A Comprehensive Guide to the Benefits of Yoga

While many people are look for engaging ways to get into shape, yoga has emerged as one of the most popular forms of physical and mental wellness training. This article is a broad overview of the origins of yoga, the underlying philosophy, and the various modern forms practiced today. We’ll also provide instruction on several basic yoga poses, and point you toward some of the best online resources available to get you started.

History of Yoga

Yoga is thought to have originated in India more than 5,000 years ago, as a practice of the Indus culture – one of the largest early civilisations. Several historical periods of yoga, from Vedic Yoga through classical and post classical yoga, went through many evolutions until the birth of modern yoga in the late 1800s.

After several Indian yoga masters made an impression on the American public in the first half of the 20th century, yoga began to enter the mainstream. Popular yogis became teachers to Hollywood celebrities and professional athletes.

After a slight dip in popularity in the 80s, modern yoga has since exploded, with new generations of yoga practitioners turning yoga into a cultural phenomenon, and household name. This journey from Vedic sages thousands of years ago to modern day yoga influencers has resulted in approximately 16 million people practicing yoga each year in the U.S. alone.

Since yoga has undergone many significant changes in its multi-millennial tenure, next we’ll take a look at the underlying principles yogis focus on during their practice.

Goals of Yoga

The origins of the practice of yoga stem from trying to answer life’s most profound questions. Traditional yoga is a journey to answer these questions, such as who we are, where we come from, and what we must do in life.

Early yoga practices were an analysis of perception, cognition, and consciousness. Yogis strove to cultivate attributes such as calmness, self-control, restraint, tolerance, and other such qualities on their path to enlightenment.

This form of deep self-awareness developed into regarding the body as a vessel for the immortal spirit. Thus, yoga masters strove to create a system of practices to rejuvenate the body, and prolong life. The extremes of this philosophy even aimed to energise the physical body to the point of immortality.

Modern yoga teachers focus their guidance around a combination of healing, spirituality, mediation, and the lessons of the ancient yoga traditions. These teachings underlie the more widely-known yoga practice of performing a sequence of postures – known as asanas – while using techniques to control one’s breathing – called pranayama.

While we can see that yoga aims to achieve some pretty lofty goals, it is actually quite easy for beginners to get into. As far as practicing the bodily movements and basic breathing techniques, little theoretical knowledge is required.

Knowing some of the physical and spiritual aims of yoga, we will now explain the various forms of modern yoga commonly undertaken today.

Types of Yoga

As mentioned, the ancient art of yoga went through several historical periods, from Vedic yoga to classical yoga. The following, however, will be a focus on several of the most popular forms of yoga practiced throughout the world today.

What most people in Western countries think of as yoga, is called Hatha yoga. Hatha is a term used to describe all the physical poses in yoga. Hatha yoga classes are a great entry point into yoga for beginners, as they are a slightly slower paced approach to breathing and postures.

Vinyasa yoga is one of the more athletic styles of yoga. Vinyasa refers to the special placement of yoga poses together in what’s called a yoga ‘flow’. Vinyasa classes coordinate movement with the breath to flow through each position, and come in many different sequences.

Iyengar yoga is a low impact form of yoga that often uses different props to allow the class to go deeper into their poses, and to hold them for a relatively long time, adjusting the small intricacies as they hold. Iyengar provides a physical challenge while keeping the pace slow.

A form of yoga with a more spiritual focus is Kundalini yoga. The Kundalini style aims to release a special energy that is said to be stored in the lower back area. These intense classes incorporate chanting, mantra, and energetic breathing and core exercises.

In certain regions of India, groups gather to practice self-paced Ashtanga yoga, a very demanding sequence of poses. Ashtanga is a form best saved for advanced or very experienced yogis, and something to aspire to for those newer to the practice.

A style of yoga that has become increasingly popular in recent years is Bikram yoga – also known as ‘hot yoga’. Bikram involves 26 postures, which are performed twice each. The unique aspect of Bikram, however, is not the poses. These classes are performed in sauna-like rooms, with temperatures of 105 degrees and 40% humidity. Bring an extra towel and water bottle for this one!

If you prefer something less intense, Yin yoga is a seated yoga style focusing on holding long poses. The postures in Yin yoga are more passive, letting gravity assist in providing the stretch. Practitioners of Yin use it as a meditative experience that helps them find inner peace.

For those needing to relax and unwind at the end of a busy day, there is a style of yoga called Restorative yoga. With fewer poses, the moves modified to be easier, and assistive props like blankets and bolsters, restorative yoga helps cleanse the mind and sink into relaxation.

There are forms of yoga to suit people at all stages of life. For pregnant women, who sometimes have difficulty maintaining fitness and strength during their term, there is Prenatal yoga. This form of yoga is one of the best ways for expectant mothers to strengthen their pelvic floor and core muscles, while preparing mentally and spiritually for the journey of childbirth.

