WHAT IS YOGA?
The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit word yuj; meaning to connect, yoke or unite. Yoga is the most ancient approach, that we know of, to connecting body, mind and spirit.
The method incorporates a variety of techniques. Physical postures, breathing exercises, meditation, prayers and other spiritual practices to develop physical and mental wellbeing.
At our school we believe that each student has a unique path written in their hearts that they must discover for themselves. But traditionally speaking there are several yogic paths that one may take according to an individual’s nature. These paths are interconnected and extend to every area of our lives. It’s likely that, even if you have never consciously practiced yoga before, you will already have some experience in each of these areas.
THE FOUR YOGIC PATHS
Karma Yoga: The yoga of service to others. This yoga may be demonstrated in our lives through the support of family members and friends, or in voluntary, community, and conservation work. In its highest sense Karma Yoga aims to dissolve the ego through selfless service.
Bhakti Yoga: The yoga of devotion to God (gods, spirit). All forms of devotion that help us to grow can be said to be bhakti yoga. Devotion to our ideals, to our friends and family, to our daily responsibilities or taking care of our environment. But in the traditional sense this generally means spiritual devotion through worship, prayer, ritual, chanting, music or study.
Raja Yoga: The yoga of self-mastery. This yoga finds expression in our lives through all forms of self-development through discipline. Martial arts practice, health and fitness, sports, dance, nutrition, yoga asana, meditation are some examples. In its highest sense Raja Yoga is a path of purification which leads to enlightenment.
Guyana Yoga: The yoga of wisdom. We can be said to be practicing this yoga whenever we grow through learning. Even our organized education system is a vehicle for Guyana yoga. But in its purest sense it is the study and practice of spiritual truth through experience and the study of scripture.
THE EIGHT LIMBS OF YOGA
Yoga as it is practiced today is often described as having eight limbs. The science of the eight limbs of yoga is traditionally known as Ashtanga Yoga, or Raja Yoga – The yoga of awakening the king within.
The first four limbs of Raja Yoga are of great benefit to body and mind and are powerful allies in our martial arts practice:
Yama: Self-control. Living deliberately and refraining from doing harm to ourselves or others.
Niyama: Self-discipline. Living a life in alignment with our highest principles, and performing positive actions.
Asana: The science and practice of physical postures to purify, strengthen and develop mastery over the body and mind.
Pranayama: The word says it all. Prana means vital life force or energy, and Yama means to control. Pranayama is the science and practice of breathing exercises which refine and increase the amount of energy in the body, and with practice, grant the practitioner control over this energy.
The last four limbs are stages of development that the practitioner aims to cultivate through the practice of yoga and meditation:
Pratyahara: The withdrawal of the senses. Focusing our attention inwardly and living moment to moment with the awareness of what is happening inside ourselves.
Dharana: Mastery of the will or concentration. The ability to focus one’s undivided attention to anything you choose.
Dhyana: Transcendence of the self through meditation.
Samadhi: Total liberation from ignorance through union with spirit.
Ultimately yoga is the path of self-discovery and each of us will find our own way along it.
CAN YOGA IMPROVE OUR MUAY THAI TRAINING?
It may sound strange to talk about yoga amongst Muay Thai practitioners, but the connection between yoga and martial arts goes back thousands of years. From the kshatriyas and brahmins of ancient India, to the monk Bodhidharma who traveled to China from India in the sixth century, and taught the yogic exercises that became the foundations of shaolin gong fu.
Personally, the practice of yoga has been a tremendous help in my Muay Thai training for many years. I strongly believe that the practice of yoga can help to ensure the longevity of our Muay Thai practice and our fighting careers.
I have been practicing Muay Thai non-stop since the late 80’s, and after fighting professionally for many years, the injuries that I had accumulated became so serious that I almost had to stop training. It was yoga that allowed me to not only keep practicing until now, but to keep improving.
The practice of yoga strengthens the nervous system, aids in muscular recovery, develops muscular control, strength, flexibility and good posture – which greatly reduces the risk of injury. For instance, I would frequently strain my neck while clinching (muay Thai stand up grappling), but since integrating yoga into my training these types of small injuries no longer occur.
The practice of yoga will take your flexibility to another level. Now, at the age of 50, I kick higher than ever and my punches are faster and smoother than they were, even during my fighting career. The more flexibility we have the better we can execute proper technique.
Yoga strengthens the tendons and helps us to develop sensitive control of more subtle factors in dynamic physical movement, such as the fascia. This in combination with breath coordination (another important part of yoga) leads to greater power in our techniques too.
