What is Yoga? And is it for me?

Yoga. Everybody’s talking about it, studio’s are popping up everywhere, and yoga clothes are more trendy than celebrity designers. But exactly is yoga, anyway? Is it a bunch of people twisting themselves into pretzels, or some kind of religious sect? And how will it help me?

Well, there’s a few different answers. Below, we’ll review some of the basic yoga facts: The definition of yoga, the different types of yoga, and how to start.

Where did yoga come from? In short, it originated in India. The earliest evidence dates back to 3,000 B.C., over 5,000 years ago. There’s evidence of yogic meditation practice in the Vedas (the sacred text of modern-day Hinduism), and in Buddhist scripture. The word “yoga” was coined in Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras, written in the 2nd century B.C.. Yoga became a practice in many Eastern religions, including: Jainism, Sikhism, Hari Krisha, Buddhism and Hinduism. Even certain Christian communities have integrated yoga and meditation into prayer. It came to the West in the 1890’s, but really gained attention in the 1960’s and beyond. Nowadays, it’s usually a straight exercise and stretch class, and although the teachers may mention “spirituality,” it doesn’t usually contain any religious elements.

What is yoga? In the West, yoga is only known for it’s physical practice. (The yoga poses, or “asanas.”) However, these poses are only one of 8 branches of yoga. This has caused some confusion in modern day classes, as a teacher may start doing some breathwork or meditation practices. I’ve heard many students complain, “What is this, and when are we going to start doing yoga?” Technically, the purpose of the poses is to prepare your spine for long periods of meditation. So the poses themselves were not technically “spiritual” or “religious;” they were a means to meditate longer, and the meditation is supposed to create a stronger union with the “source.”
Here are the 8 Limbs of Yoga:

1. “5 Abstentions” or social values (Yama)
2. “5 Observances” which include purity and study (Niyama)
3. “Pranayama” or breathwork/breath control 
4. “Pratyahara,” withdrawal of sense organs in preparation for meditation
5. “Dharana,” or concentration. Fixing attention on a single object.
6. The physical yoga poses, or “Asanas.” Literally translated it means “seat,” the seated position used for meditation.
7. Meditation, or “Dhyana”
8. Liberation, or “Samadhi.” It’s a state of ecstasy, or union of consciousness.

So any one of these practices, including non-violence or mediation, is technically practicing yoga.

What should I expect from a modern-day yoga class? If you take class in your hometown yoga studio, it’s very likely it will be an exercise class. The West has embraced the physical form of yoga, so that is the most common practice. Many people have formed their own “types” of yoga practice which may be therapeutic, stretchy, or calorie burning. Expect it to be a physically challenging workout. But, there are some teachers that embrace the other aspects of yoga. There are classes that include chanting, breathing techniques, meditation, or even dancing. It varies from teacher to teacher and from studio to studio, so my best advice is: ask! Find your local studios, and ask questions. They should be able to explain the different classes and teachers, and find a great fit.

Yoga in Big Sur

Photo by devonbrowningart.com

Who should do yoga? Is yoga right for me? If you have any kind of injury or medical condition, always check with your doctor before starting any exercise program. There have been many studies and testimonies showing the benefits of yoga, but certain injuries and conditions can be worsened. Studies have shown the benefits of yoga can include: alleviation of back pain, reduced blood-pressure, reductions of anxiety and depression, weight-loss, and stress relief.

What are the different types of yoga? There are endless types of yoga, but I will explain the most popular. Some types of yoga are derived from ancient Hindu practices, some are branded practices by different teachers.

Hatha: One of the more ancient forms of yoga, the popular “Vinyasa Flow Yoga” comes from this, although Hatha is usually a slower pace. Every class will probably vary, and it could include many poses, cleanings practices and breathing techniques.

Vinyasa Flow/ Ashtanga/ Power Yoga: Also called “Flow Yoga,” it’s a more physically demanding, fast-paced style of yoga. The poses are timed by the speed of your breath, and it usually includes many Sun Salutations (a specific series of poses). Power Yoga is a branded form of Vinyasa Yoga. It’s the most popular form of yoga in America, but be careful if you suffer from many injuries, the fast pace may not be a good fit for you. Good for: weight-loss, calorie-burning, and static muscle strength.

Therapeutic Yoga: Usually a more slow-paced class, the teacher usually uses a knowledge of muscles and joints to bring people into “therapeutic” poses. It’s often geared to help injuries, back-pain, or older clientele. Good for: relaxation, people with pain, and senior citizens.

Yin Yoga: Power Yoga is often considered “Yang Yoga,” so Yin is it’s opposite. Most poses are down lying down, and the poses are held for an extended period of time. Muscles are allowed to stretch and open slowly, instead of being “forced” to stretch with a more vigorous class. Good for: relaxation, people with pain, senior citizens, and lowering blood-pressure.

