is yoga good for relaxation?
Very much so. Because yoga focuses on the parasympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system - the relaxation response - it helps relieve the side-effects of stress and return the body to a state of balance (homeostatis) - especially Yoga Nidra (relaxation) and Pranayama (breathing techniques). Yoga is a fabulous pathway to a sense of inner peace.
6. What is the main difference between yoga and other forms of exercise?
Today, more than ever, we lead very stress-filled lives. This means that the fight or flight response (the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system) is often engaged. Normal physical exercise often mimics this function - for instance, while jogging the body's digestive system and immune system are slowed. This is fine for a time and there are obviously enormous benefits to the cardiovascular system. But where yoga differs from the more aggressive or dynamic forms of exercise is that it works with parasympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system - the relaxation response (it helps relieve the side-effects of stress and return the body to a state of balance [homeostatis] - especially Yoga Nidra [relaxation] and Pranayama [breathing techniques]. So, yoga works with the body's natural rhythms rather than against them.
7. Do I need a mat?
Yes, it is best to practice yoga on a non-slip mat with bear feet. Because a lot of poses require balance the mat helps you to maintain that balance. Also, best to wear loose fitting clothing for ease of movement.
8. What is the difference between all the various types of yoga?
All physical yoga is based on Hatha Yoga (Hatha means forceful)—every school the exists is based on Hatha Yoga. The different schools of yoga that have developed simply take the basics of Hatha Yoga and modify the asanas to suit whatever they wish to work towards. For example, the more strenuous practices - working with strength and endurance tends to use the more dynamic poses such as Warrior and Triangle pose. In contrast, a more meditative practice might work with more floor work - focusing on being gentle and nurturing. This is the beauty of yoga, it can be integrated in your life for the purpose you wish to achieve.
9. Does Yoga have to be a spiritual practice or can it just be a practical tool for being fit?
The word 'spirit' is derived from the Latin word 'spiritus', which simply means 'of the breath'. With this in mind, yoga is indeed a spiritual practice. It is also interesting to note that the word 'psyche' comes from the Greek work 'psukhe', which also means 'of the breath'. Yoga has long recognised this integration between the mind and the body (the life-force [or breath] and the thought processes). You might sat that yoga is a great tool for maintaining both a fit body and a fit mind. But it certainly does not have to be spiritual in the way we usually interpret this word—that is, in a religious or worshipping sense.
10. When should I practice Yoga?
Ideally, the best time to practice yoga is first thing in the morning. But as long as you practice without a full stomach, you can practice at a time that best suits you. It is better to practice at a less than ideal time than not at all. Any amount of Yoga practice will benefit you—even just a few minutes a day or 20 minutes a week. Whatever you do will make a difference.
11. What does the term non-grasping or non-attachment mean with respect to Yoga?
These concepts are often misunderstood. The idea of non-grasping simply means not focused on the object—being self-referenced rather than object-referenced. To explain this, I'd like to refer to and old Hindu proverb—'the spiritual life and the material life are wings of the same bird, if one wing is broken, it is hard to soar'. In other words, it is important to be balanced; to support the body and mind with both primary and secondary nourishment (love and food). It is when we spend much of our time 'wanting'—grasping at the un-obtained—that we often feel unbalance. What we want is not necessarily what we need. If we place our happiness on the attainment of a thing (an object, such a new car) then we place our happiness outside ourselves. Non-grasping does not mean renouncing either the material world, the demands of day-to-day existence, or your wordly goods, because these things are an inevitable part of life. But Aparigraha (see glossary) tells us to take only what is necessary; what we have earned.
12. You often get the feeling that yoga is about self-sacrifice, are yogis selfless?
This is an excellent question and quite a complex one (yet many would argue, equally simple). In yoga, our love and empathy for "the other" is due to our sense of connectedness - our oneness with the other. Hence, to love the light that shines in another is to love the same light that shines in you. In essence, there is nothing to sacrifice, by giving your love to others - you give to yourself.
13. My child has trouble sleeping. What should I do? Can yoga help?
You'll be reassured to know that this is the most common question I'm asked, so you're not alone. Sleeplessness is a really common problem with children. It can relate to a number of things. From the perspective of using yoga to help your children to sleep, remember not to do the physical practice too close to bedtime, otherwise it may just invigorate them. By all means use the relaxation practices just prior to sleep, but save the physical side for earlier in the day.
In general, physical activity will help sleeplessness because of the body's natural homeostatis (relaxation response)—the counterbalance between exertion and rest. Having said that, sometimes the body's relaxation response is curtailed due to anxiety. An overactive or unsettled mind can stimulate bodily chemicals that hinder the sleep process. Sometimes this happens because of excitement or anticipation, sometimes it happens because of fear. With little ones, it's really hard to know what they fear. And, quite often, there are no outward signs that something is bothering them—the fear manifests in other ways, like sleeplessness. It's important that their sleeplessness doesn't provoke frustrated responses in their parents, as this may exacerbate their anxiety.
Medically, there are a number of sleeping disorders that are quite common, some of which are associated with body chemistry, some are related to food allergies. Sometimes the darkness just represents uncertainty to a child and that makes them apprehensive. It may be that a simple picture (the mind sees in images) has stuck in their minds and reappears around bedtime—a scary movie they saw at a friend's house for instance. Sleeplessness can just become a habit and sometimes a change in routine helps to break this.
The most important thing for your child is that you don't blame yourself in any way for their sleep difficulties. Kids pick up on our feelings. If you are relaxed, it will help them to relax.
Here in Melbourne, at the Royal Children's Hospital, there is a program that a friend of mine attended with her child. She hasn't had any problems with her daughter's sleep habits since then. There are equivalent programs in other states.
Yoga can be a great tool for helping your child to sleep, especially if it is habit-related or a side effect of anxiety. Nevertheless, I would advise you to seek some advice from a qualified specialist in this field. Also, I believe that the Theosophical Bookshop (commonly known as the TS Bookshop) in Melbourne has a wide range of books related to health and wellbeing for children. Their number is (03) 9650 3955, I'd give them a call. They will send books to you.
My advice regarding the yoga would be to do the practice after school, with a brief relaxation period and then focus on relaxation more fully at bedtime. If you read to your child at night (which is a wonderful habit), remember to choose calming books rather than exciting or scary ones.
Most importantly, don't give yourself a hard time over this, it's a common problem.
Good luck!See also: