Yoga is a mind and body practice with historical origins in ancient Indian philosophy. Various styles of yoga combine physical postures, breathing techniques, and meditation or relaxation.
In 5,000 years of yoga history, the term "yoga" has gone through a renaissance in current culture, exchanging the loincloth for a leotard and leggings.
Yoga has become popular as a form of physical exercise based upon asanas (physical poses) to promote improved control of mind and body and to enhance well-being.
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Fast facts on yoga
Here are some key points about yoga. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.
- The word "yoga" is derived from the Sanskrit root yuj meaning "to yoke or join together." Some people take this to mean a union of mind and body.
- A 2008 market study in Yoga Journal reports that some 16 million people in the US practice yoga and spend $5.7 billion a year on equipment.
- Hatha yoga is the type of yoga most frequently practiced in Western culture. Ha means "sun" and tha means "moon."
- There are many styles of yoga. A person's fitness level and desired practice outcome determines the type of yoga class to which they are best suited.
- According to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, there were more than 7,369 yoga-related injuries treated in doctors' offices, clinics, and emergency rooms in 2010.
- Common yoga injuries include repetitive strain to and overstretching of the neck, shoulders, spine, legs, and knees.
- The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS) believes the rewards of basic yoga outweigh the potential physical risks.
- Yoga is defined as having eight branches or limbs: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyhara, Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi.
- Practicing yoga has many potential health benefits including relieving low back pain, assisting with stress management and increasing balance and flexibility.
- There is some evidence to suggest that pregnant women taking yoga classes are less likely to experience problems in later pregnancy and labor.
What is yoga?
In this section we will discuss the history of yoga, the philosophy behind it, the 'eight limbs of yoga' and the seven major chakras.
History of yoga
There is no written record of the inventor of yoga. Yogis (yoga practitioners) practiced yoga long before any written account of it came into existence. Yogis over the millennia passed down the discipline to their students, and many different schools of yoga developed as the practice widened in global reach and popularity.62
The postures that are now practiced in yoga classes were not originally a dominant component of yoga traditions in India. Fitness was not traditionally a chief aim of the practice.
Sanskrit, the Indo-European language of the Vedas, India's ancient religious texts, gave birth to both the literature and the technique of yoga.1
The "Yoga Sutra," a 2,000-year-old treatise on yogic philosophy by the Indian sage Patanjali is a type of guidebook that gives guidance on how to gain mastery over the mind and emotions and advice on spiritual growth, providing the framework upon which all yoga practiced today is based. The Yoga Sutra is the earliest written record of yoga and one of the oldest texts in existence.
The Sanskrit word "yoga" has several translations and can be interpreted in many ways. Many translations point toward translations of "to yoke," "join," or "concentrate" - essentially a means to unite or a method of discipline. A male who practices this discipline is called a yogi or yogin and a female practitioner is called a yogini.
The postures that are now an integral part of health and fitness in many centers around the world were not originally a dominant component of yoga traditions in India. Fitness was not a chief aim of practice; focus was placed on other practices like pranayama (expansion of the vital energy by means of breath), dharana (focus, or placement of the mental faculty), and nada (sound).2
Yoga began to gain popularity in the West at the end of the 19th century, with an explosion of interest in postural yoga in the 1920s and 1930s, first in India and later in the West.
Philosophy of yoga
Yoga, in ancient times, was often referred to in terms of a tree with roots, trunk, branches, blossoms and fruits. Each branch of yoga has unique characteristics and represents a specific approach to life. The six branches are:3
- Hatha yoga - physical and mental branch - involves asana and pranayama practice - preparing the body and mind
- Raja yoga - meditation and strict adherence to the "eight limbs of yoga"
- Karma yoga - path of service to consciously create a future free from negativity and selfishness caused by our actions
- Bhakti yoga - path of devotion - a positive way to channel emotions and cultivate acceptance and tolerance
- Jnana yoga - wisdom, the path of the scholar and intellect through study
- Tantra yoga - pathway of ritual, ceremony or consummation of a relationship.
The 'eight limbs of yoga'
Raja yoga is traditionally referred to as ashtanga (eight-limbed) yoga, because there are eight aspects to the path to which one must attend. The eight limbs of ashtanga yoga are:4
- Yama - ethical standards and sense of integrity. The five yamas are: ahimsa (nonviolence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (continence) and aparigraha (non-covetousness)
- Niyama - self-discipline and spiritual observances, meditation practices, contemplative walks. The five niyamas are: saucha (cleanliness), samtosa (contentment), tapas (heat, spiritual austerities), svadhyaya (study of sacred scriptures and of one's self) and isvara pranidhana (surrender to God)
- Asana - integration of mind and body through physical activity
- Pranayama- regulation of breath leading to integration of mind and body
- Pratyahara - withdrawal of the senses of perception, the external world and outside stimuli
- Dharana - concentration, one-pointedness of mind
- Dhyana - meditation or contemplation - an uninterrupted flow of concentration
- Samadhi - the quiet state of blissful awareness.
