(MENAFN - Arab Times) YOGA balances the basic elements of existence to create harmony between body, mind and spirit. In this week's interview, Dareen Akkad, a certified yoga instructor, discusses at depth the intricacies of this ancient wisdom and how it can help bring discipline into your life. She traveled East to the land of its origins and practiced against the pristine backdrop of the legendary Himalayas to earn the certificate that entitles her to pass on this all-encompassing art to the benefit of the society. Read on and find out how a transcendental union with the universe can be achieved, not through a space odyssey, but by simply turning inwards into your own self.
Question: Yoga has become very famous worldwide in the last few decades. There are a lot of yoga teachers springing up everywhere, and often times there are conflicting methods in which they teach. How can you tell a genuine teacher from someone who has just picked up some Asanas from the Internet and pretends to be an expert?
Answer: You will have to find out if the person is certified yoga teacher. I have an Indian Yoga Alliance Certificate. This is a certificate from a worldwide yoga alliance, which is sort of an international yoga regulatory body. If I want to teach in Canada I will have to register with the Canadian chapter of the Alliance using my certificate. This certificate can be transferred anywhere in the world, where the Alliance has a chapter. However, there could be yoga teachers who may not be certified yoga instructors, but they would be certified in some other forms of physical training and qualified to teach yoga. In some cases, the instructor would have practiced yoga long enough to be able to teach yoga. It's actually your discretion whether or not you want to be instructed by a certified instructor.
Q: But is that advisable, because some of the postures you practice could have profound effects. There are postures which a pregnant woman or a person with hypertension is not supposed to practice. In that case, if an instructor is not a professional he could cause harm to his students. Isn't it?
A: Yes absolutely. That's why I wouldn't advise you to go to just anybody and learn yoga. You have to be careful in choosing your instructor. But let's also not misunderstand that all teachers without a formal certificate are fakes. However, it's advisable to go to a certified instructor, because then you can be sure.
Yoga is for anybody and everybody. From the beginning to the end, you have the same Asanas. If you take the Tree Pose for example, there are ways in which a beginner does it, and you can work yourself up to advanced levels in the same Asana. A certified instructor will be able to guide you in a manner that you can adapt the pose to your body's limitations. If you are not a qualified teacher, then you might do something that could cause injuries.
So, if I have a mixed class of students at different levels, I can teach one Asana to them considering the limitations of each student. It's important to listen to your body. Your body is smarter than you. It gives you signs that it's not happening. Yes, there's going to be some stress when you stretch your muscles, but everybody has a limit, beyond which it can cause damage. If you listen to your body, you will know what that limit is. Stop at that limit, or you could tear a muscle or injure a ligament.
Q: Does yoga actually help in losing weight? I am asking this because obesity is a growing health issue in Kuwait, like in so many other parts of the world.
A: Yoga helps you do so many things, beyond just losing weight. It helps your lung capacity, it helps your circulation, it helps regulate your appetite... all the tissues, organs, glands in your body work together harmoniously to achieve the perfect balance.
Q: Before we get deeper into that, can you define yoga for me?
A: Yoga in Sanskrit means union. It's a practice that aims at creating a harmonious union or marriage of your body, mind and soul. A lot of physical exercises work on improving your physical state, or regulating your body's fat percentage and such things. But they don't work on your spirit or your mental health. Yoga creates equilibrium, a balance of your physical, mental and spiritual health. So, all three important elements of your existence are addressed. For a person to feel fully healthy, all these elements have to be addressed.
A person who is overweight has physical imbalance in his existence. A person who is depressed and stressed has a mental imbalance, and person who feels lost has a spiritual imbalance. If any one of those elements is compromised, then you are less healthy.
Q: How does yoga help to bring the balance of mind?
A: Yoga creates balance of mind mainly through meditation. Hindu or Buddhist saints practice meditation for hours or days at a stretch. They believe they can attain enlightenment, which is becoming one with the universe. You lose your ego, and you become aware, and understanding of everything that happens around you. That's the ultimate aim of meditation, but at our common practicing level, meditation helps clear your mind, and be focused and calm. It helps to manage your frustrations and anger better.
After meditation, the second thing you do is Pranayama, which is breathing exercises. Pranayama firstly helps in improving the relationship between your lungs and your heart. It improves your lung capacity; it helps clean out toxins from your lungs and body. It also prepares you for the yoga session ahead. Breathing exercises also helps you relax; that's why they ask you to take a deep breath when you are stressed or angry. Deep breathing also helps you achieve better meditation.
And then comes the Asanas, which are different postures. There are some very common and well known Asanas in yoga, one's that are very commonly used. But Gurus tell you that there are hundreds and thousands of Asanas. The list never ends. The Asanas represent practically everything. A lot of times, it's the animals and insects. There are Asanas that are named after warriors, gods etc.
Q: Is it true that the Asanas have very specific objectives, like a certain posture reduces blood pressure, and another one helps in secreting a certain hormone and so on?
