Yoga began as a physical practice that involved stretching and strengthening each and every muscle in the body, so that one would be able to sustain a seated position of meditation for as long as possible. Way back when, the yogis were men who lived in caves-and no, I’m not kidding. Their way of life was quite profound actually, and that quality is something that many 21st century yogis have lost, as we’ve Westernized the practice to some degree (obviously this varies from studio to studio). These men gave up all worldly possessions to focus all of their energy on gaining enlightenment. In the early age of yoga, the practice was not the norm; in fact, it was quite radical and unconventional for its time. Yoga was intended for the spiritual man, and at this time yes- it was really only men that participated in yoga. Approximately 100 years ago, a nice lad named Sri Tirumalai Krihnamacharya, was instructed by his yoga master to bring yoga outside of the caves and integrate it into society. The goal here was to bring yoga and its benefits to the people, and make it available to career-oriented men, or the stereotypical ‘bread-winner of the family’ men. His teachings grew to inspire and impact many now-renowned yogis, such as the founder of Ashtanga yoga- Pattahbi Jois, along with the incredible work of B.K.S. Iyengar who fathered Iyengar yoga. I find that knowing how yoga was essentially birthed from a cave and a few key spiritual men, and was so generously shared with the world, gives us a deeper appreciation for the practice and for the fact that we have access to something so incredibly uplifting.
I’m including just some quick summaries on the basic styles of yoga, because I find a lot of first-time yogis have no idea what they’re getting into, or ask for a recommendation from someone who isn’t so knowledgeable about their body and its needs. And maybe there will be a style in here that you’re drawn to, haven’t even heard of, or maybe isn’t offered where you currently practice- but may end up being the most beneficial for your body. So here we go.
- Ashtanga- this is where most of the ‘power’ yoga classes come from. Originally designed for athletic, young boys who needed discipline (which I like to think of myself as). It includes an intnse series of postures, done in sequence with a connection to the breath and movement. This is a strong physical practice, that also focuses on clearing and centering the mind. Most other power forms of yoga stem from Ashtanga.
- Iyengar- this practice revolves around restoring the body. This practice involves the use of props- chairs, straps, blocks to help align the body just right and allow for poses to be held longer.
- Vinyasa/Flow- the union of breath to movement that makes up the steps. Sequences gradually progress to take you from one point to the next, with focus on synchronizing the breath with movement.
- Bikram- a hot practice created by Indian yogi Bikram Choudhury in the early 1970s. He designed a sequence of 26 yoga poses to stretch and strengthen the muscles as well as compress and “rinse” the organs of the body. The poses are done in a heated room to facilitate the release of toxins.
- Hatha- means the physical practice of yoga (asanas as opposed to, say, chanting). Hatha yoga now commonly refers to a class that is not so flowing and bypasses the various traditions of yoga to focus on the asanas that are common to all. Long holds in postures that help the body align.
- Restorative- focuses on healing the mind and body through simple poses held for a long duration. Overlapping with some Iyengar elements, props are commonly used, but emphasis is placed on relaxation of the body and mind.
8 Limbs of Yoga :
These 8 branches of yoga were founded by Pantanjali in the Yoga Sutras:
- Yamas- these can be viewed as spiritual commandments, or ethical guidelines for living. They include non-violence, truthfulness, non-covetousness, abstinence of excess, and non-possessiveness.
- Niyamas- these are considered as spiritual codes. Cleanliness of the body, being satisifed with what you have, discipline, studying of the Vedic scriptures and surrender to God.
- Asana- the being of the physical postures and poses within yoga practice.
- Pranayama- the focused control on the breath.
- Pratyahara- Withdrawal of the senses.
- Dharana- focus on a physical object, for an optimal state of meditation.
- Dhyana- steadfast meditation, holding something within your mind to focus on, but remaining separate from.
- Samadhi- Oneness, becoming one with the object of meditation.
Postures & Corresponding Benefits
- increase awareness of the body & alignment
- will help to set the foundation to more challenging asana
- centering and grounding
- help to bring focus to the mind
- promote sweating to help warm the body & its organs
- extremely helpful for everyday life tasks that require balance
- protects us from imbalance & injuries associated with it, especially as we age
- builds strength in the legs, arms & core
- arm balance postures help strengthen the whole upper body
- promote mental focus
- important for our lower bodies, which are commonly very tight
- massages the internal organs, to cleanse & detox those organs
- quiet the mind
- cool the body down
- calming the nervous system & promoting relaxation
- open up and stretch the hip flexors, shoulders, chest and abdominal area
- help alleviate breathing problems by creating space in the chest
- more stimulating type of posture, that eliminates sluggish feeling or tiredness
- creates space for emotional release opening of the chest sends an energetic signal to the body that you’re safe to feel
- strengthens the back body through contraction
- both calming & invigorating for the body depending on pose
- aids in circulation, bringing blood to the head and upper body
- encourages draining of the built up fluid in the lower extremities
- improves digestion by flipping the weight on the digestive organs
- stimulates peristalsis- the contractions that move your food through your digestive system
- expanding of our comfort zone
- wring out your digestive organs while in the twist
- stimulate fresh blood & fluid flow to those organs in the untwist
- increase mobility of the spine
- help digestion & bowel movement & promote flow of fluids through lymphatic system
- releases trapped gas from the digestive system
- detoxifies internal organs
Yoga works forces exertion on the internal organs, which can have an incredible detoxifying effect on the body. You’ll also discover a deepened connection between your mind and body. Unfortunately-especially in the West, we are so disassociated with our bodies, we forget to have gratitude toward them. Awareness and focus on the breath is the quickest way to establish a concrete connection to the body. As you further your practice, you’ll notice that you become so much more in tune with your body and all its reactions, needs and feelings. When you can sustain this type of connection, you will begin to desire only things that will sustain and honor your body, and support this connection.
Once we know the intention and meaning behind the poses and practice that we’re doing- even if they hurt and make us want to slur some things under our breath as our instructor is counting down (we’ve all been there)- it gives us a greater insight as to why we invest in yoga. We gain an appreciation even for the poses we don’t necessarily like, because we understand their impact on the body and how they help to better us.
The benefits of yoga really are limitless. You can work on different areas of the body and mind and choose for yourself what your practice will look like. You will indeed get out of yoga what you put in. Finding a class, style, technique or instructor that works with your body is a possible and exciting journey that we’re devoted to helping you embark on.