Yoga has come a long way since its humble beginnings in ancient India five thousand years ago. It’s now practised by around two billion people worldwide and is a regular class in gyms, health clubs and leisure centres, whilst dedicated studios pop up left, right and centre. Yoga mats are even being rolled out in schools, hospitals and surgeries, so it’s fair to say this age-old activity has stood the test of time!
Yoga focuses on strength, flexibility and breathing. It promises to help open up the body and mind to allow for improved physical and mental wellbeing. Admittedly, it’s had its fair share of negative stereotypes over the years – ‘hippie’ fad, boring, just for women and/or the more flexible, too hard, too easy and so on.
However, an increasing number of people are now starting to recognise the benefits of this low impact exercise and consider it a valuable part of their weekly routine.
The Benefits of Yoga
As many fitness experts will confirm, yoga is a great addition to most workout regimes. Simply focusing on cardio and weight training can leave muscles feeling tight and prone to injury, so it’s important to include time for stretching. In fact, an hour or two of yoga each week not only helps to increase flexibility, but it can actually increase strength, bone density and improve cardiovascular fitness too.
Yoga also builds core muscles, which can improve posture and balance over time and reduce the risk of injury. It might even be able to help with existing pain and mobility problems as well. But it’s not all about the physical. By inducing deep relaxation in the body, yoga is also thought to help people who suffer from sleep and psychological issues such as anxiety, depression and stress. Reduced stress may then help reduce high blood pressure, a main cause of heart disease.
Remember, it’s always important to seek advice from your doctor or clinical practitioner before trying any physical activity, including yoga. If you do suffer from a medical condition, it’s also worthwhile making your yoga teacher aware so that they can moderate the poses and sequences accordingly.
The Different Styles of Yoga
Whether you want to relax and connect with your spiritual side or challenge your body with a physical workout, there is sure to be a yoga class for you. But the question is which yoga class? With such a multitude of different schools, styles and variations available, it can be tricky knowing where to start (and that’s even before you decide on a teacher!). Some yoga styles are more intense than others or have a different emphasis, such as physical versus mindfulness.
What’s important is choosing the yoga style, class and teacher that’s right for you and your body. To help, we’ve put together a list of some of the more popular yoga styles and hope you find your inner yogi.
Hatha yoga is an umbrella term for all physical postures in yoga (asanas). Classes promoting themselves as Hatha Yoga are good for beginners as they often cover the basic movements used across the different styles of yoga and so act as a useful introduction.
Hatha yoga classes are also suitable for those looking to focus on strength building, as they are generally less flowing and instead encourage students to hold positions for longer.
Whilst Hatha yoga classes are unlikely to be particularly vigorous, they should help to loosen up muscles and leave students feeling more relaxed.
Iyengar is a very meticulous style of yoga, which focuses on technique and posture. Developed by Indian yoga teacher BKS Iyengar, it’s also good for beginners as it teaches them the subtleties of correct alignment with props such as blocks, straps, bolsters etc to assist as required.
This type of yoga class may also be appropriate for those with an injury or who suffer from a chronic medical condition such as arthritis. Iyengar teachers must undergo extensive training and so should be able to modify the poses and sequences appropriately.
Whilst Iyengar sequences do not involve much exertion, the focus and concentration required to hold the different positions are both physically and mentally challenging, so students should come away feeling like they have done a full body workout.
Based on ancient yoga teachings, Ashtanga yoga was popularised in the 1970s by K. Pattabhi, who like BKS Iyengar, was a student of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. It’s one of the more vigorous and physically demanding styles of yoga, following a very specific sequence where movement is linked to breath and the poses become increasingly difficult.
There are three series of poses, each with a different focus. Students must perform these poses in the exact same order, holding each for five breaths only to keep up the pace. There are no props available and so the classes can be quite intense. Beginners are often recommended to try out one of the slower styles of yoga first to get a feel for the poses, before attempting to keep up with an Ashtanga class.
Some studios offer Mysore style yoga, which is a more traditional form of Ashtanga yoga. During these classes, students are left to practice the sequence alone while the teacher circulates and offers individuals advice or instruction as necessary. It means the students can perform the flow of poses at their own pace and breath, without the pressure of keeping in time with others.
Vinyasa yoga (sometimes referred to as Vinyasa Flow) offers a similar intensity workout to Ashtanga yoga. The sequences are fluid and movement is linked to breath as students flow from one pose to another.
Unlike Ashtanga, Vinyasa yoga offers a variety of different sequences that are chosen by the teacher depending on the class composition and focus that day. This means no two classes are the same, which is likely to appeal to those who like variety and want to challenge their body in different ways.
The aim of Vinyasa yoga is to provide students with an energetic workout. There is often a point in the class when the sequence will peak with a pose that is particularly challenging before the sequence slows and allows time to recover. Classes are often accompanied by music to keep things lively and the use of props is possible. Students are also taught modified poses as needed.
That said, the goal is to keep moving and so Vinyasa teachers tend not to give much direction during a sequence. This makes the classes more suitable for experienced yogis and, like Ashtanga yoga, beginners should consider starting with a less vigorous style of flow yoga to ease themselves in.
Developed by Indian yogi Bikram Choudhury, this is currently one of the most popular types of yoga and is for anyone who loves to sweat. Classes are held in artificially heated rooms and students follow a series of 26 poses designed to strengthen muscles and “rinse” the organs.
As in Ashtanga yoga, Bikram yoga always follows a specific sequence. In fact, this has been trademarked by Choudhury, so studios wanting to hold Bikram yoga classes must ensure they teach the same sequence in accordance with Choudhury’s outline.
Many confuse Bikram yoga with Hot yoga. Whilst the two are very similar, Hot yoga includes a different variation of poses and so is unable to refer to itself as Bikram yoga. That said, it still takes place in a heated room and involves physical movements that will work up a sweat.
Given their popularity, Bikram and Hot yoga classes tend to be available for all levels. Total beginner or seasoned yogi, there is bound to be a class on offer.
Yin is the calm style of yoga that balances out the vigorous ‘Yang’ styles, such as Vinyasa and Ashtanga. It’s a good way to relax the body and is even considered by some to be more rejuvenating than a nap.
Yin yoga improves flexibility and involves passive, seated poses that stretch out the connective tissue around the joints (mainly knees, hips, lower spine and pelvis). The aim is to help students release inner tension by focusing on their breathing and sensations. So it’s perfect for athletes with overworked joints or for those looking to destress.
Due to its slow flow, Yin yoga is also considered a good introduction to meditation with poses lasting up to 10, sometimes even 20 minutes (although most teachers tend to keep it around the five minute mark!).
Restorative yoga is similar to Yin yoga, but focuses more on healing and total relaxation than flexibility. Classes involve passive stretching and include gentle backbends, delicate twists and seated folds. Typically, there will only be about five or six basic poses in a sequence, but students can hold these for up to 20 minutes each.
Restorative yoga is all about directing work and effort away from the muscles. Props such as blocks, bolsters and blankets are provided to help students into the poses without the need for exertion. This way they can completely relax and rest.
Like Yin yoga, Restorative yoga is very mellow and acts as a good complement to more active types of exercise. It’s generally suitable for people with injuries, but as always, it’s important to check with the teacher or medical professional first.
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Wishing you all the best on your yoga journey…Namaste!