What is Yoga? This is a complex question, as yoga means different things to different people. However, from an objective standpoint, essentially yoga is the integration of seeming opposites to create a whole. The actual word ‘yoga’ derives from the Sanskrit word yuj, which means to yoke or bind, often interpreted as union, or the bringing together of things, particularly in reference to the mind, body and spirit.
Yoga originated in India long ago, around the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. Stone carvings depicting figures in yoga poses have been found at archeological sites in the Indus Valley dating back some 5,000 years or more. In these ancient times, yoga was used as a system to enhance personal freedom, lengthen life and reach a heightened sense of self-actualization, or the state referred to in Sanskrit as Samadhi. The tradition of yoga was passed from teacher to student on an individual basis, through oral teachings and physical practices. What we now know as yoga today is a compilation of the collective experiences of numerous individuals over the span of thousands of years.
Some of the earliest texts relating to yoga were created sometime between the 2nd and 5th centuries B.C. by a scholar named Patanjali, who wrote the most prevailing practices and theories of his time in his book titled, The Yoga Sutras. The system of yoga he described is called “Ashtanga Yoga,” or the eight limbs of yoga (note Ashtanga yoga also refers to a series of physical asanas, which we will define later on). Today, this system is sometimes referenced as “Classical Yoga,” and most current forms of practice derive in some manner from this system. The eight steps of Patanjali’s yoga philosophy are as follows:
- Yama: Restraint, or refraining from hoarding, lying, stealing, and violence.
- Niyama: Observance, or contentment, study, purity, and remembrance.
- Asana: Physical exercises or poses.
- Pranayama: Various breathing techniques.
- Pratyahara: Preparation for meditation, called “withdrawal from the senses.”
- Dharana: Concentration, or the ability to keep one’s mind on a certain object for a length of time.
- Dhyana: Meditation practice, being able to focus on just one thing for a prolonged amount of time.
- Samadhi: Self-realization, the understanding of one’s true self.
It is thought that yoga arrived in the West sometime during the late 1800s, but it became widely known in the 1960s, during the time of a growing interest in all things Eastern. With its first introduction in the United States, yoga was mostly viewed as an odd new age practice, often tied to hippie and alternative cultures. As time has gone on, however, yoga as a physical practice, mental discipline and even a fashion phenomenon, has quite literally exploded. Today the types of yoga classes offered are seemingly endless as are the health boosting claims it promises, not to mention how good you can look in your Lululemon pants! The good news is, whether you are a dedicated daily practitioner, have no idea what downward dog means, or fall somewhere in between, you can benefit from learning more about yoga and incorporating it into your routine.
While yoga philosophies such as Patanjali’s eight limbs are fascinating to explore, most people in the Western world focus on the third limb, Asana, or physical practice. The poses set forth in yoga classes are called Yoga Asanas, which really are simply different shapes we make with our bodies. In general, the practice of these poses is done to gain flexibility, strengthen muscles, and calm the mind. Although there are many, many different types of yoga asana, the overarching theme again is to unite, and most often in physical practice this refers to the mind and body, through the vehicle of the breath. In our society, we rarely put much thought into our breathing, it happens automatically after all, so why bother? Well, research has shown that placing more attention on our breath reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, alleviates anxiety and even stimulates brain growth, amongst many other benefits. Almost any type of yoga you participate in will require you to pay attention to your breathing to some extent, usually in relation to movements and positions you are making with your body.
So where to start? Within the framework of physical yoga Asana practice, there are many different schools, or types, of yoga to partake in. The one most people are familiar with is an umbrella term called Hatha Yoga. This term encompasses various forms you may have heard before: Vinyasa, Yin, Restorative, Iyengar, Kundalini, Bikram and Ashtanga, just to name a few. Depending on what sort of physical, mental and spiritual experience you are seeking, one or several of these styles may call out to you. Outlined below are brief descriptions of each, including who will benefit most from each practice:
Vinyasa: A flowing, dynamic form of yoga that is highly focused on linking breath to movement. Quite literally the term “Vinyasa” can also be defined as “the linking of body movement with breath.” This style of yoga connects poses together to create a continuous sequence; usually including transitions through a series of movements called Sun Salutations, which is actually another definition of the term “Vinyasa” in noun form. Due to the dynamic nature of this type of practice, Vinyasa yoga classes are often cardiovascular and highly aerobic, great for people looking to strengthen and lengthen muscles. However, there are many levels of Vinyasa classes, beginners should stick to level one classes to start in order to learn the basic postures before moving onto more rigorous offerings.
Yin: A slower paced style of yoga where floor poses are held for long periods of time, typically around five minutes each with very little muscle exertion. This style is more meditative in nature and works to cultivate awareness, internal silence and patience. The poses most often found in Yin Yoga classes apply moderate stress to the connective tissues of the body through their long and steady holds, aiming to increase circulation in the joints and improve flexibility. These poses primarily affect the lower part of the body, the hips, pelvis, inner thighs and lower spine. Yin is recommended for anyone looking to deeply stretch the muscles and slow down a busy mind.
