Maybe you’ve heard about yoga in passing- friends talking about a class they took last week, the new craze in fitness, being able to calm your mind. All of the hype is well and good, but what do you actually know about yoga? Yoga is all about being able to listen to your body. Within it are tools to help quiet the mind and external stimuli to help tune in to what’s happening in your body. Different pieces of yoga practice exist to accomplish different things.
You thought the premise was twisting yourself into a rubber band? Levitating off the ground in a robe? Think again. Not only does yoga consist of poses (asanas) but includes seven other “categories” of study that encompass not only physical exercise but mental, emotional, and social aspects of practice.
The eight limbs of yoga are: yamas (rules), niyamas (restraints), asanas (postures), pranayama (use of breath), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (mediation), and Samadhi (connection with the universe). The yamas include:
• Ahimsa (compassion): The literal translation of ahimsa is “non-violence.” Being compassionate toward yourself and others is the bedrock of yogic wisdom. Meeting yourself where you are is the foundation for being able to create positive change.
• Satya (truth): What is real and true for you? Truths change from moment to moment, and being able to figure out what is truly happening in your mind and body at any given time is a skill.
• Asteya (non-stealing): Appreciating what you have and not taking anything from another being demonstrates gratitude and kindness. Figuring out why you may feel jealousy intertwines with satya, truth.
• Brahmacharya (conservation of energy): Traditionally sexual in nature, this tenant refers to utilizing energy toward productivity. In modern times, conservation of energy means just that; rest when you need to. It will make you more productive overall.
• Aparigraha (non-attachment): Remaining unattached allows you to maintain a sense of freedom and the ability to allow yourself to change without reprimand. Transformation is a process that requires patience.
All of these principles translate into yoga practice both on and off the mat, as do the niyamas. These include:
• Saucha(purification): Purification is an ongoing effort. The interpretation of purification is entirely up to you, whether it applies to thoughts, mantras, or otherwise.
• Santosha (contentment): Being happy with what you have rather than coveting something else or urging yourself to rocket forward with progress is a valuable quality. Appreciation and gratitude are the ultimate goals.
• Tapas (self-discipline): Working toward a goal allows you to discover things about yourself that you may not normally have the opportunity to see.
• Svadhyaya (self-study): Consciously noticing changes about yourself keeps you aware of both environmental shifts and personal progress. Take pride where pride is due, and offer yourself constructive criticism when it makes sense. Honesty is key.
• Ishvara Pranidhana (surrender; radical trust): Work hard, and then surrender. At the end of the day, the universe has the only control over certain things. Understand when to let go.
Asanas are a collection of eighty four poses, variations excluded, that serve as building blocks for yoga practice in its various forms. Through asanas, yogis are able to become intimately familiar with what is happening physically in the body. Asanas are titled in Sanskrit with English translations. Typically, Sanskrit names are used in conjunction with English names in classes; don’t feel pressure to research or remember the Sanskrit. Each asana comes with benefits, history, and precautions. While a teacher is unlikely to run through all of this information in a class, you can find it on the internet or in the library for deeper study.
There are different classes of asanas, including but not limited to standing poses, twists, back bends, and inversions. Each class has similar properties and benefits. In general, standing poses help tap into the first and second chakras. They emphasize stability and grounding. Examples include goddess, warrior, side warrior, and awkward/chair pose. Twists engage the third chakra. Seated spinal twists and supine twists are great for wringing out tension and judgments or expectations.
Back bends are often heart-openers that tap into the fourth chakra. By physically opening the heart space and pulling shoulder blades toward one another, energy at the heart center is engaged. Back bends include camel, cobra, sphinx, and upward facing dog. Inversions help connect to a variety of chakras, depending on the particular pose. Some of the more popular ones include standing wide angle, downward dog, and yoga mudra. Poses like shoulder stand tap into the fifth chakra at the throat. The sixth and seventh chakras are often engaged via focal point or direct contact with forehead or crown of the head on the floor.
