Among the many forms of exercise available today, yoga has been termed “trendy” by some as it grows in popularity. But this ancient practice is more than just a trend; it has provided significant spiritual and physical transformations for millions of individuals for thousands of years. Much more than just a “workout,” yoga unifies the body, mind, and breath to achieve greater balance and tranquility. Read on to learn all about the history, philosophy, and methodology of yoga and the many benefits of practicing this premier form of exercise that’s good for both body and soul.
The Origin of Yoga
Yoga techniques were first developed thousands of years ago by people who sought better health, longer lives, and heightened mental awareness. Yoga, which loosely translates to mean “yoking together,” is a series of exercises meant to bring the mind and body in harmony. One common misperception is that yoga was born out of the Hindu religion, but history tells us yoga predates Hinduism.
Archaeologists have found yoga positions drawn at sites that date back at least 5,000 years. In the late 1800s, yoga came to the U.S., though it wasn’t widely practiced until the late 60s when young people in America began to have a fascination with eastern cultures and alternative methods of healing and well-being. Today, increasing numbers of physicians recognize the health benefits of yoga and recommend it to their patients battling back pain, heart disease, arthritis and many other debilitating conditions.
Forms of Yoga
In the years since the exercise was first developed, it evolved into what is today more than 100 schools of yoga. Some are better known than others, but among the most popular methods are:
Hatha Yoga: This is the general type of yoga most people associate with this form of exercise. Hatha Yoga includes specific postures, movements, and techniques for breathing. It leaves you feeling relaxed and loose, but doesn’t generally make you work up a major sweat.
Bikram: If you want to work up a sweat, Bikram Yoga is for you. This popular type of yoga involves 26 poses, all of which are performed in the same order, and is held in heated rooms.
Hot: Very similar to Bikram, Hot Yoga is also performed in heated rooms but the poses differ in small ways.
Restorative: This style of yoga is relaxing and soothing, and passive poses are performed with blankets and blocks. It requires little physical effort but participants often find it more rejuvenating than an hour-long nap.
Vinyasa: Smooth, fluid poses are the backbone of Vinyasa Yoga; the name is a Sanskrit word that translates to “flow.” Vinyasa Yoga is intense and often lively and will certainly test your physical limits.
Iyengar: Developed by B.K.S. Iyengar, this is a precise style of yoga that pays special attention to meticulous poses and uses a variety of props such as straps, rope walls, blocks and blankets. More mentally challenging than some types of yoga, this exercise won’t elevate your heart rate, but is good for people with chronic diseases or injuries that need special attention.
Ashtanga: This type of yoga focuses on breathing techniques that accompany a number of poses, all performed in the same order. It is an extremely challenging form of yoga that offers a superior workout.
Anusara: One of the most recent additions to the yoga class lineup, Anasura is designed to target the mind as well as the body by focusing on the internal goodness of the human heart. Classes are quite rigorous but people usually leave feeling refreshed, energized, and happy.
Benefits of Yoga
The list of reasons why yoga has become so popular is long. It can create strength and harmony in the mind and body and is a great source of exercise. Regardless of which method you choose, yoga incorporates postures, meditation and breathing exercises that work to stretch your muscles in a unique way. Among the physical and psychological benefits of practicing yoga are:
Better circulatory health
Greater athletic performance
Decreased feelings of stress
Enriched mental wellbeing
These benefits are well known by yoga practitioners and physicians, but there are a host of surprising reasons to try this form of exercise. Some of the best benefits of yoga are:
Boosted Immunity: Practicing yoga gives the immune system a boost in part because it increases overall health, but there are other reasons. Researchers in Norway recently found important cellular changes to the body during yoga practice – changes that can also have a dramatic effect on the body’s immune system. Compared to another group of people who went on a nature hike, the results were telling. According to the research, yoga helps by increasing circulation, which in turn makes the entire body function in a better way.
Improved Sleep: By helping people effectively deal with stress and soothing feelings of anxiety, practicing yoga twice each week can significantly improve sleep and help cure insomnia. Yoga helps teach people how to relax and let the mind slow down. Improvements in sleep can have a host of other positive effects on overall health, making this a key benefit to engaging in this form of exercise.
Reduced Migraine Pain: While scientists cannot pinpoint the reason yoga is so effective in easing migraines, research shows it can have a significant impact for patients who suffer from these debilitating headaches. Three months of practicing yoga regularly can result in fewer, less severe migraine headaches. One possibility is the muscle relaxation that happens through yoga practice. By loosening up the muscles in the neck and shoulder area, migraine sufferers report finding significant relief from chronic pain.
Reduced Food Cravings: People who practice yoga regularly report fewer food cravings, which makes this exercise an important tool in maintaining a healthy diet or even losing weight. Yoga can strengthen the connection between mind and body and can help dieters tune in to emotion-based cravings, leaving them better able to control their eating and better equipped to maintain or lose weight.
Who Can Participate in Yoga?
Most men and women, regardless of their age and fitness level, can participate in yoga routines. The key is finding an instructor who will work closely with you as you learn poses and perform them to the best of your ability. Often, beginning or mixed level classes are the most comfortable place to begin your yoga journey. Before class, introduce yourself to the teacher and explain you are new to the practice; he or she can offer words of advice and help you get started. In some classes, teachers will offer alternate poses for beginners that are not quite as challenging as those performed by people at a more advanced level.
Most pregnant women choose not to practice yoga, though the meditation and breathing techniques can still be beneficial. Children younger than 16 years of age should also approach yoga with caution, or attend classes specifically aimed at young people.