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Yoga is everywhere, and it's getting more popular, not less. What is it all about, and what does it have to offer you?

Yoga comes from the Sanskrit word yug, meaning ‘union’ or ‘unification.’ This word has an important place in Hindu theology and it’s from Hinduism that yoga came.

The practice of yoga is around 5, 000 years old. It came to the West during the years of Western colonial empire and was already fairly popular in the 1930s.

In the 70s, with the explosion of interest in oriental thought that also gave us the Karate Kid, yoga took off in a big way - and has seemingly only got more popular. It’s reached the level of cultural saturation where even if you couldn’t identify a yoga pose on sight, you’d recognise a yoga class.

Once the stereotype would have been something like bearded men and women called Moonbeam burning incense and sitting in the lotus position in sack tops.

Now, it’s a roomful of Lulumelon-clad ladies stretching and sweating.

Thing is, it's still a stereotype. 

Yoga suffers from being stereotyped. In pop culture, it's for women, or it's a waste of time that could be spent doing something much more intense, or it's touchy-feely, get-in-touch-with-yourself stuff, and it retains some vague hippyish associations too. 

So what's the reality?

The truth is that yoga is such a broad church that everything above is true, and it's also false. Some yoga is very meditative. Some is very touchy-freely. Some is very athletically challenging, some is not conventionally athletic at all. The likelihood is that there is some yoga out there that would fit you and your goals, simply because of the enormous variety available.

Some of the varieties of yoga

Hatha Yoga

Hatha yoga is traditionally one of the 'eight limbs' of yoga: traditionally these are ethics (yama), self-discipline (niyama), physical culture (asana), breath control (pranayama), withdrawal from the world (pratyahara), learning to concentrate the mind (dharana), meditation and contemplation (dhyana), and spiritual ecstasy or enlightenment (samadhi).

Traditional yoga branches or schools deal with or focus on different parts of this hierarchy, and hatha yoga traditionally focusses on physical postures.

In other words, most of what we know as yoga comes from hatha yoga. When you see a sign advertising hatha yoga now, though, it's more likely to be one of a number of traditions that focus on asanas, or postures. It's likely to use some basic postures, to focus on the postures themselves and to be more gentle than some of the modern power yoga type classes. That doesn't mean it won't be athletically challenging. Holding precise postures for a long period of time is difficult and it can have beneficial effects both for sedentary people and for athletes in intense sports who spend most of their training time doing the exact opposite. Hatha yoga is a good place to begin learning to focus on movement quality.

Kundalini yoga

In Hindu theology, kundalini refers to 'serpent' energy, or spinal energy. Kundalini yoga is yoga that concentrates on this and will incorporate esoteric breathing exercises, chanting and meditative practices as well as physical postures. 

Bikram Yoga

Bikram yoga is the brainchild of Bikram Choudhury, who invented it in the 1970s. It's practiced in heated rooms and follows a set pattern of 26 postures which are intended to increase mobility and to 'rinse' or 'cleanse' the internal organs. Because it allows people with stiff tendons and joints to rapidly increase their mobility, Bikram yoga is popular amongst athletes.

Pilates yoga, yogalates, etc

Many classes combine yoga movements with other exercise types. Pilates lends itself to these combinations quite well because of its emphasis on control, lengthening of the spine and other physical attributes that will be familiar to any yoga practitioner, but classes are available that draw material from ballet, T'ai Chi, or other flop-based gymnastic training too. Are they in keeping with yogic tradition? Yes and no - the history of yoga is a history of people adapting it to suit their needs, and if Hindu holy men don't feel that what you do is 'proper yoga,' how much do you care?

Power yoga

Yoga poses run the gamut from fairly gentle and easy to postures that require both a lot of strength and a lot of mobility. Google 'firefly' or 'flying crow' to see what I mean; they're not for beginners! Less advanced yoga moves can be adapted to give a workout that focuses on building more strength and is more athletically challenging, and power yoga is regarded as a good way to gain some strength and get a cardiovascular workout at the same time.

Vinyasa flow

Vinyasa flow yoga classes focus on flowing from one posture to another, rather than on holding postures.

That might sound less difficult, but as a result, Vinyasa classes are less like a series of static holds and more like an hour of slow-motion calisthenics. They can be repetitive but they have a good reputation for providing a solid workout.

Of necessity in dealing with a subject that's both very broad and very deep, I've left a lot of material out. Hopefully, you have a clearer idea of what you'll find when you walk into a yoga class. 

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