A: Well, at the very fundamental level Asanas strengthen your body posture. An Asana can have very obvious physical benefits such as back strengthening, abdominal strengthening and so on. You will know and feel it as you do the Asana as your muscles tense. You will know that a particular Asana is working on your hamstrings, quadruplets etc.
Then there are other biological benefits, which you can't necessarily perceive. You can have an Asana that can have an effect on your thyroid glands because you are compressing and relaxing it from the way you are postured. You are actually giving the gland a good massage, promoting circulation to your thyroid. Similarly, you can do something that extends your liver, and so the blood-flow to that organ improves. A posture that massages your ascending and descending colons can help in stimulating the process of digestion.
The more you practice the Asanas and the better you breathe the more flexibility and strength you will gain. Eventually, you will be able to do the Asana to its full extent, and to its maximum benefit.
However, that's not to say that a beginner gets less benefit than an advanced practitioner. Even if you are a beginner, you are putting in as much effort as an expert in achieving an Asana, and both stand to gain equally. So, if someone can't do an Asana to the fullest extent, then that doesn't mean they will not get the full benefit.
As you practice more you will begin to feel more comfortable in the pose, until you can rest in a particular Asana. You can even meditate in that pose for ever and not feel any discomfort or pain. That's why you see Yogis in India who get into a Tree Pose or a Headstand and vow not to come out of it for weeks until the goal is attained. And they are comfortable in that pose.
One more important thing to bear in mind is that the meditation you started your yoga session with should continue to the end of the session. You don't lose your focus. If your focus is to touch you toes, then keep that focus. A troubled mind affects your performance.
Q: You said about the three basic aspects of yoga meditation, breathing and Asanas. Which is the hardest among them?
A: It is easy to overcome the physical limitations. But the mental barriers, the mental processes can make or break you.
Q: What would tell a person that he has achieved the control of his mind? I am not talking about enlightenment, because that's too far a goal. I am talking about the beginner's level.
A: When I started to meditate, it was so difficult. We are conditioned to do exactly the opposite of what we are asked to do. If you ask me not to think, then thinking is all that I will do. I couldn't understand how you can be without thinking. But then with practice you can achieve it.
Q: Is your mind totally blank when you meditate?
A: I can't say that. But I can definitely say that when I meditate now, I do a much better job than when I started out. When I started to practice meditation, I felt it strange because sitting in one posture for a long time is very difficult, and secondly I had to fight off sleep. And the biggest of challenges, as I said, was to stop thinking. Reminded myself to stop thinking was in itself was a thought.
But there are certain exercises that can be of help when you start with meditation. A teacher can guide you with suggestions by telling you to focus on a flower or some object.
Q: May be this was part of your teacher training course?
A: Yes. Every yoga instructor can have his own style of teaching meditation. But there are universally accepted notions of how you can guide a group into meditation.
Q: What is that?
A: It's to tell a story and asking people to imagine your story. Or ask people to focus on a single element. You can simply listen to your breath. Your mind will drift the first few times, but remind yourself to listen to your breath. That's step one in meditation.
From listening to your breath, focus on how it feels. How does the air come in, how does it sit in your lungs, how does it come out? The idea is to turn your mind away from your everyday strife.
Q: Now that yoga addresses every aspect of one's existence including physical, mental and spiritual, would it be okay if a person practicing yoga just restricts himself to yoga and does not indulge in any other physical activity like walking or jogging? Would he still be able to enjoy complete health?
A: Absolutely. It's a complete system. It might be lacking a bit in cardio. But then there are ways yoga makes up for it. Instead of lifting iron weights, in yoga you lift your own body's weight. Instead of using machines, your body becomes the machine. You are never going to get bulky like a body builder, but your body can be well toned as you naturally should be.
There are different types of yoga. If you practice hot yoga, that's a system that involves cardio too. Hot yoga is yoga practiced in a hot humid room. It replicates in a way the climate where yoga is practiced in Southern India, where it gets hot and humid. It becomes an amazingly efficient cardio workout. The conditions combined with yoga make your heart pump harder. It also helps you with a wider range of motions because you are warmed up.
This type of yoga is also very effective in losing weight. But it's more difficult.
Q: Has yoga evolved over the centuries, and is it still continuing to? Hot Yoga is obviously a modern invention.
A: Hot yoga has been around for quite some time, but yes, when you consider that yoga is 3000 years old, then you can call hot yoga a modern evolution. Like any ancient wisdom, it evolves with us, and that's why you have so many different varieties of yoga
The Hatha yoga, which means Sun and Moon Yoga, is the most basic. Under this yoga, you do a set of 20 poses, and you hold each pose for a minute. You take a break and move to the next.
Then there is Ashtanga Yoga. It is characterized mostly by the sun salutation, and it flows. You flow from one pose to the next seamlessly. They are all linked. It's synchronized breathing along with Asanas.