Pranayama (breath control) takes the physical practice to the next level. By utilizing breath, a yogi can shift their attention even deeper into connection with self. Pranayama is arguably the most important limb of yoga practice. Without breath, humans would cease to exist. Being able to control breathing allows the basis for bodily, emotional, and intrinsic control. These skills provide a sense of confidence that can translate from a yoga mat to personal interactions. Yoga practice is so much about getting to know yourself intimately and being accepting and loving of whoever you are at any given time. Pranayama is the foundation for all of that.
Pratyahara is a tool used frequently with meditation. Sometimes breathing techniques can even be utilized to help shift focus from outside stimuli to inside stimuli, deepening your practice even further. For instance, making a sound while breathing (involved in some breathing techniques) elevates the number of senses involved in the breathing process and may make it easier to drown out other sounds, images, or smells. Ujjayi breath is an example of such a breathing technique. Images of nature or art are also common tools for pratyahara.
Dharana frequently precedes dhyana (meditation). There are many ways to meditate, involving breath, sound, sight, taste, and even smell. Concentration is evident throughout practice, from asanas to pratyahara to pranayama and all the way through. A sense of focus is essential to yoga, whether it is “successful” focus or not. So much of yoga is about relinquishing judgments and expectations so that you can see what is real and true at any given time, no matter what that reality looks like. Only then can you make changes to what is there, if change is desired.
A yogi that achieves Samadhi has gone so deep into practice that they make a connection with the divine. Seemingly rare, connection with a higher power is not always a monumental event. Feeling connected to energy other than your own and trusting that something larger than yourself is on your side means you are connected. Learning to appreciate these moments of connection and to foster more of them is the ultimate goal of yoga. Vibrating at a high frequency attracts positivity and allows others to take their cue from your energy.
In addition to helping yogis quiet the mind and get in tune with the body, yoga can help to open energy centers. Often referred to as chakras, seven wheels of energy throughout the body are synonymous with different needs. The seven chakras are as follows:
• Muladhara: root chakra; located in pelvic floor. Its color association is red, and it addresses the need for safety. This primal chakra governs feeling safe and comfortable in your own body. Confidence starts here and travels upward.
• Svadhisthana: second chakra; below navel. Its color is orange and it addresses the need for pleasure in various forms. This chakra governs sexual and creative pleasure. By allowing yourself to experience joy, your encourage others to experience it too.
• Manipura: third chakra; solarplexus. Its color is yellow and it helps connect to inner strength and capability. The third chakra is the one you tap into for strength in who you are. Typically associations come up at work and are related to competence.
• Anahata: fourth chakra; heartspace. Its color is green and it is associated with all forms of love. The heart chakra is all about love: self-love, self-worth, love for others, and love for the universe.
• Vishuddha: fifth chakra; throat. Its color is blue and it addresses the importance of expression. The fifth chakra governs communication. The more comfort you have with expressing yourself and your needs, the more likely they are to be met.
• Ajna: sixth chakra; third eye (between eyebrows). Its color is indigo and it plays with the importance of intuition. Ajna is a reminder that gut feelings and intuition stem straight from the heart. Remember to honor your divine knowledge and your bodily intelligence. Bodies know things that even brains do not.
• Sahaswara: seventh chakra; above crown of head. Its color is purple and it speaks to connection with the divine. The last chakra represents connection with a higher power, the notion that the universe wants you to be the fullest version of yourself, to take up space, and to spread your light.
Connection to chakras can happen through different poses, breathing techniques, or meditations. Some yogis choose to focus on chakras as a way of eliciting needs both in and outside of the yoga studio. They are often the basis for human connection.
Yoga’s emphasis on listening to the body and mind also translates to its sister science, Ayurveda. Ayurveda is the study of Eastern health and wellness, and combines nutrition with different practices to promote various aspects of health. The science teaches that mind-body connection is intimate and that the mind has the power to heal the body. Thus, the mind can balance the body through meditation as it balances itself. Diet, sleep, getting in tune with nature, and trusting bodily intelligence are some of the facets that Ayurveda relies on. Truly, Ayurveda and yoga combine to produce a lifestyle full of benefits.
Just as there are a variety of people in the world with different needs, there are a variety of different types of yoga practice, each with their own history, background, and benefits. Some err more on the spiritual side while others embrace physical postures first and foremost. Still others capitalize on the power of breath, and some believe in the equality of all the limbs.
