An Overview of Yoga

In the past 60 years, yoga has gone from a little-known, esoteric Indian practice to a central activity of the cultural mainstream. But while it is commonly available in cities throughout the world and almost everyone has heard of it, yoga still remains something of a mystery to people who have never tried it. That's because it resists an easy definition.

Yoga is a diverse and diffuse practice with numerous threads that can be interwoven in many ways.

Complicating matters further, the term yoga has been in use for several thousands of years and has shifted meanings many times. To start to unpack what contemporary yoga is, let's take a look at yoga's evolution and how it is practiced today.

Defining Yoga

The word yoga comes from Sanskrit—an ancient Indian language. It is a derivation of the word yuj, which means to yoke, as in harnessing together a team of oxen.

Today, it is often interpreted to mean union. Yoga is said to be for the purpose of uniting the mind, body, and spirit.

Most modern yoga practices rely heavily on The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a series of aphorisms written c. 250 CE, as the basis for their philosophies. The Yoga Sutras specify eight "limbs" of yoga. The three most commonly practiced limbs are pranayama (breathing exercises), meditation, and asana. Asana is what most of us have come to know simply as yoga, the physical poses.

So what should you expect when you head to a yoga class? While meditation and breathing exercises may be included, asana has assumed a primary role in most types of contemporary practice.

Some classes may also include chanting or an inspirational reading, depending on the individual teacher and the yoga style.

Generally, yoga classes at a gym or health club will focus primarily on the physical aspects of the practice, while people who want a more spiritual approach are more likely to find it at specialized studios.

Types of Yoga

The origins of today's most popular types of yoga can be traced back to one man, T. Krishnamacharya. Through his three most prominent students, yoga, as we know it, was disseminated to the west:

  • From Pattabhi Jois, we got Ashtanga Yoga—which is responsible for the vinyasa flow style that is now so prevalent—as well as the method of working on the same exact series of poses repeatedly over time.
  • From B.K.S. Iyengar, we got the concept of alignment—meaning that there is an ideal way of doing each pose—and the introduction of the now-standard props to help us safely reach this ideal.
  • From Krishnamacharya's son, T.K.V. Desikachar, we got the idea that when yoga is individualized to each person's needs and abilities, it can be curative, which has, in turn, led to the emergence of yoga therapy as a form of alternative medicine.

    With so many types of yoga, it can be daunting to pick the right one. This cheat sheet covers 20 popular styles (including Bikram/hot yoga, power yoga, and Kundalini) to help you narrow down the field. But there is usually a bit of trial and error involved too. You may find the best yoga class on the first try, but you may also need to shop around and try different things until you find the one that feels right.

    Yoga Poses

    Many people think that yoga is just stretching. But while stretching is certainly involved, yoga is really about creating balance in the body through developing both strength and flexibility. This is done through the performance of postures, each of which has specific physical benefits.

    The poses can be done quickly in succession, creating heat in the body through movement (vinyasa-style yoga) or more slowly to increase stamina and perfect the alignment of each pose. They can be done in a hot room, on a rooftop, in a gym, or even on a paddle board.

    Also, poses are a constant—linking together the disparate branches of the yoga family tree.

     The amazing thing about yoga is that although the poses themselves do not change, your relationship to them will. Your practice is always evolving, so it never gets boring.

    Poses fall under broad headings, although there is plenty of overlap:

    Health Benefits

    Doing yoga is good for your health in innumerable ways. Many of them are connected to yoga's proven ability to reduce stress. So many ailments are caused or exacerbated by stress: heart disease, insomnia, headaches, depression, diabetes, IBS, infertility—the list goes on.

    And this is before we even consider the physical benefits of greater strength (core strength in particular), flexibility, and balance.

    Yoga also fosters mental calmness, clarity, and self-acceptance, giving you the tools to combat anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. Is there anything yoga can't do? Well, it won't increase your height, but it can improve your posture so you stand taller.

    Who Can Do Yoga?

    Forget any stereotype you might have in your head of what a "yoga person" looks like because anyone can do yoga. That includes men, seniors, children, pregnant women, people with bigger bodies, people with arthritis, and so on. If you have a body, you can do yoga.

    If you are not at all flexible that doesn't mean you can't do yoga. It means you can and you should. Yoga is not a sport that you need to have trained for since childhood. It's not a competition where the bendiest person gets a prize. It's not even something you can be "good at" or "bad at" because there is no final goal to achieve, nothing to accomplish.

    The people on the covers of yoga magazines and the most famous teachers are not any better at yoga than the rest of us. One of the most difficult, but ultimately most liberating things about yoga is letting go of the ego and accepting that no one is better than anyone else. Everyone is just doing their best on any given day.

    Getting Started

    So now that we've taken the veil off a bit and convinced you that you can do yoga, how do you follow through and actually get started? The easiest thing you can do is find a class nearby and go to it. It needs to be convenient to your home or work so that getting there is not a chore. And it should be a class for beginners.

    Once you get your butt on a mat in a classroom, the yoga becomes inevitable. Though it is possible to do yoga at home (and many people do) it's not an ideal way to start. Taking classes with an experienced teacher gets you going on the right foot so that you begin to understand the fundamentals of alignment and avoid injury.

    Eventually, you may find that yoga at home is more convenient and affordable. There are lots of great ways to practice at home once you feel ready.

    A Word From Verywell

    If you're still nervous, remember that everyone who does yoga was once a beginner. The sooner you start, the sooner you'll discover its wonderful benefits, chief among which is that doing yoga makes you feel amazing. Yoga is a lifelong practice that will help you stay healthy for years to come.

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