What started as an ancient spiritual practice in India has evolved into a beloved form of movement for people across the world. Yoga has become increasingly popular with 34.4 million North Americans reporting practicing yoga in 2021.
Given that over half of Americans experience daily stress, it’s no surprise that more individuals are turning to forms of exercise, like yoga, that prioritize both physical and mental health.
Interested in learning more about how yoga can support your body and mind? Read on to learn about the history of this ancient exercise, its myriad of benefits and how you can begin incorporating yoga into your life.
History of Yoga
The earliest teachings on yoga are found in ancient texts called the Rig Veda. This collection of Sanskrit hymns is one of the oldest sacred books in Hinduism. Over time, this spiritual practice evolved as Rishis (enlightened Hindu sages) documented their traditions and beliefs.
During the second century, Raja Yoga was developed, outlining an "eight-limbed path" containing the steps toward enlightenment. Eventually, new concepts were added recognizing the role physical bodies play in helping practitioners reach higher levels of their practice.
As yoga continued to evolve, it gradually made its way to the Western world through the efforts of yoga masters who traveled and shared their teachings, gaining attention and followers.
Philosophy and Principles of Yoga
When you think about yoga, you likely envision people performing a series of postures on their mats. However, the philosophy of yoga goes far beyond the poses you see on Instagram.
Yoga revolves around five fundamental principles that serve as guidelines and shape a way of life. These principles act as a compass, providing direction for practitioners to navigate their yoga journey with purpose and intention.
The first principle of Yoga focuses on the importance of movement to help keep your body healthy, strong, and flexible. The poses you see in yoga are called asanas. These exercises improve strength, support stability, and increase flexibility. Aside from their physical benefits, asanas also help yogis cultivate better awareness of their bodies.
The second principle of Yoga emphasizes the importance of conscious and controlled breathing, known as Pranayama. By focusing on deep, intentional breathing, practitioners can calm their minds, reduce stress and connect more profoundly with themselves.
When continually overworked and under-rested, our minds and bodies eventually break down. To help prevent this, Yoga incorporates relaxation techniques to release tension and reduce stress. Savasana, also known as corpse pose, helps yogis relax their minds, bodies, and souls.
The fourth principle of Yoga promotes the consumption of nourishing natural foods to support a healthy body. A vegetarian diet is encouraged since it is an expression of ahimsa (non-violence). However, many modern yogis consume a variety of nutritious foods, including animal products.
Positive Thinking and Meditation
When juggling work, family, and personal aspirations, life can feel overwhelming. During these moments, it can be easy to fall into a negative mindset.
However, shifting from negative to positive thoughts can change your perception of life and the world around you. The final principle of yoga encourages positive thinking, helping to reduce tension and improve your overall quality of life.
Benefits of Yoga
While other forms of exercise require a certain level of fitness to get started, yoga is low-impact and accessible to nearly everyone. On top of that, you don't need much equipment to get started. Simply purchase a yoga mat, slip into some comfy clothes, and you're ready to zen out.
Aside from yoga's accessibility, numerous studies support its mental and physical benefits.
Flexibility doesn’t just help you touch your toes. It’s also crucial for injury prevention, pain reduction, and improved posture. However, most people spend over 9 hours a day sitting, which can take a serious toll on your flexibility. Luckily, yoga can help keep you limber, even if you have a desk job.
Every style of yoga incorporates some level of stretching in its practice, and it doesn’t take long for you to reap the benefits. In one study, participants increased their flexibility after six weeks simply by attending one weekly yoga class.
Many people experience a natural decrease in muscle mass and strength as they age. This gradual muscle loss, called sarcopenia, is the leading cause of disability in aging populations.
Research has found that regular strength training can help combat sarcopenia, ensuring older adults can maintain their independence. Since muscle loss can start as early as thirty, the sooner you begin strength training, the better.
Yoga is often associated with stretching and flexibility, but it can also be a great way to improve your strength. A University of Connecticut study followed two groups of older women.
One group practiced Vinyasa yoga at least twice a week for a year while the other group was inactive. The yogis had lower body fat and higher muscle mass, supporting yoga as a great exercise option for building strength.
Society has become increasingly technology centered, causing people to spend more time hunched over their phones and laptops. While the digital age has brought with it a myriad of benefits, it's not doing our posture any favors.
Research shows that prolonged smartphone use can negatively impact posture. Over time this can lead to issues like respiratory problems, back pain and constipation.
