What is yoga anyway? What are the benefits of a regular yoga practice?
Yoga. The term may be met with love or disdain, depending on who’s listening. It means “union” in the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit, and focuses on the union of the mind, spirit and body. It has grown into a worldwide phenomenon since its birthday thousands of years ago. According to legend, the physical practice of yoga (common in the West) was created to help people sit in quiet, still meditation longer. Thankfully for us, word got around anyway.
In Western culture, yoga focuses on two primary aspects of the diverse practice: (i) physical postures (called “asana” and pronounced “ah-sah-nuh”) and (ii) breathing techniques (called “pranayama” and pronounced “prah-nah-yah-muh”).
There are eight “limbs” of yoga in all, however, including:
- yamas: ethical guidelines of behavior towards others (nonviolence, honesty, not stealing, avoiding sensual pleasure, and non-covetousness)
- niyamas: ethical guidelines of behavior towards the self (purity, contentment, moral discipline, self education, and awareness of and to divinity)
- asana: postures
- pranayama: breathing
- pratyahara: withdrawal of one’s internal senses from external distractions (as in here)
- dharana: concentration
- dhyana: meditation
- samadhi: bliss
Most Western yoga practices focus on asana and pranayama but you can learn more about each of the eight limbs in the historic text “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali,” widely available at bookstores.
There are many benefits of yoga. With a regular practice, you will:
- Breath more fully
- Handle stress better
- Live more mindfully, with intense awareness of your internal and external environment
- Lower body fat
- Improve muscle tone
- Be more flexible
- Get fit more safely (and perhaps even more enjoyably) than with traditional exercise
- Lower your “bad” cholesterol level
- Raise your “good” cholesterol level
- Digest food more easily and efficiently
- Sleep longer and more deeply
- Be more focused and disciplined with your tasks
- Do physical activity in a supportive, respectful environment
- Feel better about yourself
- Have a healthier body image and self-concept
- Practice kindness, devotion, gratitude and other good stuff regularly
- Enjoy a more balanced life
- Let go of unnecessary “stuff” more easily
- Be happier
- Feel great overall
What kinds of yoga exist?
Yoga is extremely diverse, and includes styles such as “laughing yoga” and “Japanese Shinto Yoga” these days. Some popular styles, practiced in the West, include:
- Hatha: A general category of yoga that describes any physical-based asana practice.
- Vinyasa: Higher Ground teaches this flowing, movement-oriented practice, a type of hatha yoga. Vinyasa begins with a series of postures called “sun salutations” and extends into other dynamic sequences. Higher Ground’s vinyasa sessions are diverse, and your vinyasa might be dynamic, energizing, stabilizing, exhilarating, challenging, centering, restorative and calming – all in one session! It may be modified to be more or less challenging as necessary, and uses the “ujjayi” pranayama (also called “oceanic” or “victorious” breath) to increase heat.
- Prenatal: Higher Ground offers special vinyasa prenatal courses that focus on relaxation, alleviating aches and pains of the changing pregnant body, and preparing the expectant mother for labor and delivery.
- Anusara: A branch of vinyasa yoga developed by John Friend. It focuses on proper alignment and celebrates heart-opening poses.
- Ashtanga: A particularly challenging type of hatha yoga developed by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. Ashtanga yogis progress through six defined series of postures, each pose synchronized with intense breathing, designed to help detoxify the body through sweating. Many ashtanga yogis prefer a Mysore-style, self-led class, where students share a room and practice at their own pace, while an instructor assists each with his or her level.
- “Power” Yoga: A vinyasa-style practice modeled after ashtanga, but without the same strict adherence to the scripted series of poses. As indicated from the name, power yoga puts great emphasis on strength. It includes “Baptiste Power Yoga,” a brand of power yoga that encourages students to trust themselves, focus on their present abilities and adapt classes to that level accordingly, while still seeking transformation through poses.
- Jivamukti: A type of vinyasa yoga developed in the 1980s by David Life and Sharon Gannon, both students of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. It is a very physical yoga, but also involves chanting, meditation and scripture. Generally, each class is led according to a theme determined by the instructor.
- Bikram: Founded by Bikram Choudury, this series of 26 poses, with selected pranayama, is practiced in a studio heated to around 100 degrees to promote detoxifying the body. All official Bikram teachers are certified by Bikram’s Yoga College of India.
- Hot Yoga: Similar to Bikram yoga, but not called so for certain reasons (mostly stemming from a legal controversy over potential confusion between styles).
- Iyengar: Another popular type of hatha yoga that emphasizes exact alignment and precision of poses. Iyengar practice often uses many yoga props, like straps, blocks or the wall, so that students of various body types and levels can work towards perfecting each posture. It usually follows a specific asana sequence, and focuses on each posture for an extended period of time.
- Kundalini: An ancient style of yoga introduced to the West in the late 1960s. The practice is built upon the belief that there is untapped, powerful energy at the base of the spine, and that it can be released through pranayama, hand positions called “mudras,” and chanting. Sometimes it also includes a vibrant physical component to awaken the entire energetic body.
What do I wear?
Vinyasa yoga classes (like the ones Higher Ground offers) involve a lot of movement and are designed to raise the heart rate and increase heat, so it is important to wear comfortable, breathable attire. Yoga also focuses on proper alignment of the body, so you should wear clothes that are streamlined and not too loose-fitting.
If you would like to purchase yoga-specific clothes, there are many companies to choose from. A few HGY favorites include Lucy, Gap Body, Lululemon and Be Present for a wide variety of attire.
That said, though yoga gear is a nice investment, it is not at all necessary to buy a new wardrobe when beginning a practice; a simple pair of shorts or leggings, paired with a slightly fitted t-shirt or tank top, is just fine.
What if I have a health concern?
Yoga can be extremely therapeutic, and has been associated with alleviating physical pain and other ailments. It is especially beneficial for those who require a more restorative mode of exercise, because it emphasizes gentle body awareness and discourages straining.
However, it is very important to speak with your doctor and/or other qualified medical professional before beginning any exercise program, including yoga. This is especially true if you are or may be pregnant, have a special disability or condition, or if you have any other health-related concern.
A main part of yoga is acknowledging, and respecting, your own limits. Talk to your doctor before you begin any exercise regimen, including a yoga practice. Speaking with your health care provider can help you determine healthy boundaries for your body.