Bikram Yoga: Bikram is a guy, who branded his own type of yoga. The class is done in a heated room, usually 105 degrees. You do the same series of poses, and teachers memorize a script. Some people enjoy the repetition, as it allows them to master the poses. The body supposedly “detoxes” while you sweat, and the heat loosens the muscles and can deepen a stretch. There is also many forms of Hot Yoga, which can be any yoga class taught in a heated room. Good for: weight-loss, calorie-burning, and flexibility.

Iyengar Yoga: Iyengar is also a guy. His type of yoga focuses heavily on alignment, and uses props to assist the limitations of the body and assure proper alignment in every pose. He revolutionized the use of these yoga props (straps, blocks, cushions, bridges, etc.) An Iyengar teacher often talks a lot about anatomy and the technical aspects of each pose. This can be  great way to learn the basics of yoga, so that you take the anatomical knowledge to other classes. Good for: flexibility, injuries, and knowledge.

Forrest Yoga: This type of yoga was started by a women named Ana Forrest. Instead of warming up with Sun Salutations (as you would in a “flow” class), you warm up with breathing techniques and abdominal exercises. The rest of the class includes deep stretches and poses focused on alignment. Good for: Core strength, flexibility, learning anatomy.

Prenatal/ Mommy and Me Yoga: A prenatal class is specifically designed for pregnant women. The room is often cooler, and the teacher often leads you poses that are safe for pregnancy. Sometimes it’s combined with Postnatal Yoga, or Mommy and Me. Women bring their babies to class and practice with the baby on the mat. This can be a great community builder for parents! Good for: Keeping in shape while pregnant, stretching and feeling good while pregnant, meeting other parents and pregnant moms.

There are many other types of yoga, (Jivamukti, Anusara, Yoga Tune Up, etc.) and more are being developed every day. Classes also vary greatly from teacher to teacher, as each person creates their own sequence. You may have to experiment to find the right class for you. As a bodyworker, I love anatomy, so Iyengar and Forrest work for me. Some people love the fast pace of a Vinyasa class. And everyone needs some relaxation, so an evening Yin class can feel just right. If you don’t like yoga the first time around, try different teachers and different types until you find the right fit.

How do I start?  There are a few different options for starting your practice. I would suggest starting out with the beginner’s workshop or private lesson, so you get a basic understanding of the main names and postures. Here are the most common places you can find yoga:

  • Find a studio near you! Google the closest one and pay them a visit.
  • Check out classes at your local gym or fitness center.
  • Find an outdoor class, on the beach or in a park. You can often find them at www.meetup.com
  • Yoga DVD’s
  • Take private, one-on-one lessons from a yoga teacher.
  • Take a “yoga beginner” workshop.

What tools do I need? Usually, you just need yourself. You can often rent equipment at your local studio, but it’s good to have your own mat. (People sweat a lot in yoga, and I don’t want to think about that while I’m using a rental mat. The yuckiness interups the relaxation.) You can find mats almost anywhere (athletic stores, sports stores, target, etc.) but there are some brands that work a looooot better. I like to save money, but if you buy a cheap yoga mat, you may spend the class slipping all over the place. Here are my suggested items and brands that will get you started:

Yoga Mats: Not all mats are created equal. For high-end (non-slip, biodegradable, made from natural rubber) I recommend the Jade Harmony Natural Yoga Mat, or the Manduka PROlite Yoga Mat.
The top-of-the-line, heavy-duty swanky mat is definitely the Manduka BlackMatPRO 71-Inch Yoga Mat.
For the, er, non-natural ones…Hugger Mugger and Gaiam makes decent, economically priced mats that are also very beautiful.

Blocks: Blocks are used for proper alignment and helping you if you’re a bit tight in certain muscles. I like the Hugger Mugger 4-Inch Foam Yoga Block, but any of these cheaper blocks will do as well: YogaAccessories (TM) 4” Foam Yoga Block

Yoga Straps: Straps can be used to aid in proper alignment, hamstring stretches, restorative poses and the like. most straps are very affordable, although my favorite is the Manduka Cotton Yoga Strap.

Yoga Non-Slip Towel: For those yogis that sweat a lot, slipping and sliding on your mat can be a consistent problem (even with a great mat). You can just use any old towel and lay it on your mat, but some companies do make a towel for just this purpose. It has small rubber nubs on one side to prevent the towel from moving, and the other side is absorbent synthetic material. You can throw it in the wash, and keep your mat from getting, you know…icky. The standard is the Yogitoes Skidless Mat-Size Yoga Towel.

So now that you have a little more information, hopefully you will give yoga a try. If you don’t like it, try a different class! Stretching is so good for so many reasons…it can decrease pain, increase flexibility, help keep joints healthy, and lower your blood pressure. So go cleanse some toxins and open up those hips!