Regular yoga can help improve posture by strengthening the muscles responsible for proper alignment. Additionally, yoga helps improve body awareness, encouraging you to become more mindful of your posture throughout the day.
When you think of ways to improve your health, balance likely isn’t the first area that comes to mind. However, staying balanced helps support a variety of daily activities like walking, taking the stairs, and leaning over to tie your shoes.
While poor balance can cause anyone to stumble, older individuals are more likely to suffer severe consequences, with falls being the leading cause of injury and death for people 65 and older.
Many styles of yoga include poses that require individuals to practice their balance. If you’re dealing with injuries or limited mobility, classes like chair yoga and adaptive yoga can still help you work on your balance in a less challenging way.
If you've felt your stress levels steadily rising, you're not alone. Over 60% of Americans report that their stress is at an all-time high, with 55% struggling to enjoy life due to extreme stress.
While you can't avoid stressors like the rising cost of living or a global pandemic, you can take steps to help promote relaxation and better manage stress. Yoga is a great place to start.
One 2023 study found that practicing moderately intense yoga a few times a week lowered stress and boosted cognition in participants. But if you don't have time to make it to a class, don't worry. Simply taking a few minutes out of your day to practice yoga breathing can also help you calm your mind.
Stress and anxiety often go hand in hand. Stress is an outside demand placed on your brain, like looming work deadlines or an upcoming move. Anxiety is the feeling of worry or unease in reaction to these events. However, anxiety can also occur for no obvious reason, causing symptoms like increased heart rate, restlessness, and rapid breathing.
Research suggests that yoga can help relieve anxiety when combined with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Yoga’s physical postures, controlled breathing, and meditation all help relax the nervous system, reducing feelings of anxiety.
Everyone’s attention can wander from time to time. But, if you find it hard to focus on tasks for longer than a few minutes, you may run into problems like reduced work performance or challenges completing simple chores.
Constant distractions like emails and social media notifications aren’t going anywhere, but learning to focus can help improve your life at work and home.
Studies show that the areas of the brain responsible for information processing and memory are thicker in people who practice yoga, improving performance on mental tasks.
One 2018 study explored yoga's impact on attention, concentration, and memory. After 12 weeks, study participants experienced statistically significant improvements in all three areas.
Happiness doesn't just make us feel good. It's also vital for our wellbeing. Happy people tend to experience a plethora of benefits, including reduced blood pressure, boosted immune systems, and improved longevity.
One simple way to increase your happiness is through regular exercise, like yoga. When you move, your body releases endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin, helping to boost your mood.
For a little extra dose of joy, opt for an in-person yoga class over a solo session at home. One 2017 study found that group exercise improves quality of life more than solo movement.
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Different Types of Yoga and Their Benefits
Yoga offers a diversity of styles, each catering to different preferences and needs. This variety helps make yoga more accessible to people of all fitness levels.
Some styles focus on heart-pumping flows and challenging poses, while others are more relaxed, encouraging practitioners to hold gentle stretches for a period of time. Below we take a look at some of yoga's most popular styles.
Hatha Yoga focuses on the balance between body and mind, combining physical postures with breathing techniques. Many styles of yoga popular in the United States fall under the hatha yoga category.
However, the term "hatha" has evolved in Western society to describe a style that is slower-paced than other popular forms of yoga, like vinyasa. Hatha typically focuses on holding one pose at a time, helping yogis hone technique. This makes it a great option for beginners or individuals who simply want a more relaxed practice.
Vinyasa Yoga is known for its flowing style, seamlessly linking movement with breath. Unlike the slower-paced approach of Hatha Yoga, Vinyasa keeps practitioners in constant motion.
This high-energy style is ideal for individuals who enjoy heart-pumping cardio-focused workouts.
Many yogis consider Ashtanga to be one of yoga’s most challenging styles. This athletic practice focuses on performing the same set of poses in the same order for each session.
Ashtanga yoga consists of six levels that become increasingly difficult. This style of physical, mental, and spiritual practice is best for individuals with a strong fitness foundation looking for a challenge.
Bikram yoga is a form of hot yoga consisting of 26 postures and two breathing exercises. Classes are 90 minutes long and take place in a room set to 100°F or warmer.
Exercising in the heat doesn't just work up a good sweat. It may also provide additional health benefits. Research shows that exercising in the heat may improve athletic performance, making hot yoga a great cross-training tool for athletes.
