Yoga has been one of the more recent trends in fitness. After breaking from a session, I have heard people say “that was so relaxing! I love the low impact on my body” and “what an intense session! I could really feel my body working,” and everything in between. So, what is yoga really? As a fitness professional, I want to be sure that my recommendations to clients are adequate for their needs, and over the years I have learned that every yoga practice is different. This makes it difficult to make blanket statements about the practice as a whole, or as to whether or not it may be a fit for a particular person; however, it does open the door to different types of experiences and opportunities to explore what will work for the individual. This article will introduce the practice of yoga, as well as describe some benefits and precautions to your beginning practice.
What is yoga?
Yoga is a system of techniques and guidance toward enriched living. It was developed over 5,000 years ago in India as a comprehensive system for mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health1. Most of us primarily focus on the breathing and postural aspects of yoga practice, but the source texts delve deeper into the nature of higher awareness and fulfillment, and methods outside of the scope of movement to develop those.
One of the interesting components of yoga practice is that it is not entirely conceptual; some aspects must be acquired through experience. There is a certain space created within yoga that allows for individualized experiences and approaches to practice1. Since our primary focus in this article is the physical practice of yoga, we will stay geared toward variations on that front; however, it is important to keep in mind the wholistic nature of practice.
Types of yoga2
To get you familiar with some of the practices you would see on a studio/group fitness calendar, here’s the breakdown of some common practices and their derivatives.
- Vinyasa: movement is coordinated with breath throughout the flow
- Considered vinyasa styles include: Ashtanga, Baptiste Yoga, Jivamukti, Power Yoga, and Prana Flow
- Hot Yoga: any style of yoga performed in a hot room (85-105°F)
- Considered hot yoga styles include: Bikram, Forrest, Baptiste Yoga, and CorePower Yoga
- Restorative: sequences consisting of 5-6 poses that are supported for optimal relaxation and rest. Poses are held for 5 or more minutes.
- Considered restorative yoga styles include: Yin Yoga
- Yoga Hybrids: any yoga practice that incorporates other fitness components
- Considered hybrid yoga styles include: core fusion, yoga sculpt, crossfit yoga, aerial yoga, hot vinyasa yoga, boot camp yoga, trampoline yoga
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The American Osteopathic Association identifies a number of physical and mental benefits from yoga3:
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- Increased flexibility
- Increased muscle strength and tone
- Improved respiration, energy, and vitality
- Maintenance of a balanced metabolism
- Weight reduction
- Cardio and circulatory health
- Improved athletic performance
- Prevention of injury
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- Stress management
- Improved body awareness
- Improved focus and concentration
- Relief of chronic stress patterns
The National Institute of Health has found research supporting yoga practice for pain reduction and improved function in people with chronic low back pain4. Other research has found yoga practice to be associated with improved balance and cognition in older adults, decreased psychiatric symptoms in people with depression, and prevention of metabolic syndrome in women5.
Research has also been performed on many special populations, such as patients with cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and fibromyalgia, and found that Yoga and Meditation based Lifestyle Interventions (YMLI) have significant impact on pain, balance, and strength, as well as the psychological and social aspects of living with disease5. If you or a loved one are living with medical conditions, consider talking to your health care team about what yoga can contribute to your treatment or management.
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- If you do have any sort of health condition, it is best to talk to your health care provider before beginning yoga practice. People with high blood pressure, glaucoma, and sciatica should especially take care to avoid or modify certain poses4. On that note, it is also beneficial to find a yoga practitioner/instructor who is experienced and credible. Some of the poses are complex and may require a certain level of fitness or experience before attempting: there are ALWAYS modifications for poses. Work with your yoga instructor to find what works for your body.
- If you are pregnant or have recently given birth, it is important to protect your joints. During pregnancy and for a bit afterward, hormone levels cause laxity in joint ligaments, which may lead to injury in intense yoga practice. Being wary of your limits and avoiding excessive back bending can help protect you.
- If you have any sort of injury or health condition, I advise you to talk to your health care provider and yoga instructor and do your research on what is recommended for your practice. This journal has links explaining contraindications and modifications for particular conditions including injuries, asthma, and blood pressure.
Get out and explore!
Choosing to exercise and eat well is a lifestyle change, and yoga practice is one type of exercise that directly demonstrates that wholistic change due to its multifaceted nature. In life, our mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual conditions are not compartmental. Each one has an effect on the others. How many times have you come down with a virus after a really stressful couple of weeks at work? Or become down or blue after sustaining an injury? One of the beautiful things about yoga practice is the intentional integration of each of these facets of our being.
The second section of this article outlines some common practices, and it is important to draw a connection between these derivatives and yoga practice as a whole. Remember, yoga is an individual experience, not just for you, but also for your instructor. As the person providing guidance throughout the session, your instructor will have been on their own yoga journey with their own interpretations and will be sharing that with you. So even within those categorized practices, there is a LOT of variation in what you will receive in practice.
For example, I used to take a beginner’s yoga class with an instructor who was really good at teaching to every level in the room. She had a soothing accent, played instrumental music, and I got used to her gentle approach. One day, a different instructor subbed for her and it was a completely different class. The sequences were longer, with less frequent guidance and more complexity; she played music with lyrics (even a few pop songs!). I ended up really enjoying the change-up, and even copied her playlist for when I stretch alone. I have also had experiences where the class was not at all what I was into, but I take it as a learning experience. Your first steps into yoga practice will be a lot of trial and error; I encourage you to take on this practice with a sense of exploration and openness.