Kundalini yoga is one of the more spiritual forms of practice. Though it is not a religion, there is a profound emphasis on awareness, connection to the soul, the universe, and the higher self. Kundalini is rooted in Tantra yoga; there is an underlying belief that people are capable of creating their own stories, realities, and truths. While other older sectors believed that there was only one correct, set way of practicing, Tantra allowed people to begin to explore perspective and individual circumstances. Individual power is an asset that is not present in many of the other yogic studies, giving Tantra and ultimately, Kundalini, a forward thinking edge. Although the tradition is deeply rooted, there are no strict rules; the practice is largely free to personal interpretation. This is a monumental shift from “old school” yoga. Tools of all sorts are utilized within Kundalini practice; chanting, poses, mudras, sound, meditation, and relaxation are all tools of this method.
Sound, breath, and postures combine to free a “serpent power” that is believed to be lodged in the base of the spine. Kundalini literally means “coiled serpent.” In order to uncoil the snake, one practices regularly and invites oneself to let go. If a yogi does experience a “Kundalini Awakening,” they are considered lucky. This term is used to describe the uncoiling of the snake and the expanse of energy upward through the seven chakras, which produces a state of altered consciousness. The energy centers are unlocked and potential with them. The standard belief is that it’s best to let this phenomenon occur naturally rather than trying to induce it. A trusted teacher and emotional support are also recommended.
Yogi Bhajan was the ultimate master of Kundalini; he brought the practice to Canada and the United States from India. In 1969, he started teaching publicly despite the fact that it was a secret practice in India for such a long time. He decided that because of impending environmental changes, people needed a way to cope and become more in tune with themselves. He eventually settled down in California and taught thousands of yoga classes, trained teachers, and left an entire legacy. Yogi Bhajan believed everyone had the right to be healthy, happy, and safely spiritually connected. He noticed that Americans in the 1970s were hungry for spiritual awakening but going about it unsafely via drugs rather than via meditation. In response, he fostered a Kundalini revolution.
A deeply spiritual practice, Kundalini allows for a connection to the soul in ways that other varieties of yoga do not. It involves an entire body-mind experience that cannot be completely translated into words, which makes it slightly mysterious. Involvement of a higher power and a surrounding community make this practice one of deep comfort. Due to the agility involved, it keeps people ready for the unexpected, both physically and mentally. Kundalini encourages growth through teachings of confidence, acceptance, and love.
Hatha yoga is an umbrella term encompassing all the varieties of yoga that include asanas (postures). The physicality of this type of yoga extends itself to many people in many places. Rooted in tradition, hatha literally means “sun-moon.” It emphasizes balance internally and externally through movement and meditation. Yogis can utilize poses to come into the present moment, find and explore edge, and experience new sensations.
Often, poses are used specifically to calm the body. By holding a pose, a yogi learns how to cope with emotions, sensations, and more. This skill set extends easily off the mat into life experience. Learning to ride waves of sensation, whether physical, mental, or emotional, fosters patience and compassion that are arguably the most valuable tools a person can possess. Focusing attention within the physical body is a smooth transition to meditation, where consciousness rests in the mind.
Hatha yoga not only has the power to calm, but to strengthen and increase flexibility. Eighty four asanas exist, all with their own strengthening and stretching emphases. Poses help to release tension, quiet the mind, and explore edge in a safe environment. Once a yogi is comfortable exerting control over their own body, they may find that such confidence stays with them off the mat. Knowing that you are in complete jurisdiction of your body is comforting and assuring in challenging times. It serves as a constant amidst turmoil. Additionally, hatha yoga has been known to improve circulation, lower stress and blood pressure, and more.
Kripalu yoga is a type of hatha yoga that emphasizes customization, personalization, and being in tune with individual needs. It empowers people to be the fullest version of themselves through the practice of yoga, however that happens for them. It is taught that all people of all types, shapes, and sizes are more than able to do yoga in whatever form works for them. Truly, yoga is a tool for self-discovery and transformation.
This sector of yoga includes all of the strengthening and stretching benefits that come with asanas and pranayama. It also includes mental side effects of increased confidence, empowerment, and a sense of self. Through encouragement and experimentation, it urges yogis to become comfortable in their own bodies and to understand exactly who they are, underneath experiences. There is a teaching that explains the true self is never lost, only buried. This means that baggage must simply be peeled away to access inner light, as opposed to searching all over the globe for a piece that has been lost. Such an empowering philosophy breeds positivity and an extremely tight knit community.
Ashtanga yoga is a quickly paced, physically intense variety. Set pose sequences are unchanged; they are repeated during each and every class. Breath and movement coordinate to propel yogis from one pose to another in vinyasa (flow) sequences. Literally, ashtanga means “eight limbed.” The eight limbs are the same as those explained in the introduction. Each of the limbs is used to become closer to connection with the universe.
Postures, breathing, and a set focal point are united in this branch of yoga. The heart purifies the body as sequences are navigated.
As a product of pace and skill level, cardiovascular health can be drastically improved by ashtanga yoga. Purification of body and mind, flexibility and strengthening, and a sense of self-discipline are all side effects of this variety. For yogis who want to know exactly what to expect at every class, this can be an especially comforting practice. Routine, consistency, and structure are all important values of ashtanga.
Vinyasa is another umbrella term. It’s used to describe any kind of yoga that includes “flows” of postures as opposed to static poses. Yogis move in conjunction with breath to create a fluid practice. Vinyasa literally means “arranging something in a special way” or “movement or position of limbs,” depending on who you talk to.
Some experienced teachers caution that vinyasa classes can easily turn into playgrounds of “showy” sequences rather than maintaining a focus on safety through cues and transitions. It should not be assumed that vinyasa students are experienced. If you are in a vinyasa class and feel unstable or uncomfortable in any of the positions cued (in any yoga class), feel empowered to discuss your experience with the instructor afterward.
With that said, vinyasa is wonderful for cardiac health, circulation, stamina, stretching, flexibility, strengthening, and more. Typically, a yogi sweats a fair amount in a vinyasa class, producing a cleansing effect. The challenging aspects of vinyasa classes bring yogis into the present moment, and classes are different every time as opposed to ashtanga practice. Creative yogis will not bore easily in a vinyasa flow. Plenty of styling by a particular teacher means you can hunt around for exactly your preference, including number of assists, phrasing, orders of poses, amount of creative flair, and level of challenge. Boundaries are pushed in vinyasa yoga, which encourages exploration of the physical body and its capabilities. Benefits of different breathing techniques are also discovered. For example, ujjayi breath can be used not only to calm, but to sustain challenging poses and navigate physical sensation. Truly, vinyasa is a practice worth playing with.
Prenatal yoga is wonderful for preparing pregnant women for delivery. Not only does it teach relaxation and restoration, but practical skills like strengthening the pelvic floor and core which are muscles used during birth. Stamina, breathing, and endurance are also foci of prenatal classes.
Prenatal yoga has been known to improve sleep, lower stress levels and decrease anxiety. It also helps to strengthen and improve control of specific muscle groups. Lastly, it can decrease common areas of pain, like lower back, nausea, wrists, and headaches. Following delivery, pre/postnatal classes can help restore the body faster than it would normally recover. Often, emotional and social supports are part of the package as well. A community can be formed among expectant parents that translates to a feeling of increased security inside and outside of the studio.
Pranayama means “control of life force,” also known as breathing techniques. There is some discussion about what “life force” really means. Some believe that it alludes to breath alone, while others understand prana as life energy beyond air. Regardless of specific definition, harnessing prana can help to calm the body.
Breathing is the basis of meditation. Focus on breath allows the mind to quiet itself and to focus inward rather than on external stimuli. Breathing in different ways engages different bodily systems. For example, breathing deeply through the nose into the belly engages the parasympathetic nervous system, which signals the body to relax. Conversely, shallow chest breathing engages the sympathetic nervous system, which engages a “fight or flight” response and triggers excess cortisol (stress hormone) to be released.
Examples of breathing techniques include dirgha, ujjayi, kappalabahti, nadi shodana, and more.
• Dirgha: “three part breath” is used to slow everything down by breathing into belly, ribs and chest.