Yin Yoga is a slow-paced and meditative style of yoga that focuses on long-held poses designed to stretch your connective tissues.
By holding poses for an extended period (typically 3-5 minutes), Yin Yoga helps improve flexibility and release tension. This gentle form of movement is great for people of all fitness levels.
Restorative yoga is often confused with yin yoga. However, the aim of this practice is different. Rather than focusing on stretching your ligaments, restorative yoga uses props like blocks, bolsters, and blankets to release tension passively.
All fitness levels can perform this form of yoga, but a restorative practice may be especially helpful for individuals who need a little extra help reducing stress.
My Personal Experience With Yoga
My yoga journey began over 10 years ago when I attended my first hot yoga class. Yoga initially drew me in as a way to improve my performance as a runner. I knew mobility and strength would help me become faster and less injury prone, but what I hadn’t anticipated was the impact yoga would have on my mental health and relationship with my body.
After my first hot yoga class, I was exhausted and drenched in sweat. However, I also felt calmer and mentally clearer than I had in weeks, so I continued attending. On top of my improved mental health, a nagging running injury I had been trying to recover from for years was slowly beginning to subside.
Over the course of six months, I cultivated a regular yoga practice before deciding to pursue my 200-hour yoga certification.
During my certification process, I attended hot yoga classes twice daily on top of my training as a runner. At this time of my life, this amount of movement was typical for me.
But the more I practiced yoga, the more I became in tune with my body. Yoga helped me slow down and question the “no pain, no gain” narrative I had created around exercise.
After completing my yoga training, I took a brief step back from running, focusing on walking and gentler forms of yoga, like Hatha. During this time, my body finally healed from years of overtraining and under-fueling.
Yoga helped me create a more intuitive exercise routine, moving in ways that actually felt good.
These days, I practice yoga a few times a week. When I’m feeling strong and energized, I may opt for a fast-paced Vinyasa class. On the flip side, if work has been crazy and my body craves some TLC, I’ll grab my yoga blocks and zen out to some yin yoga.
Getting Started with Yoga
With so many different yoga styles to choose from, it can be intimidating to know where to start. Let's explore some simple and practical tips to help you begin your yoga journey.
Find the Right Class
Choosing the right class can help yoga feel more enjoyable and approachable. Start by asking yourself if you would rather participate in a class with others or take a class in the comfort of your home. If you're a new yogi, try to attend at least a few in-person classes.
This allows your instructor to make corrections to your form if needed. From there, you can decide whether to continue practicing at your local studio, at home or a combination of the two.
Once you've decided where you want to practice, look for a class that fits your needs. If you're looking for a more challenging form of movement, consider an Ashtanga or Bikram class.
If you're looking for something a little more beginner-friendly, Hatha or Yin may be more your speed.
Whichever style you choose, you'll want to ensure your instructor has the proper credentials to guide you through the poses safely. Look for an instructor who has completed a 200-Hour Yoga Teacher Training.
Most studios will include this information in their instructor bios online. If you're taking an online class, visit your instructor's website to learn more about their qualifications.
Getting the Right Equipment
The beautiful thing about yoga is that you don't need any equipment to get started. However, a few items can help make your practice more enjoyable.
For starters, comfortable clothes that allow you to move will make it easier to get into a variety of poses. If you're attending a hot yoga class, consider opting for shorts and a short-sleeved shirt over leggings and a hoodie. This can help prevent overheating.
If you're attending an in-person class, your studio or gym will likely provide all the equipment you need. However, if you're practicing at home, you'll want to invest in a yoga mat and yoga blocks.
Yoga mats provide a cushioned, stable, and grippy surface, helping enhance comfort and preventing slips. Blocks allow for posture modifications and increase stability in a variety of poses.
Start With Basic Yoga Poses For Beginners
If you’ve never practiced yoga before, learning the following beginner friendly poses is a great place to start.
- Child’s Pose
- Mountain Pose
- Standing Forward Fold
- Half Forward Bend
- Down Dog
- Up Dog
- Warrior I
- Warrior II
- Happy Baby
- Corpse Pose
Yoga is more than just stretching at a trendy workout class. This ancient spiritual practice has the power to improve your body, mind, and overall well-being. Whether you become a regular yogi or only practice once a week, incorporating yoga into your movement routine can profoundly impact your life.
Below are links to my favorite digital classes to help you get started on your yoga journey: