Yoga is one of the world’s oldest practices with the development of yoga as we know it being traced back five thousand years to Northern India, although some researchers would argue that yoga may be up to ten thousand years old.
The most recent Yoga in America study by Yoga Journal found that 36.7 million Americans were practicing yoga in 2016, up by 50 percent from the previous 2012 study. The same study went on to estimate that $16.8 billion a year was spent by yogis on classes, equipment, yoga clothing and accessories. Yoga is big business!
Health benefits of yoga have been recognized by science and we now know yoga is good for both the mind and body too. Yoga can decrease stress and anxiety, reduce inflammation, improve heart health, reduce chronic pain and even strengthen the body and build muscles. Making time to practice yoga just a couple of times a week can be enough to make a significant difference to your health.
What Exactly Is Yoga?
When you mention yoga to people, the first thing some may think of is beautiful hippie-like people sat in legs crossed position chanting “om”—it’s sometimes thought of almost as a cult! But many of us practice yoga for the physical benefits it offers of improved strength and balance as well as a greater flexibility of the body. Yoga originates from the Sanskrit word yuj meaning to add or to join, and yoga unites the body, mind and spirit.
If you’ve ever performed a plank as part of your workout regime, you’re already experienced in one yoga move, or pose as they’re called. Teams like the Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Clippers practice yoga as a team training exercise while many top sports professionals like basketball star LeBron James also include yoga as part of their training. A 2015 study found that a 12-week Hatha yoga program led to improvements in the athletic abilities of the 173 participants including an increase in endurance, strength and flexibility.
Perhaps the most important thing when first embarking on your yoga adventure is to decide which type of yoga suits you and what you want to achieve through the practice of yoga. The same type of yoga that’s suitable for a mid-20s athletic type may not be as desirable to a mid-40s stay at home mom. Do you want a complete physical workout from your yoga or are you more focused on relieving the stresses and anxieties of daily life? Yoga studios in the US offer over 800 disciplines of yoga for you to choose from, let’s take a brief look at the most common kinds of yoga to help you choose the practice that’s best for you.
Different Disciplines of Yoga
Looking at the yoga timetable in your local fitness center or online at the many different courses, you may have seen phrases like Hatha, Bikram, Ashtanga or Iyengar used to describe the class. Yoga uses a series of poses in a string called an asana and the pace, type of pose and sequence can determine the many different benefits of each discipline. Yoga can be calm and restorative, powerful and strength building or simply a means of meditating the stress away. Try a few different styles before deciding which one offers all you want to get out of your yoga practice.
Hatha Yoga: Slower Pace, Ideal for Beginners
Hatha yoga classes are ideal for those new to yoga as the poses are straightforward and tend to be carried out at an unhurried pace. Hatha classes are considered the gentler form of yoga although the Sanskrit term Hatha actually refers to any yoga that teaches physical postures or poses. Hatha uses props like blocks or bolsters to help you reach the right alignment.
But, Hatha yoga is not just about the body as many teachers will also encourage focusing on the meditative side, relaxation and breathing techniques. The mindfulness that comes with this can help to relieve stress, anxiety and improve your quality of life. A study published by the Psychosomatic Medicine Journal found women who practiced Hatha yoga once or twice a week were able to recover from stress faster than women who didn’t partake in yoga.
Ashtanga and Power Yoga: Best for Weight Loss
Both these types of practices combine the benefits of yoga with a more traditional cardio session. The classes usually flow at a quicker pace without any resting between poses, making them a great calorie burning session at about 500 calories per hour. Ashtanga is the more yoga orientated with a sequence of poses that never changes and each class starting with chanting. Power yoga varies the poses each time and normally doesn’t feature any of the spiritual mind aspect, it’s more of a physical workout.
Yin Yoga: Best for Stretching and Unwinding
For that inner zen and to calm and balance your body Yin yoga is the class you’re looking for. Rather than a fast moving series of poses like Ashtanga, Yin poses are held for several minutes at a time. Aiming to target your deep connective tissues and fascia, this meditative form of yoga promotes elasticity in the body and restores length to your posture. Props are used so you can support your body into the posture rather than actively flexing and engaging the muscles.
This can be a great class for stretching those muscles and unwinding but people who are very flexible should view Yin yoga with caution as they may overdo it in some poses. Yin yoga is also unsuitable for anyone who suffers from a connective tissue disorder. Restorative yoga is very similar to Yin yoga with gentle poses that are held for 10 minutes or more and is beneficial to those living with chronic pain or feelings of stress.
