Almost every gym and fitness center today offers at least one yoga class, a workout that involves performing a series of flexibility and strength building poses.
But yoga is more than just an exercise. It’s also a spiritual discipline with a long history – and aspects that don’t involve downward dog poses. In fact, the word “yoga” loosely translates to “hang on” or “hang on,” a phrase that emphasizes the practice’s emphasis on body-mind unity.
The history of yoga
Yoga originated in India. The beginnings of the tradition are uncertain, but in the second or third century CE, an Indian scholar named PataÃ±jal wrote the Yoga Sutras, 196 aphorisms that ultimately defined yoga as “the cessation of changing states of the mind.” . Today, the Yoga Sutras are considered the foundational text of yoga, although the practice itself certainly predates the PataÃ±jal treatise.
The Yoga Sutras define eight “limbs” of yoga, of which only one is the poses, or asanas, performed in gyms and studios around the world today. These members are:
- Yama, which has to do with how to relate to the outside world. Yama consists of five prohibitions: Ahimsa (Nonviolence), Satya (non-illusion or truth), AstÃ©ya (not lust), Brahmacharya (abstinence) and Aparigraha (not possessiveness).
- Niyama, ways to relate to your inner self. Niyama demands Shaucha (cleanliness, both physical and mental), Santosha (satisfaction of oneself and of one’s goods), Tapas (physical and mental discipline), Svadhyaya (study of the Vedas, the oldest scriptures of Hinduism), and Ishvarapranidhana (surrender to God).
- Asana, or the practice of yoga postures.
- Pranayama, or the control of the life force and vital energies (called prana). Usually practiced as a breath control.
- Pratyahara, or the withdrawal of a physical stimulus.
- Dharana, or the practice of concentrating attention. The centers of attention often include the Anja chakra, or “third eye,” a spot between the eyebrows on the forehead, or a mental picture of a dieter.
- Dhyana, or meditation.
- Samadhi, the state of oneness with the object of meditation, in which the ego and the object (a deity, a candle flame or other focus) merge. [7 Reasons You Should Meditate]
Types of yoga
The first clue to yoga in the Western world came courtesy of an Indian monk named Vivekananda, who arrived in Chicago in 1893 to give a talk to a rapt audience on the Eastern teachings, according to a 2011 article in The New York Times. Vivekananda cared little for the asana side of yoga, focusing more on meditation and worshiping God.
So the first Western yogis weren’t crunchy types in the 1970s, but hippies of an earlier age. In 1947, Indra Devi opened the first yoga studio in the United States, in Hollywood. A yogi named Richard Hittleman published popular books on yoga, downplaying the spiritual side to the American public, throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Seeds like Hittleman’s paved the way for an explosion of interest in them. swamis and gurus in the 1960s, according to Yoga Journal.
Today, Western yoga practitioners have a choice of the practice, from gentle and restorative to hot and sweaty. Some deepen the spiritual angle, while others focus on the physical challenge. Here are some of the most popular varieties of yoga available in studios today:
- Yoga Anusara, a school coined in 1997 that emphasizes innate goodness and beauty. The poses focus on the heart and relate to breathing, and all classes end with savasana, or “corpse pose”, a meditation carried out while resting, totally relaxed, on the back. This form of yoga is familiar to most American practitioners.
- Yoga Bikram, or “hot yoga,” a practice conducted in a room heated to 105 degrees F (40 degrees C). Bikram creator Bikram Choudhury has long owned a copyright in a series of 26 poses that are still performed the same in official Bikram classes, but a 2012 decision by the US Copyright Office determined that the yoga poses are not eligible for copyright. Competing yoga teachers have established their own hot yoga practices, which also feature poses performed in hot to sultry rooms, but do not adhere to Bikram’s rigid schedule.
- Iyengar Yoga, another practice with a charismatic founder, focuses on perfect alignment with abundant use of props such as yoga blocks and straps. Founder BKS Iyengar is a major popularizer of yoga and encourages students to start with simple poses before moving on to more rigorous poses.
- Kundalini Yoga, a practice for those who like to move. Kundalini practitioners view the life force as a serpent coiled at the base of the spine, just waiting to be released by a fluid series of postures mingled with breathing work.
- Powerful yoga, for gym rats who want to feel the burn. Think yoga meets aerobics. Power yoga evolved in the United States in the 1990s and is a vinyasa-style practice, meaning that participants perform a series of (often difficult) poses while matching the movement with their inhales and exhales. Unlike Bikram or Iyengar, power yoga varies greatly depending on the instructor.
Risks and Benefits of Yoga
The benefits of yoga are both physical and mental, according to studies. Yoga poses soothe the pain of fibromyalgia, a chronic disease, according to a study published in October 2010 in the journal Pain. Yoga practice was about as effective as medication for patients with these conditions.
Yoga at work can relieve back pain and stress, and the practice can also reduce inflammation, an immune response that can contribute to heart disease and other chronic illnesses. A review of 16 studies on the mental health benefits of yoga, published in January 2013, found that practicing yoga can help improve symptoms for people with depression. The same study also found that yoga can relieve sleep problems even without sleeping pills.
Like any exercise, however, yoga can come with risks. People with a herniated disc or osteoporosis, for example, should avoid leaning deeply forward, and anyone with neck problems should avoid pear trees, said Loren Fishman, a doctor from New York who is also a yoga teacher, at LiveScience in 2012. Doctor on specific issues before starting a practice is recommended, as is informing your yoga teacher of any limitations.