The Malta Independent 9 March 2021, Tuesday

Interview With Jennifer Cortis: The Limbs of Yoga

Malta Independent Monday, 17 July 2006, 00:00 Last update: about 8 years ago

When the word "yoga" is mentioned, it often has the effect of visions of people twisted into contorted positions springing to mind, enough to make many of us squirm.

When I first attended a yoga class, I had assumed, as do most people, that yoga was simply an exotic form of exercise developed in India. As I regularly attended the classes I discovered that there was more to it than that. A great deal of emphasis was placed on breathing techniques, meditation and a recommended diet. Initially it appeared very new and somewhat unusual, however it made me feel good and therefore I persisted… and progressed. Eventually, after prolonged practice and a few trips to India, I have come to respect yoga as much more than a class to attend twice a week, but as a lifestyle.

The Sanskrit term "yoga" means "to unify", that is, to bring into harmony the body, mind and spirit. There are several yoga paths, but Hatha Yoga is what what most people associate with the word "yoga" outside India, and it is mainly practiced for mental and physical health. Other traditional and prominent yoga systems include Jnana Yoga (pronounced Gyana) – the path of knowledge; Karma Yoga – the path of right action; Bhakti Yoga – the path of devotion; Raja Yoga meaning the king yoga (also known as Ashtanga yoga or the eight limbs of yoga); Tantra Yoga – a path that aims to utilise sexual energy for higher purposes and Mantra Yoga – a path that focuses on chanting mantras, or a string of sounds with transcendental significance.

Jennifer Cortis, better known as Jenny, has been practicing yoga, in its various forms, as an integral part of her lifestyle for many years. She studied under the guidance of an Indian master – both in Malta and in India – as well as other experienced practitioners and teachers, so that now she also shares her knowledge and inspires others along the same path. She teaches a combination of Hatha and Raja yoga, laying emphasis on asanas (physical postures), pranayama (breathing techniques) and dhyana (meditation).

I met Jenny at her cozy new home in Lija, and we talked amicably while her dog Jaya (which means Victory in Sanskrit) gnawed a bone at our feet. Even the seated position Jenny comfortably settled into was a reminder of her mastery over her body and senses, with perfect posture and ease of movement. It was a natural fascination on my part that spurred me to spontaneously probe her for more information about the art practiced by the Sadhus (holy men) of India along the holy Ganges River.

What is Yoga?

It is a type of spiritual, mental and physical exercise which helps you to attune to yourself and is an excellent way to improve your stamina, concentration, and helps you to deal with the stresses of today's busy life.

With yoga you make a positive commitment to live your life to its fullest capacity by finding your inner source of confidence and strength. You develop a stress-free approach to living and working, and it will be easier to wind down after a hard day or revitalize your reserves to face the next.

Most people associate yoga with physical exercises. Can you therefore elucidate on the mental and spiritual aspect?

Yoga's mental aspect is that to do asana one needs concentration, which leads to achieving stillness, calm and concentration in daily life. Combined with deep breathing, this achieves relaxation.

The spiritual aspect is simply that in practicing yoga one feels to be doing something good for oneself and, as a result, invokes doing good unto others. This helps one feel connected to that spiritual substance which some may call God, others Supreme Life-Force Energy, but ultimately refer to this same thing.

I understand that yoga is more than a simple set of exercises, but includes breathing techniques, meditation, even a specific diet and philosophy. Can you explain further and whether this complete practice could be classified as a religion?

Yoga incorporates many things and commences by certain codes of conduct – for example: do not harm, help others and care for oneself. There is Pranayama which teaches proper breathing which induces relaxation, in a time when stress causes us to have very shallow breaths which in turn reduce life span. Concentration is practiced to increase the ability to focus, which assists daily functions, while meditation teaches one to find peace within when the tendency is to spend too much energy on experiencing the external world. All these things help one feel that God-connection.

If people feel the yoga path helps them in this way, then it may be considered a "religion," but, in truth, this is very subjective and depends on the level of commitment and intensity of the practitioner in all areas. Actually, there are multitudes of Christians, Buddhists and people from various faiths and cultural backgrounds who simply use yoga as an auxiliary part of their spiritual lives, and their physical and mental health. My personal view is that ultimately there is only one God.

What are the benefits that one can expect to notice with the practice of yoga, and how long could it be before these benefits are apparent?

It depends on the individual, psychologically and physically, and his sincerity – how seriously he or she is committed. It is not the amount of practice, but the intensity and sincerity with which it is practiced that exhibits the more profound changes, so even just ten minutes a day can be extremely beneficial.

In my experience with my students, the first changes to occur are psychological: a happier mood, more ability to handle stressful situations and better sleep. Any prominent physical discomfort or pain, such as back pain, also appears to improve drastically by the earlier stages. In time, more flexibility is achieved, improved posture and diminished respiratory rate. Practitioners also develop the ability to feel internal calm even when externally very active, and they display more self-confidence and self-acceptance, even an increased learning efficiency. Certain diseases like blood-pressure, anxiety, slipped disk, heart problems and hormone imbalance are eased due to the re-harmonising of the body. Yoga is also very beneficial for pregnancy and giving birth.

What is the difference between physical exercise and yoga?

Physical exercise as we know it tends to be competitive, while yoga is not. Exercise also seems to require a certain level of competency to reap the benefits while with yoga the benefits are achieved simply by trying one's best to do that particular asana, or position. Yoga is practiced according to one's own limitations, with benefits still experienced according to the effort employed.

Another point is that exercise tends to be very active, while yoga tends to be more calm and relaxed, although there is a dynamic yoga for those who like the feeling of physical exertion. The yoga postures affect muscles that are not easily reachable by physical exercise, while the breathing techniques always ensure a large supply of oxygen flowing through the body whereas with physical exercise one may often feel short of breath.

For these reasons, yoga can also be practiced by people who are unable to perform any other form or physical exercise or sport, such as obese persons, people with high blood pressure, pregnant women and people who have suffered injuries in the past. Sometimes it may be required to provide individual attention to certain cases, even if it is only in the initial stages, and they may join a group later.

Yoga is a personal experience and an individual journey to self-discovery to find harmony within and with the world around; a journey to be pursued at a rate that is appropriate and comfortable for the traveller!

As she spoke, with her polite yet relaxed manner, wearing a constant smile and with a sparkle in her eyes, I knew that she was the personification of all that she was saying. If a person can be said to be radiant, she was. If a person can be perceived as being at peace, she was. If a person can be said to exude love, she did. If that is not enough to inspire, I cannot imagine much else that could!

For more information about yoga or classes available, contact Jenny on 99867015 or email: [email protected]

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