Vinyasa Yoga: Best for Those Who Love HIIT
For lovers of high-intensity interval training, runners or endurance athletes the continuous movement and dance-like nature of Vinyasa yoga is a perfect training tool. Dynamic routines that aim to link physical movement with breathing techniques are performed in a quick paced style where you won’t linger in any pose for too long, normally set to a pumping soundtrack designed to match the beats of the sequence of asanas. Be prepared to get your heart rate rising with a session of Vinyasa.
Bikram and Hot Yoga: Best for Hardcore Sweat Lovers
Bikram yoga is made up of a series of 26 specific poses with two breathing exercises and performed in a room heated to approximately 105 degrees and 40 percent humidity. All Bikram studios use the same 90-minute routine so doing one session will prepare you for anywhere else you may lay your mat in a Bikram class. Hot yoga, like Bikram, is also performed in a heated room but isn’t constrained to the same 26-pose sequence.
It’s argued that performing yoga in a heated room increases your pulse rate and metabolism which in turn allows your blood vessels to become more flexible and assist the body in burning serious calories. Hot yoga or Bikram will also improve the circulation with blood flow to the limbs increased. And the rush of endorphins you get from a 90-minute sweat session will banish stress and make you feel on top of the world more than any narcotic stimulant can.
Iyengar Yoga: Best for Recovery or People Prone to Injury
If you want to know more about how your muscles and joints work together, Iyengar focuses on the precision of yoga poses. Props are used to help students perform poses they wouldn’t usually be able to do and Iyengar teachers, trained in biomechanics, better understand which positions are more likely to cause an injuries and how to modify them to make them less intense. A pause between poses rather than flowing like many other disciplines of yoga allows you to perfect each pose, making it less likely you’ll strain anything.
Iyengar yoga is often recommend for the recovery of injuries (although you should check with a doctor first) and for the treatment of chronic pain. A study by in the Archives of Internal Medicine noted that a similar style of yoga, Viniyoga, was effective in the treatment of chronic low back pain after just 12 weeks.
As we mentioned earlier there are many more varieties of yoga you can try but most use the same poses, just in different sets or order. You can start by learning some of the more basic moves which may be used in any of the disciplines above. The following Youtube video demonstrates 10 of the beginner’s poses and will help you to perform them safely.
Yoga at Home or Joining a Class?
Just looking on Youtube or searching on your app store, there are hundreds if not thousands of online yoga lessons available, not to mention the multitude of complete texts on the subject—it’s been around thousands of years, you know! Another option which can be especially useful when first beginning to practice your yoga habit is to find a suitable class. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages too.
When you join a class it’s a chance to meet and interact with like-minded people who can share their experiences with you and offer advice, helpful if you haven’t yet decided which type of yoga is for you.
You’ll also have the support and guidance of a teacher who’ll advance your learning and maybe inspire you along with fellow students. Of course classes can be costly, not everybody has the time to travel to a studio and sometimes the journey to the studio, stuck in a traffic jam or let down by public transport, will add to the stresses you’re trying to alleviate. Depending on the size of the class you may not receive the correction to your poses needed or perhaps you’ll simply want more individualized attention.
Practicing yoga at home is more convenient, normally cheaper or more cost effective (even if you enroll in an online course) and allows you to be more self reflective and listen to the needs of your body and mind. At home you can additionally choose when or what practice you do, although sometimes this can be a disadvantage as you may lose motivation without that class structure and the energy or inspiration that comes from a group class. Most significantly, you’ll also miss out on the support and guidance of a teacher who’ll prevent you from developing poor habits that could inhibit your practice and in some cases lead to injury.
Attending Your First Yoga Session
Most yoga experts would agree that as a beginner you should try a class or two that’s taught by a seasoned instructor who can make sure you’re doing your new yoga exercises safely. This could be a private session, alone or with a group of friends, or more commonly a public class. As well as the safety and educational aspects of a class, learning with a group can simply be more fun!
Classes can be found at most gyms, there may be a more specific yoga studio in your vicinity, a workplace yoga session or sometimes just a basement in an old church. Whether a swanky yoga studio or a drafty old room in a community center, ensure your teacher has a Yoga Alliance certification which requires at least 200 hours of training, although some studios may also have their own additional in-house training plans so they can teach the studio’s specific style.
All you need to take with you is a towel, some water and maybe a mat although many studios rent out mats too. Wear comfortable fitting clothing, too loose and it may end up getting caught up in some of the poses, and take an open mind. Remember yoga is the union of the body, mind and spirit so the class may start with some chanting or “oms” before the physical workout starts but once you develop a yoga habit you can fine tune it to suit whatever you want to get out of yoga. Now unroll that mat and Namaste!