• Ujjayi: “ocean-sounding breath” is used to turn inward even further and to drown out external stimuli by adding sound to breath and including more senses in the breathing process.
• Kappalabhati: “skull polishing” breath is used to cleanse the mind and sinuses.
• Nadi shodana: “alternate nostril breathing” is used to purify energy channels and rebalance the body
Overall, pranayama calms the mind, reduces worries, and brings an individual into the present moment. Focus and attention may be improved, and energy may be increased as a yogi begins to feel clearer. Breathing techniques have been known to boost the immune system, renew the body, help govern emotions, and regulate physical sensations. Pranayama is one of yoga’s most important building blocks.
Hot yoga is one of the more controversial types of practice. Due to high temperatures, bodies can become dehydrated and can take time to acclimate. However, hot yoga comes with significant potential benefits as well. The most popular form of hot yoga is Bikram yoga, which involves navigating twenty six poses and two breathing techniques within ninety minutes in a room of at least one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. The practice promotes circulation and cleansing, largely due to a high volume of sweat output. Mental focus must be razor sharp in order to overcome the sensation of heat. Yogis should consider that heart rate can be unusually high relative to the amount of exercise being done. The body cannot cool itself effectively because sweat cannot evaporate, so the heart continues to pump quickly. Since sweat expels electrolytes along with water, yogis should be sure to replenish electrolytes with a balanced diet or sports drinks. Yogis with high or low blood pressure or existing heart conditions may want to consult a doctor before practicing hot yoga.
With that said, there are also significant benefits from hot yoga. A warm environment allows muscles to warm up faster than they normally would, which means a deeper experience in poses and stretches. The temperature is conducive to breathing and helps conditions like asthma. Knowing that you’re going to a hot yoga class, you’re likely to drink more water, which promotes hydration. Balance, strength, muscle control, and stability are also benefits of hot yoga. The practice has even been known to help deal with chronic pain. If you’re looking for something different, hot yoga may be an experience worth trying.
The benefits to yoga cannot fully be experienced by reading them off a page; they must be experienced. Beyond physical health, mental health, emotional health, and social health are all affected by a yoga practice, regardless of type. There are as many varieties and intricacies to yoga as there are people in the world; no two people practice exactly the same way (even in an ashtanga class).
Bodies are beautifully different and complex. Even identical twins in the exact same pose are uniquely themselves. Bone structure, musculature and tone, joint construction, physical posture, and life experience all affect alignment.
By practicing yoga, the body becomes more properly aligned and each of its parts perform better; minds benefit just as much as bodies, if not more. By learning how to quiet the mind, people can develop coping skills to deal with emotions and circumstances outside their control. They can learn to trust in the universe, to believe in something bigger. This can be an extreme comfort in dire situations especially.
Even beyond adult practice, kids can learn an enormous amount from practicing yoga. Control of body begins with asanas, control of mind begins with pranayama and meditation. If children learn that they are, in fact, in control of mind and body, the world becomes just a bit more manageable, especially if basic needs are not being met. Kids who live in poverty, struggle with family issues, academic circumstances, a lack of confidence, or any other factor that seems uncontrollable have so much to gain from a yoga practice.
Yoga is so much more than an exercise routine. People attend “yoga in the park” events before they go to juice bars and out to brunch without ever really practicing. Simply moving through motions is the very tip of the iceberg.
Asanas serve as a starting point, this is true, but breathing and meditation provide opportunities to become so much more intimately acquainted with yourself. Many people are uncomfortable with the thought of yoga simply because they are uncomfortable with what they might encounter beneath their surface, and that is completely valid. However, understanding this concern and having the courage to try practicing anyway makes all the difference.
Yoga of all kinds has such transformational capability. If used as the self-healing, self-accepting, self-loving agent that it can be, yoga truly does have the power to connect and save. People have the opportunity to spend time with themselves in a way that they can only imagine. Strengths can be appreciated, perceived flaws can be improved or transformed completely into more strengths. Differences can be embraced and labeled as originality, authenticity, individuality.
By learning self-acceptance and ultimately, self-love, young people can learn the importance of being whoever they are. The world needs everyone’s light, exactly as it is. Yoga only serves to make it shine brighter so it can be shared more easily.