You also have the Kundalini Yoga, which focuses on your Chakras, or energy centers of your body. You have seven Chakras.
The Iyengar Yoga is similar to Hatha, except that the poses are held for a longer time. Even at beginners level you hold the poses for about 10 minutes. Sometimes you have classes with just two poses. Each of these yogas has its own philosophies, belief systems and so on.
Q: Is there chauvinism between these various types of yogas with claims of superiority?
A: No. Yoga is not a competitive practice. You are only competing against your self. Your enemy is your own ego.
Q: Where are you teaching yoga?
A: I teach Yoga at LoYAC on Mondays and Thursdays. Right now I have a class of boys. It started off as a mixed class. The girls slowly started giving up and more boys joined.
Q: What is the perception about yoga in this part of the world, because yoga has a religious connotation and some people could see it as the religious practices of another faith?
A: In the West, it is not marketed as a religious practice. It is marketed as a wellness system. And I am not going to drill any religious concepts into this. At the end of the day, people are doing this for physical benefits.
Q: Do you have chanting in your classes?
A: We do the 'Oms'. And I explain that Om is believed to be the sound of the universe, and it has consonance with the natural vibrations of your body.
Q: Did the girls drop out because they were not comfortable doing the postures in front of the boys? Are there such delicacies here?
A: No. They were lazy, and some of them were a little on the heavier side and found it difficult.
Q: Is there a high degree of awareness on yoga in Kuwait?
A: Yes. Everyone has heard of yoga. However, there's a big misconception. A lot of people think that yoga is only meditation.
Q: Because of this misconception, do people think that yoga is not worthwhile, because people are looking to lose weight and sitting idle in a pose is surely not going to help the cause?
A: Maybe yes. However, it only takes one class and people's attitude changes immediately.
Q: How important is yoga in a country like Kuwait?
A: Not just in Kuwait, I think it is very important anywhere, because it teaches you discipline. If you have let yourself to become obese, then somewhere down the line you have lacked discipline. Discipline is about self control. It hurts to be in a pose, but you nevertheless continue... that brings discipline. You need the same discipline to not overeat, even when there's delicious food in front of you.
Q: Tell us something about your initiation into yoga?
A: I have been practicing yoga since my school days. Yoga was part of our Physical Training sessions. I also have a background in gymnastics, so I was flexible. Yoga came naturally to me.
I decided to quit my job, and travel the world in the beginning of last year. I realized that I can't put physical fitness lower in my priority list, and wanted to do something with which I can help others lead a healthy life.
So, a part of the thing that I wanted to do when I am away was to train to become a yoga teacher. And for that I thought I should go to the place where yoga originated. Only then you can fully appreciate the cultural, religious and spiritual roots of the practice.
So, I decided to practice in India. However, I first spent 3 months in Thailand learning Moi Thai, which is Thai kickboxing. Alongside I was also going to a yoga gym, where a teacher had trained at a place called Siddhartha Yoga Center in India. I learnt more about the institute and I chose to go to one of its branches situated in Dharmshala, a hilly region in North India.
It was a 200 hour training program to become a yoga instructor.
Q: Didn't you need to have a basic level of proficiency in yoga before undertaking a teacher's course?
A: Yes, and I had that from my school experience and the various yoga studios where I had practiced this art. Wherever I was, I made sure I practiced yoga, be it in Kuwait, Canada or England. So, I have been practicing yoga for a long time.
Dharmshala is on the mountains which are a subsystem of the Himalayas. I practiced yoga at an altitude of 2000 meters above sea level.
Q: Was the setting like one you see in those martial-art films with robed monks and so on?
A: Actually, my master's Babaji (which is a reference to your master) was his lifelong spiritual leader, consultant, teacher etc. He used to guide him at all levels: mind, body and soul, in every sense of life. The Babaji had passed away a few months before I met my Guruji. My Guruji always felt that the universe had brought them together for a purpose. He never refers to him as dead. He says, "When my Babaji left his body." He believes that his soul is still around and that his guidance is still there. He meditates to still feel him around.
Q: How long did it take you to complete your 200 hours of training?
A: It took me about 6 weeks. We used to have an hour's meditation, followed by 2 hours of yoga, ad then a little breakfast break, and another 2 hours of yoga. We would come back in the evening and have another hour of meditation and an hour of yoga or 2 hours of yoga or we would practice teaching. Someone would be assigned to teach the class.
Dareen Akkad is an Indian Yoga Alliance certified Ashtanga, Hatha, Pranyama and Meditation instructor. She gained her international certificate from Siddhartha Yoga Center in Dharmshala, India, completing 200 hours of intensive training. Dareen has been practicing yoga since her school days, and was raised in Kuwait. Currently, she teaches Yoga at LoYAC on Mondays and Thursdays and works for a leading advertising agency in Kuwait.
By Valiya S. Sajjad - Arab Times Staff