Finally, yoga brings us more firmly into the present moment and broadens our awareness, allowing us to react more quickly and respond more intelligently to our opponent’s attacks.
HOW SHOULD I PRACTICE YOGA FOR MUAY THAI?
The yoga method I’m going to share with you does not belong to any established school, but rather, was developed through our personal experiences and exploration. I’m not sure if this system already exists, but at this point it’s irrelevant to us. It works! This practice has greatly benefited our family and inspired us to continue exploring our potential.
In a dimly lit room lay a yoga mat on the ground and play some relaxing music.
Stand on your mat and extend your arms over your head, gently rotating in different directions and stretching your spine as best you can. Feel into the sensations in your body and give special attention to any areas of tightness or pain that you notice. Spend time gently breathing into and stretching out these areas to release any accumulated tension.
The main focus in this exercise is to explore your body in an intuitive way and to teach yourself to release the build up of stress that the body remembers and holds on to.
Generally we practice in five basic positions; standing up, kneeling, lying face down, lying face up and sitting – but you can practice in any position you wish to explore. Practicing on the ground is great as the earth offers an extra massage for areas of tension. Develop your own conversation between body and mind. The most important thing is that you communicate with your body, recognise where the tension is stored, and learn to release it through breath and movement.
You can also follow these guidelines while performing any Muay Thai movement in which you lack flexibility – Employing the releasing principle whilst stretching slowly through your range of motion.
HOW THE RELEASING PRINCIPLE WORKS
This is the formula that we have used successfully in our training. We hope that it also helps you to achieve greater flexibility and improves your Muay Thai training.
The principle of releasing tension is very simple. While stretching in any position, feel into the body and extend the stretch until you feel mild discomfort. Maintain the stretch and the awareness of pain in that part of your body while relaxing your mind and breathing into the sensations you feel, releasing tension with each exhalation. Release the stretch only once the pain has diminished. This technique should be performed gently and enjoyably, with only mild pressure. If you go too quickly or push yourself too hard you will find yourself moving backwards and become discouraged in your practice.
The method is best practiced in semi darkness, to reduce distractions and help focus your attention inwardly. Try to keep your attention focused in the area of the third eye or ajna chakra, just above the center of the eye brows, and extend it to anywhere you feel tension.
With time you will be amazed at how your flexibility has changed. Be patient. The key to success is daily practice. Make practice a part of your daily life and you will see some improvement in just a few weeks.
My recommendation is not to focus on, or become too attached to the results:
How quickly will it improve my Muay Thai?
When can I do the splits?!
Give your attention to each moment you spend developing flexibility, releasing tension and getting to know your body better. The results will come by themselves.
If your practice gets too mechanical and repetitive you will become bored and lose the pleasure of the present moment. Try to avoid the same routines and sequenced movements, and follow your intuition. Feel into the body and let it tell you where the work needs to be done. Remember, yoga should be fun, creative and inspiring.
I recommend to all my students that they try to develop a daily meditation practice, as it greatly compliments yoga and Muay Thai. Bringing our hands together at the end of each session and offering a thank you to the universe can be of great value.
OUR YOGA TEACHER
There are many styles of yoga, emphasizing different ways of practicing. Having an experienced teacher to guide you in your yoga training can be of great benefit, but finding the appropriate teacher can take time.
At our school in Thailand, we are lucky to have Pantip from Thailand. Pantip is a fully qualified yoga instructor who has lived in India for more than eight years as well as being a long-time teacher of Thai massage with more than twenty years of experience in healing arts. Her deep knowledge and understanding of the human body through yoga and the healing arts has helped her to create a unique method of developing flexibility and body awareness. She works intuitively with each student, assessing their individual needs and teaching them specific tools according to their body and mind.
Kru Pantip is on her own spiritual journey and doesn’t believe in publicizing herself. Eating little and sleeping little, she begins her own practice at 4am each day, before preparing the school for students. She plays traditional Thai music and loves to spend her time cooking food to share with the people who attend the school. If you are looking for someone to help you to heal and to surpass your limitations, I believe she is the one.
OTHER BENEFITS OF YOGA
If you have the discipline to practice yoga every day after Muay Thai, sooner or later, you will begin to notice changes in the way that you live.
In my own case, I have noticed how yoga has strengthened my connection to nature and instilled a sense of gratitude which I carry with me at all times. It has also transformed the way I view Muay Thai too. I no longer see it as the art of fighting someone else, but rather as a way of working with my own emotions. Muay Thai is a valuable tool which can help to reveal buried feelings from our past traumas and experiences. Yoga, meditation and Muay Thai together are a powerful medicine for body, mind and spirit.