Restorative: This type of yoga is very similar to Yin in that it involves mostly floor poses held for longer periods of time, meant to calm the nervous system and heal the physical body. Restorative yoga is often used for people recovering from injury or illness as it usually incorporates the use of props, helpful in allowing the practitioner to maintain balance while fully relaxing. Like Yin, this form of yoga practice is suggested for anyone seeking to achieve more inner peace and to open and heal tight or wounded muscles.
Iyengar: Iyengar Yoga was developed and named after a teacher named B.K.S Iyengar and is primarily focused around alignment, detail and precision. This system of yoga includes over 200 yoga asanas and 14 different types of breathing exercises, ranging from beginning to advanced. Students move systematically and gradually through the postures as their skill level and understanding increases. Iyengar yoga was one of the first types to utilize props such as blankets, straps and blocks to ensure alignment is correct and to minimize the likelihood of injury. Props are a key component to this form of practice and also make it highly accessible to everyone, including people with limited mobility and range of motion.
Kundalini: This very spiritual form of practice revolves around the notion of its namesake, Kundalini, which means,“a spiritual energy or life force located at the base of the spine, conceptualized as a coiled-up serpent.” Practice of this type of yoga is meant to arouse this life force from its coiled base and move it up through the six chakras located up and down the length of the spine, eventually coming out through the 7th chakra, located at the crown of the head. This process occurs mostly through the energetic body and is rooted more in breathing (Pranayama) techniques and meditations rather than physical asanas. This form of yoga is suggested for those seeking a more spiritual experience and to open energy channels.
Bikram: Widely known as the original “hot yoga,” Bikram yoga is a 90-minute series of 26 postures and two breathing exercises performed in a room ideally heated to 104 degrees with 40% humidity. It was synthesized by Bikram Choudhury from traditional hatha yoga poses and pranayama techniques and popularized beginning in the 1970s. This form of yoga will make you sweat, big time! The idea behind the highly controlled conditions is that toxins are released through the excessive sweating and the heat allows for deeper stretching into muscles to improve flexibility and increase circulation. When partaking in Bikram Yoga, it is very important to stay well hydrated as you are bound to lose several pounds of water during the course of a class. This type of yoga is recommended if you are looking to lose weight, detox and get in a wet workout.
Ashtanga: Along with being defined as the eight limbs of yoga Patanjali created, Ashtanga yoga practice is also a style of yoga popularized by K. Pattabhi Jois during the 20th century. This style includes six series: the Primary series, the Intermediate series, the Advanced series, and three variations on the Advanced series. Students begin by learning the Primary series, generally in a style called Mysore, which was named after the city of Mysore in India where Pattabhi Jois taught. This style involves students learning postures one by one, memorizing them and practicing in the same room as others without being led by a teacher. The role of the teacher is to guide students and provide assists in postures. In the Mysore style, students of all levels are able to practice together. This form of yoga is fairly physical and strength based, but also accessible to beginners
No matter what style you choose, one of the biggest benefits of yoga is that almost anyone can practice it in some form. You don’t need to be an athlete and no expensive equipment is necessary. Beginners may want to start by taking a class from an experienced instructor, but there are also many helpful videos and books available. Additionally, there are modifications for every pose to accommodate any fitness or mobility level. A beautiful thing about yoga is that it is non competitive and generally very welcoming to any and all. In the same sense as many other exercise regimes, there are truly no limits as long as you do not place them on yourself. This is true even perhaps more so with yoga, as the immense power of your mind comes more into play than with other forms of exercise. By mindfully linking breath to movement, you are able to truly harness your internal will and ignite a fire within you may not have known existed.
As yoga has become increasingly popular in mainstream culture, its physical and mental health benefits are being widely backed up by research. According to the Mayo Clinic, practicing yoga can reduce stress, improve fitness, and even help manage chronic conditions such as heart disease and high blood pressure. Studies have also shown that yoga can reduce symptoms and improve quality of life for individuals suffering from depression, pain, anxiety and insomnia. Increased flexibility, improved balance, and better range of motion are some of the most immediate changes that students new to yoga notice. These payoffs also help reduce your risk of injury in sports and everyday life activities.
Better posture is another desirable result of practicing yoga. Many sitting and standing poses improve core strength, which makes it easier to stand up straight and lengthen the spine. This is especially important as we begin to age, since the spine will naturally tend to curve, causing a loss in height over time and an increase in slouching. A primary aim of yoga is to strengthen the muscles of the back, which improves posture and helps to keep the spine in better alignment.
Whether you are already a yoga practitioner or brand new to this ancient form of movement, it is worth incorporating some kind of yoga into your exercise routine. You just may find that once you start tuning in more to your breath and your body, the sense of ease and well being you experience will make you a believer. Hope to see you on the mat!