Yet another form of yoga founded in the 80s is Jivamukyi yoga. Accompanying the poses in this style of yoga is a series of chants opening the class. Jivamukti yoga is infused with the spiritual teachings of Hinduism, and is particularly focused on one’s connection to the Earth as a living entity.

Finally, the world of yoga is expanding to accommodate our furry friends. ‘Doga’ is a newer style of yoga class that involves practicing in partnership with your dog. Whether they prefer this to an old-fashioned walk, who knows!

There are many other styles of yoga out there, but these should give you plenty of avenues to entry into the practice of yoga if you’re interested in giving it a try. If you’re not convinced, the following section on the many benefits of yoga might persuade you.

Benefits of Yoga

Yoga has been the subject of an increasing amount of research in order to quantify its many benefits for physical, mental, and spiritual health. To cover all of these effects would take much longer than we have in this article, but here is a brief overview of the main benefits of yoga, broken down into the different systems of the body.

For the musculoskeletal system, yoga improves flexibility and range of motion in the joints, and increases muscular strength and endurance. This helps achieve better posture, better sleep, and relieve symptoms of chronic pain.

In regard to cardiorespiratory health, yoga lowers resting and active heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure. Increasing the efficiency of the heart and lungs increases oxygen levels in the body and the brain.

Many blood markers used to indicate good health (or pathology) are also improved with yoga, including decreased glucose and sodium, cholesterol and triglycerides; overall, yoga has an antioxidant effect. These biochemical improvements also contribute to improved gastrointestinal and endocrine function.

Yoga has many positive impacts on the nervous system. It helps enhance one’s attention, concentration, and memory. Yoga also boosts dexterity, hand-eye coordination, and balance.

Yoga’s effect on the brain also leads to improved psychological health. Yoga can improve your mood, sense of well-being, and self-acceptance, while at the same time decreasing anxiety, depression, and issues with anger or hostility.

Some experts make favourable comparisons between yoga and more conventional forms of exercise and sport. Different systems of the brain and body dominate when performing yoga, creating a more relaxed, energising, process-oriented experience with a low risk of injury.

Traditional training and sports competition involve more rapid, forceful movement, leading to fatigue and in some cases injury. While these activities obviously still hold a lot of value, yoga can at least be a supplement to those involved.

In fact, yoga is the most popular complementary health activity used in the U.S. today. The benefits discussed help yoga combat some of the fastest growing epidemics in modern society – cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, and mental stress. The body of evidence promoting yoga alongside traditional exercise continues to grow.

So what are some of the best yoga poses you can try today to enjoy some of these benefits? Read on to find out.

Best Yoga Poses and Sequences

There are hundreds of ways to combine and perform the many positions of yoga. For a simple introduction to some of the most popular moves, we will list here several poses with descriptions of how to do them and what they help to improve.

Tree pose is a standing posture which enhances balance, focus, and strengthens all the muscles of the lower limb. Focusing on a singular point in front of you, lift one foot off the floor, turning the hip out while resting the foot onto your opposite shin or thigh. Stand tall and balanced, with the hands together in front of the heart.

Forward fold is a calming pose that stretches the entire posterior chain, and relieves tension in the head and neck. Simply stand with your feet together, inhale as you bend forward from the hips, and exhale to hang the head and arms toward the toes.

To balance out with a good stretch for the front of the body, the Cobra pose begins by lying face down on your mat. Place the hands next to the shoulders, pressing your chest off the floor while keeping the hips down. Feel the stretch in the front of your tummy, hips and thighs, before gently lowering down.

For a restorative pose to finish this small sequence, you can try Child’s pose, or Tranquil pose (also known as Corpse pose). For Child’s pose, start in a kneeling position with your heels under your seat bones. Come down to rest your chest on your thighs, with your forehead on the floor in front of your knees.

Tranquil pose involves lying on the back, slightly spreading the hand and feet to the sides, and closing the eyes. This is a popular pose to finish out a class, often maintained for up to ten minutes as a way to rejuvenate and focus attention on each of the body parts.

While these are just a few of the basic poses, the following section will provide you with some of the best resources out there for getting into yoga.

Yoga Resources

A great way to get involved with a yoga practice is to enrol in a local class, where you’ll have an instructor in person to help you settle in. If you don’t have the opportunity to attend a class, however, here are several great online resources to get you started.

Yoga apps are a wonderful way to have yoga classes in your pocket, ready to go whenever you are. Some of the most popular apps include Yoga Studio, Asana Rebel and Gaia. Each has their own style of production and class delivery, so experiment with the free versions of each, and consider subscribing to one to access their large libraries of content.

For online video instruction, some excellent yoga YouTube channels include Yoga with Adriene, Yoga with Tim, and the genuine Indian yogi and mystic teacher, Sadghuru. These channels have a huge selection of yoga sessions to follow along with, as well as videos about the philosophy of yoga if you’re interested in learning more.

We hope this article has inspired you to get out and give yoga a try!

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