What is yoga?
A blend of physical, mental and spiritual practices, yoga is thought to have originated in Northern India over 5,000 years ago. Although, some people suggest it could be as far back as 10,000 years. The main components of yoga are a series of movements and postures designed to increase strength and flexibility, and an emphasis on breathing control.
Although it’s one of the six Āstika schools of Hindu philosophical traditions, it is not religious as some people believe. While there’s certainly a spiritual element to the practice, it’s important to understand that yoga itself is not a religion. There are a wide range of yoga schools, practices and goals across Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. If you decide to join in with the mantras and chants, you’re not ‘converting to yoga’ as if you were converting to a new religion, and many people practice yoga for reasons unrelated to spirituality.
There are 11 types of yoga, each practiced in its own way. No one school of yoga is better than the other and it’s a personal choice which is made in line with physical ability, spiritual beliefs if you have any, and personal goals.
Yoga classes typically last between 45 and 90 minutes, although beginners’ sessions lasting approximately 20 minutes are a great way to get introduced to yoga. As you become more confident in your abilities, a longer class will give you more time to learn the breathing and relaxation techniques, and classes also give the teacher time to work with your individual ability. Always be sure to meet with a new teacher before you start, and if you have any health concerns make sure you make them aware of your situation.
1. Hatha yoga
A combination of many styles of yoga, hatha is one of the most popular forms. A more physical type of yoga rather than a still, meditative form. It focuses on pranayamas (breath-controlled exercises), followed by a series of asanas (yoga postures), which end with savasana (a resting period). Hatha is great for beginners as it’s usually practiced at a slower pace than some other styles.
2. Iyengar yoga
This form of yoga focuses on alignment as well as holding precise movements while controlling your breath. Generally, poses are held for longer than in some other forms of yoga, with attention paid to adjusting the minutiae of the pose. This style is thought to be good for people with injuries who need to work slowly and methodically.
3. Kundalini yoga
Equal parts spiritual and physical, this form of yoga is about releasing the kundalini energy said to be trapped in the lower spine. It can involve chanting, mantra and meditation, and it works the core with fast-moving, invigorating postures and breathing exercises.
4. Ashtanga yoga
In Sanskrit, ashtanga is translated as “eight limb path”. It’s a very physically demanding sequence of postures, so this style of yoga is for the more advanced yoga practitioner. It involves a series of standing and floor postures and also focuses on breathing.
5. Vinyasa yoga
Vinyasa means “to place in a special way” which refers to the postures used in this type of yoga. The most athletic yoga style, it was adapted from ashtanga yoga in the 1980s and movement is coordinated with breath and movement so that flow from one pose to another occurs seamlessly.
6. Hot yoga
Hot yoga features a sequence of set poses in a very warm room – usually 105 degrees and 40% humidity. Practitioners of hot yoga work through a series of 26 basic postures, with each performed twice. Many of the poses used in hot yoga focus on proper alignment. If you’re keen to practice this form of yoga, it’s important to speak to your GP beforehand to ensure that you don’t have any underlying health problems that could be exacerbated by the heat and humidity involved.
7. Yin yoga
A slow-paced style of yoga with seated postures that are held for long periods of time, Yin can also be a meditative yoga practice. Ideal for beginners, because the postures are from between 45 and 120 seconds, gravity does most of the work for you. It’s relaxing and very calming.
8. Restorative yoga
Restorative yoga focuses on winding down and relaxing your mind. It focuses on body relaxation as well as freeing your mind. Less time is spent in fewer postures in restorative yoga, so it’s easier and more relaxing than some forms. Props such as a blanket and bolster are used to aid deeper relaxation.
9. Prenatal yoga
Suited to all three trimesters of pregnancy, some women find the breathing work helps them to prepare for labour and delivery. Many women report feeling more confident about their body, balance and posture as a result of practicing it, especially as their pregnancy progresses. Props are used in prenatal yoga which help to develop stability rather than flexibility.
10. Anusara yoga
Also known as the bowspring method, anusara yoga is a more modern version of hatha yoga. It focuses on alignment, but also involves working with the mind-body-heart connection. Relying on a framework known as the ‘universal principals of alignment’, anusara focuses on how each body part should be moving and is also known for its emphasis on heart opening.
11. Jivamukti yoga
Jivamukti yoga relies on mainly vinyasa principles combined with Hindu spiritual teachings. At its core, this style emphasises our connection to earth and all living beings so most jivamukti practitioners follow a vegetarian philosophy. A series of chants are followed by a series of poses that align with the five tenets of jivamukti yoga and philosophy.
The benefits of yoga
With so many forms of yoga to choose from, there’s a type to suit everyone, regardless of age, fitness level or physical limitation. However, before starting any new form of activity, it’s important to speak with your GP to ensure that the type of yoga you’ve chosen is appropriate and won’t exacerbate any existing health issues you might have.
Studies have suggested that there are a great number of benefits to practicing yoga including those which benefit both mental and physical health.
- Yoga is a fantastic stress-reliever. It encourages you to relax, slow your breath, and focus on the present. Your fight or flight response is inactive when you’re relaxed, with the added benefit that your heart rate decreases and stress hormones calm.
- Yoga improves your relationship with your body. It can be difficult to dislike your body when you’re tuned into it. Many people who practice yoga report feeling more aligned to their physical wellbeing and more accepting of their shape.
- Yoga can help to prevent falls. By improving balance by strengthening the lower body – particularly the ankles and knees – you could reduce your chance of falling which is particularly important as we age. However, falls can be caused by certain underlying health conditions so if you’ve had falls in the past, it’s a good idea to see your GP in the first instance.
- Yoga is thought to be helpful for some people with arthritis for its gentle way of promoting flexibility and strength. Some research further suggests that yoga may reduce pain and mobility problems in people with osteoarthritis of the knee. However, some yoga moves are not suitable for people with any form of arthritis so it’s important to speak to your GP before embarking on any programme.
- Yoga may have a positive effect on cardiovascular risk factors such as lowering pressure in people who have hypertension. It’s thought that yoga helps the body to sense imbalances in blood pressure and correct it naturally. However, people with heart problems should avoid some forms of yoga (such as hot yoga) so speak with your GP before you choose the type you want to practice.
Where to find a yoga class
Keep in mind that although no specific qualifications are required to teach yoga in the UK, most teachers will have insurance and some form of training from a yoga association. Be sure to do your research – at the very least, you want someone with a good reputation who is clear on safety.
If you’re brand new to yoga you might want to start in the privacy of your own front room, there are a range of online courses which can provide an introduction to yoga. Take a look at this video from the NHS Fitness Studio.
As with all exercise, it’s wise to start with a guided class so that you can learn the correct poses and breathing techniques. If you practice yoga in the wrong way, you may find that you develop yoga-related injuries or exacerbate an existing health problem. To find out more about yoga, the main UK yoga associations are:
- The British Wheel of Yoga is the Sport England-recognised governing body for yoga
- The Independent Yoga Network is an organisation for yoga teachers and training schools
- Yoga Alliance Professionals is an organisation for yoga teachers and trainers in the UK.