Yoga Then and Now
Yoga is a tradition that is up to 5000 years old and was developed in India. About 2000 years ago, a teacher named Patanjali put the oral traditions into writing and Yoga Sutra was born. His 8-Limbed Path of Yoga prescribes a holistic approach to living. The poses we practice today are only one part of the great tradition. There are certainly yogis who follow the 8-Limbed Path, and many yoga students practice a few of the limbs. But mostly we know yoga as just one of those limbs: the poses.
Today, there are many, many styles of yoga, with the blessing that everyone can find a style that is right for them. All those styles are also likely to be confusing to the student who just wants to get in better shape.
The Yoga Alliance® is the largest nonprofit association representing the yoga community. Their mission is to promote and support the integrity and diversity of the teaching of yoga. YA embraces all types of yoga. The YA Directory describes yoga using friendly descriptions, explained below.
- Gentle yoga classes are typically calming, relaxing, and less physically demanding than other classes. They may also use props to aid students in their practice.
- Spiritually-oriented yoga classes often include meditation in addition to poses practice. They might also emphasize yoga philosophy, chanting, mantra, or cultivating spiritual growth.
- Flow yoga classes are typically invigorating, and they often include aerobic elements. Each posture is usually held only for a short time before moving to the next posture.
- Alignment-oriented yoga classes give particular attention to precision bodily placement, often with longer holds of poses. Classes might use props to help students attain the desired alignment.
- Fitness yoga primarily emphasizes the physical dimensions of yoga practice. Typical objectives might include aerobic conditioning, gaining strength, or building stamina.
- Hot yoga classes involve practicing in heated rooms (varying in temperature, potentially up to 110°F). The postures themselves may or may not be physically demanding.
- Specialty yoga classes often customize yoga for particular groups, such as seniors, children, expectant mothers, and those facing serious health conditions. Specialized training is important for teachers who work with these groups.
Common names of yoga styles you may hear or read about include Ananda, Anusara, Ashtanga, Bikram, Iyengar, Integral, Karma, Kripalu, Kundalini, Power, Prana, Sivananda, Vinyasa and many more. Each style has unique characteristics, and it can be helpful to consult with a specific teacher or school, or review the details on their profile, to learn more about their approach to yoga.
Benefits of Yoga
A study funded by the Yoga Alliance® and Yoga Journal indicates that the practice of yoga is growing, and that a third of all Americans have some interest in practicing yoga. And there’s good reason for that. Yoga has so many benefits, as established by multiple studies. The YA lists these benefits of yoga.
- Stress relief: The practice of yoga is well-demonstrated to reduce the physical effects of stress on the body. The body responds to stress through a fight-or-flight response, which is a combination of the sympathetic nervous system and hormonal pathways activating, releasing cortisol – the stress hormone – from the adrenal glands. Cortisol is often used to measure the stress response. Yoga practice has been demonstrated to reduce the levels of cortisol. Most yoga classes end with savasana, a relaxation pose, which further reduces the experience of stress.
- Pain relief: Yoga can ease pain. Studies have shown that practicing yoga asanas (postures), meditation or a combination of the two, reduced pain for people with conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, auto-immune diseases and hypertension as well as arthritis, back and neck pain and other chronic conditions.
- Better breathing: Yoga includes breathing practices known as pranayama, which can be effective for reducing our stress response, improving lung function and encouraging relaxation. Many pranayamas emphasize slowing down and deepening the breath, which activates the body’s parasympathetic system, or relaxation response. By changing our pattern of breathing, we can significantly affect our body’s experience of and response to stress. This may be one of the most profound lessons we can learn from our yoga practice.
- Flexibility: Yoga can improve flexibility and mobility and increase range of motion. Over time, the ligaments, tendons and muscles lengthen, increasing elasticity.
- Increased strength: Yoga asanas use every muscle in the body, increasing strength literally from head to toe. A regular yoga practice can also relieve muscular tension throughout the whole body.
- Weight management: While most of the evidence for the effects of yoga on weight loss is anecdotal or experiential, yoga teachers, students and practitioners across the world find that yoga helps to support weight loss. Many teachers specialize in yoga programs to promote weight management and find that even gentle yoga practices help support weight loss. People do not have to practice the most vigorous forms of yoga to lose weight. Yoga encourages development of a positive self-image, as more attention is paid to nutrition and the body as a whole. A study from the Journal of Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine found that regular yoga practice was associated with less age-related weight gain. The lifestyle study of 15,500 adults in their 50’s covered 10 years of participants’ weight history, physical activity, medical history and diet.
- Improved circulation: Yoga helps to improve circulation by efficiently moving oxygenated blood to the body’s cells.
- Cardiovascular conditioning: Even a gentle yoga practice can provide cardiovascular benefits by lowering resting heart rate, increasing endurance and improving oxygen uptake during exercise.
- Presence: Yoga connects us with the present moment. The more we practice, the more aware we become of our surroundings and the world around us. It opens the way to improved concentration, coordination, reaction time and memory.
- Inner peace: The meditative effects of a consistent yoga practice help many cultivate inner peace and calm.