"It's a really comprehensive kind of exercise that not only affects my physical well-being, but creates an important connection between my body and my mind. I feel more energized and also refreshed mentally after practicing yoga."
Apparently many people agree. Tens of millions of Americans report that they do yoga, an exercise made up of a series of poses based on an ancient Indian spiritual discipline. If you're interested in starting yoga, the safest approach would be to find an introductory yoga class. They are generally slower paced. Many Western yoga classes are performed in hot rooms, so make sure your new class is in a place where it is not excessively hot.
Since yoga first gained visibility in the 1960s, numerous teachers, styles, and organizations have emerged, but finding one that's right for you can sometimes be a challenge. A good teacher and the right practice can significantly contribute to your enjoyment, growth, and understanding. Moreover, a good teacher can determine whether you continue to gain the benefits from a constant and continuing practice.
Yoga combines physical postures, breathing techniques, and meditation. Its purpose is to increase relaxation and balance the mind, body, and spirit. Yoga means "union" or "yoke," and it is believed that this describes the union between body and soul. Yoga was developed as a discipline to help practitioners reach spiritual enlightenment.
There is some research that suggests that yoga might help with conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome, depression, anxiety, osteoarthritis, and improving balance in seniors. Even though there is some evidence that suggests that yoga might be good for your health, yoga should never be used as a substitute for conventional medical care. If you have a medical condition or problem, consult your doctor before starting yoga. Learn about the physical demands of the type of yoga you are interested in and discuss them with your doctor.
Perhaps your doctor has recommended yoga to you as a way to relax, or you've talked to a friend who swears by her annual yoga retreat. Don't be fooled by the seeming passiveness of the idea of a pose. While yoga is not a sport and is never competitive, it can be as rigorous as an aerobics class.
There are many different schools and styles taught in the US. Some teachers have been certified in particular traditions, others offer a synthesis based on their own practice with Indian masters. Some major traditions include the following:
Ashtanga yoga is a physically demanding form of the practice. This yoga uses a concept of flow that has participants moving continuously and jumping from one posture to another, building strength, flexibility, and stamina. This is a real workout and not for those looking for leisurely stretching exercises.
Bikram yoga, founded by Bikram Choudhury, utilizes yoga postures practiced in a heated environment.
Integral yoga was developed by Swami Satchidananda and relies on breathing exercises and meditation as much as on postures for the practice.
Iyengar yoga is a style of yoga that uses props such as blocks and belts to aid practitioners in performing many of the more difficult postures. Great attention is paid to a precise alignment of postures.
Kripalu yoga places emphasis on honoring the wisdom of the body and allowing each student to develop an awareness of mind, body, emotion, and spirit. The practice is delineated into 3 stages: learning the postures and exploring the body’s ability; holding the postures for an extended time and developing an inner awareness; and moving from 1 posture to another in a spontaneous movement.
Kundalini yoga involves postures, meditation, and the coordination of breath and movement. The practice is said to create a controlled release of kundalini energy—a creative force thought to sit at the base of the spine.
Sivananda yoga involves a set structure that includes relaxation, breathing, and classic asana postures.
Viniyoga was developed by Krishnamacharya, a teacher whose disciples have created numerous other yoga forms. Viniyoga is a gentle form of flow yoga (continuous movement) which focuses on a student's ability rather than on idealized form.
For a description of other traditions, check out The Yoga Site website.
There are many excellent yoga books that explain the postures and have photographs and illustrations. Yet a teacher can impart an understanding of the poses and the practice of yoga in a way that a book cannot. A teacher can also help you develop correct alignment in the various poses so that you get the greatest benefit and an internal stretching and healing begins.
While there is still an emphasis on yoga as a physical exercise, many teachers now address the more spiritual aspects of practice as well. There are many teaching styles that fit all different personality types. The trick is to find the right one for you. Take the time to look around, or even ask people you know who practice yoga. With a little bit of research, you may find the perfect fit.
"My teacher includes a meditation practice and sprinkles our class with aphorisms about letting go and being in the moment," says Dale.
Some may help you push your boundaries within your own physical limits. Other teachers take a holistic or even therapeutic approach with their students.
Elisa opted to attend a more structured class with a more reserved teacher.
"I just want a teacher who corrects my postures if they are sloppy," she says. "Not someone who seems to have some advice for other aspects of my life."
There is no single national certification program for yoga teachers, because standards for teacher training and certification are different for each style of yoga. The Yoga Alliance is large, well-known, non-profit yoga association that accredits many, if not the majority, of teacher training programs across the country. Before choosing a teacher, learn as much as you can about their training, including who they trained with, whether they have any specialized training (such as teaching yoga to children or people with disabilities), and if they continue to study and train.
The word yoga as we use it in the US, refers to a broad category of different kinds of mental, physical, and spiritual practices. If you have a desire to learn, you should take some time to get acquainted with the different schools and styles to appreciate what various teachers have to offer. This is, in fact, a most personal kind of exercise, and the benefits accrue slowly and subtly over time.
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
The Yoga Site
Canadian Yoga Alliance
The Yoga Association of Alberta
General yoga information. American Yoga Association website. Available at: http://www.americanyogaassociation.org/general.html. Accessed July 23, 2015.
How to choose a qualified yoga teacher. American Yoga Association website. Available at: http://www.americanyogaassociation.org/teachers.html. Accessed July 23, 2015.
Yoga. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: https://www.ebscohost.com/academic/natural-alternative-treatments. Updated July 2012. Accessed July 27, 2017.
Yoga for health: an introduction. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine website. Available at: http://nccam.nih.gov/health/yoga/introduction.htm. Updated June 2013. Accessed July 27, 2017.
Yoga styles guide. The Yoga Site website. Available at: http://www.yogasite.com/yogastyles.html. Accessed July 27, 2017.
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Last reviewed July 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.