The word chakra means "spinning wheel." According to the yogic view, chakras are a convergence of energy, thoughts, feelings, and the physical body. They determine how we experience reality from our emotional reactions, our desires or aversions, our level of confidence or fear, and even the manifestation of physical symptoms.
When energy becomes blocked in a chakra, it is said to trigger physical, mental, or emotional imbalances that manifest in symptoms such as anxiety, lethargy, or poor digestion. The theory is to use asanas to free energy and stimulate an imbalanced chakra.
There are seven major chakras, each with their own associations:
Chakras are said to determine how we experience reality from our emotional reactions, our desires or aversions, our level of confidence or fear, and even the manifestation of physical symptoms.
- Sahasrara: the "thousand petaled" or "crown chakra" represents the state of pure consciousness. This chakra is located at the crown of the head and signified by the color white or violet. Sahasrara involves matters of inner wisdom and death of the body.
- Ajna: the "command" or "third-eye chakra" represents a meeting point between two important energetic streams in the body. Ajna corresponds to the colors violet, indigo or deep blue, though it is traditionally described as white. This chakra is associated by practitioners with the pituitary gland, growth and development.
- Vishuddha: the "especially pure" or "throat chakra" is symbolized by the color red or blue. This chakra is associated by practitioners with the home of speech and hearing, and the endocrine glands that control metabolism.
- Anahata: the "unstruck" or "heart chakra" is related to the colors green or pink. Key issues involving Anahata involve complex emotions, compassion, tenderness, unconditional love, equilibrium, rejection and well-being.
- Manipura: the "jewel city" or "navel chakra" is symbolized by the color yellow. This chakra is associated by practitioners with the digestive system, along with personal power, fear, anxiety, opinion formation and introversion.
- Svadhishthana: "one's own base" or "pelvic chakra" is said by practitioners to represent the home of the reproductive organs, the genitourinary system and the adrenals.
- Muladhara: the "root support" or "root chakra" is located at the base of the spine in the coccygeal region. It is said to hold our instinctual urges around food, sleep, sex, and survival. It is also the realm of our avoidance and fears.
Types of yoga
Modern forms of yoga have evolved into exercise focusing on strength, flexibility, and breathing to boost physical and mental well-being. There are many styles of yoga, and no style is more authentic or superior to another; the key is to choose a class appropriate for your fitness level.
Types and styles of yoga may include:5,6
Classes should be chosen depending on your fitness level and how much yoga experience you have.
- Ashtanga yoga: based on ancient yoga teachings but popularized in the 1970s, each of the six established sequences of postures rapidly link every movement to breath.
- Bikram yoga: held in artificially heated rooms at temperatures of nearly 105 degrees and 40% humidity, Bikram is a series of 26 poses and sequence of two breathing exercises.
- Hatha yoga: a generic term for any type of yoga that teaches physical postures. When a class is labeled as "hatha," it is usually a gentle introduction to the basic yoga postures.
- Iyengar yoga: focused on finding the proper alignment in each pose and using props such as blocks, blankets, straps, chairs and bolsters to do so.
- Jivamukti yoga: meaning, "liberation while living," jivamukti yoga emerged in 1984, incorporating spiritual teachings and vinyasa style practice. Each class has a theme, which is explored through yoga scripture, chanting, meditation, asana, pranayama, and music, and can be physically intense.
- Kripalu yoga: teaches practitioners to get to know, accept and learn from the body. In a Kripalu class, each student learns to find their own level of practice on a given day by looking inward. The classes usually begin with breathing exercises and gentle stretches, followed by a series of individual poses and final relaxation.
- Kundalini yoga: the Sanskrit word kundalini means coiled, like a snake. Kundalini yoga is a system of meditation directed toward the release of kundalini energy. A class typically begins with chanting and ends with singing, and in between features asana, pranayama, and meditation designed to create a specific outcome.
- Power yoga: an active and athletic style of yoga adapted from the traditional ashtanga system in the late 1980s.
- Sivananda: a system based on a five-point philosophy that holds that proper breathing, relaxation, diet, exercise, and positive thinking work together to form a healthy yogic lifestyle. Typically uses the same 12 basic asanas, bookended by sun salutations and savasana poses.
- Viniyoga: intended to be adaptable to any person, regardless of physical ability, viniyoga teachers are required to be highly trained and tend to be experts on anatomy and yoga therapy.
- Yin: a quiet, meditative yoga practice, also called taoist yoga. Yin yoga enables the release of tension in key joints: ankles, knees, hips, the whole back, neck, and shoulders. Yin poses are passive, meaning the muscles should be relaxed while gravity does the work.
- Prenatal yoga: yoga postures carefully adapted for people who are pregnant. Prenatal yoga is tailored to help people in all stages of pregnancy and can support people in getting back into shape after pregnancy.
- Restorative yoga: a relaxing method of yoga, spending a class in four or five simple poses using props like blankets and bolsters to sink into deep relaxation without exerting any effort in holding the pose.
On the next page we look at the many purported health benefits of yoga.