What is Yoga?
There are definitely some questions as to what yoga actually is. Is it a form of exercise? Is it a philosophy or religion? Or is it, in fact, a way of life? Yoga, in short, encourages the connection between your mind, body and your breath which are considered the three fundamental components of all human beings. Yoga practice focuses on a series of postures that are designed to increase your strength and flexibility whilst also focusing on your breathing.
Yoga is becoming an increasing popular work out and there is no surprise as to why – imagine a form of exercise that not only improves flexibility, strengthens your muscles and contributes to weigh loss but also centres your mind, your thoughts and relaxes you. Not only that, yoga can be done in a class with others or in the privacy of your own home!
There are 5 main ingredients to the practice of yoga - asana (posture), vinyasa (to place in a special way), pranayama (breath control), bandhas (energy locks), drishti (gaze).
There are many different ‘paths of yoga’ which are all rooted in the same moral and ethical principles and lead to the same goal of enlightenment (samadhi). The history of yoga stretches back thousands of years to the ancient vedic age (and its development over the years is often linked to that of a tree - firmly rooted in the vedas but branching out into varying religious and philosophical systems. The tree of yoga is still very much growing, with each generation bringing its own thoughts and ideas to nurture its continual growth and taking responsibility of the continuation and direction of the tradition of yoga.
Yoga is more than solely a physical practice, the 8 limbs of yoga refer to integrating these principles within your thoughts, words and actions. The path begins with firm foundations (yamas; ethical considerations and niyamas; self observations), steadying of the mind and body through asana; physical poses, pranayama; breath control, pratyahara; withdrawal of the senses then moving deeper into dharana; concentration and dhyana; meditation in order to reach the ultimate goal of freedom and peace; samadhi.
As well as physical benefits such as increasing your flexibility, muscle strength, protecting your spine, increasing blood flow and releasing tension in the limbs, a regular practice also helps you focus, breathe and find an inner strength. Yoga is therefore a brilliant way to keep not only your body but also your mind and soul healthy and is a practice that will go way beyond the mat and can be applied to everyday life.
From many of us with busy work, family and social calendars, yoga can often be the only time we allow ourselves to focus solely on ourselves, our breath, our movement and be completely in the now.
Different Styles of Yoga
There are many different styles of yoga, varying in the areas they focus on (either focusing on the postures themselves or on your breathing or a bit of both) and often vary in pace, from more vigorous power classes designed to increase the heart rate to more restorative classes which are intended to focus more on relaxation and meditation. It’s essentially about finding your own preference. What is right for your body and what you enjoy. In summary:
Hatha Yoga: a slower, more gentle yoga which teaches you to hold postures for several breaths
Yin Yoga: postures are typically held for several minutes at a time - a more meditative practice that targets deep tissues and improves flexibility
Iyengar Yoga: focuses on use of props such as blocks and straps to encourage proper alignment
Bikram Yoga: combines breathing exercises with a vigorous series of poses (often done in a heated room and known at ‘Bikram Hot Yoga’)
Vinyasa Flow Yoga: connects breathing with a quick change between postures allowing you to flow between each posture which creates a fun but intense class designed to increase your heart rate
Ashtanga Yoga: has six different series of specifically sequenced poses
Kundalini Yoga: a more spiritual practice focusing on singing, chanting and meditating as well as intense breathing exercises