The word yoga comes from the ancient Sanskrit and translates to "yoke" or "union". The practice originated in India thousands of years ago, but has only become popular in the West over the last 30 years. Depending on the kind tyeps of yoga classes you attend, you may be exposed to varying degrees of yogic philosophy and spirituality in addition to what appears to be a deceptively simple workout. Regardless of which type of yoga you practice, learning yoga basics will help to improve your physical, as well as mental self.
The physical practice of yoga is often referred to asana, the Sanskrit word which refers to the poses themselves, and involves much more than stretching. While yoga does help lengthen the muscles and help you to increase flexibility over time, the practice also involves focused breathing (breath control) along with subtle core strength movements that work together to challenge the physical body, quiet the mind and promote emotional well being.
One of the reasons yoga is catching on in the West is undoubtedly because it addresses the needs of our stressed and harried society. By providing students with a physical workout, emotional outlet and the opportunity to deepen an existing spiritual practice in as little as an hour, yoga is hard to beat for people seeking more balance in our lives.
If you're new to yoga, you'll find introduction to yoga classes offered at most fitness centers, gyms and yoga studios. For those who are curious, but may not be ready to take a class, there are beginner DVDs, video podcasts and cable television shows devoted to yoga.
Benefits of Yoga
People come to yoga for many reasons, but no matter what brings them to the mat, the benefits are many and the same.
Strengthening and toning. Every pose you do in yoga is done with awareness. Even simple postures where it appears you're simply standing are challenging. In particular, most yoga poses involve working your core muscles (abdominals, obliques, back muscles and glutes) and keeping them engaged as you transition from one pose to the next. The benefits include a stronger core that improves your posture and increased muscle mass that supports metabolism. Over time, you'll also see improvement with any issues you have with balance or coordination.
Increased flexibility. You don't have to be flexible to do yoga, but practicing yoga will help you increase your flexibility. Why is flexibility important? It improves your performance in sports, helps you to maintain your balance and makes you less susceptible to falls and muscle injuries.
Calmness. What draws a lot of people to yoga is the emphasis placed on emotional well being. The incorporation of pranayama exercises (controlled breathing) into yoga class helps to lower your blood pressure, slow your heart rate and increase the amount of oxygen that flows into the bloodstream. This makes transitioning in and out poses easier, releases toxins and can result in deeper feelings of peace and calm.
Types of Yoga
There are many types of yoga, each with their own unique approach to the asanas, use of pranayama and yogic philosophy. What they do have in common is the asanas themselves. Some of the more well-known types of yoga you're likely to encounter include:
Ashtanga Yoga. Ashtanga Yoga is a physically demanding form of yoga utilizing a set series of postures, called the primary series, which students perform in accordance with the flow of the breath. It is regarded by some as the original yoga. All other forms of yoga incorporate some or all of the asanas in the Ashtanga series.
Power Yoga. Power Yoga is a Westernized version of Ashtanga Yoga. The main difference between Power and Ashtanga Yoga is that Power Yoga doesn't adhere to the set series of postures followed by Ashtanga practitioners. It does, however, link those poses to the breath. Power Yoga tends to focus more on the physical aspects of yoga is one of the most common yoga classes offered at fitness clubs.
Hatha Yoga. The word hatha breaks down into "ha" which means sun, and "tha" which means moon. Often referred to as the branch of yoga that results in the union of opposites, it focuses on uniting the body and the mind through the asanas, pranayama and elements of meditation. Sequences are designed to work all parts of the body with emphasis on movements that create space along the spine.
Bikram Yoga. Bikram Yoga is often called Hot Yoga because it's practiced in rooms heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Classes are fast paced and follow a pre-defined sequence of 26 asanas and two pranayama exercises.
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While breathing the 'essential breath' and returning to our natural rhythms is key to our journey of self-knowledge and vibrant good health, we need not ignore or turn away from the mundane and often gritty aspects of our basic selves.