Yoga has been around for centuries, and you can find a yoga studio just a few minutes away no matter where you are. But yoga as a practice has come a long way from its origins to its modern variations like hot yoga, PiYo (pilates + yoga), prenatal yoga, aerial yoga, and more!
What is yoga?
At its most basic, “yoga” is a collection of physical, mental, and spiritual practices. In our modern day, we are most familiar with the physical postures, movements, and crazy poses on Instagram. However, if you’ve ever spoken to a hard-core “yogi,” then you’ve probably noticed their dedication to mindful meditation, natural healing, and a peaceful lifestyle. And this is likely because of yoga’s very spiritual beginnings.
How did yoga start?
Historically, the beginnings of yoga can be traced back to northern India. The first mentions of the word “yoga” can be found in ancient Hindu religious texts. And while yoga itself isn’t necessarily a religion, it does have rich roots in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.
While similar, yoga as we know it, was formed much later on. Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, often dubbed “the father of yoga,” greatly developed modern yoga in the first half of the twentieth century by incorporating elements of gymnastics and Indian wrestling to develop dynamic yogic movements that promote physical fitness. He incorporated specific breathing patterns and “gaze points” to help the participant enter a meditative-like state while working their way through yoga poses.
What does yoga do for the body?
Yoga has a variety of health benefits, including stronger heart health, arthritis relief, better sleep, and increased strength and balance (deep breathing warms muscles up and holding poses strengthens them).
Of course, the flexibility of yoga masters is the most obvious visible bodily benefit. Flexibility prevents injury and increasing flexibility can release muscle tension and even assist with certain types of chronic pain. This is why you might hear yoga instructors telling you to “breathe into the muscle.”
Our muscles naturally relax when we take longer, deeper breaths. That’s how our bodies know we are safe. When the body feels safe, it releases tension in the muscles, allowing you to stretch deeper and further. “Breathing into the muscle” essentially means taking in a long breath and imagining that rejuvenating oxygen going to that specific part of the body, further building on that mind-muscle connection.
So, it’s just…stretching?
While yoga certainly stretches the body, it’s a means of stretching the mind as well – and bringing those two things together (which is why the meditative state and breathing are so important to the practice). Yoga, at its core, takes that idea of the mind-muscle connection further.
Because yoga is a spiritual discipline – perhaps even more so than physical – it focuses heavily on finding unity between the body and mind for a cohesive way of living. In fact, the word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit term “yuj,” which means “to join” or “to unite.”
How does it help the mind?
Yoga is unique to other types of exercise in that it places a huge emphasis on mental health and mindful living. That original concept of “unity” was meant to connect a person with the Divine. And while that idea has been adapted to suit different mindsets and spiritualities, many people use the deep breathing and muscle release as a means of “going within” to find a better connection to their emotions and mental wellbeing.
Physically, deep breathing and general fitness decrease feelings of stress and anxiety, providing more energy as well as a mood boost to people who practice yoga regularly.
How do I get started?
Depending on your current activity level and comfort with yoga as a practice, there are different places where you can dive in. Remember, you can use yoga blocks to help prop you up if you don’t want to stretch too far!
It’s important to understand that yoga poses – especially more advanced positions – call for lots of strength and balance. Despite the slow movement, it is easy to injure yourself if you try to stretch too far too fast. Here are a few good places to start.
For those who struggle with balance, are new to their health journey, are working through injuries, or are more mature, chair yoga is a great way to begin yoga without the need to fully support the body in any plank or table-top positions. (I also love doing a little chair yoga in the middle of the day if I’m spending a lot of time at my desk!)
For yoga newbies who want to dip their toes in, gentle yoga is a great way to go. I love hatha yoga (a very traditional form that really focuses on breathing and the meditative state over breaking a sweat) for a lighter day of movement that leaves me feeling amazing.
Another type of yoga that is less about sweat, yin yoga focuses heavily on muscle release by allowing you to settle into poses for a longer amount of time. You’ll get into a position and breathe, encouraging your body to get rid of trapped-up tension. This is perfect for people who need a little stress relief or sit at a desk most of the day.
Dive into yin yoga here or here (this one uses a pillow!).
Vinyasa yoga flow
For those ready for something a little more intense, the popular vinyasa style starts to get into a more athletic, movement-based type of yoga. It’s the perfect morning workout to set you up for the day.
Ready to work up a sweat? Then power yoga is for you. There will be plenty of planks and lunges that will definitely get your heart pumping, and you’ll feel amazing afterwards! This type of yoga is fantastic for toning.